Israeli officials on Thursday reaffirmed the oft-repeated mantra that under the Obama administration, US-Israel security ties have never been better, even as The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is holding up the sale of Hellfire air-to-surface missiles to Jerusalem.
The Obama administration has tightened its control of arms transfers to Israel, requiring White House and State Department approval for even routine munitions requests by Israel, according to the piece.
“Instead of being handled as a military-to-military matter, each case is now subject to review – slowing the approval process and signaling to Israel that military assistance once taken for granted is now under closer scrutiny,” the story said.
The report came out on the same day that the Istanbul-based Hurriyet Daily News reported that the US cleared a potential $320 million advanced medium-range airto- air missiles sale to Turkey “amid increasing security risks in the region.”
The decision for White House and State Department oversight over arms requests by Israel is the seeming culmination of a series of very public disagreements between the two allies over the Gaza conflict, with Israel unhappy with the way the US tried to bring Qatar and Turkey into cease-fire negotiations last month, and Washington upset at what it considered the often “heavy-handed” way Israel fought the war and caused civilian casualties.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the phone conversation between Netanyahu and Obama on Wednesday was “combative,” a characterization denied in Jerusalem.
The paper said that the Gaza conflict has convinced many administration officials that the prime minister and his national security team were “both reckless and untrustworthy.” Israeli officials were quoted as saying that the Obama administration was weak and naive, and that they were trying to bypass the White House in favor of allies in Congress and elsewhere in the administration.
A senior Obama administration official was quoted as saying “We have many, many friends around the world. The United States is their strongest friend. The notion that they are playing the United States, or that they’re manipulating us publicly, completely miscalculates their place in the world.”
Israeli officials denied the allegation that Jerusalem was going around the White House to secure arms deliveries. Regarding the Hellfires, the officials said that “we’ve made a request, and we believe the request will be fulfilled.”
Administration officials said the claims that the White House last month ordered a halt on the Pentagon’s delivery of Hellfire missiles were a mischaracterization of inter-agency procedure, and of a policy unchanged.
“Let me be clear: There has been no change in policy, period,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “Given the crisis in Gaza, it is natural that agencies take additional care with deliveries as part of an inter-agency process.”
During Operation Protective Edge, the Pentagon said that the delivery was standard, and part of the United States’ commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge, by maintaining its broad defensive and offensive capabilities.
Harf said that the “additional care” taken by the administration does not represent a “permanent change in process.”
When the news of the July sales was made public, media outlets in the Middle East slammed the administration for the timing of the deliveries, in the heat of the Gaza war.
But Harf pushed back strongly at the notion that the US reviewed its process due to media pressures.
“This has nothing to do with publicity,” she said.
The Wall Street Journal piece was just the latest in a series of stories over the past few weeks reporting of a “new low” in relations between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.
Other incidents in recent weeks that added fuel to the sense of crisis in the ties:
• Netanyahu allegedly telling American Ambassador Dan Shapiro earlier in the month, after Hamas violated a cease-fire and killed three IDF soldiers in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, that the US should never “second guess” him on Hamas.
• The leak of an alleged transcript of an Obama-Netanyahu conversation where an angry Obama demanded that Israel agree to a cease-fire.
• The White House calling the shelling of a UN facility that led to innocent deaths “disgraceful.”
• Israeli anger at a US cease-fire proposal that would have led to an enhanced role for Turkey and Qatar, followed by US anger that Israel allegedly leaked the draft proposal and was disrespectful in its criticism of Secretary of State John Kerry.
At a press conference with the foreign press on August 2, Netanyahu said that the US has been “terrific” during the current crisis.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s office, meanwhile, would not comment on the report, saying only that there was a conversation on Wednesday between Ya’alon and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that went well.
In a statement released on Thursday, Ya’alon’s office quoted him as saying “We very much appreciate our relations with the United States.
The relations between our security establishments are very good.”
He said that relationships such as that between the US and Israel are made even more important because of the challenges posed by extremists in the region, which he listed as Hamas, the Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Iran.
Obama and Netanyahu have worked together – some say have had to “deal with each other” – longer than any other US president and Israeli prime minister in history. Charges that Netanyahu’s famously rocky relationship with Obama is harming the vital Israel-US relationship have been a common theme of his opponents and critics both in Israel and the US over the past six years.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid responded to the Wall Street Journal report by saying it represented a “worrisome trend, and we cannot let it continue.
“The relationship with the US,” he said, was a “strategic asset that must not be harmed.
Sometimes we simply have to know how to say thank you.” Former president Shimon Peres, during a meeting with visiting New York Gov.
Andrew Cuomo, related to the report, saying he was “full of thanks and appreciation to the US, as are all Israeli citizens, for firmly standing beside Israel for the 66 years of its existence.”
Meanwhile, a Fox News poll on Wednesday found that 38 percent of the American public does not think Obama has been supportive enough of Israel. Another 33% think his support has been “about right,” and 18% believe he has been “too supportive.” Eleven percent said they did not know.
Ben Hartman contributed to this report.