Sunday, May 16, 2010

Obama's Backing of Israeli Rocket Shield: Charm Offensive or Harbinger of More Pressure?


by Jonathan Tobin

The White House’s charm offensive toward Israel’s supporters continued this week with a nice dividend for the Jewish state: financial backing for the country’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile system designed to protect Israeli towns against Palestinian rocket attacks. Haaretz reported yesterday that the Pentagon informed Israel’s Defense Ministry that the president had approved the transfer of $205 million for the purchase of 10 Iron Dome batteries that could help shield southern Israelis towns such as Sderot that have been battered in the past by Katyushas and Qassam missiles from Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

Iron Dome has, of course, been in the works for years, and the decision is merely a continuation of U.S. support for the project that began during the Bush administration. But to Israel’s great frustration, approval of the money for these purchases had been held up for the past couple of years. Obama’s critics could well point out that he deserves the blame for stalling the Israelis for the past 16 months as well as the credit for the final approval. That said, if the weapons system works as well in practice as it did in tests, it has the potential to minimize the missile threat from Gaza in the future.

The timing of the decision may have been dictated by the administration’s desire to walk back from the hostility its stands on Jerusalem and insults to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provoked from friends of Israel. The charm offensive belies the left’s claims that most American Jews back Obama’s Israel-bashing. The White House’s clear desire to undo the impression it had previously sought to foster of America distancing itself from the Jewish state is an indication that it doesn’t believe most American Jews support a policy of further pressure on Israel.

However, backing for the Iron Dome project may have another context. Even if the system isn’t foolproof, should a new terrorist offensive against Israel be launched either in the south by Hamas or, as widely anticipated, in the north by an even more heavily armed Hezbollah, a defensive shield against rocket attacks could give the administration the leverage it needs to prevent substantial Israeli counterattacks against either threat. Moreover, in the unlikely event that the “proximity” talks with the Palestinian Authority make progress, the existence of even a leaky missile shield will strengthen American pressure on Israel to make further territorial surrenders to the Palestinians. After all, the reason why most Israelis are aghast at the prospect of a further pullback in the West Bank is the knowledge that such a move could put virtually all central Israel — and the vast majority of the Israeli population — in missile range and potentially put the metropolis of Tel Aviv in the same sorry condition as bloodied and battered Sderot.

Seen in this light, the American money spent on Iron Dome batteries could help buy future Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Though the anti-missile defense the program promises is desperately needed by Israel — and a move for which Obama deserves applause — it is an open question whether the country will be better off or more secure if this charm offensive purchase is the harbinger of more American pressure.


Jonathan Tobin

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