Friday Puzzler: Obama’s Public Displeasure With Israel Seems Like a Good Thing. Why Do People Think It Isn’t?

By Barbara F. Walter

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces Speaker of the House John Boehner. By Speaker John Boehner.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces Speaker of the House John Boehner. By Speaker John Boehner.

The Obama administration is clearly unhappy with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign antics over the last few weeks. The Prime Minister’s decision to speak directly to the U.S. Congress on April 2nd clearly violated diplomatic protocol. It was also an insult to the President. Netanyahu’s more recent racist and fear-mongering statements about Arabs and his public rejection of a two-state solution were incendiary and potentially destabilizing. The President had every right to speak out about this bad behavior.

A public reproach by the U.S. seems long over-due given the multiple ways in which the Netanyahu government has misbehaved in the service of domestic politics. In fact, public condemnation of bad policies would seem like a good thing, not a bad. At least this way the U.S. might make Bibi think twice before he pursues policies that are directly contrary to U.S. interests.

The reaction to Obama’s public censure of Netanyahu, however, has been less than positive. Rather than congratulating the President for finally standing up to bad behavior, critics have warned that it could serve to increase sympathy for Netanyahu. The implicit message is that there are no circumstances under which the U.S. should criticize Israel – all outcomes are bad.

So today’s puzzler is this: Why would anyone think that giving an ally unconditional support – no matter how they behave – is a good thing? What benefit does the U.S. gain from keeping its mouth shut no matter what?

  1. Supposedly many on the Religious Right support Israel for religious reasons. For them, as with their other principles and ideas, Israel is above politics, above the state, above criticism, and above reason. That sort of thought, if you want to call it thought, is not a new thing.

    The total fascination of the rest of the Right with Israel is more of a mystery. Some theorize that it’s race war: the Israelis are the White men, and the Arabs are the swarthy Others who must be exterminated or driven into the outer darkness. If it’s really tribal, then of course one’s tribe must receive unswerving support.

  2. From APN’s weekly (Americans for Peace Now)
    APN Legislative Round-Up
    for the week ending
    March 27, 2015
    (WARNING OFF OBAMA AT THE UN) Royce-Engel letter: On 3/25, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Engel (D-NY) sent a letter to US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power noting that Netanyahu has “contextualized” his recent anti-two-state-solution statements (implying, it seems, that these comments are thus not relevant in U.S. policy considerations) and expressing concern that the Obama Administration “is considering new steps at the United Nations that depart from our nation’s historic and principled defense of Israel at the United Nations against biased and one-sided resolutions.”

    This is a startling statement, since it implies (intentionally or not) that the Obama Administration would actually support something that is outside U.S. policy vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians at the UN – as opposed to something that, while objected to by the Netanyahu government and perhaps some of Netanyahu’s sympathizers and apologists in Congress (like those now attacking the White House Chief of Staff for using the word “occupation” in a speech) – is entirely consistent with U.S. policy.

    The letter goes on to state (among other things) that the U.S. has for decades “used its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Israel from undue pressure at the world body…” This statement is consistent with the false but extremely resilient narrative (which appeared around the same time that Obama took office) that no U.S. president has ever failed to veto resolutions critical of Israel in the UNSC. Those who are interested in the actual history of U.S. votes on UNSC resolutions critical of Israel since 1967 can check out this table (not exhaustive but close), which documents U.S. “yes” votes and abstentions on many, many UNSC resolutions critical of Israeli policies and actions – with respect to military engagements in the region, actions in Jerusalem, settlements, Gaza, treatment of Palestinians, etc… Back-of-the-napkin calculations show that under President Johnson, the U.S. voted for or abstained on resolutions critical of Israel at least 15 times. Under Nixon, the U.S. did so at least 17 times. Under Carter, at least 9 times. Under Reagan, at least 22 times. Under Bush (Sr.), at least 8 times. Under Clinton, at least 4 times. And under Bush (Jr.), at least 10 times. Ironically, only under President Obama is the number ZERO. And ironically, only President Obama has faced such outrage from “defenders of Israel” for allegedly failing to defend Israel at the UN. Royce’s press release on the letter is here.

  3. Obama is very unpopular in Israel, and has been since around 2009. That’s why any rebuke he gives Netanyahu just plays into Netanyahu’s hand.

    Also, Obama and his administration have been pretty childish in their dealings with the Israeli government. For example, sending people to anonymously call Netanyahu names in the newspaper (while making an extremely big deal of Yaalon saying something in private about Kerry), not calling for 2 days after the elections, pretending US presidents don’t meet foreign heads of state before elections (when Clinton invited Peres about a week before the election in 1996) etc.

    Seems pretty obvious.

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