US Secretary of State John Kerry often prefaces critical comments of Israeli policies in his speeches or interviews by stressing that he had a flawless voting record on Israel in the Senate for over 29 years, and shouted “Am Yisrael chai!” from Massada on his first visit here in 1986. Being a friend, he implies, means being able to be critical.
US President Barack Obama, in his keynote speech to Israel at the Jerusalem International Convention Center during his visit last year at this time, segued from the unabashedly positive part of his speech into the more critical by saying that not everyone in the hall was going to agree with what he had to say about peace.
“That’s part of the discourse between our two countries. I recognize that,” Obama said. “But I also believe it’s important to be open and honest, especially with your friends. I also believe that.”
Washington surely believes that when it comes to being open and honest with Israel.
Just take Obama’s recent interview with Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the one that appeared one day before the president was to meet Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in March in the Oval Office.
That interview included some very open and candid criticism of the current government’s policies, and an underlining theme that Netanyahu had so far failed to “seize the day.” Obama painted a bleak future indeed for Israel if its policies did not fundamentally change.
Kerry, over the last few months, has given speeches in which he predicted catastrophe – a third intifada, deepening international isolation and boycotts – if the elected government of the State of Israel continued down its current path.
That is all well and legitimate, part of what Obama referred to in Jerusalem as the importance of being “open and honest, especially with your friends.”
But how about the other way around? How about when that openness and honesty is not Washington criticizing Israeli policy, but rather Jerusalem passing judgment on Washington’s policies? Then, as was evident again this week with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s latest critique of American foreign policy, the US is far less forbearing.
For whatever the reason, the US cannot seem to tolerate words of criticism from Israel.
A debate can surely be held regarding the wisdom of what Ya’alon said in that closed meeting at Tel Aviv University on Monday, and whether a minister of his rank and stature should play the pundit’s role and critique American foreign policy. And one may wonder aloud about his judgment, especially coming so soon after the January debacle where, in a private conversation, he said Kerry was obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was motivated by a messianic complex, and should just “take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone.”
Ya’alon came under a barrage of criticism for that remark, and – as was the case this week as well – was forced to apologize.
Critics of his January comments slammed him for personalizing the censure. Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who in the past has let slip some rather undiplomatic comments about various countries and world leaders, said at the time, “There is no call for personal attacks, even if there are, at times, disagreements.”
Valid point. But this time Ya’alon’s criticism was not personal at all. No mention of the Nobel Prize or the messiah. It was, rather, a general critique of US policies. It was also not stated in a high-profile public forum, but rather in a private discussion that was leaked.
And what did he say that was so egregious, that ignited the wrath of the administration to such a degree that it trotted out an official to say that “given the unprecedented commitment that this administration has made to Israel’s security, we are mystified why the defense minister seems intent on undermining the relationship?” On Iran, Ya’alon did not break any new ground, criticizing the US for letting the Iranians off the ropes with the current round of negotiations, and saying that Washington was being out-negotiated by the Iranians. His line about the Iranians being better negotiators in a Persian bazaar is one he has used often in the past.
Israel, Ya’alon said, has to approach the Iranian issue “as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.” That is a variation of the oft-repeated line: “Israel has the right to defend itself by itself against any threat.”
Ya’alon’s criticism of the US policy on Iran, and his hint that Obama prefers to push this issue off to the next administration, is a critique often heard both an assertion that is particularly beyond the pale.
His criticism of an overall weakness in US foreign policy is also not breaking any revolutionary new ground. One would have to be blind not to recognize that America’s standing in the region, and in the world, is changing as a result of its reaction to the crisis over the last number of years, including the most recent one in Ukraine.
One would also have to be deaf to domestic US discussions not to realize that there is a potent strain of isolationism among the US public.
“If you sit and wait at home, the terrorism will come again,” Ya’alon warned, sounding a bit like an American official warning Israel what will happen to it if does not totally withdraw from the West Bank.
“Even if you hunker down, it will come,” he said. “This is a war of civilizations. If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world. Nobody will replace the United States as global policeman. I hope the United States comes to its senses. If it doesn’t, it will challenge the world order, and the United States is the one that will suffer.”
Should the defense minister have said that he hopes America returns to its senses and charts a different policy? Maybe not.
But how many times have various administration officials said the same thing about Israeli policies? Where Ya’alon skated on thin ice was his comments about American military aid.
“The aid must be put in proportion,” he said. “It is not really an American favor, it’s an interest. It is not as if we only take, we also give not a little,” he added, saying that Israel gives the US “quality intelligence and technology.” Among the technological developments he ticked off were the Iron Dome, the wings of the F-35 stealth fighter, and the Arrow anti-ballistic missile – all Israeli inventions.
He said that with Israel, the US has an “aircraft carrier” in the Middle East which “begins in Metulla, and ends in Eilat.”
Netanyahu, wisely, picked up immediately on the problematic nature of those comments, and in a Knesset speech Wednesday stressed that the US remained Israel’s greatest ally, underlining Israel’s appreciation for the close “security and intelligence cooperation.”
Israel, as poll after poll shows, enjoys broad-based support from the American public, and it is that broad base of support which enables the US Congress to approve each year a $3 billion military aid package to Israel (74 percent of which, by the way, has to be spent in the US). If there was one glaring faux pas in Ya’alon’s comments, it was the appearance of not being sufficiently grateful for that aid.
True, the US reaps dividends from that investment, but it is a massive investment nonetheless. To minimize it is to risk alienating not only the people in Washington, but also in Topeka. And Israel needs those folks in Topeka to ensure that it can count on the votes in Washington.
This week’s incident demonstrated again the administration’s very thin skin when it comes to criticism from Israel. It seemed to go beyond mere annoyance at Ya’alon’s comment about the aid. The defense minister’s overall critique of the US policy seemed to step on a raw nerve.
He gave voice to a trend many in the world are noticing: Washington’s ability to bend the will of others to its desired goals is diminishing.
But rather than getting furious at Ya’alon for stating what for many is the obvious, the administration should consider that if this is what a senior leader of one of its greatest friends in the world is thinking – a friend that wants to see a powerful and respected US – then what is going through the minds of those who do not wish the US well.
The administration should also bear in mind that Ya’alon is not some flaky, obscure minister who is easily dismissed. According to a Channel 2 poll three weeks ago, taken on the one-year anniversary of the government being sworn in, Ya’alon is the most popular minister in the land. And that poll was taken after he called Kerry messianic and obsessive.
Squeezing yet another apology out of Ya’alon for hurt feelings risks ignoring his message – and that message, even if clumsily delivered, is not one that should be summarily dismissed, even if it is uncomfortable for some in Washington to hear.