US President Barack Obama’s rapidly changing positions on Syria have produced
many odd spectacles.
One of odder ones was the sight of hundreds of
lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee fanning out on
Capitol Hill to lobby members of the House and Senate to support Obama’s plan to
launch what Secretary of State John Kerry called “unbelievably small” air
strikes against empty regime controlled buildings in Syria.
officials claimed they were doing this because the air strikes would help
But this claim was easily undone. Obama and Kerry insisted
nothing the US would do would have any impact on the outcome of the Syrian civil
war. This was supposed to be the strikes’ selling point. But by launching
worthless strikes, Obama was poised to wreck America’s deterrent posture,
transforming the world’s superpower into an international joke.
harming America’s deterrent capabilities by speaking loudly and carrying an
“unbelievably small” stick, Kerry and Obama also harmed Israel’s deterrent
Israel’s deterrence relies in no small measure on its strategic
alliance with the US.
Once the US is no longer feared, a key part of
Israeli deterrence is removed.
Obama did not announce his intention to
bomb empty buildings in Syria in order to impact the deterrent posture of either
the US or Israel. He probably gave them little thought. The only one who stood
to gain from those strikes – aside from Syrian President Bashar Assad who would
earn bragging rights for standing down the US military – was Obama
Obama wanted to launch the unbelievably small strikes to prove
that he wasn’t lying when he said that Syria would cross a red line if it used
So if the strikes were going to harm the US and Israel,
why did AIPAC dispatch its lobbyists to Capitol Hill to lobby in favor of them?
Because Obama made them.
Obama ordered AIPAC to go to Capitol Hill to
lobby for the Syria strikes. He did so knowing that its involvement would weaken
public support for AIPAC and Israel. Both would be widely perceived as pushing
the US to send military forces into harm’s way to defend Israel.
with hundreds of AIPAC lobbyist racing from one Congressional office to the
next, Obama left them in a lurch. He announced he was cutting a deal with Russia
and had decided not to attack Syria after all.
What did AIPAC get for its
self-defeating efforts on Obama’s behalf? Obama is now courting Iranian
President Hassan Rouhani in the hopes of making a deal that Iran will use as
cover for completing its nuclear weapons program.
Such a deal may well
involve ending sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its central bank – sanctions
that AIPAC expended years of effort getting Congress to pass.
not all. Monday, as Obama meets with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN
General Assembly in New York, Vice President Joe Biden will become the highest
ranking administration official to date to address the J Street
J Street was formed in order to weaken AIPAC, and force it to
Sending Biden to headline at the J Street conference is an act
of aggression against AIPAC. It also signals that Obama remains committed to
strengthening the anti-Israel voices at the margins of the American Jewish
community at the expense of the pro- Israel majority.
The question is why
is AIPAC cooperating with Obama as he abuses it? Why didn’t they just say no?
Because they couldn’t.
AIPAC is not strong enough to stand up to the
president of the United States, particularly one as hostile as Obama.
only would it have suffered direct retaliation for its refusal, Obama would have
also punished Israel for its friend’s recalcitrance.
In a recent
interview with The Times of Israel, Eitan Haber, late prime minister Yitzhak
Rabin’s closest aide, made the case that Israel is powerless in the face of
White House pressure. Haber claimed that only when a person becomes prime
minister does he understand “to what extent the State of Israel is dependent on
America. For absolutely everything... we are dependent on America.”
noted that the US can collapse every aspect of Israel. From this he concluded
that no Israeli leader can stand up to Washington.
Haber recalled a
menacing conversation Rabin had with then-US secretary of state James Baker
during which Baker became angry at Rabin.
“America is right even when it
is wrong,” Baker admonished the Israeli leader.
Haber warned that Israel
cannot stand up to the US even when the US is behaving in a manner that
endangers Israel. “It’s possible that they don’t understand the region and that
they are naïve and stupid,” he said, “But they are America.”
rightly that that the White House can destroy Israel’s economy, defenses and
diplomatic position any time it wishes. In the past administration threats of
economic sanctions or delays in sending spare parts for weapons platforms have
been sufficient to make Israeli leaders fall into line.
For the past five
and a half years Obama has dangled US diplomatic support at the UN Security
Council over Israel’s head like the Sword of Damocles.
Netanyahu to make concession after concession to secure his veto of the PLO’s
request that the UN Security Council accept “Palestine” as a member state two
years ago. Netanyahu’s sudden support for Palestinian statehood and his 10-
month long freeze on Jewish property rights in Judea and Samaria were the most
public concessions he was forced to cough up.
The timing of the EU
announcement that it was barring EU entities from forging ties with Israelis
that operate beyond the 1949 armistice lines was revealing in this context. The
EU announced its economic sanctions the day Kerry announced the start of
negotiations between Israel and the PLO. The message to Israel was absolutely
clear: Do what we order you to or you will face economic sanctions far more
Obama’s appointment of Samantha Power to serve as US ambassador
to the UN was another signal of ill intent. Power became the object of fear and
fury for Israel supporters after YouTube videos of a 2002 interview she gave
went viral during the 2008 elections. In that interview Power called for the US
to send “a mammoth protection force” to Israel to protect the Palestinians from
“genocide” that Israel would commit. That is, she called for the US to go to war
against Israel to protect the Palestinians from a nonexistent threat maliciously
attributed to the only human rights-respecting state in the Middle
And just after his reelection, Obama sent Power to the epicenter of
international blood libels and attempts to outlaw the Jewish
Obama’s deal with Russia President Vladimir Putin was also a
signal of aggression, if not an act of aggression in and of itself. The ink had
barely dried on their unenforceable agreement that leaves Iran’s Arab client in
power, when Putin turned his guns on Israel. As Putin put it, Syria only
developed its chemical arsenal “as an alternative to the nuclear weapons of
The Obama administration itself has a track record in putting
Israel’s presumptive nuclear arsenal on the international diplomatic chopping
block. In 2010 Netanyahu was compelled to cancel his participation in Obama’s
nuclear weapons conference when he learned that Egypt and Turkey intended to use
Obama’s conference to demand that Israel sign the Nuclear Non- Proliferation
Obama’s behavior demonstrates his bad intentions. So Israelis and
our American supporters need to ask whether Haber is right. Is Israel powerless
in the face of a hostile US administration? Let’s reconsider Obama’s decision to
turn to AIPAC for support on Syria.
Why did he do that? Why did he turn
to an organization he wishes to harm and order it to go to the mattresses for
him? Obama turned to AIPAC primarily because AIPAC could help him. AIPAC hold
sway on Capitol Hill.
Where does that power come from? Does AIPAC wield
influence because it frightens members into submission? No.
powerful because it serves as a mouthpiece for the overwhelming majority of
Americans. The American people support Israel. If something will help Israel,
then most Americans will support it. Obama wanted Congressional support. He
couldn’t win it on the merits of his feckless plan. So he sent in AIPAC to
pretend that his strikes would benefit Israel.
Obama’s demand that AIPAC
help him is reality’s response to Haber’s protestations of Israeli
Israel’s alliance with the US, upon which it is so
dependent, was not built with America’s political or foreign policy elites.
Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the US was built on such ties.
alliance with the US is built on the American public’s support for Israel. And
although Obama himself doesn’t need to face American voters again, his
Democratic colleagues do. Moreover, even lame duck presidents cannot veer too
far away from the national consensus.
It is because of this consensus
that Obama has to send signals to Israel – like the EU sanctions, and Power’s
appointment to the UN – rather than openly part ways with
Obama is powerful. And he threatens Israel. But Israel is not
as powerless as Haber believes. Israel can make its case to the American
And assuming the American people support Israel’s case, Obama’s
freedom of action can be constrained.
For instance, on the Palestinian
issue, Haber said Israel has to accept whatever Obama says. But that isn’t true.
Netanyahu can set out the international legal basis for Israeli sovereignty over
Judea and Samaria and explain why Israel’s rights are stronger than the
The government can expose the fact that the demographic
doomsday scenario that forms the basis of support for the two-state formula is
grounded on falsified data concocted by the PLO.
international law, is actually one of Israel’s strategic assets.
there is Iran.
Were Netanyahu to defy Obama and order the IDF to attack
Iran’s nuclear installations, he would be pushing the boundaries of the US
political consensus less than Menachem Begin did when he ordered the air force
to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. He would also be pushing the US
consensus less than Rabin did when he embraced Yasser Arafat in 1993.
Israel cannot say no to everything that Obama wishes to do in the Middle
And yes, it needs to make concessions where it can to placate the
AIPAC’s decision to take a bullet for Obama on Syria may
have been the better part of wisdom.
Israel has three-and-a-half more
years with Obama.
They won’t be easy. And there is no telling who will
succeed him. But this needn’t be a catastrophe. Our cards are limited. But we
have cards. And if we play them wisely, we will be