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Please Mr. President, Please, Save Us

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As the Israel vs. Iran rhetoric heats up again, a couple of recent posts caught my eye. The first was Amos Yadlin's op-ed from 18 August in the Washington Post, "5 Steps Obama Can Take to Avert a Strike on Iran". The second was Colin Kahl's 16 August Foreign Policy post, "Obama Has Been Good for Israel." The two articles intersect to provide a rare snapshot into the true nature of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship as well as the current crisis. It is an unflattering depiction.

Yadlin's post cries out to the reader that the last means to mitigate Israel's march to attacking Iran is for the President of the United States to personally travel to Israel to address their parliament. Admitting even that may not be enough; he proffers further options. But these are filler because Yadlin knows full well given his former senior position within the IDF General Staff most of these options are already ongoing or non-starters. Yadlin's focus is squarely on the President and for good reason. Kahl's post, written admittedly for overtly political purposes, lauds the extent of the US-Israel bilateral security relationship and how it has grown X fold during Obama's tenure.

The nexus of the two articles is Yadlin's plea, unwittingly supported by Kahl's endeavor at political advocacy, brings an unfortunate reality out of the closet at a critical time. It is simply this: that all the toys and engagements and commitments and billions of dollars spent in support of Israel over the decades mean almost nothing to senior Israeli policy makers in these precarious times. Our own personal experiences note this unflattering reality has existed for a very long time - period of crisis or otherwise. The real value of our bilateral relationship has never has been about public commitments as a strategic ally, the countless toys, the combined exercises and joint programs, the hundreds of senior visits constantly in motion or the precedence of US boots on the ground in times of conflict. Bilateral engagement with Israel far exceeds that with any other country in the world, including NATO combined. Kahl himself notes the amount of time he had to spend in Israel versus any other country during his tenure.

What is the relevance of this disclosure, given Israeli psychology/neuralgia concerning the Iranian threat is real and understandable? First, Yadlin's plea, while invoking Iran, is really a veiled and crafty attempt to influence Israeli domestic politics, notably the political juggernaut of Netanyahu and Barak. Sensing there is no way to reason with them regarding the course they appear to be taking vis-a-vis Iran, Yadlin assesses the solution lies outside Israel through the only leader that can get Israel's attention -- if he so chooses. And here is the rub. What Yadlin cannot put in print is Israeli leadership is suffering from a severe lack of confidence in the Administration of President Obama.

This is in large part due to the cumulative set of political mishaps in their neighborhood during his first term. Israelis watched time and time again as Obama raised expectations, made fairly definitive political pronouncements, and when encountering a little turbulence, the President failed to trim sails and take another tack. Worse, when challenged (on the Peace Process for example) he caved and ran away from what he himself defined, as previous presidents before him, was a US national interest. By default, he also ran away from furthering Israeli long-term interests. Netanyahu, sensing a window of self-opportunity in the debris of mishaps, drove in hard, publicly lecturing the President in May 2011 in the Oval office. While a windfall for Bibi's camp followers in the short term, sober realists, including many senior military officials including Yadlin, saw this behavior as a bad omen for Israel. Israelis disdain weakness above all. If Netanyahu could emasculate the President of the United States in his own office, Israelis couldn't trust Obama to do what was clearly in the US national interests let alone theirs.

Conversely, the Republicans with all their stagecraft do not assuage the current trust deficit. The same sober Israeli realists referred to earlier take little to no comfort from American political figures who cast a pre-election pall of a childishly loving, all accepting embrace of all things Israel, with campaign pronouncements they themselves know will never see the light of realization as American policy once an election has been decided.

The relevance is this lack of trust and political respect currently in effect offsets the overly zealous claims of the value of our robust security engagement.

Second, add to this the inherent psychological realities in dealing with Israel that few Americans seem to understand. Israelis are fond of telling us, "just give them the [security] tools and they'll take care of the rest". What they really want and expect is that we know them well enough by now to distinguish between their rhetoric and their unspoken needs. But we, whether Republican or Democrat, have failed to understand this distinction for years. Why? Because most in power do not really "know" Israel nor Israelis. We give them the toys, because they say they want them, supported by a chorus of full-time self-interest groups and members of Congress. What we don't provide, however, are the coherent, rational policies to navigate the region's endless intricacies that first and foremost are in US strategic interests and by extension Israel's true interests. Israelis neither yearn for an American leader who promises to move our embassy nor turns a blind eye to settlement expansion without recourse as a primary motive. What Yadlin pleads for is US leadership, irrespective of the toys and political promises, to assuage their Iranian anxiety and pull on the reins of Netanyahu and Barak. In Yadlin's eyes, given the realities noted above, a personal visit by the President is the option of last resort. "Please Mr. President, Please...spare us the election campaign boasts and political advertisements, and just LEAD us out of this mess."