Did Barack Obama really tell Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg that the US would refuse to defend Israel if Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t get serious about peace talks with the Palestinians? Well, yes and no. The headline on the Times of Israel report on Obama’s remarks blared, “Obama: US won’t be able to defend Israel if peace talks fail,” but the context is a little more nuanced. Here is what the Times of Israel article reports in the body of the article:
The president went on to condemn in no uncertain terms Israel’s activity in the West Bank, and said that though his allegiance to the Jewish state was permanent, building settlements across the Green Line was counterproductive and would make it extremely difficult for the US to defend Israel from painful repercussions in the international community.
“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Obama said.
Goldberg’s original article emphasizes that this is a frustration for Obama over Israel’s settlement policies, and not a rejection of a military alliance:
Obama was blunter about Israel’s future than I’ve ever heard him. His language was striking, but of a piece with observations made in recent months by his secretary of state, John Kerry, who until this interview, had taken the lead in pressuring both Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to agree to a framework deal. Obama made it clear that he views Abbas as the most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have. It seemed obvious to me that the president believes that the next move is Netanyahu’s.
“There comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices,” Obama said. “Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?” …
On the subject of Middle East peace, Obama told me that the U.S.’s friendship with Israel is undying, but he also issued what I took to be a veiled threat: The U.S., though willing to defend an isolated Israel at the United Nations and in other international bodies, might soon be unable to do so effectively.
“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” Obama said. “If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
Goldberg has the entire transcript from the interview at the link. It’s clear from that, and the context of Goldberg’s original report, that Obama was not talking about military support at all — in fact, that question never arises. Instead, the “defense” Obama means is from criticism over Israel’s policies, especially at the UN, where the US wields its veto power to keep the UNSC from punishing Israel at the behest of the hostile General Assembly. Given what’s happening with Russia in Ukraine, that use of the veto is unlikely to change, so Israel has little to fear at the Security Council. This sounds more like a warning that the US will start getting more public about its disagreements with Netanyahu and putting him in an increasingly more difficult position at home unless he starts bending on settlement policies, among other things.
This is not inconsequential, and it’s also debatable as a strategy. It’s also interesting to note that neither Obama nor Goldberg bring up the Palestinian Authority refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which was recently reaffirmed by the PA in John Kerry’s attempts to restart the peace process. Instead, Obama insists that this is Netanyahu’s golden opportunity to get a state with “permanent borders,” which doesn’t make a lot of sense without that concession from the PA.
Still, Obama wasn’t saying that the US would refuse to defend Israel if it came under physical attack. Obama was saying that a refusal of Netanyahu to bend would make it difficult to defend Israel from the criticism that would create. That’s still an unpleasant signal and it’s obviously intended to pressure Netanyahu into security concessions, but it’s not an abdication of our commitment to Israel either.