Security Takeaways from the Obama Visit to Israel

by Gabriel Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow

by Gabriel Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Nicknamed “Operation Desert Schmooze” by one journalist, President Obama’s visit to Israel, Jordan, and Ramallah last month marked the White House’s effort to reboot its relationship with the Netanyahu government after both leaders secured their reelections. In his last trip to the region nearly four years ago, the president literally flew over Israel, traveling to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and delivered a speech that was noteworthy for its perceived coolness to Jerusalem. This trip represented a necessary corrective, hitting all the right notes, and resulted in a major positive shift in the Israeli public’s view of the American president. While the president’s trip focused largely on public diplomacy, the trip also contained several security-related takeaways.

Despite attempts to deemphasize the differences between the two governments over Iran, the president’s trip only served to underline them. Obama and Netanyahu did not narrow the disparities between their public positions; the president maintained that a nuclear-armed Iran was his red line, the prime minister insisted that a nuclear-capable Iran was his. As if to underscore the discrepancy, President Obama, in an interview on Israeli TV prior to his visit, stated that Iran was “over a year or so” away from developing a nuclear weapon. The date marked a stark contrast from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly last September, where he suggested that Iran would achieve nuclear capability by this summer. Sources close to Netanyahu recently suggested this threshold would be reached by July. By further exposing and translating the policy difference into calendar dates, the president further decreased the likelihood that the United States would take any military action against Iran over the next 12 months. President Obama’s comments were discouraging for Israelis, including new cabinet members, who trust that the United States will take preventive action against Tehran.

That being said, the president also expressed a greater understanding and appreciation of the use of Israeli military force to ensure both Israeli and regional security. During their joint press conference, Obama acknowledged Israel’s “unique” security needs and addressed the prime minister directly, saying, “Bibi, as Prime Minister, your first task is to keep Israel safe.” He went on to say that “Israel is differently situated than the United States. And I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country’s security and defer that to any other country.” Perhaps most perceptively, during his visit to Jordan, while answering a question about Iran, the President Obama expressed concern that Iran may transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists. He then drew the parallel to the current concern over chemical weapons in Syria, asking rhetorically, “What would be the conversation if Syria possessed nuclear weapons?” Knowing full well that a nuclear Syria was prevented by a unilateral Israeli air strike in 2007, the president signaled a tacit appreciation for the 2007 strike, gesturing to Israelis, Arabs, and Iranians alike that perhaps the U.S. would not stand in Israel’s way if it deemed such a strike necessary.

President Obama did not break new ground regarding U.S. policy towards Syria. Although he did not visit the Golan Heights, he stated clearly that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” for the United States and that the regime would be “held accountable” if it transferred those weapons to terrorists. In line with a greater understanding for Israeli military flexibility, the Administration has been supportive of pinpoint IDF actions to prevent an unraveling situation from getting worse. Since November, the Israel has been on the receiving end of sporadic Syrian fire and has occasionally meted out a response, as it did a day after the president departed Jordan. The United States was also supportive of the purported Israeli airstrike on an arms convoy near Damascus in late January. By making clear that only the use or transfer of chemical weapons would provoke American intervention, the president indicated that Israel could not count on the United States to contain the violence in Syria. As a result, the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation that occurred at the end of President Obama’s visit will pave the way for the two regional powers to harmonize their efforts to control spillover from Syria. Although the statement released by Israel did not mention Syria or Iran, it is widely assumed that continued Western inaction in Syria lent urgency to both countries need to put their soured relations behind them.

The president also echoed Congressional calls for Europe to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, calling out “every country that values justice” to do so. In recent weeks, pressure has mounted on the European Union, as Cyprus convicted a Hezbollah agent of planning attacks on Israeli targets and Bulgaria announced that Hezbollah was responsible for the Burgas terrorist attack that killed five Israelis last summer. For the moment, Hezbollah can conduct business throughout Europe as if it were an NGO. Although Europe hasn’t budged yet, several days after the president’s call, the Bahraini parliament voted unanimously to label Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The Palestinians
As opposed to his last major speech on the Middle East, delivered in May 2011, President Obama did not lay out any specific peace plan and avoided any mention of his previous position that Israel’s final borders should be based on the “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” In doing so, he took off the table the Administration’s most problematic security-related position regarding any future arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians. The president also reaffirmed his continued support for U.S. training of Palestinian Authority Security Forces, a mission begun during the Bush Administration.

Despite backing away from specific American final status issue positions, President Obama continued to link the urgency of a peace deal to the greater changes roiling the region. In that speech nearly two years ago, he castigated those who believed that the uncertainty in Israel’s surroundings and the newfound shakiness in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty made it an inauspicious time for any major Israeli territorial withdrawal. The president contended, “there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now. I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.” Two years later, after the Muslim Brotherhood had assumed power in Egypt and Israel’s borders along the Sinai and the Golan have become more volatile, the president reiterated the linkage in Jerusalem. “But this is precisely the time,” he stated, “to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve and commitment for peace.” Even as most Israelis have interpreted the fall of Mubarak and the turmoil in Syria as the most adverse time for major risks for peace, President Obama seems to have concluded the opposite.

U.S.-Israel Security Cooperation
During his visit, the president affirmed the strong military cooperation between the United States and Israel, highlighting continued U.S. support for key programs even in an age of U.S. defense austerity.

First, he announced that U.S. and Israeli teams would begin negotiations to extend military assistance to Israel for an additional decade beyond 2017. The current agreement, negotiated by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush, had raised annual grant aid to Israel from $2.4 billion per year to $3.1 billion per year. The new agreement would further elevate the annual grant aid to $4 billion per year and would automatically enter into force at the conclusion of the previous agreement, binding future American and Israeli governments in a symbol of the strength of the alliance.

Second, the president also declared he will see to it that “there’s no interruption of funding for Iron Dome.” Congress and the Administration had previously announced major increases in U.S. funding for Israel’s short-range anti-missile system, but sequestration and the difficulties of passing a continuing resolution bill in Congress had potentially jeopardized the funding. During his press conference with Netanyahu, Obama threw his full weight behind the effort to secure the funding for additional batteries, which proved vital in Israel’s war with Hamas last November. The president also visited an Iron Dome battery upon landing in Israel. As if on cue, two rockets were launched on Sderot during Obama’s visit, one of the rare violations of the ceasefire that had prevailed since November, drawing swift condemnation from the president.

President Obama’s visit to Israel had several major takeaways. First, he signaled that, even with reelection behind him, the United States would not lead on the major issues in the Middle East. Whether it be on Iran or Syria, the president declined to stake out a more proactive U.S. position, pushing back the date of any possible American action against the Iranian nuclear program and tying U.S. involvement in Syria solely to the use or transfer of chemical weapons. Second, the president signaled a greater understanding for Israel’s need to take unilateral military action to preserve its security. His offhand quip in Jordan expressing tacit appreciation for Israel’s 2007 strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor as well as support for recent Israeli targeted actions in Syria indicate support for a more proactive Israeli policy. Third, through his strong support for extending U.S. security assistance to Israel during a time of U.S. defense austerity, the president demonstrated the profound importance of the security alliance between the two countries deep into the future.

Gabriel Scheinmann, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University, focusing on international security, alliance architecture, and grand strategy. His publications have been featured in The National Interest, DefenseNews, The Daily Caller, and The Washington Quarterly.