Israel’s former ambassador to the United States Michael B. Oren has written a new book; Ally, in which he gives details on his time in Washington. In one of his op-eds about his book, published in Wall Street Journal on June 16th, 2015 he criticizes the U.S. President Obama over the damage caused to U.S. – Israel relations. As hinted from the beginning by the title “How Obama Abandoned Israel,” he accuses Obama administration for the deterioration of the relations between the two countries.
“Nobody has a monopoly on making mistakes. Netanyahu and the president both made mistakes, but only one purposely damaged U.S.- Israel relations,” he wrote. However, he does not forget to give Obama credit by underlining that he was never anti-Israel and that he significantly strengthened the security cooperation between the U.S. and Israel.
What attracted my attention the most is his description and views on the core principles of Israel’s alliance with America. “Mr. Obama posed an even more fundamental challenge by abandoning the two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America,” he explained. According to Oren, the first principle was ‘no daylight’ and the second was ‘no surprises.’
‘No daylight’ means, the U.S. and Israel could always disagree but never openly. A principle broken recently over the nuclear deal with Iran. ‘No surprises’ means, till the presidency of Obama, Israeli leaders received advanced copies of major American policy statements on the Middle East. So there was no surprise there. Plus, they could express their comments on the subject prior to the declaration. In 2009, Obama traveled to the Middle East, skipping Israel. The Cairo talk is a good example of this surprise. And again, Israel have not gotten a fair hearing on Iran nuclear negotiations.
While reading Oren’s piece, I realized that the former ambassador explains the deterioration in the relations of these two strategic allies mostly as the result of the personal relations of the leaders. As if in the case of a different president, there would be no problems between the two allies. This is an opinion shared by many Israelis as well as others. There is a growing expectation that the relations between the U.S. and Israel will magically return to its ‘flawless status’ once the administration in Washington changes with the upcoming presidential elections in January 2017.
To put things straight, the relation between the two countries was never ‘flawless.’ First of all, Israel became a strategic ally only after its victory in the Six-Day War, in 1967. It was after this victory that Washington realized they not only shared common values, but also common strategic interests in the region. The relation warmed and solidified with time. The relation was built on the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s conventional superiority while Israel kept its nuclear arsenal undeclared and ‘in the basement.’ Israel does not officially confirm its nuclear arsenal, but it is believed to have about 80 warheads. In this context, it is not surprising that the U.S. offered Israel arms sales in greater quantities than usual, after the nuclear deal with Iran.
Contrary to the principle ‘no daylight,’ there were many public, openly known disagreements over the years. There were years when Israel was considered as a burden rather than an asset in Washington. The U.S. forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai in 1956, refused to sell weapons or delayed the delivery of military planes; to name a few.
The relation between the two leaders does not have any sign of improvement in the near future, that is for sure. But the main reason of disagreement is not the personal relations between the two leaders, the dispute over Iran and the nuclear deal or the Israel-Arab conflict. The disagreement can be explained by the change in the Middle East policy of the U.S. and the discontentment of Israel and Saudi Arabia. They are not pleased with the role given to their main enemy or rival Iran. The return of Iran to the international system challenge the position these two countries held since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution. The nuclear deal reached despite the bluntly objection of Israel, also shows the deterioration in Israel’s power to establish a security agenda.
As stated in many occasions by President Obama, the U.S. does not want to get directly involved in Middle East conflicts. From day one, Obama tried to place responsibility to regional leaders. In one of his speeches, “It’s more effective to use our capabilities to help partners on the ground secure their own country’s futures,” he said. The U.S. has provided billions of Dollar worth of military equipment to its allies in the region; Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Now, it wants them to take responsibility and act accordingly. The message is simple; “America is not the police of the world.” America is not the police of the world, but after the emergence of the Islamic State, Obama reasserted again America’s leadership in the Middle East. After years of retreat from the region he asked the world to join the war against the Islamic State. And he did not forget to add that the U.S. position did not change; no ground forces in the Middle East and its support to regional leaders.
“In this effort we do not act alone, nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands. Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities,” Obama declared.
Obama’s approach to the Middle East or Obama Doctrine tries to place responsibility of Middle East security to region’s leaders. Obama administration has backed away from deploying American soldiers in the Middle East. Refusing to be drag to another ground war, American troops are replaced by regional allies such as YPG in Syria and of course drones. With the use of unmanned drones, the U.S. is conducting a new video-game style warfare in the Middle East, from miles away.
Obama wanted to be known as the president who ended the wars in the Middle East. This desire is impossible today. Instead he will be known as the president who made it possible for the American soldiers to return back home -but leaving a chaos behind them. It is the golden era of diplomacy over armed conflict and at the same time unmanned drones over American boots on the ground.
Karel Valansi Diplomatic Observer September 2015