You know there’s something going on when Haaretz, the flagship of the Israeli left, reads like it’s being edited by Dick Cheney. Last Friday Secretary of State John Kerry presented the Israeli cabinet with a draft of a ceasefire agreement that, in the words of Haaretz columnist Barak Ravid, “could have been penned by Khaled Meshal. It was everything Hamas could have hoped for.” The draft, Ravid explained, “recognized Hamas’ position in the Gaza Strip, promised the organization billions in donation funds and demanded no dismantling of rockets, tunnels or other heavy weaponry at Hamas’ disposal.” Accordingly, wrote another Haaretz columnist, Ari Shavit: “The Obama Administration proved once again that it is the best friend of its enemies, and the biggest enemy of its friends.”
The fact is that Haaretz is simply in step with Israeli public opinion. One poll, conducted by Israel’s Channel 10, showed that 87 percent of Israelis were in favor continuing the operation in Gaza, with another 69 percent in favor of toppling the organization that the White House wants to save. Another poll showed that 86.5 percent are against a ceasefire right now because “Hamas continues firing missiles on Israel, not all the tunnels have been found, and Hamas has not surrendered.” Therefore, explained one pollster, Netanyahu would be confronting the vast majority of Israel if he accepted, as Obama reportedly demanded in a phone call Sunday, an immediate ceasefire.
“Qatar and Turkey are the biggest supporters of Hamas,” Netanyahu told President Obama, according to an Israeli transcript of a recording of the phone call. (A transcript the White House and prime minister’s office now claim is false.) “It’s impossible to rely on them to be fair mediators.” To which Obama snidely responded: “I trust Qatar and Turkey. Israel is not in the position that it can choose its mediators.” When Netanyahu objected to Obama’s high-school mean-girl treatment—“I protest because Hamas can continue to launch rockets and use tunnels for terror attacks”—the president of the United States simply ignored him: “The ball’s in Israel’s court, and it must end all its military activities.”
Obama’s big theory of the Middle East seems to be that Israel is the least popular kid in the lunchroom, which means that it is lucky to have the United States as any kind of friend at all. But what neither the president nor his peripatetic secretary of State appear to have noticed is that the least popular kid among Middle Eastern leaders isn’t Bibi—it’s Obama. While self-infatuated postering may be the key to popularity among a certain segment of the president’s daughters’ peer group, it tends to go over badly with world leaders who face real threats—and who feel that America regularly lies to them. According to reports, Cairo was so angry that Kerry involved its regional rivals Qatar and Turkey in discussions over what new Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi considers a vital national interest that it refused to send its foreign minister to meet with Kerry in Paris.
Not surprisingly, the Palestinian Authority, in whose name Obama and Kerry are supposedly acting, was also furious with the administration. Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party released a statement critical of the White House as well as his intra-Palestinian rivals: “Those who want Qatar or Turkey to represent them should leave and go live there.” The reality is that the ceasefire makes plain what the United States’ traditional regional partners have long feared: Obama is lining up against America’s traditional friends in the Middle East, with Jerusalem directly in the crosshairs.
It’s at times like this that Israel could use a powerful friend in Washington. When Israel is at war with a terrorist group that plotted to send hundreds of its members through tunnels to slaughter and kidnap thousands of Israelis this coming Rosh Hashanah, and the White House proposes a ceasefire agreement that works to the advantage of the terrorists, it makes you wish there was a large, well-funded lobbying organization that wasn’t afraid to remind the White House of the overwhelming American support for Israel among both Jews and Christians.
When the secretary of State is off cavorting with the foreign minister of Turkey, which plans to send another “aid” flotilla to Gaza, and whose prime minister recently accused Israel of “barbarism that surpasses Hitler,” it makes you wish there was a well-oiled pro-Israel outfit with some ace political fixers and analysts in its pocket and an outsized reputation for fearlessly lobbying both Congress and the executive branch.
When European governments and Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Jordan—and even the Fatah government in Ramallah—are more in sync with Jerusalem about current events than the White House, it makes you wish there was someone able to get the president of the United States on the phone to remind him that the Israel-U.S. alliance is one of the pillars of American Middle East policy, and that abandoning that alliance will hurt the entire region, which it is intended to help stabilize.
When Israel endures a decade of rocket fire from Hamas and world opinion calls Jews the aggressors, when European streets are filled with pro-Hamas demonstrators, and anti-Semites see an opportunity to drive France’s Jewish community out of the country, it makes you wish there was some big broad-shouldered American institution holding the line against the world’s increasing racist enmity toward Israel and the Jews. It would tell the White House, whispering first in its ear and then more loudly if necessary, “OK, that’s enough. America stands for something better than the prejudice and savagery embodied by the political players you say you trust.”
Of course, the pro-Israel community does have an organization like that—or it did. Sure, AIPAC gets House and Senate members to sign letters supportive of Israel and makes statements of its own. On Monday, for instance, AIPAC President Robert Cohen said, “It is essential that the United States works closely with our democratic and indispensable ally, Israel, to ensure Jerusalem is able to keep its citizens safe from terror.” But it’s crunch time for Israel, and thus also for the organization that is supposed to represent most potently the U.S.-Israel friendship, a relationship Obama is crashing on behalf of Israel’s adversaries. So, the question is why won’t AIPAC say out loud what everyone, including the Israeli left, now sees plainly? Regardless of what Obama may feel in his “kishkes” about the Jewish state, his policies are hostile to Israel.
John Kerry was determined to broker a deal that would not only bring about a ceasefire but also preserve his failed peace process. The problem with his attempt to rescue his own public profile and salve his wounded ego was that he didn’t study the region carefully enough: Both Israel and Egypt consider the Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian iteration Hamas to be serious threats to their own national security, and it is hard to say that the fears of both governments aren’t well founded. Both Israel and Egypt found Kerry’s proposal way too favorable to Hamas. (Indeed, Kerry had told Hamas via a Qatari intermediary that many of the Palestinian terrorist group’s demands would be met.) That was too much for Kerry, who can’t stand to be left in the corner at the dance. As the secretary showed last week when a live mic caught him on Fox News saying “we have to get over there,” Kerry needs to be in the mix, to be holding important press conferences in foreign capitals and shaping big events. Accordingly, when Israel and Egypt showed Kerry the door, the only place left for him to go was Turkey and Qatar—who back Hamas. Now, so does John Kerry.
And yet here’s the key point. For all Kerry’s preening and apparent naiveté, he wasn’t freelancing. Rather, as administration officials made clear, the secretary was implementing the president’s agenda, which is finally less about Turkey and Qatar, which are secondary actors, than it is about Iran. True, Tehran and Hamas’ political leadership have been on the outs since their disagreement over the Syrian civil war, with Iran standing behind Assad and Hamas leaders like Khaled Meshaal, once based in Damascus, finding it impossible to support Assad’s slaughter of fellow Sunnis. However, Hamas’ current campaign is being directed not by Meshaal, but rather, as the New York Times’ Steven Erlanger Tweeted last week, by the military commanders on the ground. As Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs research associate, and (Ret.) Brig. Gen. Shimon Shapira told me, “Iran bypassed Hamas political leadership and reached out directly to the military commanders.” Hamas’ campaign therefore is effectively an audition to show Iran that it’s a more than useful deterrent against Israel.
The effect of Kerry’s ceasefire draft then is not simply to leave Hamas with a de facto victory—its arsenal will remain, as will the tunnels not yet destroyed, and it can boast of closing down Ben Gurion for 48 hours and can repeat the performance any time it likes. The point is to balance Iran against Israel.
With the P5+1’s interim agreement signed with Tehran in January, the White House acknowledged Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Now the Kerry ceasefire draft shows the administration is willing to stab Israel in the back as many times as necessary in order to secure any kind of agreement with Iran—regardless of the fact that Israel considers the Iranian nuclear program to be an existential threat. Israel needs to defeat Hamas to protect its own people, from missiles and tunnels, and from a future Iranian nuclear bomb. The White House doesn’t want an Israeli victory in Gaza, lest that threaten the White House’s strategic goal of reaching an accord with Iran, which backs Hamas. So, on both the ego-driven and larger geo-strategic levels, Washington’s dog in the Gaza fight isn’t Israel. It’s Hamas.
AIPAC is either an organization whose purpose is to maintain the broad bipartisan consensus on Israel, or it’s a last line of defense, standing up to tell the president he’s gone too far. The Israeli public has spoken very clearly, and with one voice. The seriousness of the threat is clear. So, where is AIPAC?
To read more analysis by Tablet magazine political columnist Lee Smith,click here.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).