Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


“Messing” with Israel

by Elliott Abrams
April 6, 2015


In his lengthy interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, President Obama makes many statements about Israel’s security and how the proposed deal with Iran enhances it. These words from the interview are key:

I have to respect the fears that the Israeli people have,” he added, “and I understand that Prime Minister Netanyahu is expressing the deep-rooted concerns that a lot of the Israeli population feel about this, but what I can say to them is: Number one, this is our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, and number two, what we will be doing even as we enter into this deal is sending a very clear message to the Iranians and to the entire region that if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there.

What does “messes with Israel” mean? No one has the slightest idea. The President unfortunately uses this kind of diction too often, dumbing down his rhetoric for some reason and leaving listeners confused. Today, Iran is sending arms and money to Hamas in Gaza, and has done so for years.  Is that “messing with Israel?” Iran has tried to blow up several Israeli embassies, repeating the successful attack it made on Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. Fortunately Israel has foiled the more recent plots, but is attempting to bomb Israeli embassies “messing with Israel?” Iranian Revolutionary Guards, along with Hezbollah troops, are in southern Syria now near the Golan. Is that “messing with Israel?” And what does the President mean by “America will be there?’ With arms? With bandages? With the diplomatic protection his administration is now considering removing at the United Nations?

Later in the interview, the President says this:

Now, what you might hear from Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, which I respect, is the notion, ‘Look, Israel is more vulnerable. We don’t have the luxury of testing these propositions the way you do,’ and I completely understand that. And further, I completely understand Israel’s belief that given the tragic history of the Jewish people, they can’t be dependent solely on us for their own security. But what I would say to them is that not only am I absolutely committed to making sure that they maintain their qualitative military edge, and that they can deter any potential future attacks, but what I’m willing to do is to make the kinds of commitments that would give everybody in the neighborhood, including Iran, a clarity that if Israel were to be attacked by any state, that we would stand by them. And that, I think, should be … sufficient to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see whether or not we can at least take the nuclear issue off the table….

This is not much help. For one thing, the President says “attacked by any state,” presumably leaving out Hamas and Hezbollah and for that matter ISIS and Al Qaeda. One has to assume he means “attacked by Iran,” but what does “we would stand by them” mean? It doesn’t add much to “America will be there.” There will be no conventional war between Israel and any Arab state in the foreseeable future, so Hezbollah is the most likely problem and is presumably excluded from the President’s formulation.What Israel worries about today is a nuclear attack by Iran or a terrorist group like Hezbollah to which Iran has given the bomb. No doubt that qualifies as “messing with Israel,” but were that to occur what exactly would “America will be there” and “stand by them” mean? Take in refugees from the destroyed State of Israel after the nuclear attack on it? The President’s language about “commitments” suggests that he may envision a formal defense commitment by the United States to Israel. Israel has not wanted such a treaty because it has always said it wants to defend itself, not have Americans dying to defend it. That position has served the US-Israel relationship well for 67 years. Should it really be changed now, and would that really help Israel? What would the value of such a commitment be? To ask the question another way, are not Poles and Estonians wondering right now about the value of their membership in NATO, if Mr. Putin “messes” with them?

There were other problems in the interview, such as this language:

There has to be the ability for me to disagree with a policy on settlements, for example, without being viewed as … opposing Israel. There has to be a way for Prime Minister Netanyahu to disagree with me on policy without being viewed as anti-Democrat, and I think the right way to do it is to recognize that as many commonalities as we have, there are going to be strategic differences. And I think that it is important for each side to respect the debate that takes place in the other country and not try to work just with one side. … But this has been as hard as anything I do because of the deep affinities that I feel for the Israeli people and for the Jewish people. It’s been a hard period.” You take it personally? I asked. “It has been personally difficult for me to hear … expressions that somehow … this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest — and the suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face.”

“Respect the debate?” “Personally difficult?” This is the White House whose high officials called the prime minister of Israel a “chicken—-” and a “coward,” in interviews meant to be published–not off the record. And the officials who said those things remain in place; no effort was ever made to identify and discipline them.

But the deeper problem is that the reassurances the President is offering to Israel…are simply not reassuring. Iran is already, right now, while under sanctions that are badly hurting its economy, spending vast amounts of money and effort to “mess with Israel.” This administration’s reaction has been to seek a nuclear deal that will give Iran more economic resources to dedicate to its hatred and violence against Israel, but will in no way whatsoever limit Iran’s conventional weapons and its support for terrorism.

Several times in this interview the President went out of his to suggest that he fully understands Israel’s security problems, but the full text suggests that he does not–because he believes that his statements that “if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there” and would “stand by them” actually solve any of those problems. Time alone undermines the value of those statements, because he will not be president in 22 months.  The words he used are sufficiently vague to undermine their value as well. It is hard to believe that many Israelis will be reassured by the interview, especially not if they read the Iranian press and see what, in their own interviews, Iranian officials are claiming they got out of the new nuclear agreement.

Post a Comment 22 Comments

  • Posted by David Zohar

    Could someone please translate Obama’ vague musings into English? or Hebrew?

  • Posted by Sheila Novitz

    Vague indeed. President Barack Obama thinks the entire world is stupider than he is, and will therefore believe this nonsense. And he is also a liar. America will “be there” for Israel if anyone “messes with” Israel? Where was and is America each time the rockets fly over from Gaza or Lebanon? Will America “be there” when IS is there?

    “… a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face.” ?? Don’t believe one word of it.

  • Posted by David M

    It was clear from Obama’s first speech to Muslims when he was in Egypt that he intended to “change things”.
    He has been, is, and will continue to believe that his open- palm outstretched hand to Muslims will meet wilth reciprocal “love and affection” from the them!!

    He has not learned anything in his 6 years in office and we have no reason, given his “good deal with Iran”, to think he will change in his remaining time in office.

  • Posted by Gregory

    American politicians are suppose to be concerned for the welfare of the American people, not a foreign entity. Israel is NOT our ally. Support for Israel created the terrorist threat against this nation. There was no reason to invade Iraq. Iran is no threat to us, The fact is, it was the CIA’s removal of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadeq and the installation of the shah that could be construed as an act of war. Speaking of spreading “democracy”, let’s not forget about the ousting to the democratically elected prime minister of Egypt, Morsi and replacing him with another puppet. And now, trying to overthrow the democratically elected leader of Syria – all for Israel’s benefit.

    It was this last effort that lead to the creation of ISIS/ISIL. We need to stop providing weapons to other nations like Israel so they can continue to kill their neighbors.

  • Posted by Dean Rosenthal

    Interesting points and still I get the feeling the PM Netanyahu is constantly running for an election rather than being serious. Elliott, let me ask you, are you are aware that he has been the doomsday seer on Iran’s nuclear threat since the 90s? Please respond! The truth is that rather than being for Israel in a productive and Zionist way that speaks to the truths of Tikkun Olam, not Har Homa.

  • Posted by Alan

    Nothing has changed with the phrase “messing with Israel.” Language often is non-specific. No one seriously believes that the US will send troops to Israel the next time Hamas, Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations lob rockets into Israel or engages Israel in a “hot’ war. Should Iran amass troops at Israel’s border or mount an offensive against Israel, that would be something new (at least new for the past nearly 40 years). Israel’s biggest existential threats are from within. See Why Israel May Not Be Here in 50 Years published April 4, 2015, at The Examined Life, alansacker.blogspot.com.

  • Posted by Matt

    The Russians part of the P5 plus one as are the PRC so they support an agreement which is not in the US interests. If they can push the US to a weak position on Iran, well then they can force compromise on issues that relate to them. So no one has mentioned what the PRC said after the agreement in relation to their interests in the Pacific, straight after Obama made his address. I don’t work on PRC matters anymore but it is disappointing to have half of the Pacific back on the table. And I have said this to Japan and other “allies” watch what happens with Israel carefully because who is going to be the next Israel the situation is not different. Obama does not work for a foreign government he casts a wide net in weakening US interests from Asia to the Mid East. If there is a so called Obama doctrine that is it.

  • Posted by Shalom Cohen

    Obama prooved himself to be a man of many words. At the same time he showed the world that he is not a man of his word. All America’s allies felt it and know it by now, from Ukraine in the north to Saudi Arabia and Nigeria in the south.

  • Posted by Barry Meislin

    “Not reassuring”?

    Hmmm. I assume that you are being rhetorical here….

    ….since, this is a president who is, very simply, not able to tell the truth.

    In other words—assuming what I wrote above is not sufficiently clear—nothing that Obama says should be believed by any rational person or national leader.


    He is the master of the carefully crafted lie. (And it’s getting tiresome already.)

    Hence he is telling Israel and Israelis and Jews and others who care about Israel what he thinks they want to hear (or should want to hear), not that it matters—reassurances.

    Reassurances that are, as you described, utterly meaningless both in their semantic aspect and in their intent.

    Worse than empty, in fact.

    And yes, Poland along with the rest of Europe are very, very concerned (actually, they’re scared stiff). And with justification.

    Japan and the rest of China’s neighbors aren’t too far behind.

  • Posted by adam walker

    I wish to make two points critical to this debate that no one thus far to my knowledge has made.

    1. The first point is that there is an inherent logical contradiction in the policy of the president.

    The Iranians have stated many times that they do not wish to have a bomb. They have issued a ‘Fatwa’ confirming that.

    Leaving aside that this position is contradicted by the known facts and that Islam permits deceit in dealings with enemies this position – as stated – yields the following result –

    If Iran can be trusted then there is no need for a deal of any kind.

    The administration says the choice is between a deal and war. But how so? War would only follow from an attempt by Iran to create a bomb. But if they do not intend to create a bomb than there is no need for war.

    In other words war would only follow if Iran declares it. By building a bomb.

    If however Iran cannot be trusted then a deal based on trust – to any degree – is inherently worthless.

    Unfortunately the administration has settled the above issue by their declaration that the choice is a deal or war. In other words they do not believe Iran can be trusted.

    And there is no logic in the assertion that Iran would be forced to pursue a bomb it does not want as a response to sanctions that would only increase if such a bomb were built – at the least.

    Therefore negotiating a deal with Iran that depends on their keeping their word makes no sense unless that word can be tested 100%. Since we know from the experience of Iraq that weapons inspections are incapable of this the deal has only one definite effect – the lifting of sanctions and the consequent strengthening of the Iranian regime.

    For that reason a deal on the present terms is simply a bad and misguided idea.

    2. The second point is that the agreed assumption underlying the negotiations is that war with Iran is bad for America – for at least two reasons –

    The first is that while Iran’s programme would be damaged and delayed they would reconstruct it and ‘race’ to acquire a weapon on both moral and military grounds. Thus achieving what the world wishes to avoid.

    The second is that attacking yet another Muslim country would create problems for America in the Muslim world.

    Both these assumptions are wrong.

    Let us take the issue from the Iranian perspective.
    Their economy is being strangled by sanctions and made worse still by the fall in the oil price.

    At the same time they have been drawn into two major conflicts – the support for Syria and the support for Iraq. These conflicts may be convenient in extending their influence. But either way they are not conflicts of choice. They are existential in being a defence of Shia islam against the forces of Sunni Islam.

    And they are costing the Iranians dearly in men and money.

    The best evidence of this is that the support for Hezbollah is being cut back in the Lebanon. Salaries and funds are being reduced.

    This is the present situation. Now let us proceed on the assumption that there is no deal. And sanctions are on the contrary increased. What are the Iranians to do?

    According to the president they will respond by evicting inspectors and race for a bomb.

    And in response America and / or Israel will have no choice but to attack them.

    This attack will in the first instance destroy their nuclear infrastructure. And in order to do this necessarily inflict a certain degree of damage on their military defenses. What then are Iranian choices?

    The first choice is a limited response against Israel using proxies such as Hezbollah. Israel can deal with that. There would be a cost in lives and damage but Hezbollah and Lebanon would pay a high price.

    If it ends there then we have a new position. Iran is faced with the cost and difficulty of rebuilding its nuclear infrastructure in the dark and under the constant threat of further attacks.

    At the same time it’s proxy Hezbollah will have been seriously weakened by war with Israel. And the demands on it’s economy to provide money for both only increases.

    This is clearly a bad place for Iran to be. And for that reason it makes no sense to race for a bomb. Because on this limited scenario it would suffer badly on every front.

    The second scenario is that Iran retaliates against America.
    In which case the first scenario becomes many times worse.

    Iran would lose its maritime forces / it’s air force / its military infrastructure etc.

    All the time with an economy that is spiraling downward.
    Again this is a position that no sane Iranian leader would choose.

    And if Iran proves to be insane then again no deal will work.

    Finally how would this be bad for America?
    Iran would remain as it is – a bitter enemy. But less able to do harm. Iraq would remain a dependent state. More so since Iran would be less able to aid it.

    All Iran’s influence and ability to project itself in the region would be diminished. And the relative strength of it’s Sunni enemies enhanced. And it would be in perpetual crisis at home. Burdened by the problem that the population would know that this conflict was chosen by the regime. Not a formula for popularity.

    And the feared and final assumption – that once war is joined Iran would be free to race for a bomb – would be shown for what it is – simply not feasible.

    If Iran was bombed once for making a bomb it would be bombed again when that danger recurred. Iran would be unable to survive such a continuous campaign – one that would require no more than a few hours fly time for Israeli / American planes.

    In such a scenario Iran would – in the end – have no choice but to negotiate a settlement of some kind or face collapse.

    All in all a good outcome for America.

    Iran has been at war with America and Israel for a long time. The obvious but unstated logic of the current situation is that Iran’s greatest fear is that this war be declared and acted on openly.

    That is the elephant in the room. That is the one single over-riding truth that no one seems willing to acknowledge. Whatever the concerns of America and Israel about war those of the Iranians are for good reason many many times greater. Because war would amount to regime suicide.

    The answer then to the entire conundrum is simple.
    Make a deal when – and only when – the Iranians agree to relinquish their ability to make a bomb now or in the future.

    And until then – despite appearances – time is on the side of America and it’s allies.

  • Posted by Arnold Pinsley

    Seems that as a former Secretary of State has recently observed “the devil is in the details”. President Obama’s lack of detail here does not allay suspicions and fears of the Israelis, Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians, et al who all face the threat posed by more than 100,000 sophisticated rockets held in storage by Hezbollah which could be directed at any one or all of these states with devastating effect even if the warheads were only loaded with Sarin gas which is plentifully available in Syria. I know that it doesn’t do to tip one’s hand during negotiations, but there has to be more clarity regarding the security needs of other states in the area if this deal is going to pass muster.

  • Posted by yuval Brandstetter MD

    Not reassured is surely an understatement if there was ever one. With such reassurances we are absolutely certain Israel is put out to pasture with the gates of hell wide open. Obama is essentially going with his best option of elminating israel. First he bolstered the Muslim Brotherhood. Then neo-ottoman Turkey was his best bet. Now that all those options have failed in confronting and debilitating Israel he angles for the better option, one that had already handed Israel and the US a defeat: Iran. And to make sure iran does the job he insures that iran’s nuclear infrastructure is sacrosanct – not even to be questioned or debated. Way to go America!!

  • Posted by John Richmond

    It is perhaps worth noting that Obama’s red lines over Syria were crossed with impunity. So, since it’s clear that he wants Israel to understand that they will always have his, or does he mean America’s backing, exactly how much confidence does that inspire given his statements over Syria, his interference in Israel’s elections, gross language about Netanyahu and threats that he may not veto any Palestinian approach to the UN.

    As Tennyson put it in the ‘Lady of Shalot’, ‘but there she weaves by night and day/a magic web with colours gay/she has heard a whisper say/a curse is on her if she stay/to look down on Camelot. Does Obama think that Israel is the curse, or does he just despise the Jews? For just as the Lady of Shalot is fantasy, so is Obama’s view that he will succeed in changing the Middle East.

    For over a century, better people than Obama have tried to change the Middle East, they have all failed. The difference is that the consequences for the Jews of Obama’s crackpot dealings will be extermination.

    It is not as if his policy is in the best interest of the USA either, unless you believe that encouraging a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is helpful or demonstrating to North Korea that Obama talks big, but carries no stick.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I think it’s fair to remember that Obama’s chief negotiator of this “deal” with Iran ( Wendy Sherman ) is the very same person who “negotiated” Clinton’s nuclear “deal” with North Korea … And we all know how THAT worked out !

  • Posted by John Smith

    I suppose to Elliott a better course of action is war with Iran. That worked out so well in Iraq a conflict of which he was a big supporter. It amazing to me all those people who pushed us into that blunder in Iraq are still given a platform. Is there a real shortage of people who have been right?

  • Posted by Ron Crossland

    Netanyahu’s speech before Congress contained similar “vague” comments, from my perspective.

    “The alliance between Israel and the US must always remain above politics.” What does this mean?

    “We must all stand together to stop Iran’s march of conquest, subjugation and terror.” A bit overstated, isn’t it?

    “So you see, my friends, this deal has two major concessions: one, leaving Iran with a vast nuclear program and two, lifting the restrictions on that program in about a decade. That’s why this deal is so bad. It doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” Truly? A 2/3 reduction in centrifuges “paves the way” to the bomb.

    “We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.This is why — this is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.” This part of the speech was applauded three times. Yet, using your own type of query, what does “America stands with Israel” mean?

    My point is, you could continue to query Netanyahu’s speech in a similar manner and find less that rock hard, zero room for misunderstanding, as well.

  • Posted by Steven Sherman

    More worthless rhetoric form a President who’s strongest point it rhetoric. We all know that when the chips are down Israel will be left to defend itself. Even during the last war in Gaza, while Israel was defending itself, Obama ordered a secession of certain weapons that Israel needs. So much for his consideration of “messing with Israel.”

  • Posted by Edward wolpin

    Obama is a failure!
    He has no use for America, Isreal or any free world nation.
    This will turn out as a disaster and not a peace agreement as he visualizes.
    The man is just plain stupid!!
    You can’t negotiate with rouge nations bent on destroying our allies!

  • Posted by Olu

    The philosophical stance behind criticizing the Obama deal is a self fulfilling Paranoia.
    Let me quickly explain. Short of giving nothing in terms of sanctions relief to the Iranians and getting them to back of their irrational quest to build a bomb, nothing else would do for these critics.
    Since an acceptable compromise solution is going to give the Ayatollahs something to be happy about, as well as something to the rest of the world (including Israel). Iranian negotiators should see Iran better of with the deal to go for it(I know their are good or bad deals, the devil would be in the details). However if you are afraid of Iran coming out of the deal better-off than before the deal, then it would be almost impossible to strike a deal.
    Which would cause further polarization, and a corrosive cold war which would result in asymmetric militant(terrorist) activity, cause NO Arab(or Persian) state is lunatic enough to start a full fledged war with Isreal (Isreal does have nuclear weapons). Hence the real threats to Israel are the demographic time bomb it harbors and the waning cover America can provide as the worlds only superpower. Should China, India or Brazil continue rise economically (without America growing economically as well. which would happen if a war arises), and without a resolution to the problem, the future resolution may twist out of Israel’s favor.

  • Posted by Luis

    This is an excellent article and we are not surprised, coming from Elliot Abrams. Thank you.

    It really was a cruel joke for Fate to allow Barack Hussein Obama to be elected to the presidency, and not once, but twice.

    He has now proven himself to be an incompetent in every single action he has taken and it has almost ruined this great United States–we will recover. But no one should have expected anything else from this flimflam riffraff. The only good thing from this experience is that it will be a very, very long time before another such inexperienced lightweight gets elected, regardless if that person is black, half black, a woman, or whatever other class the liberals and lefties think should be elected, but certainly not on competence.

    The combination of dreamer and radical that Barack Hussein Obama will define him as a great failure in history. Even worse than Jimmy Carter.

    We will truly enjoy watching him leave the presidency in January of 2017.

  • Posted by ziauddin

    no need to mess with Israel
    Israel is creating a mess of its own with no resolution in sight

  • Posted by RAM

    When someone with zero credibility and a demonstrated urge to deceive speaks, there is no point in parsing what is said. This applies as much to the Clintons as to Obama.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required