Israeli defense minister sent message to Congress, not White House, in speech

On his recent trip to the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loudly proclaimed that no country on earth is more pro-American than Israel.

He was telling the truth. Israelis love America. Trust, however, is a different matter, especially when it comes to the current occupant of the White House.

Earlier this week, at a supposedly closed gathering at Tel Aviv University, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon bluntly voiced his lack of confidence in the Obama administration. The United States, he said, has become a weak-willed giant, unpredictable in its behavior and unreliable in its international commitments. The administration draws red lines in disappearing ink, walks away from allies from Cairo to Baghdad and makes empty threats in the face of Russian aggression in the Crimea.

“If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world,” said Ya’alon, whose remarks were predictably leaked to the local press. “Nobody will replace the United States as global policeman. I hope the United States comes to its senses. If it doesn’t, it will upset the world order and the United States is the one that will suffer.”

Ya’alon is known to be both hawkish and impolitic. A couple weeks ago he publicly blasted Secretary of State John Kerry for engaging in “messianic and obsessive” diplomacy in his conduct of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, implying that Kerry was trying to win himself a Nobel Peace Prize at the expense of Israeli security. Ya’alon subsequently “clarified” those remarks, and he clarified this week’s blast as well, after Kerry phoned Netanyahu and demanded an apology.

Netanyahu dutifully promised to speak to Ya’alon and get him to tone it down. But the prime minister doesn’t really disagree with his defense minister’s analysis. Netanyahu has expressed his own skepticism about the reliability of the Obama administration, especially its “trust us” assurances that multilateral diplomacy will keep Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The debacle in Ukraine has only strengthened this skepticism. After Obama threatened Russia with sanctions, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, made it clear Moscow may retaliate by withdrawing from the Iranian talks and supporting Iran’s highly dubious claim it only wants nukes for peaceful purposes.

Even with the Russians on board, few in Israel believed that the American-sponsored negotiations would succeed. Without them, the talks become a transparent farce, one that leaves the Israeli government on its own facing what it regards as an existential threat.

Israeli opposition leaders and some local deep thinkers are taking Ya’alon to task for his rude comments. They don’t necessarily accuse him of being wrong, just injudicious. Some fear his incendiary remarks might set fire to Israel’s relations with the US. “Either the Minister of Defense knows something we don’t, or he is just stupid,” began a column by pundit Sima Kadmon on the front page of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most important newspaper.

But Moshe Ya’alon is not a stupid man. There was a reason for the Tel Aviv speech. It contained a message of encouragement for Washington, but it was not addressed to the White House or the State Department. It was intended for Capitol Hill.

In the void created by Obama’s foreign policy failures, the much-derided Congress is now the most serious ally Israel has. The Israeli leadership believes Obama wants to improve relations with Iran by relaxing economic sanctions and turning a blind eye to its real intentions. If he can keep the show going until 2016, his successor can face the (perhaps literal) fallout of a pretend deal. The Iranians are happy to let Obama kick the can down the road if it allows them to discreetly proceed with their nuclear ambitions.

Israel, however, can’t afford to fool itself. Yet there is scant enthusiasm in Jerusalem for a unilateral military strike. It would be dicey at best, and foolhardy without the sort of green light that George W. Bush gave Israel when it hit the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. And nobody thinks Obama will turn that particular green light on.

The only remaining hope is to keep Iran in check with a sanctions regime that really bites. That job goes to Congress, by default. Earlier this month, large bi-partisan majorities of both houses dispatched letters to the president warning him not to engage in make-believe diplomacy on this issue.

They distrust the administration. Moshe Ya’alon (and his silent partner, the prime minister) let them know this week that they are right to do so.