Barack Obama has spent his entire time in office urging the Israelis to make wrenching concessions to the Palestinians, and the American Jewish community has questioned his loyalty. But appearances can be deceiving.
At the U.N. last week, Obama sided with Israel by pushing against the Palestinian vote for statehood. Even more telling: behind the scenes Obama has pressed hard to secure the Israeli state—through major military support.
Surrounded by 15 Jewish-community leaders in the White House back in 2009, Obama chose his words deliberately. He knew he faced suspicions after publicly pressing Israel to give in to the Palestinians on housing settlements. A fraudulent election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in Iran left Israelis even more concerned about their security—and the new U.S. president’s intentions.
“I’ll always be there for [Israel], but we are going to ask to make hard political choices—settlements, borders,” Obama pointedly told attendees at the meeting. His remarks were confirmed by Newsweek through interviews and notes taken by a participant.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a Reform Jewish leader, asked the president to explain why he singled out Israel in public for criticism over its settlements rather than keep disputes with an ally private. Obama grabbed for his then–chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Israel supporter whose father was a member of the Zionist militia known as the Irgun.
“Look, we have some very smart people on this. Don’t think that we don’t understand the nuances of the settlement issues. We do,” the president answered. “Rahm understands the politics there, and he explains them to me.”
Here was a U.S. president appearing to seek cover from his advisers and suggesting he needed to be educated about Israel’s concerns. Many in the room left with little satisfaction, a sentiment that persists to this day.
But what participants didn’t know was that Obama had finally authorized military deals the Israelis had been waiting for for years. It is support that has drawn the two nations’ militaries increasingly close even as their leaders seem politely distant.
The aid, U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to Newsweek, includes the long-delayed delivery of 55 powerful GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, better known as bunker-buster bombs, deemed important to any future military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. It also includes a network of proposed radar sites—some located in Arab neighbors—designed to help Israel repel a missile attack, as well as joint military exercises and regular national-security consultations.
“What is unique in the Obama administration is their decision that in spite of the disagreements on the political level, the military and intelligence relationship which benefits both sides will not be spoiled by the political tension,” says Amos Yadlin, former head of intelligence for the Israeli military. He declined to discuss any secret military cooperation.
Even some of the hawks from the George W. Bush administration grudgingly give Obama credit for behind-the-scenes progress. “If you say to the White House, ‘Obama has been very unfriendly to Israel,’ they say, ‘What do you mean? It’s the best military-to-military relationship ever.’ And that part is true,” says Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Middle East policy at the National Security Council. “If you look at the trajectory from Clinton to Bush to Obama, the military relationship has gotten steadily stronger. I don’t think Obama changed the trajectory, but he certainly didn’t interfere with it, and it continued under him.”
The bunker busters were a significant breakthrough. The Israelis first requested the sale in 2005, only to be rebuffed by the Bush administration. At the time, the Pentagon had frozen almost all U.S.-Israeli joint defense projects out of concern that Israel was transferring advanced military technology to China.
In 2007, Bush informed then–prime minister Ehud Olmert that he would order the bunker busters for delivery in 2009 or 2010. The Israelis wanted them in 2007. Obama finally released the weapons in 2009, according to officials familiar with the secret decision.
James Cartwright, who served until August as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Newsweek the military chiefs had no objections to the sale. Rather, he said there was a concern about “how the Iranians would perceive it” and “how the Israelis might perceive it.” In other words, would the sale be seen as a green light for Israel to attack Iran’s secret nuclear sites one day?
Uzi Rubin, the first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization from 1991 to 1999, says some of the concerns stemmed from “how you use the bomb, where you use the bomb. These could be used in civilian areas, because Hamas and Hizbullah intentionally bury their rockets in villages and towns.”
The Obama administration also initiated a diplomatic effort to persuade Arab and Muslim states in the Middle East like Saudi Arabia and Turkey to commit to an ambitious plan to inter-connect their missile defenses with Israel’s. This topic is particularly sensitive because most Arab states today have no formal diplomatic ties with Israel, and those that do have seen a downgrade in relations since the start of the Arab Spring protests.
Cartwright described the missile shield this way: “Give them the capability, but make the capability inter-dependent between more than one state, so if one pulls out it can never be stronger than the group.”
But the states being forced into cooperation by Washington are not all playing nice. An X-band radar is scheduled to be shipped to Turkey by the end of the year. Yet Turkey’s leaders have threatened not to share data from the radar with Israel. The White House continues to push back against Ankara. Cartwright said that another, similar radar would be installed in a Gulf state in the near future, declining to be more specific.
This vision of an interconnected missile defense for U.S. allies in the Middle East started all the way back with Ronald Reagan. But it is Obama who has pushed it into implementation. “He gets credit,” Cartwright said of Obama. “He is the one that gave the go-ahead.”
“In some ways the U.S.-Israel security relationship continues to get stronger with each new administration,” says Josh Block, the former chief spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “But this administration, in airing private disputes and sometimes publicly distancing itself from Israel, has encouraged Israel’s adversaries to pursue their hostile aims against the Jewish state.” Obama’s poll numbers among U.S. Jews have plummeted from 83 percent at the start of his presidency to 54 percent this month.
On the one hand, there is deep and increasing military support from Obama to Israel. On the other hand, despite all the military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries, political distrust lingers. Perhaps at bottom it stems from Obama’s public rebukes of the building of Israeli homes in East Jerusalem. No matter what his gifts to the leadership, he is still seen as no friend of Israel’s.