By Arab News
By Linda Heard
It appears that the Obama administration is playing “good cop, bad cop” with the Israeli leadership. While the President Barack Obama goes out of his way to prostrate himself before the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the run-up to next January’s election, his minions are sending a different message — a message Obama has no doubt blessed behind the scenes. Publicly, the president is muffled.
He needs the Jewish and Christian Zionist vote if he wants to hang on to office and his cozy chat with Nicolas Sarkozy caught on an open microphone about Benjamin Netanyahu’s character flaws means he has a lot more prostrating to do.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has been wearing a diplomatic hat rather than a military cap in recent weeks, has been unusually outspoken. He proved to be out-of-step with the Netanyahu government on some issues.
Israelis who felt discomforted by Panetta’s directness on the viability of strikes on Iran were outraged by his views on the defunct peace process expressed at a Brookings Institution conference. After urging Israel to “Just get to the damn table,” he blamed Israel for its growing regional isolation implying that Israel is too reliant on military power for its security when power needs to be balanced with effective diplomacy. Panetta urged Israel to “reach out and mend fences” with neighbors such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan.
Naturally, his remarks caused a firestorm in Israel and didn’t go down very well with Israel’s friends in America either. In a Washington Post op-ed, Jennifer Rubin writes: “Just when you think that the Obama administration hasn’t annoyed the American-Jewish community quite enough or publicly insulted our democratic ally Israel sufficiently, along comes an administration figure willing to stick his finger in the eye of the Jewish state…”
The national director of the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Abraham Foxman showed how incensed he was in an opinion piece published on the Huffington Post website. He accused Panetta of “blaming the victim” and refuted his claim that Israel is responsible for its deteriorating relations with Egypt and Turkey. He characterized Panetta’s comments as “inaccurate”, “disturbing” and “dangerous” and demanded “a clear repudiation from the White House.”
Just when one thinks that Leon Panetta casts a lonely figure in the administration, lo and behold, up pops Secretary of State Hilary Clinton with uncharacteristic criticisms of the Jewish state. Speaking at a closed session of the Saban Forum in Washington, it was evident she fears the erosion of Israel’s democratic principles due to new Israeli legislation that opens the door for the prosecution of journalists and left-wing nongovernmental organizations (NGS) reporting on the state’s violations of Palestinian human rights. In other words, new laws designed to silence the messenger.
Although the State Department has declined to release a transcript of her statement, Clinton is said to have been shocked to learn that Israeli women are being segregated from men on bus routes serving some Ultra Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, citing the icon of US civil liberty groups Rosa Parks — and she is disturbed that some religious Israeli soldiers refuse to attend events where female entertainers are scheduled to perform. Israeli ministers and government officials have hit back saying there’s nothing wrong with their democracy and suggesting Clinton should concentrate on affairs at home. Israelis typically air their dirty laundry in local newspapers but baulk at foreign criticism, even when they know it’s well deserved.
For once, Panetta and Clinton have got it right.
Regarding Israel’s icy relations with its traditional regional allies Turkey and Egypt, it was Israel which caused the freeze. Its refusal to apologize and make reparations for the killing of nine Turkish activists on the Mavi Marmara has distanced it from Ankara, while Egyptians can’t forget that Israel shot dead six Egyptian policemen in August this year which prompted the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
On the issue of peace with the Palestinians, Israel is responsible for the refusal of Palestinian negotiators to return to the table when all it has to do is stop settlement expansion in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. As for the Israeli government’s attempts to gag dissenters and deprive NGOs from funds, that’s for the Israeli voters to deal with but Israeli spokespeople can hardly go around banging their chests boasting about their country’s democratic principles with any credibility.
Should Obama succeed in getting a second term, I suspect he and his colleagues will be a lot more critical of Israel as then they would have little to lose apart from Congressional support. That would be a good thing for Israel and the world. Israeli exceptionalism and lack of accountability has gone on for too long. It’s not only isolated in the Middle East but also within the UN General Assembly.
If Israel wants acceptance and long-term security it’s time its leaders quit being sensitive to criticism from their friends and stepped up to the plate. And at a time when anti-Israel parties are making sweeping gains throughout the region and Arab peoples have stepped-over their fear barrier, the US should ensure that Tel Aviv proactively pursues the only path to Israel’s long-term longevity — peace.