Want to know how to manufacture a controversy? It's easy. Take two statements made by two administration officials, discount the possibility that both on-the-record statements may have been made deliberately and jump to the conclusion that only the least plausible interpretation — that a firmly pro-Israel administration is seeking to demonize Israel —± is the right interpretation.
Case in point: On Nov. 6, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, stated that "Israel went to extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties" during the Gaza War and that while civilian casualties were tragic, "the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] did what it could" to avoid them.
When asked about Dempsey's statement on Nov. 7, State Department spokesperson Jen PsakiJen PsakiOvernight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table US, Iran return to same negotiating table Federal workers who don't meet vaccine mandate won't face discipline until January MORE reiterated that the administration supports Israel's right to self-defense, strongly condemns Hamas's rocket attacks, but still believes that "Israel could have done more to prevent civilian casualties."
Critics of the administration viewed Psaki's response as proof of this administration's hostility toward Israel, which tells us more about their jaundiced view of President Obama than the reality of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
When individuals within the administration are quoted, usually anonymously and without verification, making remarks critical of Israel, and when the administration follows up with a reaffirmation of the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship, the critics tell us that the anonymous voices represent the administration's true feelings.
Yet when Dempsey goes on the record supporting Israel's conduct in the Gaza War, the thought never occurs to these same critics that Dempsey is speaking for the administration. I've never met Dempsey, but given his position and background, I doubt he would make these statements without knowing what he was doing. No one in the administration — not President Obama, not Vice President Biden, not even Jen Psaki — has walked back the general's comments. His comments and Psaki's comments are both on-the-record statements from the administration, sitting side by side.
Is it really that hard to reconcile these statements? Can't Israel go to extraordinary lengths to prevent civilian casualties and at the same time not do everything possible to prevent civilian casualties? Does anyone dispute that innocent Palestinians were killed by Israel and some of those deaths could have been prevented? Israel did more to prevent innocent deaths than any other military would have done under similar circumstances, but that's little consolation to innocent victims of Israel's actions, no matter how justified or well-planned those actions were.
The administration has consistently supported Israel's right to self-defense. The administration provided Israel access to munitions during the Gaza War and enthusiastically supported Iron Dome — even requesting funding beyond what Congress appropriated — saving thousands of Israeli lives. Military and intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Israel have reached unprecedented levels under Obama, and aid to Israel has risen to record levels.
Shouldn't we reconcile the statements of Dempsey and Psaki in light of those facts? Innocents are killed with weapons supplied by the U.S. The U.S. wants to maintain its role as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Praising the IDF for caution and leaving it at that, while the world watches TV and sees of casualties that could have been avoided, is not smart diplomacy.
President George W. Bush urged Israel to restrain itself in Lebanon, using language almost identical to that used by the Obama administration, and even stronger language when Israel was conducting military action in the West Bank.
The difference between the Bush administration and the Obama administration is that the Obama administration has never cut aid to Israel, never suspended military cooperation with Israel, and never failed to defend Israel at the U.N. and other international forums. We should analyze this latest kerfuffle in light of those differences.
Dempsey's statement could have been intended to lay the foundation for a defense of Israel's actions in Gaza in international forums, while Psaki's statement could have been intended to reassure the Arab world that the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel has not desensitized the U.S. to Arab suffering, even when responsibility for the conflict rests squarely with Hamas.
Dempsey's statement and Psaki's statement are both true. Reconciling them is more reasonable than assuming that Dempsey's public praise for Israel and Psaki's reiteration of the State Department's position (which also contained support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas) is some byzantine plot to demonize Israel.
President Obama's chairman of the Joint Chiefs praised Israel's extraordinary efforts to prevent casualties. President Obama's State Department backed Israel's right to self-defense and condemned the Hamas rocket attacks. That's pro-Israel. The State Department also acknowledged the reality that some innocent Palestinians were killed by Israel, which necessarily means Israel could have done more to prevent innocent deaths, no matter how extraordinary their efforts. That's not anti-Israel. That's reality. Denying reality might make us feel better, but that's not the best way to advocate for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.
Sheffey has long been active in the pro-Israel community and in Jewish communal life. He is a lifelong member of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and served on the board of CityPAC, a pro-Israel Chicago-based political action committee, for seven years, including two years as its president. He is also active in Democratic politics and served as an elected delegate to the 2012 Democratic Convention from Illinois.