Obama and Israel: Carom Shot?

by Elliott Abrams

The Israeli press is reporting that “The United States was behind the summoning of Israeli ambassadors by several European nations, Israeli sources with close ties to US administration officials said Monday. ‘The European move is essentially an American move,’ one official said. ‘The Brits asked the Americans how to act.’” The same story quotes an Israeli official saying “The Europeans got the green light to respond with extreme measures . . .”

No proof is offered and proof in these circumstances will be hard to produce. But the story has a great deal of logic behind it. The Obama administration has denounced the Israeli decision to build several thousand additional housing units in Jerusalem and the West Bank. In my experience, when we distance ourselves from Israel the Europeans distance themselves more; when we criticize Israel, they double down and criticize more, and more harshly. Is there any sport that most European foreign ministries enjoy more than denouncing what they view as Israeli aggression, expansion, discrimination, persecution? If they perceive the dimmest green light from Washington, they are off to the races.

The White House will be more restrained, at least in public. In private, the real emotions about Prime Minister Netanyahu and the government of Israel emerge, as they did last weekend in widely reported remarks by Rahm Emanuel to the U.S.-Israel policy conference called the Saban Forum. (Yes, the mayor of Chicago is no longer White House chief of staff, but literally no one believes his remarks were distant from the opinions of his former boss.) One can just imagine what is being said to egg on the Europeans.

Why don’t White House officials speak out openly? After all, the election is over. The answer is probably the fear of losing Democrats on the Hill, who would back away from and indeed contradict any assault on Israel. Many do not share the administration’s obsession with construction in and around Jerusalem, and unlike the president they are not lame ducks: Most will face the voters in two years.

The White House may have found a workable formula for pressuring and undermining the government of Israel: the United States engages in polite diplomatic criticism and then privately urges the Europeans to lower the boom. While Israelis do not care too much about Europeans moral judgments, the EU is an important market for them and European sanctions of any kind would be harmful to Israel. The sense that the Netanyahu coalition can’t get along with Europe or the United States may hurt Netanyahu with Israeli voters — which is perhaps the precise objective of this entire effort. Obama may feel that Netanyahu backed Romney and now wishes to return the favor, and previous presidents have intervened in similar ways in Israeli elections — including Bill Clinton, whose backing of Ehud Barak against Netanyahu in 1999 worked. Netanyahu lost. Neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton will have forgotten.