An Insult That Boomerangs

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to understand what possessed the Israeli Defense Ministry, and the man who heads it, Avigdor Liberman, to release a statement last week insulting the president of the United States.

It’s not that Israel has to roll over and play dead before the world’s superpower because it needs its diplomatic support at the United Nations and other world forums, and its massive military aid. When there is an issue of critical importance to Israel’s security, like the Iran nuclear deal, Israel has an obligation to speak out clearly, even if it means clashing with the White House.

But what makes Friday’s insult so incomprehensible is its timing. Iran is a done deal, so there was nothing to be gained by pointing to its very serious flaws and ridiculing those who drafted it as being disconnected from reality.

At the same time, Israel is in the final, delicate stages of closing a 10-year U.S. military aid deal that is being termed the most generous in history. While both sides have shown good will and made necessary compromises to be able to sign a pact before the elections in November, there remain some outstanding issues that have serious ramifications for Israel.

For instance, the aid package that is about to expire allows Israel to convert some 26 percent of the aid money into shekels and spend it in Israel, on local defense projects. That translates into thousands of jobs.

There are also disputes over how to calculate the overall aid package, and the portion of it that relates to missile defense, which, depending on how they are resolved, could mean a difference of hundreds of millions of dollars annually in funding for critically needed weapons systems.

Washington has taken the view that all the aid money must be kept in dollars and spent in the United States, so that Americans get the jobs. It also wants to include its financial contribution to Israel’s anti-missile systems in the overall package, which would mean less aid. The slightest goodwill gesture from the president at this time, an order from him to his negotiators to be more forthcoming in the talks, could make a huge difference for Israel.

Moreover, Yerushalayim faces diplomatic hurdles up ahead, like the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, when PA chief Mahmoud Abbas is certain to introduce problematic resolutions that enjoy an automatic majority in the General Assembly. President Barack Obama’s status as a lame duck is not just a weakness, but a strength: He has nothing to lose and could feel free to withhold Washington’s traditional support of Israel and not exercise a veto at the Security Council.

In light of all this, what exactly was to be gained by comparing the Iran nuclear deal to the disastrous 1938 Munich Agreement?

As Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet chief who heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, noted, “Obama is in his last months. Anyone who thinks it is appropriate to criticize or in general analyze the processes of the U.S. president over the last eight years regarding Israel in particular and the Middle East in general should show restraint and wait until January.”

To be sure, the president made comments last week that, if not insulting to Israeli leaders, were certainly not diplomatic. Referring to some figures in the Israeli defense establishment who’ve seen positive elements in the nuclear deal — IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot stated in January that it could present “opportunities” — he said it behooved the deal’s most ardent opponents, a reference to Prime Minister Netanyahu, to acknowledge that they were wrong, and that it is proving to be a “game changer” for the region.

“That would be impressive. If some of these folks who said the sky is falling suddenly said, ‘You know what? We were wrong and we are glad that Iran no longer has the capacity to break out in the short term and develop a nuclear weapon.’ But that wasn’t going to happen.”

The president’s comments were out of line. First of all, not everyone in the defense establishment sees the agreement as an opportunity, and even those who do, like Eisenkot, are quick to bring up its “challenges.” In the short term, it allows the Iranians to continue developing long-range missiles, which can be armed with conventional warheads, and in the longer term — which is 10 or 15 years, a blink of the eye in a historical context — it leaves Iran within easy reach of nuclear weapons.

But that’s beside the point. The Israeli leadership should have taken the high road of ne’elavim v’einam olvim — those who are insulted but don’t insult back, especially as regards an ally like the United States, and most especially at a time like this.

The good news is that the Defense Ministry has issued an unusual statement clarifying that it never intended to draw a comparison between the Iran deal and the Munich Agreement. We can only hope that it succeeds in repairing the damage and that Israel’s new defense minister has learned the lesson that those who are in positions of national responsibility are not free to shoot from the lip. They must weigh their responses carefully, and respond in a responsible way that takes into account the country’s long-term needs.