Israel’s Other Battle—Keeping the Pentagon on Their Side
Policy + Politics

Israel’s Other Battle—Keeping the Pentagon on Their Side

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Relations between the United States and Israel, its closest ally in the Middle East, have sunk to the lowest level in decades, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly broke with Washington after a number of D.C. institutions criticized Israel. 

The prime minister told Secretary of State John Kerry this past weekend “not to ever second guess me again” after a cease-fire with Hamas fell apart, according to multiple media reports.

Related: Israel's Iron Dome Could Prolong Gaza Conflict

This strong warning from Tel Aviv comes amid criticism from Washington about the growing civilian death toll among Palestinians. On Sunday, after Israel struck another UN school, Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN, called on Israel “to conduct a full and prompt investigation of this incident as well as the recent strikes that hit other UNRWA schools. Civilians, many of whom have been told to evacuate their homes by the Israel Defense Forces, must be able to find refuge in safe, UN-designated shelters.”

This followed pointed criticism from the White House and the State Department last week. Both called Israeli strikes on UN schools unacceptable

“The shelling of a U.N. facility that is housing innocent civilians who are fleeing violence is totally unacceptable and totally indefensible,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last week. “And it is clear that we need our allies in Israel to do more to live up to the high standards that they have set for themselves.”

Perhaps the most surprising criticism, however, came from the Pentagon. DOD spokesman Colonel Steve Warren, in a rare public rebuke of Israel from within the Pentagon, said that civilian casualties must be limited. 

Related: Why Israel, Under Siege from All Sides, Stands Firm

“The civilian casualties in Gaza have been too high,” he said. “It’s become clear that the Israelis need to do more to live up to their very high standards – their very high and very public standards – for protecting civilian life.”

Playing Both Sides
The rebuke from the Pentagon raised eyebrows because DOD has been perhaps the most fervent supporter of Israel, in this conflict and in the past. As the current fight started, the Pentagon requested that Congress approve $225 million to bolster Israel’s Iron Dome protection system. Congress approved this funding last week.

The U.S. also has provided, and continues to provide, billions in military aid to Israel. Since the end of World War II, Israel has been the biggest beneficiary of American military aid. It also buys billions of dollars worth of weapons and vehicles from American military contractors.

This close relationship continued a day after DOD denounced Israel. Last Friday, DOD confirmed that it has released a large cache of ammunition worth $1 billion to the Israelis. 

Related: The Kerry Quote That Really Matters Isn’t About Israel

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital to U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability,” Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement. “This defense sale is consistent with those objectives.” 

Playing Politics?
Christian Whiton, a former Bush administration State Department senior advisor, says that DOD’s statement is an instance of the White House injecting politics into the military, a place where it doesn’t belong.

“This fits with the Obama administration's consistent politicization of military matters at the Pentagon. You have the head of Pacific Command saying that climate change is the biggest threat,” Whiton said in an interview. “You have the joint chiefs failing to admit to Congress the military risks posed by rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. And now this move, which conveys a separation between us and a key ally.” 

He also said DOD’s statement sends a mixed message to the American people. 

“It doesn't clarify matters for the American people, nor will it keep our people safe. It's just another lamentable move motivated by politics and bad judgment prevailing over a sound military assessment,” Whiton added.

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