Tel Aviv — Russia’s military takeover of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea couldn’t seem more distant from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a swing through Washington this week for White House talks with President Obama, many officials and analysts back home see the potential for fallout in places like the Middle East.
Vladimir Putin’s decision to ignore American warnings against intervention in Ukraine had eroded U.S. credibility abroad, at worst, or at least highlighted the reluctance of the U.S. to intervene in far-flung conflicts, said Israeli analysts.
That’s likely to affect Israeli confidence in U.S. assurances on a security regime for the West Bank following the establishment of a Palestinian state. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to get Netanyahu to agree to hand over security along the border with Jordan to a third-party NATO-led force.
“It’s the issue of American credibility,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. While noting that Kerry said the West Bank won’t be another Gaza, and Obama insists the U.S. won’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon, “the credibility of the U.S. to deliver on those promises is even more questionable now, because outside the U.S. and Europe, the rest of the world relations are based on power.”
Putin’s move into Ukraine, in spite of Obama’s vow that such a move would carry negative consequences, is stirring up memories from last fall of the president’s unenforced “red line” on Syrian usage of chemical weapons.
Even though the president was able to eventually work out diplomatic deal to destroy stockpiles of Syria’s chemical weapons, the conflict in Crimea is a reminder of how the U.S. has become more reluctant to use force than it was a decade ago. Steinberg said the trend started during the previous Bush administration and reflects a war-weary public that is loath to commit soldiers and U.S. assets abroad at a time of economic challenges at home.
The Israeli public, too, senses that U.S. policy is more inward focused.
“No one is relying on the U.S. The U.S. is being wise, it is taking care of itself. The U.S. won’t be willing to pay the price because of what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Moti Chaimovitz, a Tel Aviv café owner. “I don’t know if it’s weakness… The cavalry will not be riding in to save Israel.”
More broadly, some 70 percent of Israeli Jews don’t trust the U.S. to safeguard Israel’s interest, according to a poll last month for the Israeli weekly, Sof Hashavuah.
The same sentiment can be found among members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party. Yariv Levin, the coalition whip, indirectly criticized of President Obama’s handling of Ukraine in an interview with Israel Radio.
“It’s hard not to feel, just by observing recent events, the powerlessness of the leadership that is supposed to lead the free world. And not just the U.S., but also Europe,” he said. “I suggest we don’t get caught up in this or that mood, I respect the U.S. president and believe he cares about Israel. But I think that a policy of appeasement, a policy in which you accept dictates out of fear of what will happen if you don’t, is a policy that will only lead to more wars.”
On a practical level, the Ukraine crisis could very likely distract the administration’s attention from events in the Middle East, especially efforts to resolve the Syrian civil war and concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program, said Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli military planner who is a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. Russia plays a vital role in supporting Syrian President Bashir Assad and the government in Tehran.
“If Russia wants to punish the U.S. over steps it takes over Ukraine, it might not cooperate with sanctions [against Iran],” Brom said.
The crisis in the Ukraine broke out just after Obama gave an extensive interview to Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in which he called on Netanyahu to make more concessions for peace while praising Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as the most moderate peace partner Israel could hope for.
Obama met with the Israeli prime minister as the U.S. tries to get Israeli and Palestinian consensus on a “framework” document that would provide a set of principles to guide final status negotiations. Both sides are balking at the compromises that the administration is asking of them. A spokesman for Netanyahu said that Israel has already done enough and that it’s time for the Palestinians to “come to the table.”
In prodding Netanyahu, Obama no doubt sought to get the attention of American and Israeli Jews by saying, “If not now when,” a reference to a famous quote by the Talmudic-era sage Rabbi Hillel. But it may have backfired on Obama, as Naftali Bennett, a cabinet minister, cited another phrase from the same quote that rings just as urgently for Israelis amid Russia’s move on Crimea:
Bennett cited the other part of Hillel’s statement: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
In an interview with Israel Army Radio, he said that “events from the past few days highlight even more the fact that at the moment of truth, the world won’t come help us when we need it.”
Obama, in the interview with Goldberg, said that Netanyahu had presented him no credible alternative to a two-state solution, and complained that Israel’s “aggressive” settlement building policy in the West Bank was making that possibility less and less likely.
On Monday, just hours before the Obama-Netanyahu summit, the president’s remark about settlement construction got a boost as Israel’s statistics bureau reported that building starts in the West Bank settlements more than doubled in 2013 to a 13-year high.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog jumped on the announcement: “At a time that Netanyahu is sitting with Obama, the truth behind his government is revealed in all its glory,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Congratulations to Netanyahu, he can win an Oscar for best actor.”
At the same time, Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, said that the Palestinians would revive a longtime demand for Israeli moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank. The Palestinians and much of the world say such activity makes it more difficult to reach an agreement.
Not surprisingly, settler leader Danny Dayan took Obama and his administration to task for focusing on settlement expansion, saying it was an “unfortunate” line of criticism and disproportionate, given other burning issues on the international agenda.
“At a time we see massacres in Syria and invasions in Crimea, he [Obama] selects the world `aggressive.’ That shows an attitude that is completely irrational.”
The president warned Israel that continued settlement expansion would ultimately lead to increasing isolation for Israel that the U.S. would not be able to block. A leading centrist columnist, Ben Dror Yemini, criticized the president for blaming Israel for international boycotts and for encouraging Palestinians to dig in. But ultimately, he wrote, Jerusalem bore even greater blame for pursuing settlements at all costs.
“Obama is mistaken in his utopian view of the conflict. But Israel is even more mistaken because instead of prioritizing national interest, it is operating on a messianic approach,” he wrote.
“Obama, like many on the Israeli left, shuts his eyes … to the dangers posed by separation. But the Israeli right, and the Israeli government, have shut their eyes to the danger of a binational state.”