Mr. President, Your Animus Is Showing
Ten months ago in this space, I published these words about the relationship between the United States and Israel in the Age of Obama: “There is no question that we have entered a new era, one that I expect will be characterized by tensions and unpleasantnesses of a kind unseen since the days when George H. W. Bush was president, James A. Baker III was secretary of state, and the hostility toward Israel oozed from both men like sweat from an intrepid colonial traveler’s brow as he journeyed across the Rub-al-Khali.”
Prophetic? Perhaps, but if you wish to credit me with visionary foresight, I have to confess that the reports of President Obama’s conduct toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their deliberately unphotographed White House meeting in March still came as a cold shock to me. We still don’t know quite what happened, but it appears that the president came into the room with a list of unilateral demands, that he grew impatient with Netanyahu’s answers, and that he left unceremoniously by claiming he was going to have dinner with his wife and kids but that he would “be around” in case the prime minister “changed” his tune.
Even if the meeting was only half as confrontational and chilly as the reports indicated, it would still represent a display of rudeness and high-handedness unprecedented in the annals of American diplomacy. But since the target of Obama’s startling behavior was Israel, something especially complicated was at work. The president’s conduct was so extreme that it would be unthinkable for him to act in such a fashion toward the leader of any other nation, friend or foe. Obama knows that Israel needs the United States so much it is in no position to complain—particularly since the president was supposedly still in a snit over the ham-handed revelation in Israel, in the midst of Vice President Biden’s March visit, of the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Jerusalem.
Maybe Obama was operating, even unconsciously, in the unique spirit of informal aggression that can only be expressed between familial intimates. For who else would feel free to express such open rudeness at a special occasion? More likely, he was behaving in the manner of a liege lord demanding compensation from someone he considers his vassal. This attitude might explain as well the president’s otherwise perplexing treatment of other friendly leaders—Gordon Brown of Great Britain, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy—who may not seem to Obama to possess sufficient rank for him to treat them as allies of comparable stature.
Obama’s open hostility toward Netanyahu and his disproportionate reaction to the unintentional slight delivered to Biden are important, and deadly serious, because there is no doubt they were authentic expressions of real emotion. We’ve seen Obama be a little churlish and somewhat peevish, but rarely more openly negative than that. Nothing in the course of his presidency has made him angry, so far as we know, in the way that Israel and Netanyahu have made him angry. Not Iran’s defiance and game-playing. Not the supposed chicanery of Wall Street and the monstrous insurance companies that have served as his populist targets. Not even Rush Limbaugh.
This is meaningful. It suggests not merely that Obama differs with Israel on matters of policy but also that he takes these differences personally. And that, in turn, demonstrates there is an animus at work here, a predisposition to think badly of Israel—to view the Jewish state at best as an impediment to the good working order of a fairer world and at worst as a sower of discord. This is a bitter truth, but it is a truth, no matter how many Jews Obama knows or likes or employs, no matter how many Potemkin Passover seders he stages in the people’s house in which he is a temporary resident and in which he chose to treat a friend he ought to cherish instead like an enemy he cannot abide.