June 9, 2009
In a sign of growing concern in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government over US President Barack Obama's Middle East policies, Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled proposed Israeli sanctions on the US in a letter to cabinet ministers on Sunday.
In the 11-page letter, obtained by The Jerusalem Post from a minister on Monday, Peled recommends steps Israel can take to compensate for the shift in American policy, which he believes has become hostile to Israel.
"Obama's ascendance represents a turning point in America's approach to the region, especially to Israel," he wrote in the letter. "The new administration believes that in order to fight terror, guarantee stability and withdraw from Iraq, a new diplomatic slant is needed involving drastic steps to pacify the Muslim world and the adoption of a more balanced approach to Israel, including intensive pressure to stop building in settlements, remove outposts and advance the formation of a Palestinian state."
Peled added that faced with an American government with an activist agenda that does not mesh with Israel's, traditional reactions are no longer relevant. He said he expected that Obama would eventually realize that appeasement and dialogue with countries that support terror would not have positive results.
But in the interim, the minister suggests reconsidering military and civilian purchases from the US, selling sensitive equipment that the Washington opposes distributing internationally, and allowing other countries that compete with the US to get involved with the peace process and be given a foothold for their military forces and intelligence agencies.
Peled said that shifting military acquisition to America's competition would make Israel less dependent on the US. For instance, he suggested buying planes from the France-based Airbus firm instead of the American Boeing.
In what may be his most controversial suggestion, Peled recommends intervening in American congressional races to weaken Obama and asking American Jewish donors not to contribute to Democratic congressional candidates. He predicted that this would result in Democratic candidates pressuring Obama to become more pro-Israel.
Peled called for the formation of a new body intended to influence American public opinion. The groups he suggests courting include Hispanic Americans and Labor unions in industries that benefit from Israeli military acquisitions.
A former OC Northern Command, Peled is considered part of the left flank of the Likud that includes ministers Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan. Unlike Environment Minister Gilad Erdan, he does not have a history of openly criticizing American policies and unlike Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, he does not have personal ties to the Republican Party.
Peled told the Post on Monday that he still hoped common ground could be found with the Obama administration, but just in case that did not happen, Israel must be ready.
"We must make every effort to maintain our relationship with the US and I respect Obama, but Israel has its own interests and we have to know what our alternatives are," Peled said. "I don't think what I suggest is vengeful. I just think that even a superpower must behave like a partner."
Peled personally gave the letter to Netanyahu at Sunday's cabinet meeting and urged him to take it seriously. But a source close to the prime minister reacted to it with scorn and stressed that none of Peled's suggestions would be implemented.
"The government's goal is to cooperate with the US," an official in the Prime Minister's Office said. "Jerusalem and Washington have a special relationship and we expect that relationship to continue to be strong, intimate and cooperative."
Shoshana Bryen, the senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington, said she could understand Peled's perspective but worried about its consequences.
"If what he's doing is expressing the frustration that after being a good friend and ally, as Israel has been, he feels like Israel is being stepped on, then he's right," she said, adding that it was appropriate to make America aware of those feelings.
But she warned that such expressions could "take on a life of their own," and that some of Peled's policy prescriptions could be less than helpful for the Jewish state.
For instance, while Bryen said it made sense for Israel to diversify its military sales partners in any case, relationships with European and Russian companies and countries were likely to be subject to some of the same issues.
In addition, she noted, America might not be pleased.
"If you take on a big country when you're a small country, you have to be very, very cognizant of the ways a big country can respond," she said.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Peled's letter.
But Democratic political activists in Washington dismissed out of hand Peled's suggestions, saying that such an approach would have little chance of influencing Congress's posture on Israel.
"It shows Yossi Peled is terribly uninformed about US politics," said National Jewish Democratic Council Executive Director Ira Forman. "He doesn't understand the politics of the American Jewish community. He doesn't understand the politics of the Democratic party."
Forman argued that Republicans had long tried to use the issue of Israel to peel Jews away from the Democratic Party with limited success, as the constituency continued to vote overwhelmingly Democrat.
He predicted that such efforts, if attempted, would neither shift congressional support away from Obama nor boomerang to hurt Israel's backing on Capitol Hill.
"Any such efforts would be so quixotic, would be so insignificant, would be so non-workable that I don't think it would have an impact either way," he said.
But other Jewish leaders were concerned that Peled's recommendations might create negative repercussions.
"Just as it is inadvisable and inappropriate for the United States government to interfere in the domestic political affairs of the State of Israel, it is totally wrong-headed and dangerous for the Government of Israel to attempt to inject itself into American electoral politics," said William Daroff, director of the United Jewish Communities' Washington office.
"I have no doubt that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not know in advance about this proposal, and that he would reject it as outlandish."