November 12, 2010

Has Obama stopped beating his Israeli wife? Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love Obama

I've just been asked whether President Obama will continue making life difficult for Israel as a result of last week’s Republican victory in the midterm elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. My first response was that it’s a bit like asking whether he’s stopped beating his wife -- how does one answer such a loaded question?
The very premise is unsubstantiated. Whatever the Israeli public thinks of Barack Obama, the fact is that his only friction with Israel has involved some personal interactions with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Aside from tactical and strategic miscalculations (or worse) over the priority of Israeli construction over the Green Line, the man has been objectively “good for Israel”. President Clinton is still highly regarded in Israel, despite his famous tarmac standoff with then-Prime Minister Netanyahu at LAX, and all sorts of arm-twisting. 
There may never be a U.S. President with as much gut feeling for Israel as George W. Bush. Yet for all his love, empathy and resolve, Israel’s diplomatic and strategic position eroded during his eight years in the White House -- even after 9/11, with the wind at his back. My point here is not to point fingers, just to point out that what Israel really needs in an American President is neither a lover nor a cheerleader, but a provider.
And just what has President Obama provided for Israel? The week after last summer’s Flotilla fiasco (not Israel’s fault, but definitely not helpful), the Obama administration went to the mat in the United Nations Security Council and extracted new sanctions against Iran -- it’s doubtful President Bush would have had the wherewithal to get any new measures past the Russian and Chinese vetoes. The President has also implemented additional unilateral measures -- or tightened the enforcement of existing rules -- against Iran’s nuclear program.

This week alone, the Obama administration got the UNESCO Director-General to pull support from Iran’s production of World Philosophy Day, and kept Iran from a seat on the board of UN Women. That’s not the same as launching an air strike on Iran’s sprawling nuclear infrastructure, but had either of these Iranian bids succeeded, many Israelis would have held Obama responsible. And speaking of UNESCO, just a year ago the United States engineered the defeat of an Egyptian candidate to head UNESCO, a man infamous for overseeing Egypt’s academic censorship operations and for promising to burn Jewish books -- while Israel had agreed to President Mubarak’s request not to oppose him.
Beyond mere diplomatic tools, the President emerged from the White House some weeks ago -- with Prime Minister Netanyahu at his side -- to announce that Israel could not be expected to participate in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as long as it is under imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction in its own neighborhood -- something no U.S. President, even George W. Bush, ever said before in public. And this was a few days before the President was convening a landmark international summit to reaffirm nations’ commitments to the NPT. 
The Administration may have seen limited success so far in Israeli-Palestinian talks, but the President and his team have consistently kept the body warm despite successive announcements of new Israeli construction over the Green Line. Some of my Israeli friends tell me that Netanyahu is only calling for talks without preconditions in order to call the bluff of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. So maybe the American President is calling the Israeli Prime Minister’s bluff, or maybe -- just maybe -- he respects Netanyahu enough to act on what he says he wants. He has been delivering. 
Military and intelligence cooperation have never been stronger. Israeli governments have consistently emphasized the need for normalization with Arab and Islamic nations, and Obama’s Cairo speech was geared to restoring some of the U.S. influence and credibility in that part of the world -- which should be of value to Israelis seeking a champion to that part of the world. The main Israeli complaints were that he didn’t talk about Israel enough and that he connected the founding of the State of Israel to the Holocaust (precisely what Netanyahu did a few months later in the UN General Assembly, to near-universal Israeli acclaim).
It may not be racist to assume that an African-American President cannot be friendly toward Israel, especially when his friends include Professor Rashid Khalidi, a prominent Palestinian-American scholar and PLO supporter. But his friends also include legions of prominent American Jews with pro-Israel bona fides. Guilt by association has never been successful as a Jewish political strategy, and we’re usually on the receiving end. 
Considering Israel’s uneven treatment at the United Nations and in the world community, Israelis have a right to complain about double standards, but they may not be free of the temptation to do the same to an American President who rubs them the wrong way. 
Like it or not, Barack Obama will continue to be the President of the United States for the next two and -- with the help of Congressional Republicans -- possibly six years. Making peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be great for him, but he has bigger goals and more exacting tests around the world and back in Washington. Earning the love of Israelis or figuring out how to silence the whispering campaigns of the Likud faithful are luxuries he cannot afford. Remember, times are tough.
Israelis, on the other hand, could do well to get over their inhibitions, obsessions and even justifiable suspicions, and try to get with the program -- it’s already been paying them dividends, like it or not.

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