Israel Sees Obama’s Crimea Response as Sign of Weakness

Especially on the Israeli right, America’s inability to stop Russia is seen as an ominous sign.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 3
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, March 3 (GPO/Avi Ohayon)

A cursory overview of the opinions expressed in Israel media and official circles about Russia’s annexation of the Crimea reveals a sentiment that has begun to develop deep roots there. Simply put, the events in Ukraine, in which the United States failed to deter Russian president Vladimir Putin from annexing the Crimea, are seen as further “proof” of American weakness and the inability of the United States to effectively deal with aggressive leaders.

Based on this view, some commentators conclude that the events in Ukraine demonstrate the futility and danger of relying on American promises and guarantees.

Not surprisingly, this view is most prevalent on the Israeli right which is already quite critical of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies — especially his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

However, the perception of American weakness is not exclusively right-wing. Other, less politically biased commentators have expressed similar opinions.

Much of the criticism is directed at top members of the Obama Administration, including the president himself, who are seen as naive, weak and unwilling to use force even when clear American interests are at stake. This image is sharpened when compared to popular Israeli impressions of Vladimir Putin who is being portrayed as a resolute visionary, determined to do whatever it takes to protect his country’s vital security interest. In this regard, the events in Ukraine are interpreted by the mainstream Israeli media as symptomatic of the weak American foreign policy of recent years.

Those who wish to advance the argument that President Obama is weak and pushes forward with policies which consistently undermine the ability of the United States to exert influence and protect its own interests (as well as those of their allies) find no shortage of evidence to support their claim, from the willingness to negotiate a deal with Iran that would allow the anti-Israeli regime in Tehran to break out of its international isolation without having to concede its nuclear program — which, as Israeli commentators are keen to mention, is still advancing — to Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis which signaled his reticence for militarily intervention in the face of clear violations of international norms and his own “red line.” In doing so, he set the stage for the Crimean crisis — and perhaps other crises to come.

All these issues are deemed to have a direct bearing on the Middle East, on American-Israeli relations and Israel’s own national security. Indeed, many in Israel argue that due to its failures elsewhere, and in an attempt to mask the fact that American influence and power are rapidly declining around the world, the Obama Administration is trying to “salvage” what is left of American prestige by pushing forward with an Israeli-Palestinians peace agreement, despite the fact that these efforts are likely to be doomed.

Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Israeli dissatisfaction with American foreign policies at the top levels of government has flowed into the public sphere and led to highly publicized backlashes.

Most recently, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, publicly criticized efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, saying America has “misconceived notions” and “does not understand the Middle East.”

His remarks came five days after he personally attacked Secretary of State John Kerry saying, “Kerry is messianic and obsessive. The only chance for Israel to be left alone is if Kerry wins a Nobel Peace Prize and leaves us alone.”

Despite the fact that, following strong domestic criticism, Ya’alon later apologized, many other politicians and pundits seemed to agree — if not with the style, then at least with the spirit of Ya’alon’s criticism. Two weeks later, Minister for Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s, responded to comments Kerry had made about the negative consequences Israel could face in case the United States failed to broker a peace deal by slamming the American diplomat and accusing the Americans of “holding a gun to Israel’s head.”

These few examples reflect a wider deteriorating in American-Israeli relations which are increasingly characterized by mistrust, suspicion and dissatisfaction. It is unclear to what extent this represents the views of the average Israeli. But considering the result of the previous elections, the composition of the current Israeli government and especially the fact that Ya’alon’s own popularity has not suffered in opinion polls, it appears that a sober and pessimistic view of the United States has become the norm rather than the exception.

What does all this mean for the United States?

The developing mindset regarding American weakness and unreliability as a strategic ally will likely affect media coverage as well as estimates of what Israel should — and should not — do regarding a wide range of issues. American policymakers should realize that a deep mistrust of Israel’s foremost ally is developing and this affects virtually all of the most important matters at hand.

Although Israel has always stressed that it can, and will, rely only on itself when it comes to its own security, it has trusted the Americans to exert their political influence on behalf of both countries’ shared interests which was an important component of the “special relationship” between them. But if America cannot stand up for its own interests in Egypt, Syria, Crimea and elsewhere, how can it be expected to stand up on Israel’s behalf?

The Obama Administration’s response to the Crimean crisis is seen, at least in Israel, as an ominous sign of the dangers that befall those who rely on American guarantees in volatile regions where the United States have no significant presence or interests. This perception can have dangerous consequences for the future success of American policy in the Middle East.

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