Former US Ambassador to Israel: Don't Ignore Obama

April 21, 2010 12:38 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

In an interview with Israel's Army Radio today, and in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk -- currently the vice president and director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution -- said that so long as Israel takes aid from the United States, it has to pay heed to what the United States wants.  From Ha'aretz:

In an interview with Army Radio, Indyk said that if Israel sees itself as a superpower that does not need any aid from the United States, then it can make its own decisions. However "if you need the United States, then you need to take into account America's interests," said Indyk.

In other words, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had better reconsider his decision to simply ignore President Obama's request that Israel freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank, including in Arab East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu has been doing the opposite.  He repeatedly says that he has no intention of freezing settlement activity, most recently in an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. 

And the White House is angry.

Additionally, according to another Ha'aretz story, the Obama administration is fuming over "advertisements in favor of Israel's position on Jerusalem that appeared in the U.S. press with Prime Minister Netanyahu's encouragement." 

They are viewed as attempts by the Israeli government to encourage opposition to US policies by appealing directly to Americans in US publications.  From Ha'aretz:

The authors of the most recent such advertisements were president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. "All these advertisements are not a wise move," one senior American official told Haaretz. 

In the advertisement, Wiesel said that for him as a Jew, "Jerusalem is above politics," and that "it is mentioned more than 600 times in Scripture - and not a single time in the Koran." Wiesel called to postpone discussion on Jerusalem until a later date, when there is an atmosphere of security allowing Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live in peace. 

However, with polls showing that strong majorities of American Jews support the President's stance on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it is unlikely that ads about the Bible will do much good (certainly not with Jews, who are overwhelmingly secular, although the ads could be aimed at Evangelical Christians). 

Ambassador Indyk agrees with the unnamed administration official that attacking Obama is not a "wise move." From Indyk's op-ed in the Times:

At the heart of this disagreement lies a dramatic change in the way Washington perceives its own stake in the game. It actually began three years ago when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared in a speech in Jerusalem that U.S. "strategic interests" were at stake in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - a judgment reiterated by Obama last week when he said resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is a "vital national security interest" for the United States.

In other words, this is no longer just about helping a special ally resolve a debilitating problem. With 200,000 American troops committed to two wars in the greater Middle East and the U.S. president leading a major international effort to block Iran's nuclear program, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a U.S. strategic imperative.

He concludes: "Given Israel's dependence on the United States to counter the threat from Iran and to prevent its own international isolation, an Israeli prime minister would surely want to bridge the growing divide."

And that means playing ball with Obama rather than trying to gang up on him with the help of right-wing "pro-Israel" types and Republicans (like Rep. Eric Cantor R-VA).  That is what Netanyahu did the last time he was prime minister when he colluded with Newt Gingrich to help bring President Clinton down.  It didn't work, and it certainly did not impress American Jews who admired the previous Democratic President just as they admire this one. 

Unless and until Netanyahu's friends in the GOP come to power, he is just going to have to live with the Democrats. 

Besides, Obama is not asking him or any Israeli to jeopardize the security of their state.  On the contrary, he is offering his help to secure Israel permanently from war, terrorism and the demographic changes that would end Israel's existence as a Jewish democracy.

Netanyahu should be thanking him.  Or, as Indyk suggests, he should at least recognize that taking aid and slapping the hand that delivers it won't fly.                                                          

Disclaimer:  Former Ambassador to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk is an old friend.  I like him.  However, I rarely see him and this piece is not affected by personal considerations.