Frustration at the highest levels of the Obama Administration with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is something to behold; his visit to Washington in May (arranged by House Speaker John Boehner, if you recall) seemed to harden this frustration into something permanent. As I detail in my Bloomberg View column this week, the lecture Netanyahu delivered in front of the cameras to President Obama seems to have made people particularly angry. No one in the Administration seemed more upset than the now-retired secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, who was flummoxed by what he saw as Netanyahu's ultimately self-destructive behavior:
In a meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee held not long before his retirement this summer, Gates coldly laid out the many steps the administration has taken to guarantee Israel's security -- access to top- quality weapons, assistance developing missile-defense systems, high-level intelligence sharing -- and then stated bluntly that the U.S. has received nothing in return, particularly with regard to the peace process.
Senior administration officials told me that Gates argued to the president directly that Netanyahu is not only ungrateful, but also endangering his country by refusing to grapple with Israel's growing isolation and with the demographic challenges it faces if it keeps control of the West Bank. According to these sources, Gates's analysis met with no resistance from other members of the committee.
Shmuel Rosner, in response to the Gates revelation, wrote in The Jerusalem Post this morning:
I also thought at the time that Netanyahu was overstating his case in his "Rose Garden lecture" - that's when the Israeli PM was "lecturing the president live on television, during a photo opportunity staged so that the two leaders could issue platitudes about the enduring bonds between their nations" (here's what I said back then: "However, the Israeli prime minister's response of lecturing Obama on camera on Friday was 'disproportionate' and bordered on 'hysterical,' Rosner says").
So, I can see why Gates was fuming over this show (I'm not quite sure what concessions he wanted from Israel "particularly with regard to the peace process"). However, the "nothing in return" verdict seems kind of harsh. And this will be the line that all opponents of the "special-relations" will be rushing to use. A line that the next generation of Walts and Mearsheimers would celebrate and spin for many years. It is also a line that is probably harsher than what Gates would use in a calmer mood.
Gates has many Israeli friends. Former generals and spies, intelligence officers and decorated soldiers. He's quite familiar with US-Israel ties, and knows what Israel is doing for the US when need arises. Here's one example that is known to Gates of something Israel did "in return" for the support it is getting from the US: As described in Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, one of the most urgent problems Gates wanted to deal with as Secretary was the problem of IEDs in Iraq.
What is interesting about Gates' frustration is that he is not someone thought of as particularly hostile to Israel, which may be one reason the Likud Party is reacting so defensively to my column (and why opposition leader Tzipi Livni -- you can read an Atlantic interview with her here -- is making hay out of it):
The party further stated that Netanyahu will continue to "stand firm against international pressure in order to protect Israel's interests", and emphasized the prime minister's continuous attempts to bring the Palestinian leadership to the negotiating table.The Likud leadership also responded to earlier comments by opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima), who stated earlier Tuesday that the Gates revelation is proof of "Netanyahu's danger to Israel". Likud officials shot back Livni and her party, claiming that they "bow to international pressure" on Israel.
According to Likud, Kadima is the "same party that allowed for Hamas to participate in the Gaza elections", and are responsible for the rise of Hamas, who are "armed with thousands of missiles that harm Israeli civilians in the south."
More to come, probably.