Last weekend, when the Israeli embassy was being ransacked by an Egyptian mob, Prime Minister Netanyahu called the White House to ask for American assistance. To his credit, President Obama took the call and promised to help. The head of Egypt’s military government, who couldn’t be found when the Israelis had tried to reach him, turned up to respond to the American request, and the desperate situation was back under control. The six Israelis who were trapped in the embassy got out alive. For this, President Obama deserves Israel’s thanks.
But for defenders of the administration, this was more than a praiseworthy episode. For liberal groups like the Israel Policy Forum and liberal newspapers like the Forward, the Obama phone call was a vindication of the administration’s entire record on the Middle East and Israel. According to the latter, this one incident discredited all complaints against Obama for his behavior toward the Jewish state during his time in office. While Obama is entitled to take credit for doing the right thing here, the notion this means he ought to get a pass on everything else that he’s done isn’t merely absurd. It is, in fact, a good example of what Obama’s defenders have accused the right of doing: exploiting Israel for partisan political purposes.
The biggest problem with this argument is that it takes the issue of Obama’s relationship with Israel as an all or nothing affair. It is foolish to claim, as some conservatives do, Obama is an out-and-out enemy of Israel who is working every day for its destruction. The issue is more complicated than that. As I wrote in the July issue of COMMENTARY, the administration’s relations with Israel are often distorted by Obama’s misguided ideas about the Middle East, but also a function of a strategic alliance between the two countries that transcends party and even policy differences. Security cooperation between Israel and the United States has been strengthened in the last three years. Projects such as the Iron Dome missile defense system begun under the Bush administration were supported. The permanence and the strength of this relationship is the work of several administrations as well as Congress. For any president — even one who is less-than-friendly to Israel — to seek to curtail or end it would require the expenditure of vast amounts of scarce political capital and would likely be derailed by Congress in any case.
While as I noted earlier this week, Obama is no Jimmy Carter, there were those who defended that Democrat’s actions toward Israel when he was president. They, too, could point to some incidents where even he did the right thing.
But to admit this does not obligate us to ignore the fact this president has consistently displayed hostility to Israel’s government, picked needless and costly fights with it and done much to undermine the notion the United States has Israel’s back. In particular, Obama has done more to undermine Israel’s position on Jerusalem than any predecessor. His foolish attempts to pressure Israel to make concessions to a Palestinian partner who refuses to negotiate have exacerbated tensions in the region and have helped set the current debacle about a Palestinian statehood resolution in motion.
These facts have not escaped the attention of Israelis who consistently tell pollsters they do not consider him a friend or a reliable ally. He is clearly the least popular American president in Israel since the first George Bush. American Jews are also upset about this and, as the results in the special election in New York’s 9th congressional district showed, Democrats will rightly suffer because of it.
That does not mean Obama is Israel’s implacable enemy as some would contend, but it is reasonable for American Jews and other friends of Israel to harshly criticize his behavior, such as his ambush of Netanyahu on his visit to Washington in May and his attempt to force Israel to accept the 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiations. Only a highly partisan Democrat could possibly contend that his behavior toward Israel has been exemplary.
The claim that the Cairo phone call obligates us to forget everything else about Obama is ridiculous. So, too, is the assertion that his policy of hostility is a figment of conservatives’ imagination. Obama’s attitudes toward Israel are a complex mix of political expediency and hostility. And, as the Cairo incident proved, he may also be capable of acts of generosity every now and then. But just as it is right to applaud the president when he does the right thing, so, too, must he also be held accountable for his failures. If our standard of judgment for presidents on Israel is so low that any act of friendship requires us to give Obama a pass when he wrongs the Jewish state, then what we have is no standard at all.