John Allen Gay wonders what purpose has been served by statements from anonymous administration officials directed against Israeli politicians:
What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish by trashing Israel in the press? This is the most important question after an apparently coordinated wave of anonymous quotes welled up in Tuesday’s press. Relations with Israel have steadily worsened over the course of Obama’s presidency, and little of what was said was out of step with some views being expressed in broader policy circles. But why say it, and why now?
I don’t know what people inside the administration are thinking, but my guess is that the White House and State Department are fed up with the gratuitous abuse and insults they’ve been subjected to in recent months and they want their displeasure made known to as many people as possible. Why does anyone give negative quotes to journalists about other politicians if not to hurt their reputations and shift blame onto them for whatever has happened? Presumably administration officials are saying these things to reporters now because their superiors no longer care if these views are publicly known, and those superiors no longer care because they have decided that they can’t work constructively with the current Israeli leadership.
Is this a smart thing to do? That depends on what Obama hopes to do in the remaining two years on issues related to Israel. If he has (correctly) concluded that there can be no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the time left to him, and if he now realizes that the Israeli government is implacable on the most contentious issues related to the conflict, he may want to try causing Netanyahu some political headaches of his own. As widely disliked as Obama is personally in Israel, it is not good for Netanyahu politically if he is perceived as having badly damaged the relationship with Washington. Especially because Netanyahu claims to have a special understanding of how to influence the U.S., he is potentially more vulnerable to charges that he is botching things. The goal may not be so much to “topple” Netanyahu (and Gay is right to think this isn’t going to happen) as it is simply to repay him in kind for his obvious attempts to interfere in our politics on behalf of Romney ahead of the 2012 election. Now that there is no chance that the defunct peace process is going anywhere in the foreseeable future, Obama and his officials may have decided that this was the time to air their disagreements and frustration with Netanyahu and his ministers.
Gay makes a fair point that launching into a public row with Israel could complicate the negotiations with Iran. That’s possible, but the administration may assume that it is going to bypass Congress on the nuclear deal anyway so that this doesn’t matter as much. More to the point, Netanyahu already made his opposition to the interim deal very clear, so it’s doubtful that Israeli opposition to a final deal would be kept in check by keeping these criticisms under wraps. The administration may also assume that the Iran hawks in Congress intent on sabotaging the deal will be committed to doing so no matter what the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship is, so there is nothing to be lost by broadcasting that the relationship is in very bad shape. That’s the trouble with being implacable foes of diplomacy–no one has any incentive to treat you as anything more than an obstacle to be overcome. That appears to be how the administration sees Netanyahu as well, and they are treating him and the rest of his government accordingly.