Monday, Jun 24, 2024

White House Sends More Hostile Signals to Israel

President Obama's Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta used some of the strongest language yet by a US official to warn Israel against launching a pre-emptive attack against Iran's nuclear installations. He cited estimates by some Israeli arms experts that such a strike would delay Iran's nuclear program by only one or two years, but that the subsequent “escalation” that could “consume the Middle East in confrontation and conflict that we would regret.” While the session was technically off-the-record, taking place in a closed door meeting sponsored by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Panetta's remarks were widely reported. While warning Israel not to respond to the Iranian nuclear threat on its own, he repeated empty US promises to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Panetta said that the Defense Department had contingency plans for a “wide range of military options, should they become necessary. When it comes to the threat posed by Iran, the president has made clear that we have not taken any options off the table,” Panetta said. However, it is clear that President Obama, like President Bush before him, is still unwilling to use the military option. He continues to respond to Iran's efforts to secure nuclear weapons that are clearly intended for use against Israel, with ineffective economic sanctions that have failed to deter the Iranians from their pursuit of entry into the nuclear arms club.

 After years of promising Israel’s leaders and the American public that it would stop Iran before it acquired nuclear weapons, the Obama administration must realize that the time is almost here.


Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu responded to Panetta’s warning in an indirect but clear fashion. Speaking at a memorial ceremony for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu compared the threat posed by Iran to the situation which confronted Ben-Gurion in 1948 when Israel faced the prospect of attack by surrounding Arab nations if it declared its independence upon the departure of the British mandate troops. Ben-Gurion was warned by world leaders against declaring independence at that time. He went forward anyway, leading to a war in which Israel was forced to fight for its life and miraculously won.


Without mentioning Iran by name, Netanyahu implied that current warnings from the US and others against launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran will not deter him if he is convinced that Israel must attack Iran in order to survive.




Last month, UN nuclear weapons monitors exposed the full extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Still, US and European efforts to extend the sanctions on Iran continue to be blocked in the UN Security Council by Russia and China. Even in the US, the Obama administration has blocked efforts in Congress to ban the export of Iranian oil, perhaps the one economic measure which could deter them. Apparently, the US fears that doing so would drive up the cost of gasoline.


The US has delayed until 2013, after the election, a decision on whether to go forward with the Keystone XL pipeline which is key to the drive for greater US energy independence. The pipeline would give US refineries on the Gulf Coast access to millions of barrels of petroleum from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. It would also transport newly discovered oil in shale formations in North Dakota, Pennsylvania and even New York State to those refineries. The new oil would replace much of the 10 to 11 million barrels which the US now imports each day at a huge expense from foreign oil suppliers.


The US delayed its decision on the pipeline to appease liberal environmental interests which have objected to its projected route through Nebraska. This is only one of several Obama policies which have thrown up roadblocks to the development of domestic US energy sources. These include delays in granting permits for the drilling of new oil wells in promising offshore areas and in Alaska.


Were the Obama administration to permit exploring available domestic supplies of oil and natural gas, Iran would lose much of its ability to blackmail the White House into inaction with the threat of withholding its oil from the marketplace. Thus, Obama’s liberal energy policies are helping to keep the US hostage to its enemies abroad.




Panetta also seemed to blame Israel, in part, for the rise of Islamic extremism which has swept the Middle East. He said, “unfortunately, over the past year, we’ve seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow, and the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold.”


He implied that Israel was to blame for the refusal of the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, when, in fact, it was President Obama himself who gave the Palestinians the excuse to walk away from the talks by publicly demanding that Israel halt construction in the West Bank and Gaza, and who initially suggested that the UN grant the Palestinians admission as a state this year.


Panetta sought to blame Israel for the consequences of Obama’s rash public comments, and clumsy attempts to force Israel to make unilateral concessions while receiving nothing in return.


Panetta’s criticism of Israel is, unfortunately, nothing new from members of the Obama administration. Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates was quoted in September complaining about Israeli inaction on peace talks despite substantial US assistance to Israel in the development of new weapons systems and intelligence.




Furthermore, it has become clear that Panetta’s critical view of the Israeli government reflects the opinion of President Obama. Last month, while attending the G20 economic summit meeting in Cannes, France, Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were overheard on an open mike trading criticism of Netanyahu.


Panetta said that Israel must do more to ensure its own security by seeking to repair strained relations with Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. In fact, Israel was not responsible for the overthrow of the Mubarak government, which has raised the threat of Egypt falling under the domination of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Israel was also not responsible for the Turkish government’s decision to support an attempt by a Turkish-flag ship last year to try to run the Egyptian-Israeli blockade of Gaza which led to a confrontation at sea in which several Turkish terrorists were killed when they attacked Israeli commandos who legally boarded the ship.


He acknowledged that Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, but he said it needed to make a greater effort to mend fences. “If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are,” he said.




Panetta’s a speech also included the familiar Obama administration pledge of an “unshakable” commitment to the security of the Jewish state and reiterated the promise that Israel could count on “three enduring pillars of US policy,” including the US commitment to Israel’s security, a broader commitment to stability in the region, and a determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.


“These are not merely rhetorical reassurances,” Panetta said. “These are firm principles that are backed up by tangible action, the commitment of resources and demonstrable resolve.”


However, the tone of Panetta’s comments made it clear that in return for those commitments, the US demands the right to dictate the concessions Israel must make to its enemies for the convenience of US interests in the region, even when they put Israel’s security at risk and compromise its sovereignty. Obama administration officials also reserve the right to criticize Israel’s internal policies.




Panetta’s remarks make it plain that the Obama administration is convinced that the only way for it to break the current gridlock in the peacemaking process is by resuming pressure on Israel for unilateral concessions to Palestinian demands.


The administration has chosen to ignore Netanyahu’s argument that the Palestinian refusal to return to negotiations has nothing to do with his refusal to freeze construction in the West Bank and Yerushalayim. He points out that when he volunteered to a ten month suspension of construction in 2009, Palestinians continued to boycott talks with him until the voluntary suspension was nearly over. When they did agree to talk, it was only to demand the freeze’s extension.


Netanyahu argues that this proves that the Palestinians have no real interest in a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, and believe that they can manipulate the US into pressuring Israel into making concessions to their demands without the Palestinians having to concede anything. In fact, the Obama administration has continued to excuse Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords, both by applying for unilateral UN recognition, and by signing a national unity agreement with Hamas, without imposing any penalty on them for their actions. Instead, the US continues to feed Arab expectations and justify their intransigence by pressuring Israel for more concessions.


The US stubbornly refuses to recognize that is the so-called Palestinian moderates like Abbas who have rejected the peace process rather than Israel. This has led some to worry about other blind spots in Obama’s foreign policy. These include his overly permissive policy towards Iran and Syria, his troubling reluctance to fight for US interests when they come into conflict with those of Russia and China, and Obama’s generally passive approach in strategic areas where the US has historically taken the leadership initiative.




At the same Washington conference where Panetta spoke, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Israel’s treatment of its women, implying that the practice of separate seating for men and women in public buses serving religious neighborhoods in Yerushalayim and other Israeli cities was comparable to the segregation of blacks in the American South. Clinton cited the example of Rosa Parks, a black woman who was the secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who gained nationwide attention for her defiance of segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery public bus in 1955 to a white passenger.


Clinton also challenged the right of religious Israeli soldiers to walk out of a performance of female singers on halachic grounds.


She had nothing to say about the intentions of the Islamists now seeking to take over Egypt and other countries in the Middle East who would impose draconian restrictions on the rights of women under Sharia law.




Clinton’s attack provoked a sharp reaction. Agudath Israel issued a statement saying that “they were deeply chagrined at Secretary Clinton’s words and comparison. She seems either unaware or unconcerned with the sincerely held and time-honored convictions of traditionally religious Jews. Such Jews hew to both the letter and spirit of halacha, which places great premium on modesty and circumspection in interpersonal relations between men and women.


“Halacha does indeed deem it inappropriate for a man to listen to a woman singing. And the segregation of sexes on Israeli bus lines that service overwhelmingly halacha-observant communities reflects, and displays sensitivity to, the wishes of both the men and women who make up the vast bulk of the ridership of those lines.


“Sensitivity to discrimination is a good thing. So, though, is sensitivity to the religious sensibilities of a deeply dedicated faith community,” the statement declared.


Clinton also criticized legislation recently passed by the Knesset restricting foreign funding for left-wing non-governmental organizations critical of the current Israel government’s policies regarding settlement construction and the Palestinians. She criticized another bill now before the Knesset that would demand more accountability of government critics in the media. Clinton and Israeli-leftists claim that these pieces of legislation are a threat to Israeli democracy and free speech. Defenders say that they are necessary to expose and control excessive foreign interference and hidden influence in Israeli domestic affairs, and increase the accountability of the Israeli media.




Israeli cabinet ministers blasted Clinton’s remarks.


Environmental Minister Gilad Erdan said Clinton should focus on issues in the US, but echoed Clinton’s concern about women’s rights. “There is no room for discrimination against women, not on public transport or elsewhere in Israel,” he said.


Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz called Clinton’s remarks “exaggerated. Israeli democracy is alive, breathing, kicking and liberal. I don’t know many better democracies in the world. It is of course necessary to fix things sometimes. I admit that segregating women and preventing them from participation is completely unacceptable and needs to stop, but that is a far cry from the claim that there is a threat to Israeli democracy.”


Interior Minister Eli Yishai said “Israel is the only democratic country in the Middle East. I assume that everything done here will be done within the law.”


However, opposition and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni defended Clinton’s criticism of Israeli democracy, saying that the Secretary of State’s concerns should serve as a wakeup call to “those still blind to the ugly wave washing over Israel from inside.”




In another example of the Obama administration’s bias against Israel, Howard Gutman, Obama’s ambassador to Belgium, told an audience last week that he believes that Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is responsible for the creation of a new kind of anti-Semitism.


In remarks delivered to a European Jewish Union conference, Gutman, who is Jewish, described two forms of anti-Semitism – one that he described as “classic bigotry” against Jews and a second type of “growing anti-Semitism” that is the result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Throughout the Muslim communities that I visit, and indeed throughout Europe, there is significant anger and resentment and, yes, perhaps sometimes hatred and indeed sometimes an all-too-growing intimidation and violence directed at Jews generally as a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories and other Arab neighbors in the Middle East. It is the area where every new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry here in Europe.”




Gutman’s remarks touched off a firestorm of protest. GOP president candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney both called on Obama to dismiss Gutman for his rationalization of anti-Semitism.


The Simon Wiesenthal Center called upon Secretary of State Clinton to “clarify if Gutman’s statement reflects or violates US policy vis-a-vis anti-Semitism.”


The White House was quick to issue a statement declaring that “we condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms and believe there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.” Gutman issued a clarifying statement saying, “I strongly condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms. I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way. My own personal history and that of my family is testimony to the salience of this issue and my continued commitment to combating anti-Semitism.”


Even though the White House disassociated itself from Gutman’s comments, the overall pattern of administration hostility to Israel and Jewish religious rights is disturbing, as is the fact that these attitudes originate at the highest level of the Obama administration, the president himself.




Yet, as recently as last week, President Obama boasted to an audience of Jewish political contributors that, “I try not to pat myself too much on the back, but this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration.” He added that, “obviously, no ally is more important [to the US] than the state of Israel.”


Republicans quickly challenged Obama’s assertion. Romney said that Obama has “repeatedly thrown Israel under the bus.”


Firing back, Florida Democrat Congresswoman Debra Wasserman Schultz called Romney’s comments “outrageous” and questioned his own policies.


White House outreach to Jewish activists has increased since May when Obama caused a furor by calling for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, which Netanyahu rejected as indefensible. Republicans seized upon the dispute, and while Obama’s supporters complain that his position was mischaracterized, the Jewish community’s support for Obama was further damaged.


However, the mixed messages about Israel and Jewish rights have continued to come out of the administration, and they have damaged Obama’s credibility with many Jewish voters. At one point last year, the anger in the American Jewish community against Obama’s treatment of Israel had become so intense that New York Senator Charles Schumer warned the White House to back off because the growing backlash among Jewish Democrats was threatening their voter and donor base.


A statement issued by the Los Angeles-based Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors organization last week conveys the widespread puzzlement at the administration’s continued anti-Israel bias. “Everyone is baffled by why President Obama would again and again pressure Israel while letting the Palestinians literally get away with murder, and nobody can come up with a good explanation for what he thinks he’s accomplishing by undermining the US/Israeli relationship,” the statement said.




Many Jewish Democrats have also been appalled by Obama’s high-handed tactics toward the Israeli prime minister. The administration has repeatedly had to dispatch long-time political friends of Israel, such as Vice President Joe Biden, and Schultz, on damage control missions to Jewish leaders and contributors to try to convince them that Obama really is committed to Israel’s security. However, with every new fight that this administration has picked with the Israeli government, and every personal snub that Obama has directed at Netanyahu, the impression grows that Obama sees Israel more as a source of trouble for him than as the most reliable ally of the US in the region.


“The reality is that the Jewish community understands that on a number of critical issues this administration has undermined not only the U.S.-Israel relationship, but has made Israel more vulnerable,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.


Brooks points to the recent upset in New York’s special election to replace Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, in which Republican Bob Turner won in the heavily Jewish district. Brooks says this was a warning sign to Obama on his stance on Israel


In the 2008 election, Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, compared with 21 percent for Republican John McCain. Gallup has found that Obama’s approval rating among Jews has fallen from 83 percent in January 2009 to 54 percent in the late summer and early fall of this year.


Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party in Florida, predicted that Obama would be limited to around 60 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2012 election.




Taken together, the message being conveyed by the various administration officials is that once Obama is safely re-elected, he will once again turn on his Jewish supporters by increasing the pressure on Israel for concessions to its enemies for the purpose of appeasing the radical Muslim regimes now gaining power across the Middle East.


Obama has already intervened to force Congress to release $200 million in US foreign aid funds that had been appropriated for the Palestinians. The funds had been held up this summer by the Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee when PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas violated the Oslo Accords by applying for Palestinian membership in the UN before reaching a peace agreement with Israel.


The remarks by Ambassador Gutman are a classic example of the mentality of a self-hating Jew who fails to recognize that the anti-Zionism which has become fashionable in many liberal circles around the world is just a modern-day variant of old-fashioned anti-Semitic Jew-hatred. Gutman’s logic would deny Israel the right to self-defense and existence as a Jewish state, and to claim that Israel is still oppressing and occupying the Palestinians is to ignore the fact that the Arabs have been the ones to consistently reject all reasonable suggestions for implementing a two-state solution going back to before Israel was founded in 1948.




Israel was also forced last week to release the $100 million tax funds that it has been collecting monthly for the Palestinians, but holding up because of the PA’s move to gain membership in UNESCO.


A spokesman for Netanyahu said that the tax funds were being released on a one-time basis, and that he reserved the right to withhold them once again if the Palestinian Authority “resumes taking unilateral steps.”


The US had been pressuring the Israeli government to release the funds, but apparently, the determining factor was an ultimatum which was delivered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Netanyahu. She said that unless Israel released the funds, she would continue to block Germany’s construction of a sixth missile-firing submarine for Israel, which is an essential part of its nuclear deterrent.


Israel already has three of the conventionally powered Dolphin-class subs, capable of firing nuclear armed cruise missiles from underwater. They give Israel a second-strike capability to destroy any enemy launching a first strike on the Israeli homeland. Two more subs are currently under construction.


The subs are particularly important strategically to Israel in light of newly revealed Iranian efforts to design and build nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles which already have the necessary range to hit Israeli targets. The sub is expected to be delivered by 2016, and will give Israel the capability to have at least one submarine on station in the Mediterranean Sea or the Indian Ocean at all times to serve as a deterrent against attack.


The German government had been blocking the construction of the sixth submarine for a year. Part of the deal which resulted in the release of the funds to the PA included Germany paying $185 million, or roughly one-third of the cost of building the submarine.




Netanyahu’s response to Panetta’s warning about the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran came in his speech at a Sde Boker ceremony commemorating the 38th anniversary of the death of Ben-Gurion.


“Great statesmen as well as friends of the Jews and of Zionism” warned Ben-Gurion that declaring Israeli independence in 1948 would trigger a “grave and difficult battle.


“First and foremost we must learn from his commitment to Israel’s future, and his willingness to take the difficult decisions necessary to ensure that future,” Netanyahu said.


“From within and outside, from inside the Yishuv and all over the world, there was enormous pressure on Ben-Gurion not to take this step. Everyone told him: This is not the time, not now. Ben-Gurion did not ignore these warnings. He clearly understood that the decision carried a heavy price, but he believed that not making that decision carried a heavier price. We are all here today because Ben-Gurion made the right decision at the right moment,” Netanyahu added.


“Today we are all in agreement [that declaring Israel’s independence] was a correct and responsible decision. I want to believe we will always act with responsibility, courage and determination to make the right decisions to ensure our future and security,” Netanyahu said, obviously referring to Israel’s response to the current threat from Iran.


Netanyahu’s tough stance in the face of the Iranian nuclear threat has been criticized by Meir Dagan, who recently retired as the head of the Mossad, and others who warn that a direct attack on Iran is unlikely to succeed and is likely to lead to a devastating counterattack. While head of the Mossad, Dagan was believed to be responsible for the successful acts of espionage which Israel carried out in recent years to slow the Iranian nuclear program, including the assassination of key Iranian nuclear scientists and the planting of the Stuxnet virus in the computerized control systems of Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges, causing many of them to self-destruct.




Defense Minister Ehud Barak also responded to Panetta’s statement urging Israel not to act alone against Iran, by saying that Panetta’s position on Iran is actually more complex than that.


“We are in constant dialogue with the Americans,” Barak said, “I’ve met Panetta about a dozen times over the last two or three years. In person we hold more intensive talks.” Before becoming the Secretary of Defense earlier this year, Panetta was the director of the CIA for Obama.


Barak said the entire international community agrees that the diplomatic pressure and the use of sanctions against Iran must be exhausted before resorting to military action. He added that “no option should be taken off the table. Israel is responsible for its security, its future and its existence.”


 The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story.




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