The Middle East Channel

Not one cent for tribute: Obama's embarrassing gift to Israel

A legendary story from our early history has it that Thomas Jefferson so hated John Jay that he ordered Pierre L'Enfant -- the civil engineer who designed our capital city -- to excise any reference to Jay (including "J Street") from his plans. The story is apocryphal, but the history behind it isn't. For Jefferson, Jay was an arch appeaser: his 1795 treaty with Britain provided concessions to a nation we had defeated in our revolution. Jefferson wasn't the only one who hated the treaty. While Jay's agreement was ratified by the Congress, he was burned in effigy by New York and Philadelphia mobs and the treaty so stained his reputation that he was never considered for the presidency. Jefferson didn't make the same mistake. When the Pasha of Barbary demanded ransom for U.S. ships he had seized, Jefferson sent a U.S. naval squadron to punish him. The resulting victory is now celebrated with a half-verse in the Marine Corps hymn (which celebrates the triumph on "the shores of Tripoli") and a knock-out political slogan that energized a nation: "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute."  

If only Jefferson could see us now. This weekend, the Obama administration promised to turn over $3 billion in stealth fighters to Israel (supplementing the 20 F-35s it will buy with the $2.75 billion in "grants" it gets from Washington) and veto any U.N. resolution that questions Israel's legitimacy -- all in exchange for Israel's pledge to extend a ten-month partial settlement moratorium for another 90 days. This is a bad idea. And it's dangerous. There are differences, of course, between the events of the last 24 hours and the crisis that Jefferson faced in 1804. Then, we protested that we were "paying tribute," now we are "providing incentives." Then too, Israel is not making any "demands," they are simply (in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's words) "insisting." Oh -- and let's not forget -- the pirates of Barbary were America's "enemy." That's a lot different than now; Israel is our "friend."

This administration's decision would be shocking were it not so predictable. Back on October 20, State Department spokesman Andrew Shapiro reassured the press that a $60 billion U.S. arms transfer to Saudi Arabia would go forward because "Israel does not object..." Shapiro's statement passed with nary an eye blink in L'Enfant's city, where Israel's approval is apparently required for America to do anything in the Middle East. But Shapiro's tone-deafness is hardly limited to dime-a-dozen spokespersons. In the wake of General Petreaus' controversial March testimony that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "foments anti-American sentiment" (stop the presses), Hillary Clinton went out of her way to reassure Israelis that "we are committed to Israel's security," a soothing word-for-word mantra repeated by Barack Obama (July 6), Joe Biden (November 7) and any old American official behind a microphone (P.J. Crowley, August 4). The administration doesn't get it: the question is not whether we are committed to Israel's security, but whether they're committed to ours.

The tone-deafness evidenced by Andrew Shapiro is now an all-consuming part of public policy, extending to every part of the American government -- and beyond. When Elena Kagan testified during her confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, she cited Israel jurist Aharon Barak as her model, because he was the "John Marshall of the State of Israel." Kagan might well be a brilliant justice, but I would have thought she would cite Marshall as her model. Reminded that Barak was a judicial activist (and therefore not necessarily acceptable for some committee members), Kagan gave a ready explanation: "Israel means a lot to me," she explained. Enough said. When David Petreaus was criticized by Israel advocates for his March testimony, he backtracked, asking neo-conservative Max Boot (in an email he carelessly sent to a blogger) whether it would help "if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?" Petreaus is our nation's most influential military officer since Eisenhower. Guess what? He's afraid of Israel's lobby. And when Angela Merkel addressed the U.S. Congress in November of 2009, she didn't talk about American security, but Israeli security. "Security for the state of Israel is, for me, non-negotiable," she said. "Whoever threatens Israel also threatens us." Even senior aides to the otherwise pro-Israel Congress were puzzled.  "Maybe she thought she was talking to the Knesset," one of them said. Finally, Republican Eric Cantor recently told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the new Republican majority would serve as "a check on the administration" in any dispute with Israel -- a statement so astonishing that one pro-Israel journalist viewed it as not only unprecedented, but "extraordinary."

None of this has been lost on the administration, which is apparently intent on proving to Cantor (and the new Republican majority) that it's as committed to Israel as they are. Or more. On October 25, Dennis Ross, the White House point person on the Middle East, told a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that not only is America committed "to Israel's security", but that the U.S. commitment "has also been demonstrated in our work to defeat efforts in international organizations to single out or delegitimize Israel." This is new, but undoubtedly welcome to Israel's supporters: the U.S. will not only defend Israel, it will silence its critics. The Ross pledge was ostensibly made to bar a U.N. move for Palestinian statehood which, under the agreement, would be vetoed by the U.S. But the administration's new promise has far reaching consequences. It pledges U.S. opposition to Israeli compliance with international agreements on nuclear weapons (explicitly mentioned by Ross), the criticisms issued by Judge Goldstone in his report of Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, and any U.N action condemning Israel for its May boarding of a ship on which 19-year-old Furkan Dogan, an American citizen, was killed. That investigation, which the U.S. insisted be "prompt, impartial, credible and transparent," is now (at America's urging) in the hands of an investigation run by the Israelis.

The Ross message to AIPAC was repeated by Vice President Biden during a meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans, just two weeks later. The Biden speech included the administration's mantra -- "we are absolutely, unequivocally committed to Israel's security" -- and then focused on the administration's new effort to fight any questioning of Israel's actions, extending to the international community the view now required of every American -- that Israel not only be defended, but viewed as above criticism. Biden bragged about his role in defending Israeli actions during the flotilla episode in his New Orleans speech. "That's why, at the direction of President Obama...I spent hour after hour in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, trying to put it in its proper focus and ensure that Israel had its right to conduct its own independent investigation." Breathtaking: people weren't opposed to Israel's right to "conduct its own independent investigation" (who cares?), they simply believed that any Israeli inquiry would be a Moscow show trial in reverse: instead of being automatically condemned, the accused would be automatically acquitted. The message to American citizens is clear: if a Muslim kills you it's because he's a terrorist, if an Israeli kills you, it's because you're a terrorist.

The Obama Administration's newest promise to Israel is abject, embarrassing and gutless. Our country -- our president -- is rewarding a foreign leader who openly boasts that America "is something that can easily be moved," who urges a waiting game with the U.S. because he knows that Israel's friends in the Congress will defy a president who opposes him, who tells his cabinet that he will outfox Barack Obama. We are paying Israel to do something that is in their own interests -- and very much not in ours. That's extortion. The Obama Administration has this dangerously wrong. F-35s? This is not a defensive weapon. The jet is the most advanced air system in the world, with a round-trip capability that puts Tehran in range of Tel Aviv. The message, intended or not, will be heard by Iran: we're not interested in allowing Israel to defend itself, we're interested in having it attack others. The administration has not made Israel stronger, they've made America more vulnerable. We are purposely escalating the regional sprint to acquire weapons that will eventually, and inevitably, kill American soldiers. We have lost our way. It is not Israel's legitimacy that needs defending, but ours.

This is not the first time this has happened. During his second administration, George Washington faced a similar test and finally, if reluctantly, agreed to pay ransom to the Barbary extortionists. He had little choice: the U.S. had no navy and little international leverage. Then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson opposed paying of the tribute, but acceded to Washington decision. It was a terrible mistake: in 1795, the U.S. paid $1 million in cash and turned over valuable naval stores to keep the peace in North Africa. It didn't work. The Pashas of Barbary demanded more. George Washington, the father of our country, was a very great man. But in this one case he was wrong; and Thomas Jefferson was right: "Paying tribute," he said, "will merely invite more demands."

Mark Perry is a military and political analyst and author of eight books, including Partners In Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace, and the recently released Talking To Terrorists. 

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

News Brief: U.S. offers Israel a 90-day settlement deal

U.S. offers Israel a 90-day settlement deal
Israel is mulling over an incentive package from the United States which would involve a 90-day settlement freeze in the West Bank, in order to jump-start stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians. In exchange, the United States promised it would not ask for another settlement freeze after the 90-day expiration, and the freeze wouldn't include settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al Jazeera that the U.S. had not informed the Palestinian Authority about the proposition. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the proposal is not yet final and that the details were still being formulated by both the Israel and American teams. "Every proposal will consider the security needs of the state of Israel, both immediate needs and threats in the coming decade," he said. A senior Israeli intelligence official says if the Palestinian leadership falls apart without significant steps toward peace with Israel, it would be a major setback for Israel.

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Daily Snapshot

Muslim pilgrims arrive to pray at Mount Arafat, southeast of the Saudi holy city of Mecca, on November 15, 2010. Pilgrims flooded into the Arafat plain from Mecca and Mina before dawn for a key ritual around the site where prophet Mohammed gave his farewell sermon on this day in the Islamic calendar 1,378 years ago. Pilgrims spend the day at Arafat in reflection and reading the Koran or Muslim holy book (MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images).

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