GOP Presidential candidates Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have a lot to learn when it comes to Israel. The spectacle of Gov. Rick Perry lambasting President Obama in New York during the UN General Assembly surrounded by a posse of extremist members of the Israeli Knesset, speaks for itself. These Israelis would never agree to a two-state solution even if the Palestinians ceded the Dome of the Rock to the Head Rabbi of Jerusalem!
Perry bellowed Obama was guilty of "appeasement" of the Palestinians. Not to be outdone, Romney felt compelled to one up Perry by charging Obama with throwing Israel under a bus. A particularly chilling choice of phrase intended to evoke real fear among supporters of Israel given Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli buses.
Holy Moses! In Yiddish, we call this pandering a Shanda! (A disgraceful performance).
As former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once stated: "You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts." And it does not make one necessarily more pro-Israel just because one wraps oneself in the Star of David surrounded by fringe elements of Israel's political establishment opposed to peace with Palestinians. There are millions of Israelis who vehemently oppose their government's policies, and are just as patriotic, if not more so.
Since President Kennedy's term, it has been a bipartisan article of faith that no matter the test or controversy, the U.S. and Israel are strategic allies and partners based on shared interests, common moral values, and mutual security interests throughout the world. Friendships have their burdens as well as their rewards. And every administration -- whether Republican or Democratic -- has had their major and minor policy disagreements with Israel. Notwithstanding the stresses and strains that have rocked the relationship from time to time, the U.S. and Israel have remained steadfast allies.
So let's compare Obama's supposed anti-Israel transgressions to the record of his predecessors...
In 1975, Gerald Ford ordered a "reassessment" of America's security assistance to Israel -- a brazen breach of confidence in the strategic alliance. American Jews were furious with Ford for ordering the withholding of vital security assistance to Israel, which created great fear in Israel that the U.S. would not stand by Israel if it were attacked in the wake of this disagreement.
After the 1979 Camp David Accords, Jimmy Carter was barely on speaking terms with Israeli Prime Minister Begin and was determined to hold him accountable for his refusal to pursue a post Camp David peace with Palestinians. During a senior White House staff meeting at which I present, news of a vote of no confidence against Begin in the Knesset led to applause and whistles in the West Wing! But Carter never used Israel's foreign military sales lifeline to punish Israel even if he did sell AWACS to Saudi Arabia.
And as much as Ronald Reagan was a true believer in the U.S.-Israeli partnership, he, too used U.S. military assistance to punish Israel. He ordered the suspension of a shipment of military aircraft to Israel after its attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. What would Perry or Romney think of that? Reagan even ordered sanctions against Israel when it refused to lift its siege of Beirut in 1982. And like a distant mirror on today's policy contretemps, Israel categorically rejected Reagan's Middle East peace plan outright in 1982 much to his deep disappointment. Moreover, the Reagan Administration's unprecedented dialogue with the PLO in 1988 riled Israelis across the board, and its trial and conviction of American spy Jonathan Pollard remains a thorn in the side in the bilateral relationship.
President George H.W. Bush was never viewed as a friend of Israel by Israel or its supporters. In 1991, Bush declared East Jerusalem occupied territory (imagine how Messrs. Perry and Romney would react to that!). And in one of the most infamous showdowns between Israel and the United States, Bush ordered suspension of $10 billion in loan guaranties sparking a major confrontation between the two nations. To think that a Republican president actually cut off economic assistance to Israel!
Even Bill Clinton endured major disagreements with then Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who succeeded Shimon Peres as prime minister (yes, this is Bibi's second bite at the prime ministerial apple). His Middle East negotiators' memoirs are replete with example after example of policy disagreements between the two leaders.
Memo to Messrs. Romney and Perry: Republican presidents, unlike their Democratic counterparts, were more inclined to punish Israel with halts in assistance to compel Israel into abiding by American policies. If that ain't tossing Israel under the bus, what is?
This brief historical account suggests that no previous administration -- Democrat or Republican, enjoyed totally smooth sailing with successive Israeli governments. Friends, after all, do disagree and when it comes to the Middle East, the U.S. has never been able to fully reconcile its moral values with its strategic interests.
So here we are today. Republican candidates tossing inflammatory accusations with abandon against Obama's perceived infractions with respect to U.S. support for Israel.
There is no doubt that on the policy level, American supporters of Israel are collectively scratching their heads over Obama's zigzagging Middle East strategy that occasionally creates the appearance of bias against Israel. Perceptions can be hard to erase.
Commencing with his widely-acclaimed Cairo speech to the Muslim World in June, 2009, Obama erroneously ignited a gnawing concern among supporters of Israel that his efforts to repair ties to the Muslim world is a zero-sum game adverse to Israel's interests. Moreover, a poorly conceived and badly executed American demand to halt West Bank settlement construction backfired and has a lot to do with the Palestinians' hightailing it to the UN this week.
It did not help either that Vice President Biden was ambushed during a trip to Israel to repair ties by the announcement of new settlement construction in Jerusalem, which created justifiably hard feelings at the White House. And Obama's chief field commander -- General Petreaus -- the current CIA Director -- publicly admonished Israel for harming U.S. foreign policy interests in the Middle East.
It is a badly kept secret in D.C. that there are some among Obama's advisers who told reporters that Obama is merely exercising "tough love" with Israel in his attempts to forge a two-state solution against a suspicious Israeli government.
For a president who was already inclined to exercise a bit of tough love on Israel from the get-go, you need the love first to be tough on. Obama has avoided virtually every opportunity to earn his way into the hearts of Israelis -- a major shortcoming for a U.S. president that needed to check boxes before earning a degree in Middle East diplomacy.
Why Obama has not visited Israel and talk directly to the Israeli people about his hopes and dreams for their future is a puzzle. After all, it's part of the heavy lift that goes with convincing Israelis to make the sacrifices for peace with the assurance they have a friendly president behind them. That's the cost of being an honest broker. He could have, he should have, and would have...but, but, why not?
Finally, anyone with political acumen could have forewarned the president that dropping his infamous "67 borders" line into his May Arab revolt "Winds of Change" speech on the eve of a visit by Netanyahu would create a policy and public relations firestorm. He decided to go ahead with it anyway, largely because he was trying to accommodate a staff that was divided and unimaginative when it comes to Middle East diplomacy and a threatened walk out by Mid-East Envoy George Mitchell who played his part in the mess that Obama now finds himself in, but is trying to cast blame on his former colleagues.
That, my fellow friends of Israel, may be reasons to worry, but not to jump ship. For where it matters most -- maintaining Israel's safety and security -- park your misgivings outside, because Obama has been a true, blue champion of Israel's security concerns. And I say this as someone who has been quite skeptical about some of his Middle East policies and his staff's policy missteps as stated in my earlier articles.
Maintaining Israel's Qualitative Military Edge
Consistent with every president before him, on the all-encompassing commitment to maintain Israel's Qualitative Military Edge (QME) -- Obama deserves high marks.
This year, Obama requested $3 billion in security assistance for Israel -- the largest amount ever, as part of a 10-year $30billion commitment made by the U.S. in 2007. And Obama pledged not to let any budget shortfalls reduce it.
The President has also accelerated training and joint ballistic missile exercises, and has authorized the expedited sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter combat jets. And, the Obama Administration has worked feverishly with Israel to enhance Israel's missile defense capabilities. The U.S. is working with Israel to upgrade its Patriot Air & Missile Defense System, and have installed in Israel advance radar systems to provide Israel early warning of incoming missiles.
To combat Hamas terror attacks on Israel the Obama Administration has provided highly sensitive intelligence technology to track and breach terror networks and to identify tunnels being used to rearm Hamas. This assistance has also included detection of proliferations of weapons of mass destruction via a new joint U.S. - Israeli Gaza Counter Arms Smuggling Initiative.
On its northern border facing Hezbollah, the Obama Administration has accelerated technical support to Israel to thwart short range missile attacks from Lebanon and Syria. Israel faces from Hezbollah alone over 60,000 rockets pointed at her. This year, the White House requested Congress to authorize $205 million to support production of an Israeli-developed short range rocket defense system called Iron Dome. This amount is above and beyond the $3 billion in foreign military financing referenced earlier. Iron Dome represents one of the crown jewels in America's security commitment to Israel -- initiated by the Obama Administration.
The Administration has deepened the level of cooperation via the U.S. -- Israel Joint Political-Military Group and the Defense Policy Advisory Group in order to mobilize U.S. public and private sector support to redress as quickly as possible ever-changing tactical and strategic threats to Israel's security.
Of course, there has been far more cooperation that remains secret, including joint computer program designs to crash Iranian computers -- the so-called Stuxnet program, and increased intelligence monitoring of Iran's nuclear and missile program.
All in all, any Israeli military analyst (as well as Israeli diplomats in the U.S.) would agree that the Obama Administration has offered Israel an unprecedented level of unhindered, unrestricted military support and cooperation.
Even in the face of the real personal and policy disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu, the Obama Administration has not, unlike its predecessors, tampered with any elements of the strategic alliance cooperation so vital to Israel's security.
Now, is this an anti-Israel record that warrants the type of fear-inducing inflammatory partisan rhetoric? Far from it!
Successive U.S. presidents have had their frustrations and run-ins with Israeli Likud-led governments in the past, and Netanyahu has made it a fine art of provoking Obama, who has often taken the bait. But yesterday, Netanyahu applauded the president for standing by his guns committing to oppose any effort by the Palestinians to circumvent direct negotiations by resorting to unilateral UN recognition without Israeli support. "He has earned a badge of honor" exclaimed Netanyahu, referring to the president sitting across from him.
In the rocky relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, Israelis and their American supporters should take comfort knowing that the U.S. president has been a steady, supportive ally of Israel's security. I urge Messrs. Romney and Perry to walk that cat back, real quick.