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On Israel, Obama Discovers the Obvious

This week’s flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has rekindled the discussion about Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But amid all the debate over the wisdom of that withdrawal, one point seems to have been lost. The administration of George W. Bush put in writing its full support of Israel’s right to security and defensible borders as the disengagement approached.

Though the Obama administration pointedly rejected the notion that it was bound by that agreement, the Gaza withdrawal was yet another item of proof that Israeli leaders are willing to make sacrifices for peace when there is no “daylight” between the Israeli and American leaders. Yet in July 2009, President Obama held a meeting with American Jewish leaders to explain to them that daylight was needed after all. Here is how the Washington Post reported on that meeting:

“If you want Israel to take risks, then its leaders must know that the United States is right next to them,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the president.

Obama politely but firmly disagreed.

“Look at the past eight years,” he said, referring to the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Israel. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”

But now we can safely say that in Obama’s battle with history, the president lost in a rout. Today’s New York Times reports that Obama has seen the light on “daylight.” Though the paper doesn’t report this as the flip-flop that it truly is, the Times offers us a story carrying the following headline: “Obama, Showing Support for Israel, Gains New Leverage Over Netanyahu.”

Though Obama will likely never acknowledge it, he seems to now know just how wrong he was in July 2009. He has made many mistakes in the prosecution of his foreign policy in the Middle East, and a great deal of them came from this mistaken idea that he would gain leverage over Israeli decision making by pummeling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly, and picking senseless fights over Jewish housing in Jerusalem. The result was that Obama made an astonishing mess of the situation for someone who has only been in office for four years. But better late than never.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the New York Times we’ve come to know and love if it didn’t present its findings as if, rather than finally concede the obvious, it has made a grand scientific discovery. Here’s the Times (my emphasis):

After more than a year of Mr. Obama needing — and not getting — much support from his Israeli counterpart in his efforts to woo American Jewish voters at home ahead of his re-election, it is now Mr. Netanyahu, Israel experts say, who needs Mr. Obama to help shore up his support at home.

The Israeli leader is facing an election in January, and if there is one thing that Israeli voters do not like, scholars say, it is any kind of daylight between their prime minister and the American president in times of strife.

Experts! Scholars! We later find out that those experts and scholars are Martin Indyk and Robert Malley. I suppose if you’re going to avoid asking “Israeli voters” what “Israeli voters” like and don’t like, the least you can do is ask American Democratic Party advisors.

Of course, the article goes on to wonder how Obama will use this newfound power that comes with not being openly hostile to the Israeli prime minister. Will he try to jump-start the peace process that stalled over his first-term shenanigans? The authors of the article certainly seem to hope so. Nonetheless, I’m sure those “Israeli voters” will appreciate that finally experience has triumphed over hope in the Obama White House.


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