Obama and Israel - The Audacity of Arrogance / DR.Israel Barnir

The relations between Israel and the US have reached an unprecedented low. The present state of affairs resembles the relations between the countries during the Eisenhower administration in the wake of the Suez campaign in 1956. There were additional crises during the Ford, the Carter and the first Bush administrations. The relations between a super power and a small country dependent being asymmetric by definition, such crises are bound to happen from time to time since the two do not always see things eye to eye.

Having said that, it would be foolish not to realize that the present crisis goes beyond any of the spats of the past. The attitude of the US towards Israel has undergone a major reversal, and it is difficult to envisage how under the present administration the relations between the two countries can ever be back to where they were before. That’s a reality we’ll have to live with, regardless of any compromise reached, even if Israel’s government caves in and meets all the demands made by the US.

A lot has been said in the media since the outbreak of the crisis about Israel dependence on the US and how crucial it was for Israel to maintain its relations with the US. Thus, the calls for Israel to be less intransigent and look for a compromise. While this is true in general, there are exceptions.

Before continuing, there’s an observation worth making. With the exception of Eisenhower, all US presidents in the second half of the previous century that adopted anti Israeli policies (Ford, Carter and the first Bush) failed in their attempts to get reelected for a second term. Is that an indication of the power of the Israeli Lobby? God only knows the answer. I always wondered how the two authors of the modern version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, “The Israeli Lobby”, missed it. It would have rendered their contention more credible. Unforgivable sloppiness for researchers of that stature.

We Jews are accustomed to look at everything that happens in the world from the perspective of “Is it good for the Jews” or “Is it bad for the Jews”. Many jokes circulate around this theme. In a similar fashion, every new presidential candidate in the US is assessed by the American Jewish voters according to “will he be good for Israel” or “will he be bad for Israel”. This is of course a naive, if not a foolish approach since he is the President of the US and not the President of Israel. Still, more often than not, American Jews justify their voting for a candidate by “he will be good for Israel” or “he will support Israel” or some similar nonsense, as if the President of the US has nothing else to do.

Looking at the records of past administrations, it is easy to see that personal feelings towards the Jewish people had little effect on their policies. The only exception was Jimmy Carter whose loathing of Jews affected his policies towards Israel. Among others he tried to torpedo the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement because he had other ideas. Nixon was a rabid Anti-Semite, yet his policies were very pro Israeli. Kissinger, who ran the foreign policy of the Ford administration, took steps that were very harmful to Israel. It would be ludicrous to accuse him of Anti-Semitism. To the best of my knowledge the first Bush did not harbor special sentiments towards Jews - he was neutral in this. All the Presidents conducted their policies according to the interests of the US as they saw them (with exception of Carter whom I mentioned above).

Considering the fact that among the Israelis themselves it is impossible reach a consensus as to what is best for Israel and what policies should be followed by the Israeli government at any given time, how can one expect it from a US President?

After this rather long introduction we come to the present and to President Obama. Contrary to the “conventional wisdom” among many in the right side of the political spectrum, I don’t think that Obama’s Israeli policies reflect his sentiments toward Jews. He may not be the greatest admirer of the Jewish people, but even if he hates Jews, borrowing from George Orwell’s definition, he does not hate them more than is absolutely necessary. That is to say, I don’t think that Obama is an Anti-Semite.

His background is certainly not conducive to developing a positive attitude toward Jews - as a kid he got Muslim education and later, after adopting Christianity, his mentor was a black hate monger whose hatred spanned white people of all breeds. Jews did not get “preferential” treatment.

Obama’s real problem is only partially related to Israel. Obama’s real problem can be stated in simple words as “zero accomplishments”. At the end of one third of his term in office he cannot show any real achievement.

This is markedly true in the international arena where his outreach policy is in shambles. Borrowing from the title of his autobiography The Audacity of Hope, Obama’s global strategy can be dubbed The Audacity of Arrogance. Risking the alienation of traditional allies of the US, Obama’s initiative of “outreach” towards hostile nations, including out right enemies of the US, was not reciprocated (to put it mildly). The Venezuelan dictator insulted and made a mockery of him in front of all the Latin American leaders. He continues to do so. The Irani leader consistently insults him and rejects all attempts at a dialogue. Other dictators, in Syria or in North Korea show similar attitudes or simply disregard him. In comparison, the claim that Obama was “deeply offended” by the Israeli government during Joe Biden’s recent visit to Israel sounds a bit hollow. If he was, it goes much deeper and has nothing to do with the building permits.

In the frame of the new global outreach strategy, the US reneged on commitments made by previous administrations to allies like Honduras, Columbia, Poland and the Ukraine. Even staunch allies like the UK and Australia were not spared. The number of Obama’s admirers in France and Germany is in a permanent decline. As a rule, however, western European leaders are too well mannered to resort to Chicago style rude behavior. They keep maintaining an amicable facade. The Russian leader is less refined. On top of all this, the optimistic reporting from Afghanistan cover a situation that is less promising than one is led to believe. In Iraq, despite the success of the elections, the situation is still precarious. Suicide bomb events are a common occurrence and it’s everyone’s guess what will happen once the US military presence there comes to an end.

In the home front, things are not much better. Having spent one third of his term ramming his reform of the medical insurance in the US, at the expense of neglecting other, not less important, topics, Obama will have to spend the rest of his term spinning the American public into believing that they were screwed for their own good. A crucial milestone to test whether this spin works will be the mid term elections in November.

Thus, Obama was in dire need for an achievement, something tangible, something which would be self evident and would not require spin, something which could not be disputed. Resolving the never ending Israeli Arab conflict, an endeavor attempted without success by several previous administrations appeared a worthy challenge for the messenger of change.

From the first moment, Obama’s handling of the Israeli Arab conflict was a disaster. Since his familiarity with subject was a bit short he turned to more knowledgeable sources for briefing. The main source he relied on was a Jewish lobby group called J-Street, a relative newcomer to the DC political Arena.

That lobby was formed by Jewish progressive liberal intellectuals, mainly from the west coast, ostensibly to demonstrate that “support” for Israel is “not limited to the right”. Their definition of support for Israel is a bit weird, as their officially stated goal is To Neutralize the Influence of AIPAC in DC. The definition of support notwithstanding, J-Street is an organization with a clear political agenda which draws from the agenda of the Israeli left - Meretz and the Peace Now movement. They claim to be a “pro Israel” peace supporting lobby, yet, following the example set by the Peace Now movement in Israel, they aggressively pursue the “now”, while peace is relegated to the back seat.

Whether Obama was aware that that lobby’s political agenda does not exactly fit the political views of the majority of the Israeli public or that of the Israeli government, is an open question. For him, Jews with connections in Israel and with political views not far from his own, appeared to be the right choice to receive counsel from when forming his policy for handling the Arab Israeli conflict. As for the fact that J-Street opinions are not exactly representative of the Jewish public in Israel, or in the US for that matter - Obama did not demonstrate that he is concerned with what the majority of the US public thinks, why should it matter to him what Jews think?

Obama’s immediate achievement, following the advice given by J-Street, was a kiss of death to all contacts and negotiations, direct and/or indirect, that had been going on between Israel and the Palestinians. One can argue that the negotiations were not moving fast enough, or that they were not achieving anything, that it was all a sham, that either side or both was dragging its feet to gain time, that it was all “let’s pretend”, and so on and so forth, but the fact is that some thing was going on - to borrow from Henry Kissinger, momentum was maintained. Obama’s demand for an immediate and total cessation of all construction activities in the “settlements”, a demand put forward as an ultimatum to the Israeli government, put an immediate end to all contacts - formal and informal, between the sides. Whatever had been going on, even if it was kept on a low fire, was extinguished. The Palestinians could not be expected to be more forthcoming than President of the US.

As a matter of fact, the Palestinians never regarded the Jewish settlements as an “obstacle to Peace”. The Oslo accords barely mentions them. From the Palestinian perspective this is a non issue. The final goal (final solution may be a more appropriate term) for the Arabs is, and has always been, total eradication of the Jewish presence in the region, what difference would half a dozen or so additional Jewish settlements make? The issue of the settlements gained some prominence after the Mitchell report of 2001 (that’s a subject worthy of a separate article), but negotiations between the two sides went on, with a few breaks (e.g., after the camp David 2000 fiasco), all the time regardless of the construction activities that continued at a full pace in the Jewish settlements in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. Disagreements and disputes about the settlement activities, which erupted occasionally, were between Israel and various US administrations, and among the Israelis themselves. The Palestinians never made a big deal of it (or should it be now a Big F . . . Deal?).

Due to his short exposure to national and international politics (he did not serve even one full term in the US senate), Obama is still not aware that the prestige of the Presidency is not something to be risked on an ultimatum that is not sure to be accepted. During his first year in office he failed more than once in this approach, even if not always with loud repercussions as now with Israel. It may well be that this shortsightedness is what lies underneath Obama’s audacity of arrogance.

It took Obama almost a year to realize that listening to J-Street was not such a good idea. It gained him points among the radical left in Israel, but these represent less than 3% of the Israelis. It was a non starter with the Israeli government and, worse still, it was counter productive as the Palestinians seized the occasion to raise the ante and to become more intransigent than before. They became more receptive to the Syrian President’s counsel that the price of resistance [that is, continuing the war] is not higher than the price of peace.

Eventually Obama openly admitted that his expectations were too high. The fact that the Israeli government did not bend, and that his demands were met only half way by Netanyahu, a fact which he had to accept tacitly, was not forgotten. Netanyahu may or may not have been aware of it, but they were waiting for him at the corner (this is the writer’s free translation of a similar Hebrew expression).

While the so called peace process was at a stand still, Obama’s chief negotiator, George Mitchell, started collecting frequent traveler miles account commuting back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramalla in a futile attempt to revive the process. Eventually Mitchell’s efforts bore fruit, albeit a limited one. After a long and tedious series of meetings with the two sides, in a manner that resembles the movie Back to the Future, the Palestinians agreed to have “proximity talks” with Israel - a move that took the relations between the sides 30 years back in time. Joe Biden, the US Vice President, came to the region to announce the historical break through.

No need to repeat what happened next. There’s one important point worth mentioning, however. “Timing.” Everyone points to “timing” as the root cause of the crisis. Timing appears to be the root of all evil. The timing of issuing the building permits in Jerusalem is depicted as a terrible gaffe by the Israeli government, a gaffe so bad that no apology by Netanyahu short of a complete and total stop of all construction activities including, now, Jerusalem, would suffice to placate the hurt ego of the US President. This is ludicrous, to put it mildly. It is preposterous to believe that the “when” really matters. It requires a lot of naivete to believe that if the building permits were issued two weeks after Biden’s return to Washington, or at any other time in the future, the reaction would have been different.

In September the ten months period of construction freeze agreed to by Netanyahu will come to an end. One can already predict what lies in store if Israel tries to resume construction in the settlements at that date.

It suits the agenda of J-Street and the Israeli radical left to present the “bad timing” of the building permits as “intransigence” of the Israeli government. But that’s an inverted logic. The intransigence, if there were any, is the Audacity of Arrogance. They were waiting for an excuse to cause a crisis and they would have picked up something else had there been no “timing”.

There is a lot of truth in the adage that a super power may be wrong, but it is still a super power. It is also true that Israel, unfortunately, is not a super power. However, Obama may yet find that he erred again. That he underestimated his target. The record of past Israeli governments in resisting US pressures is not impressive. This is true in particular for Netanyahu’s previous government. The Clinton administration had no difficulties in bringing about a regime change, building on the mistrust of the Israeli public of Netanyahu and the divisive nature of Israeli internal politics. My guess is that the counsel that Obama is getting these days from the J-Street lobby points to the Clinton administration experience.

This approach overlooks some differences. First, Netanyahu’s present coalition is much more solid and stable than it was in 1999. The left in Israel nowadays is weaker than it was in 1999 - the radical left is totally marginalized, and most important, Obama picked the wrong issue. He is probably not aware to what Jerusalem means to Israelis and to Jews in general. In order to placate the Jewish electorate Obama conducted a Seder at the White House. They may have used a sanitized version of the Haggada. If that is not the case, I wonder if some one took the trouble to explain to Obama the meaning of Lashana Haba’ah BiYrushalayim.

To conclude, it should be noted that the issue of Jerusalem has always been a sore point in the Israeli US relations, long before 1967. Few people know it, but the US does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty on ANY part of Jerusalem. Not the east, not the west, not the south, and not the north. Not the pre 1967 parts nor the post 1967 parts. No one talks about it, but the US State Department position is that the status of Jerusalem is as was determined by to the UN partition resolution of November 1947 which assigned to Jerusalem an “international” status. That position was not changed in the 62 years that passed. The US consulate in Jerusalem reports directly to DC and not to the Embassy in Tel Aviv - a situation that does not exist in any other country with whom the US has relations.

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