Let's Make a Deal!

By Lake, Eli | Newsweek, October 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

Let's Make a Deal!


Lake, Eli, Newsweek


Byline: Eli Lake

Obama pressures Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians--while he arms Tel Aviv.

Barack Obama has spent his entire time in office urging the Israelis to make wrenching concessions to the Palestinians, and the American Jewish community has questioned his loyalty. But appearances can be deceiving.

At the U.N. last week, Obama sided with Israel by pushing against the Palestinian vote for statehood. Even more telling: behind the scenes Obama has pressed hard to secure the Israeli state--through major military support.

Surrounded by 15 Jewish-community leaders in the White House back in 2009, Obama chose his words deliberately. He knew he faced suspicions after publicly pressing Israel to give in to the Palestinians on housing settlements. A fraudulent election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in Iran left Israelis even more concerned about their security--and the new U.S. president's intentions.

"I'll always be there for [Israel], but we are going to ask to make hard political choices--settlements, borders," Obama pointedly told attendees at the meeting. His remarks were confirmed by Newsweek through interviews and notes taken by a participant.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a Reform Jewish leader, asked the president to explain why he singled out Israel in public for criticism over its settlements rather than keep disputes with an ally private. Obama grabbed for his then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, a longtime Israel supporter whose father was a member of the Zionist militia known as the Irgun.

"Look, we have some very smart people on this. Don't think that we don't understand the nuances of the settlement issues. We do," the president answered. "Rahm understands the politics there, and he explains them to me."

Here was a U.S. president appearing to seek cover from his advisers and suggesting he needed to be educated about Israel's concerns. Many in the room left with little satisfaction, a sentiment that persists to this day.

But what participants didn't know was that Obama had finally authorized military deals the Israelis had been waiting for for years. It is support that has drawn the two nations' militaries increasingly close even as their leaders seem politely distant.

The aid, U.S. and Israeli officials confirmed to Newsweek, includes the long-delayed delivery of 55 powerful GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators, better known as bunker-buster bombs, deemed important to any future military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. It also includes a network of proposed radar sites--some located in Arab neighbors--designed to help Israel repel a missile attack, as well as joint military exercises and regular national-security consultations.

"What is unique in the Obama administration is their decision that in spite of the disagreements on the political level, the military and intelligence relationship which benefits both sides will not be spoiled by the political tension," says Amos Yadlin, former head of intelligence for the Israeli military. He declined to discuss any secret military cooperation.

Even some of the hawks from the George W. Bush administration grudgingly give Obama credit for behind-the-scenes progress. "If you say to the White House, 'Obama has been very unfriendly to Israel,' they say, 'What do you mean? It's the best military-to-military relationship ever.' And that part is true," says Elliott Abrams, who oversaw Middle East policy at the National Security Council. "If you look at the trajectory from Clinton to Bush to Obama, the military relationship has gotten steadily stronger. I don't think Obama changed the trajectory, but he certainly didn't interfere with it, and it continued under him. …

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