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Obama's Message to Netanyahu: Weapons With Strings Attached

The move to review arms exports to Israel makes it clear that the Americans support Israel's right of self-defense, but not at any price.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office of  the White House.
Obama and Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House.Credit: Bloomberg News
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The battle that took place in Rafah exactly two weeks ago this Friday, an hour and a half after a cease-fire had supposedly come into force, was one of the most significant moments of the month-long war in the Gaza Strip as far as the White House was concerned. On that day, senior American officials were unpleasantly surprised twice over.

The first unpleasant surprise was the violation of the cease-fire that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had announced just a few hours earlier. American officials were shocked by the Hamas attack that resulted in the capture of an Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin. Thus in the first hours after that incident, these officials, including President Barack Obama, responded by voicing very strong and public support for Israel.

The second unpleasant surprise occurred when senior White House officials began to grasp the extent of the destruction and the scale of the Palestinian civilian casualties caused by Israel’s response to the abduction. In an effort to rescue Goldin, Israeli forces laid down extremely heavy fire in the densely populated town, and according to one senior American official, the White House was shocked at Israel’s massive use of artillery, tanks and aerial bombing.

The administration refrained from any public response at the time, but it sent harsh messages to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office via diplomatic channels. A few days later, however, when Israeli shells hit a UN school where hundreds of Palestinian civilians had sought refuge, the administration issued harsh denunciations of Israel of a kind that hadn’t been heard from Washington in years.

That “Black Friday” in Rafah brought the administration’s frustration over Israeli tactics in Gaza, and over its inability to influence its closest ally, to a boiling point. The White House’s decision to delay a transfer of Hellfire missiles to Israel, as revealed by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, shows that the Americans subsequently decided to move from talk to action in their effort to restrain Israel’s use of force in Gaza and the resultant civilian casualties.

The U.S. State Department confirmed Thursday that it was taking "additional care" in supplying weapons to Israel. An extra set of eyes will be put on every Israel Defense Forces request, its bureaucracy will put in overtime and the pace of arms deliveries will be slowed down. There will be no immediate repercussions on the IDF's operational abilities, but Israel will suffer serious diplomatic damage.

The American move drew a red line for Israel on everything related to wielding power in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Americans made it clear they support Israel's right of self-defense, but not at any price. The message from the White House to the Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon is that Israel's access to the best of America's military industry does not come without strings attached.

The White House's decision is a further example of the way in which the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the freezing of the peace process threaten Israel's national security. The United States is the latest Israeli ally signaling dissatisfaction with its policies toward the Palestinians via arms deliveries.

In May, Germany nixed subsidies for Israel worth hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire missile boats to protect its offshore gas fields because of the collapse of the peace process and continued Israeli construction in the West Bank settlements. Spain announced during the war in Gaza that it was freezing arms exports to Israel in protest of civilian casualties caused during IDF operations.

In Britain, the war in Gaza spurred a wave of anti-Israel protests and a bitter political confrontation within the coalition. The result was the decision to make a general review of Britain's policy of selling arms to Israel and to freeze 12 arms exports licenses for items such as parts for the Merkava tank as well as drones.

Israel is very far from facing an arms embargo, but the unambiguous trend is not encouraging. The EU's growing economic sanctions against the settlements over the past two years signals what is liable to happen in future. The war in Gaza further suppressed Israel's international standing and provided a tailwind for its isolation in the world.

After the war then at six o'clock in the evening, the Israeli government will have to launch a diplomatic offensive to halt this downslide. It is far from a sure thing that it is capable of doing so.

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