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Lapid sets up separate communication channel with US

While the Israeli prime minister blames the US administration and the IDF for his political failure in the Gaza incursion, US officials prefer to communicate with Finance Minister Yair Lapid or Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

It seems to me that at least in our time, this is unprecedented: On the morning of Aug. 14, Israel time, the US administration leaked to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal that the White House had put a hold on the delivery of Hellfire missiles for Apache helicopters during the Operation Protective Edge fighting.

According to the leak, the White House instructed the military to consult it before making any weaponry or ammunition shipments to Israel, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his team are “reckless and untrustworthy.” The Americans further said that Netanyahu was maneuvering between Congress and the White House and that he seriously undercut Secretary of State John Kerry and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro through “malicious” leaks. In response, senior Israeli diplomatic officials called the Obama administration “weak and naïve.”

Firstly, it should be noted that both sides are right. The problem is that one side is wholly dependent on the other. Israel behaves as though it is the superpower and the United States is the protectorate needing its handouts. Netanyahu embarked on such an adventure during his first term, when then-President Bill Clinton asked his advisers after meeting with the young Bibi in 1996, "Who the fuck does he think he is? Who's the fucking superpower here?"

This time, it is much less funny. It seems to me that the relations between Israel and its biggest and most important ally are at an all-time low. Trust has long been shattered, as has intimacy. Suspicion is breaking new records. In closed forums, both sides are saying unspeakable things about their counterparts across the ocean. The quotes that leak out to the media are tame, paling in comparison to what is really being said.

“President Barack Obama has caused immense damage to the Middle East,” a senior Israeli official told me this week. “Look at what’s going on here. It’s all collapsing. Everything is on fire and falling apart thanks to his policy and thanks to the fact that everyone realizes that there is no responsible adult in the neighborhood. There is no landlord. There’s nobody to protect the free world.”

The Americans, for their part, think that Netanyahu inflicts strategic damage to Israel’s interests, and that not a single word that comes out of his mouth can be trusted. He focuses on casting aspersions against the administration and its envoys, such as Kerry, who have been helping him for five years despite his intransigence. He is an ingrate who is clueless about his real situation.

The story behind the scenes is even more fascinating. Despite Netanyahu’s high approval rating during Operation Protective Edge, the prime minister knew that failing to topple the Hamas regime, as he pledged to do before the elections, and making do with a limited ground operation and a specific mission (neutralizing Hamas’ assault tunnels) would elicit scathing criticism from the political right — his traditional base.

Nothing scares Netanyahu more. Even so, he has almost completely lost his grip within his own Likud Party. Looking desperately at the soaring popularity of Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, he knows he needs an “Iron Dome” to counter this criticism.

That being the case, Netanyahu decided to form two “human shields” to hide behind. The first one is the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). On Aug. 6, the military’s presentation to the Cabinet, specifying and illustrating the high cost of conquering the Gaza Strip — hundreds of fatalities, five years, tens of billions of dollars and serious jeopardy to the peace accords with Jordan and Egypt — was leaked to Israeli TV Channel 2. Following this difficult presentation, no one voted “aye.” Almost all Cabinet ministers were convinced that the leak came from the prime minister’s office. To date, their demand to find out who leaked that information is still denied by Netanyahu.

A few days earlier on July 29, Oren Nahari, a reporter for Israeli public TV's Channel 1 news program, published the transcript of the (very) rough conversation between Obama and Netanyahu. It clearly showed that the relationship between the two is shattered and that the United States forbade Israel from launching a ground operation. In the past week, senior US officials have said, in closed forums, that they have no doubt that the leak originated from the prime minister’s office.

This time, too, the motive was clear: to show Cabinet ministers the depth of the crisis and that there is no US partner for a broad operation in the Gaza Strip. In other words, what Netanyahu was telling his ministers and voters was, “It’s not me, it’s them.” By "them," he was referring to both the IDF and the Obama administration.

Well, the Obama administration doesn’t really like that. Right now, relations have seen a total collapse. An Israel source well versed in the Jerusalem-Washington channel told me Aug. 14, “There is total chaos. They talk, but when they do, it is usually done by yelling.”

Last week, during one of the Cabinet meetings, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid confronted each other over Israel's relations with the United States. Lapid lashed out at Netanyahu, saying that he was undermining and seriously damaging Israel's delicate relations with the Americans. Lapid was later quoted to have said in closed forums, "The Americans talk to Netanyahu only when they have to. They've totally given up on him. The relations between the two states have not been so low in years."

At the same time, sources report that Lapid has set up a separate communication channel with the United States. Last week he met with Ambassador Shapiro at least on two occasions. He frequently talks with Kerry. After one of those conversations, the two offices agreed to go public about them, partly also to jab at Netanyahu's office. It appears as though the Americans are starting to "bypass" Netanyahu whenever they can. As strange as it might sound, they even prefer dealing with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon over Netanyahu.

Incidentally, Lapid has also fostered very close ties with the Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid. They share the same political adviser, Mark Mellman, who is Lapid's pollster in Israel.

Right now all we can do is to miss the old days, which weren’t that long ago. In September 2007, Israel — according to foreign sources — attacked the Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir ez-Zor. Initially, the administration of then-US President George H.W. Bush opposed the strike, refusing to carry it out itself, but ultimately giving then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert the go-ahead. Prior to the strike, the IDF also took seriously and prepared itself for a possible all-out war with Syria. In light of the sensitivity of the case, Israel urgently needed a variety of different munitions and other means to gird for any eventuality.

Yoram Turbovich, then the chief of staff in the prime minister’s office, traveled secretly to meet with his White House counterparts, putting before them a huge Israeli shopping list. “How would you like that, by airlift or by surface?” the senior US officials asked him. Turbovich picked up the phone and returned the answer immediately: “An airlift would raise intelligence attention. We prefer to do it by ship, provided it can arrive within three weeks’ time.”

The ship arrived. It was so big that it had to dock at a port in a nearby country. Smaller Israeli vessels sailed to meet it and loaded the bombs, guided missiles and other weapons. Then they sailed back to Israel.

That was the old times. Today, it’s all going up in smoke. The United States can afford this. The president might encounter some hardships with Congress, but he has some problems there anyway. On top of it all, he is not seeking re-election. And what about Israel? Israel cannot afford it.

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