In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.
But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. In terms of his attitude toward Israel, in the past three days Obama has altered his status in that regard from being the second coming of Jimmy Carter to that of another Bill Clinton. That won’t exempt him from criticism, nor does it mean that he will have even a remote chance of succeeding in moving the region toward peace. But it does mean that many of his Jewish and Democratic defenders have been to some extent vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.
The president may have spent his first three years in office picking fights with Netanyahu and seeking, as administration staffers openly said in 2009, to create some distance between Israel and the United States. But after the stirring Zionist rhetoric uttered by the president during his stay in the Jewish state, it’s simply no longer possible for his opponents to brand him as a foe of Israel or as someone who is unsympathetic to its plight. Though his appeals for peace were addressed to the wrong side of the conflict, it just isn’t possible to ask any American president to have said more.
As much as many conservatives have, with good reason, hammered Obama both for the tone and the substance of his policies toward Israel, there can be no denying that he went some way toward rectifying his past mistakes. His speeches didn’t merely give the Israelis some love. He specifically endorsed the Zionist narrative and rationale about Israel’s founding and its purpose. Unlike his 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, when he seemed to say that its creation was merely a sop to the Jews suffering in the Holocaust, this week the president cited the thousands of years of Jewish history that gave them a right to sovereignty in their historic homeland. He reaffirmed the U.S. alliance with Israel as being both “eternal” and “unbreakable.” The president also specifically endorsed Israel’s right of self-defense against terrorism and pointedly said those who seek its destruction are wasting their time.
At this point, the comparisons between Obama and Jimmy Carter or even the first President Bush, who were both rightly criticized for their hostile attitudes toward Israel, ought to cease. Instead, the more apt comparison would be Bill Clinton, who went out of his way to express warm friendship for Israel even as he pushed hard to continue a failed peace process.
That doesn’t mean the president’s stands on issues relating to Israel are exempt from criticism. Though he once again promised in the most absolute terms that he would never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon and that all options, including force, remain on the table, there is room for plenty of skepticism about whether he will make good on that pledge even if he wants to. Obama’s naïve views about the chances for peace and his mischaracterization of Abbas as a reliable partner for Israel also deserve close scrutiny.
It is here that the Clinton analogy is most telling. Though Clinton is rightly remembered in Israel for his “Shalom, haver” farewell to Yitzhak Rabin and as being a stout friend of the Jewish state, his blind faith in the Oslo Accords—whose signing he hosted on the White House Lawn—wound up doing Israel more harm than good.
As State Department veteran Dennis Ross subsequently admitted in his memoirs, the U.S. became so committed to the idea of peace that it blinded itself to the reality of the Palestinian Authority that Oslo created. The Clinton administration refused to acknowledge the PA’s incitement of hatred toward Israel and Jews as well as its cozy relationship with Fatah’s own terrorist auxiliaries. That foolish tunnel vision led to the chaos and bloodshed of the second intifada that cost the lives of more than a thousand Israelis and far more Palestinians.
Yet for all that, Clinton, who to this day faults Arafat’s refusal to accept Israel’s offer of statehood at Camp David in the summer of 2000 for his failure to win a Nobel Peace Prize, must still be regarded as a friend of Israel–albeit one that sometimes urged it to adopt mistaken policies.
Obama, who seems prepared to make the same mistake about Abbas that Clinton did with Arafat, must now be regarded in much the same way. Though it would have been more useful for him to preach peace to Palestinian students than to a handpicked group of left-wing Israelis, the lengths to which he went to demonstrate his support for Israel must be acknowledged and applauded.
This entitles Jewish Democrats who spent the last year extolling the president as a true friend of Israel to a skeptical Jewish electorate to feel as if Obama has made them look prophetic. And Republicans, who were right to hold Obama accountable for his past record of hostility, will by the same token have to take their criticism of him down a notch, at least on this issue.
It remains to be seen whether Obama will use his new standing as a friend of Israel for good or for ill. He will be judged on his actions toward Iran as well as on whether his peace advocacy takes into account the utter lack of interest toward that goal on the part of the Palestinian people. But there is no escaping the fact that from now on—or at least until events dictate another shift in opinion—his relations with Israel will be remembered more for his embrace of Zionism than his squabbles with Netanyahu.