Commentary Magazine


Mistrusting the President

With all this talk about Obama engaging the masses in the Middle East, there’s one crowd he failed to engage effectively — or maybe didn’t care to at all. While during the electoral race Obama and his team were working extra hours to ease Israelis’ concerns about the unknown candidate (for domestic political reasons) — with some success — recent weeks have made Obama more suspicious to Israelis than ever before. According to a recent poll, 51% of them find the president’s policy “disappointing.”

Some left-wing writers and bloggers have argued that Israelis, generally speaking, might support Obama’s “plan.” They do not support settlement activities and do not want to get into a fight with the American administration over settlement freeze. Of course it isn’t that simple. Israelis support “freeze” in principle but oppose it if it applies to “natural growth.” That’s exactly the battle that the Israeli government is now having with the Obama administration. More generally, Israelis now have very little confidence in the president’s good intentions, as two polls published last week demonstrate.

One of them found that:

53 percent believed Obama’s policies were not good for Israel and just 26% said they were good. The rest did not respond. Fifty-one percent said Obama cared more about the Palestinian desire for a state than about Israeli security, and just 22% said he put Israel’s security needs first.

The other (Hebrew only) found that 59% of Israelis believe Obama favors the Arabs over Israel, and 29% went as far as to say Obama is “hostile” toward Israel (40% defined him “impartial” and only 21% said he was a “supporter” of Israel).

Note that both these polls were taken before the Cairo speech, and that new polls will be published later this week, from which we might learn how Israelis reacted to the president’s message. It is also worth noting that recent remarks made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might make it more difficult for Israelis to differentiate between her and the president. There are no reliable polls to indicate that Israelis trusted Clinton more than they trusted Obama to begin with, but that is a reasonable assumption (Israeli Americans overwhelmingly voted for Clinton in the Democratic primaries).

Why is this bad news even for those hoping to advance the Obama administration’s goals? Because Israelis, time and again, proved to be more responsive to demands coming from administrations they trusted (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush), than to those coming from administrations they did not trust (the second half of Jimmy Carter’s term, George H. W. Bush).