‘I don’t worry about Israel’s survival,” President Obama told New York Times columnist Tom Friedman the other day.
Maybe that’s part of why we do worry about the future of the Jewish state’s existence in an increasingly bloody, hostile and chaotic region — especially at a time when the administration is trying mightily to avoid getting caught up in military conflicts overseas.
There are times, though, when events overtake policy, as evidenced by the president’s decision, however reluctant, to use American airpower to protect the Kurds from the onslaught of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). He noted that the Kurds have been loyal allies and that ISIS poses a serious threat to them and a small group of religious minorities in the area. Understood.
But why did the U.S. keep out of the Syrian civil war in its early stages, when the rebellion was led by Syrian nationalists seeking to depose the despotic President Bashir Assad, and then back down last year after establishing a “red line” in opposition to Syrian use of lethal gas against its own people?
More recently there have been strong concerns raised in Israel about Washington’s responses to the war in Gaza. Those include Secretary of State John Kerry’s stunning misstep in seeking a cease-fire that would have been more responsive to the position of Hamas than of Jerusalem, and the unusually harsh U.S. condemnation of Israel’s responses to the thousands of Hamas rockets fired deliberately at Israeli civilians.
What’s confusing is the lack of clarity from Obama on his criteria for robust intervention, a point that his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton focused on in her revealing interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic this week as she distances herself from the president in perhaps seeking to succeed him.
Clinton spoke of the “failure” of the U.S. in not intervening early on to topple Assad and she offered a full-out defense of Israel’s actions in Gaza, asserting: “There’s no doubt in my mind that Hamas initiated this conflict. … So the ultimate responsibility has to rest on Hamas and the decisions it made.”
To be sure, Obama has stood by Israel as well during these difficult weeks, approving funds to replenish the Iron Dome system and always expressing Jerusalem’s right to defend itself, though often cautioning against inflicting excessive casualties on civilians.
(One wonders how many Iraqi civilians have been killed or wounded during the current U.S. air effort there, and why the media gives the issue little if any attention.)
The president, in the Friedman interview, praised Israel’s accomplishments in creating “this incredibly vibrant, incredibly successful, wealthy and powerful country.” He said it was “a testament to the ingenuity and vision of the Jewish people. And because Israel is so capable militarily, I don’t worry about Israel’s survival.”
The key question, Obama said, is “how does Israel survive? And how can you create a State of Israel that maintains its democratic and civic traditions?” His answer is “to find a way to live side by side in peace with Palestinians.”
Surely the reverse is true as well; find a way for the Palestinians to live side by side with Israel. Clinton, in her interview with Goldberg, defends rather than blames Netanyahu for his tough stance in negotiations. She said that “if I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [on the West Bank]” because even with the Palestinian Authority in place, Israel is left vulnerable to “the influx of Hamas or cross-border attacks from anywhere else.”
One could speculate on how much easier it is to make these statements out of office than in; Clinton clashed often with Netanyahu when she was secretary of state. But the ongoing worry lingers that Obama doesn’t worry enough about Israel and its survival. Clearly he admires the Jewish state, appreciates its accomplishments and recognizes the difficulties it faces. But in the coming diplomacy that will determine what lesson Hamas comes away with for going to war — political rewards or serious setbacks — and in the crucial talks with Iran over its nuclear program, we’ll soon find out whether the president truly has Israel’s back.