Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the man who told us Sarah Palin was qualified to be president of the United States, has been going around saying US-Israel relations have never been worse than under Obama.
I’ve known and admired McCain since he was a freshman in the House of Representatives in 1983, and he is a solid friend of Israel, but I think his judgment is clouded by his humiliating experience of 2008 – he looked like a fool picking Palin and was trounced by Obama. He is still smarting and seems to reflexively oppose the president at every opportunity.
Are US-Israel relations worse than ever, as McCain has been saying on every talk show that calls him? The answer is a little bit of yes and a lot of no.
On a personal level relations between the two leaders are as near bottom as any. It is no secret that Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama don’t like or trust each other. A senior White House official was quoted calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” yet despite the animus, they can and do work together and still talk to each other frequently.
Which is more than George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir were doing in the early 1990s. McCain was around at the time but seems to have forgotten that those two not only disliked and distrusted each other but weren’t on speaking terms for quite a while.
And during the Reagan administration the White House chief of staff told members of Congress, particularly some of the diminishing number of Jewish Republicans, that they had to choose “Reagan or Begin.”
Then there were the frosty relations between Jimmy Carter and Begin.
It would help if Netanyahu and Barack got along as well as some previous presidents and prime ministers, like Clinton and Rabin or Bush 43 and Olmert, but the alliance is more important than personalities.
It may come as a shock to McCain, but on the very critical national security level, the relationship has never been closer or stronger. He doesn’t have to take my word for it, he can call his friend Netanyahu, who has said: “[President Obama] has reaffirmed – more than any other president – Israel’s right and duty to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. [He] enhanced [Israel’s ability to defend itself] through generous military assistance, revolutionary missile defense programs and unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation [and by] strengthening the unbreakable alliance between our two nations.”
Even Ambassador Ron Dermer, whose portfolio seems to center on running the anti-Obama insurgency, has said Netanyahu “deeply appreciates” what Obama has done for Israel, such as “upgraded security cooperation and enhanced intelligence sharing to military assistance and Iron Dome funding to opposing anti-Israel initiatives at the UN.”
The Pentagon official overseeing the defense relationship, Colin H. Kahl, wrote in Foreign Policy, “No president in history has done more for Israel’s security than Obama.”
As evidence, he cited record-high and steadily increasing levels of military assistance; high-level consultation with Israel on US arms sales to other countries in the region; advanced technology, like the F-35, which no other state in the region has access to, and defense cooperation and funding on rocket and missile defenses, notably Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow.
Here are some other facts to consider:
• Obama has never embargoed arms to Israel as Reagan did to punish it for bombing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor. Reagan even joined with Iraqi diplomats in writing and passing a UN resolution condemning the Israeli attack.
• Obama never sought to delay or cut aid to Israel approved by Congress as both the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations did.
• Obama never refused to speak on the phone with a prime minister, as Bush 41 did to Shamir.
• Obama never suggested that pro-Israel activists weren’t loyal Americans as Bush 41 did when they lobbied against his attempt to freeze aid to resettle Soviet immigrants as punishment for settlement construction.
• President Ford ordered a “reassessment” of relations with Israel in 1975 because of what the administration called Israeli “intransigence” in negotiations with Egypt and Syria.
• A White House aide may have called the prime minister a “chickenshit,” but never did a secretary of state under Obama say “F*** the Jews, they don’t vote for us,” as James Baker did when he was Bush 41’s top foreign policy official. Or tell a congressional committee that if the prime minister wanted to talk peace he could call the White House switchboard.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who was Netanyahu’s defense minister in his previous term, described bilateral cooperation as “wide, all-encompassing and unprecedented.”
Obama’s isn’t the first administration Netanyahu had trouble getting along with. When Netanyahu was the Israeli deputy foreign minister during the Bush 41 administration, secretary of state James Baker banned him from the State Department for saying US foreign policy was built “on a foundation of distortions and lies.”
Bill Clinton also found Netanyahu difficult to deal with. The president was so angered with Netanyahu’s “insufferable lecturing” and condescending advice that after one meeting he said, “He thinks he is the superpower and we are here to do whatever he requires.”
Clearly, nothing has changed, except that Netanyahu now has an energized and implacably partisan group of Republicans eager to use Israel to bash the president.
As I said, John McCain is a great American and a patriot, but when it comes to assessing the US-Israel relationship his judgment is clouded by his personal animosity toward this president, an affliction that also infects his friend Netanyahu.