Israeli-American relations are in free fall. Why? On the face of it the key issue is the terms of the draft deal with Iran that Secretary of State John Kerry was reportedly ready to sign in Geneva, week before last. Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated yet again that it is “a bad deal.” And last week Israel’s intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, claimed the concessions to Tehran that the United States is contemplating will funnel between $20 and $40 billion to Iran’s coffers. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, dismissed Steinitz as a fabulist. “Without going into specifics about what we’re considering, that number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality,” she said.
The disagreement over the deal is significant; there can be no doubt. But the debate over its terms diverts attention from another factor of great significance—namely, Netanyahu’s growing distrust, in general, of the Obama administration.
And Netanyahu is not alone. The standard operating procedures of the White House have exacerbated the worst fears of a long list of actors that includes, in addition to the Israelis, key members of Congress, the French, and the Saudis. Distrust now runs so deep and so wide that restoring the confidence of these actors is the single biggest Middle East challenge that the administration faces.
To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, just listen to the critiques coming out of Congress. Last week, Senator John McCain called Kerry “a wrecking ball.” Kerry’s priorities, McCain claimed, shifted from moment to moment. They were disconnected from any identifiable set of principles.
McCain’s accusation was extreme. But before dismissing it as a partisan assault, consider the words of Adam Smith, a Democrat, and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Smith complained bitterly about the White House’s deep aversion to working with Congress. The Obama administration, he said, “figure[s] out the policy,... then they come tell us what it is.”
Smith’s complaint is echoed among allies abroad. A senior official from a European country recently complained to John Vinocur, a former editor of the International Herald Tribune, that President Obama “does not do consultation, and he doesn’t do discussion with allies. He reports, and he describes his analytical process.”
Even Obama’s top advisors routinely receive such treatment. Just ask John Kerry. In late August, when Obama decided, at the eleventh hour, to seek congressional approval for strikes on Syria, he did not invite Kerry or Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the key meeting. Surprisingly, the president’s staff did not hesitate to inform the press that Kerry and Hagel were out of the loop. “They were not in the Oval,” Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, recently confirmed to Politico.
The episode was particularly embarrassing to Kerry, because immediately before Obama’s reversal he had just delivered a Churchillian justification for military action—his finest performance as secretary of state. Did anyone in the White House ask how allies might feel when they learned that Kerry, their primary channel to the president, was not consulted? Did they, for that matter, think about allies at all?
Judging by the treatment of Francois Hollande, the French president, the answer is no. Hollande had supported Obama’s planned military operation, thus calling down on himself severe domestic criticism for blindly supporting the United States. The value of such a friend increased exponentially when opposition in the British parliament forced Prime Minister David Cameron to withdraw from the coalition. French planes were within hours of taking off when Paris received word that Obama had decided to cancel the mission.
Hollande showed himself to be a loyal ally. He was treated, however, like an obedient poodle. Make no mistake. He’ll think twice before signing up for the next big American initiative. The same can also be said of the Saudis. They, too, adopted a supportive position toward the strikes on Syria. But according to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi chief of intelligence, they learned about the president’s change of heart from press reports.
Indeed, according to the Israelis, CNN is increasingly popular as an official channel of American diplomacy. While the Geneva conference was still going on, senior Israeli officials went on the record to say that they had learned about key elements of the emerging deal from the news media—not from the American government. Fear of an American deception, they say, is what first prompted Netanyahu to run in front of the TV cameras and denounce the draft agreement.
European sources tell a similar story about Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister. When Fabius learned that Kerry had decided, at the last minute, to join the Geneva conference, he jumped to the conclusion that the Americans and Iranians had secretly cooked up a bilateral deal. He rushed to Geneva ahead of Kerry in order to throw obstacles in his way. Like Netanyahu, he took to the airwaves, denouncing the emerging agreement as a “sucker’s deal.”
The White House now claims that it has a common position with the French. But one wonders. On Sunday, Hollande traveled to Israel, where Netanyahu greeted him as a long lost member of the family. The two stressed their staunch opposition to Iran, leaving no doubt that they were united in their skepticism of Obama’s policy.
As for the Israelis themselves, the administration is blatantly calling them untrustworthy. “You have to ignore what they’re telling you, stop listening to the Israelis on this,” Kerry told senators who expressed skepticism of his approach to Iran.
Typical of the White House attitude toward Israeli criticisms was an answer that National Security Advisor Susan Rice gave last week to a question at the Washington Ideas Forum. “You think he doesn't understand the deal?” Walter Isaacson asked, referring to Netanyahu.
“Well it's not done,” Rice answered, “so by definition it's premature to judge it, because the outlines have yet to be finalized.”
Notice what the national security advisor did not say. She did not rush to assure Isaacson that, thanks to a well-oiled diplomatic machine, our friends the Israelis are able to express their deepest concerns to the White House in real time, as the deal unfolds. On the contrary, she implied that Netanyahu should simply sit down and shut up. Got that, Bibi? A detailed report on Obama’s analytical process is in the mail.
Allies are like mothers-in-law. Keeping them happy is hard work. It often feels thankless. But failure to do it is a recipe for a much deeper form of misery. It’s important to remember that, when America is in a pinch, only its friends will stand by its side. If Obama continues to treat allies as afterthoughts, he risks finding himself alone in a dangerous and unforgiving world.