Of all the nonsensical thoughts published on the pages of Newsweek (the old or new one), none is more inane than the suggestion that George W. Bush become the Obama administration’s envoy to Israel. The idea seems to be that Israelis trusted and adored Bush and, bolstered by the security and friendship extended by the U.S., were emboldened to make daring concessions in pursuit of peace. The Israelis mistrust and disdain Obama and have been frightened and bullied by the U.S., and therefore they are wary about making any concessions now. The solution — don’t you see it? — get Bush to work for Obama.
Amid the silliness and the disregard for the obvious clash between the two men’s approach to Israel (Obama wants to “put daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, whereas Bush wanted to avoid the appearance of any), Gregory Levey recounts some important history:
In the history of U.S.-Israel relations, probably no president has earned adoration and unequivocal trust from Israel like Bush. (An Israeli diplomat once told me that the former president gave a speech at the U.N. during his second term that attracted so many adoring Israeli diplomats that even the deputy U.N. ambassador couldn’t score a seat.)
During the Bush years, Israelis were consistently among the few foreign populations that gave the American president high approval marks — often in far greater proportion than Americans themselves. Senior officials in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, where I worked, spoke on their cell phones daily with their White House counterparts — circumventing the State Department and the Israeli Foreign Ministry entirely.
That closeness paid off. It’s no coincidence that, during the Bush years, Ariel Sharon had political cover to suggest “painful concessions” for peace — a euphemism for withdrawal from territory. The unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip — followed by preparations to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank that were interrupted only by the Hizbullah war of 2006 — almost certainly would not have happened with anyone else in the White House less trusted to ensure Israel’s safety.
The short version: providing Israel with support and access to the White House promoted peace. And Obama? Well, he takes the opposite approach with entirely predictable results:
Neither Obama nor his proxies enjoy anywhere near the same level of faith. In a recent Pew Research survey of global attitudes, Israel was the only country where the population’s confidence in Obama’s foreign-policy judgment was lower now than it was in Bush’s judgment at the end of his presidency. (It was only 1 percent lower, but the rise in confidence elsewhere ranged from 6 percent in Pakistan to 79 percent in Germany, with most countries toward the upper half of that spectrum.) Even more striking: a recent poll found that only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider Obama a “friend.”
Then, in a sort of “Other than that how’d you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” conclusion, Levey assures us that there really isn’t that much difference between the Bush and Obama approaches. Except that the Israelis liked and trusted Bush and dislike and distrust Obama.
Let’s be honest: if you want better relations between the U.S. and Israel, you either have to change Obama’s policy or wait for a new administration. The problem isn’t with the envoy — it’s with the assumption that creating “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel will get us some “street cred” with the Arabs. The fault lies not in personnel but in the fallacious argument that there is a viable Palestinian interlocutor who stands ready to deal with Israel if only Israel would get rid of those darn settlements. Unless those ill-conceived and counterproductive notions are discarded, Israel will go right on distrusting Obama and sit tight, hoping that eventually Obama will come to his senses. It may be a very long wait.