State Dept. Will Not Defend White House Criticism of Israel

Obama administration in disarray on Israel crisis, officials say

An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv
An Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip in Tel Aviv / AP
July 9, 2014

Conflicting messages from the Obama administration to Israel are prompting concerns that the White House may not have a coherent strategy in place as the crisis in the Middle East escalates, according to former U.S. and Israeli officials.

Senior Obama administration officials in recent days have alternatively lashed out at Israel in increasingly stark terms and defended the Jewish state’s right to defend itself against terror.

Questions about the disparate messages led the State Department on Wednesday to distance itself from a top White House aide who harshly lashed out at Israel during a speech yesterday.

The inconsistent messages have caused confusion and worry in both Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., according to multiple sources in both cities who told the Washington Free Beacon that team Obama’s disarray is fostering greater unrest across the Middle East and emboldening rogue regimes.

Israeli and U.S. sources following the issue described a dangerous lack of clarity at the White House, which comes as Israel is being barraged by some 300 rockets, including advanced long-range missiles capable of reaching deep into the country.

Senior White House aide Philip Gordon, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, surprised Jewish officials and insiders late Tuesday when he derided Israel and accused it of denying the Palestinians dignity and sovereignty during a speech in Israel held as Hamas rockets rained down on the Jewish state.

Top officials from leading Jewish organizations in D.C. and Israel privately expressed shock at the remarks and could be heard grumbling about the timing of Gordon’s speech during events held early Wednesday in the Capitol.

"Israel confronts an undeniable reality: It cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely. Doing so is not only wrong but a recipe for resentment and recurring instability. It will embolden extremists on both sides, tear at Israel’s democratic fabric and feed mutual dehumanization," Gordon was quoted as saying during a speech at the Haaretz newspaper’s Israel Conference on Peace, an event that was marred by physical violence.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was forced to distance herself from Gordon’s remarks when asked about the speech by reporters on Wednesday.

"I'm not going to parse his words," Psaki said multiple times, explaining that the administration blames both Israel and the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process.

"This administration is fully coordinated in our message," a senior Obama administration official told the Free Beacon when asked about the series of remarks.

Gordon’s harsh remarks clashed with separate comments issued this week by White House and State Department officials in D.C., who expressed solidarity with Israel’s military campaign to root out Hamas terrorists.

"We strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at Tuesday’s White House briefing. "No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel's right to defend itself against these vicious attacks."

"We certainly support Israel’s right to defend itself against these attacks," Psaki added in a separate briefing on the same day.

Former officials in both Israel and the United States said that the Obama administration’s erratic messages on Israel come at a dangerous time and are contributing to regional chaos.

"Right now the administration sees no contradiction between condemning the Hamas rocket fire and maintaining its recognition of the Hamas-Fatah unity government," former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said on a conference call hosted by the Israel Project (TIP).

The formation of the Palestinian unity government, and the quick endorsement by Western nations, helped pave the way for the current instability, Oren said.

"There’s been no indication whatsoever that the United States or other members of the Quartet are willing to renew or reassess their very quick recognition of the unity government," Oren said.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is taking "no responsibility" for the rocket attacks, yet is claiming to be "a victim of Israelis reprisals," Oren explained. "No one is taking Mahmoud Abbas to task for this at all."

The Obama administration’s disparate messages betray a lack of support for Israel, according to former White House National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams.

"Israel is under attack, with millions forced to flee into bomb shelters every day, so it is incredible that the administration chose these days to have an official deliver a speech in Tel Aviv that blames Israel for the failure to achieve peace," Abrams told the Free Beacon. "It was not just bad timing but shocking timing, because allies who are under military attack deserve to hear one message from us: solidarity. That is not what Israelis heard from the United States this week."

"And as always," Abrams added, "the administration's failure or unwillingness to send that unified message reverberates in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and Tokyo and Seoul, Kiev and Warsaw. And it is loudly heard in Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing."

One former Israeli diplomat told the Free Beacon that the Obama administration’s unfocused diplomacy has made it nearly irrelevant in Israeli society.

"Gordon’s speech was unscripted [and] it was an example of what not to do," said the former official. "These were incredible things to say to an audience that I’m sure wanted to hear what he was saying, but it was not based in reality to talk about the good will and the peace process when the bodies from terrorism in the West Bank were just buried."

"If I were an Arab leader still in power in the Middle East I’d be fearful of either the naiveté or their conspiratorial nonsense," said the source, who described Gordon’s remarks as "very strange."

Senior officials with leading pro-Israel organizations in Washington also admitted to having trouble wrapping their heads around the Obama administration’s strategy, or lack their of, as they put it.

"The strategy is bizarre even by the standards of this White House, which has a history of declaring that it is Israel's best friend while working against Jerusalem behind the scenes," said one senior official with a pro-Israel organization who would only speak on background about the White House’s internal strategy.

"What's the point of expressing support from the podium in D.C., if you're just going to undermine it by publicly attacking the Israelis on their home turf while they're being hit with rockets?" the source asked. "What’s the point ... when the only possible result is that you'll look out of touch and hostile?"

Analysts say the White House’s conflicting messages betray a larger lack of focus on foreign policy issues and a total disengagement from the fraught politics of the Middle East.

"The problem is that the White House isn’t interested; this is part and parcel of a larger disengagement from the Middle East," said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

"What do we want from Iran? A place in the Nobel pantheon. What do we want from Iraq? For [President] Maliki to go away and make it all better. What do we want from Egypt? Nothing. Syria? Kill people more quietly," Pletka said. "Having no policies puts the White House in a bind, because unfortunately, ‘duh’ is not foreign policy."