Commentary Magazine


Topic: Obama Israel visit

Obama Visit Signals Nadir of Israeli Left

Many on Israel’s right are viewing the arrival of President Obama in their country with suspicion. They look at his record of antagonism toward the Netanyahu government and his past attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and think no good can possibly come from an event that will give someone they view as inherently hostile to the Jewish state a bully pulpit from which to put forward his ideas. They may be right about Obama’s long-term intentions toward Israel. But for a better idea of who are the real losers as the president puts the country in the spotlight, it might be better to look at what pundits on the left are saying about it. As unhappy as some right-wingers might be about the arrival of what has undoubtedly been the least sympathetic toward Israel of any president in the last generation, it is the left that is really unhappy.

Look at just about any one of the many opinion columnists writing in the left-wing Haaretz or read the lament of veteran journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect and you quickly realize that the left understands that the presidential agenda signals the nadir of their influence in Israeli politics and policymaking. A couple of years ago they would have cheered an Obama visit, certain that the president would use the occasion to bash the Netanyahu government and strong-arm it into far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Now they read of his decision to put the peace process on the back burner and concentrate instead on making sure the two countries are on the same page on Iran, and tell him to go home. The uncontroversial nature of the Obama visit and the lack of expectations that it will do a thing to advance the moribund peace process means the decades-old hope of the Israeli left (cheered on by Jewish liberals in the United States like the J Street lobby) that America will “save Israel from itself” is officially dead.

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Many on Israel’s right are viewing the arrival of President Obama in their country with suspicion. They look at his record of antagonism toward the Netanyahu government and his past attempts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and think no good can possibly come from an event that will give someone they view as inherently hostile to the Jewish state a bully pulpit from which to put forward his ideas. They may be right about Obama’s long-term intentions toward Israel. But for a better idea of who are the real losers as the president puts the country in the spotlight, it might be better to look at what pundits on the left are saying about it. As unhappy as some right-wingers might be about the arrival of what has undoubtedly been the least sympathetic toward Israel of any president in the last generation, it is the left that is really unhappy.

Look at just about any one of the many opinion columnists writing in the left-wing Haaretz or read the lament of veteran journalist and author Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect and you quickly realize that the left understands that the presidential agenda signals the nadir of their influence in Israeli politics and policymaking. A couple of years ago they would have cheered an Obama visit, certain that the president would use the occasion to bash the Netanyahu government and strong-arm it into far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Now they read of his decision to put the peace process on the back burner and concentrate instead on making sure the two countries are on the same page on Iran, and tell him to go home. The uncontroversial nature of the Obama visit and the lack of expectations that it will do a thing to advance the moribund peace process means the decades-old hope of the Israeli left (cheered on by Jewish liberals in the United States like the J Street lobby) that America will “save Israel from itself” is officially dead.

Obama will undoubtedly pay lip service to the two-state solution, say he’s against settlements and call for a return to the peace table. Some of that will grate on Israeli ears, since the vast majority of the country understands the Palestinians (either the “moderate” Palestinian Authority or the “extremists” of Hamas) have shown they have no interest in peace and won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

But they will also enjoy the symbolism of the reaffirmation of the alliance that the visit will accomplish. And they will also pick up on the fact that whatever the president might say about peace, he isn’t there to pressure Netanyahu on the subject. Right-wingers will lament the government’s decision to go along with Obama on the question of giving more time to diplomacy to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. That may, as Jeffrey Goldberg rightly points out in Bloomberg News, place Israel’s fate in his hands rather than those of its government. But even there Obama will be going out of his way to reassure Israelis that he means what he says about stopping Iran even if it’s not clear the Iranians believe him. 

Yet the main takeaway from this visit may well be the absence of rancor on the peace process that has so divided the two governments for the past four years. For most Israelis, this is a blessing. But for an Israeli left that has long cherished the dream of having an American president force the nation to accept policies that its voters have rejected, it’s a nightmare. The recent election was almost entirely fought on domestic issues, with even the Labor Party de-emphasizing the peace process. Today, the advocates of the “peace now” agenda that roughly correlates with the J Street crowd in America are marginalized in the Knesset. Obama might be sorry about that, but this week he will show that he won’t lift a finger to do anything about it.

This means that although the president will underwhelm many Israelis, his visit will be a symbolic acceptance of the concept that the U.S. can’t dictate policy to its Israeli ally. That’s a boost for Israeli democracy, but very bad news for Israelis and their American cheerleaders who want Obama to override the verdict of the electorate.

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Are Iranians Buying Obama’s Tough Talk?

President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.

The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.

But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.

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President Obama ensured himself an even warmer welcome in Israel next week by ratcheting up his rhetoric about the Iranian nuclear threat in an interview. Speaking with Israel’s Channel 2 television network, Obama did something he had never done before in more than four years of promises and threats about Iran: he gave a precise time frame about how long he thinks the West has before Tehran could realize its nuclear ambition.

The president said that U.S. intelligence believes Iran requires “over a year or so to actually develop a nuclear weapon.” That is a bit more optimistic than the red lines warnings issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, which first said the danger zone would be this spring and then revised the estimate to later this year. But it does make it clear that he doesn’t believe negotiations have unlimited time to succeed and, combined with the accompanying warning that the U.S. didn’t want to “cut it that close” and that all options including force remained on the table, constituted the sort of explicit warning that Tehran had never previously received.

But the question hanging over this statement, as well as the good will trip to the Jewish state that seems designed to reassure the Israelis, is whether the Iranians are buying it.

President Obama has been promising that Iran would not get a bomb on his watch since before he was elected president. Over the course of the last four years his rhetoric on this point was consistent. But it has been undermined by a series of feckless diplomatic initiatives that seems to have convinced the ayatollahs Obama’s bark was worse than his bite. Years wasted on engagement and assembling an international coalition that could only agree on weak sanctions did more than give Tehran more time to get closer to its nuclear goal. They also emboldened the Iranians to hang tough in negotiations and to believe that the West would never make good on threats to use force to stop them.

Obama can blame no one but himself for reinforcing that Iranian conviction in recent months. He did it first by choosing a new defense secretary in Chuck Hagel who has been an opponent of the use of force against Iran. He compounded that blunder by going along with a series of concessions offered to Iran at the latest edition of the P5+1 talks, which raised the possibility that it could hold onto the nuclear program that he has vowed to shut down while eliminating some sanctions. The Iranians didn’t bite in no small measure because a decade of negotiations with the West have persuaded them that the longer they hold out the more likely they are to get their bomb.

The president’s apologists may see these two trends—tough talk about the subject aimed primarily at an Israeli audience and olive branches lobbed at the Iranians in the talks—as compatible, but they are actually working against each other. He may think that reassuring the Israelis that he has their back may win him extra time to talk to the Iranians. It is probably true that every such statement makes it more unlikely that Israel would consider acting against Iran on its own. But though the president has often acted as if his main problem was keeping the Israelis in line, what he has done is paint himself into a very uncomfortable corner.

The latest reassurance that he will act and act decisively if necessary is good news if only because it makes it that much more difficult for the administration to wiggle their way out of the president’s commitment to spike Iran’s nuclear program when push comes to shove. By establishing a timeline, Obama has taken one more step toward action that ought to get the attention of the ayatollahs and convince them they must give in. But it is unclear whether this increased resolve comes too late to alter the Iranian perception that they have all the time they need to go nuclear before the West wakes up and realizes this grave threat to their security as well as to Israel’s is imminent.

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Carping About Obama’s Israel Itinerary Misses the Point

The announcement of the itinerary of President Obama’s visit next week to Israel has produced a predictable kerfuffle. With every possible site rife with symbolism, the omission of some places of interest and the inclusion of others is the sort of thing to send the already hyperactive sensitivities of Israel’s supporters into overdrive. Given the history of the past four years during which the president has lost few opportunities to slight Israel and its government, it’s understandable that the decisions about the trip will be examined with a fine-tooth comb and that each element would be suspected as yet another example of Obama’s hostility.

But while I’ll admit I raised my eyebrows about some of the choices, carping about the schedule misses the point. The only real symbolism of this visit is that he will be there. Though there are strong disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem on some vital issues, the Obama trip remains a nightmare for Israel-bashers. There has been no U.S. president who has been less sympathetic to Israel than Obama in a generation. Yet he will be journeying to the Jewish state to unequivocally pledge his nation’s support for its security. If the tone of the foreign policy of his first term was set by his 2009 Cairo address where he pointedly snubbed Israel and treated the complaints of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the Holocaust, it is to be hoped that the sight of showing respect for symbols of Jewish sovereignty over the land will be just as influential.

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The announcement of the itinerary of President Obama’s visit next week to Israel has produced a predictable kerfuffle. With every possible site rife with symbolism, the omission of some places of interest and the inclusion of others is the sort of thing to send the already hyperactive sensitivities of Israel’s supporters into overdrive. Given the history of the past four years during which the president has lost few opportunities to slight Israel and its government, it’s understandable that the decisions about the trip will be examined with a fine-tooth comb and that each element would be suspected as yet another example of Obama’s hostility.

But while I’ll admit I raised my eyebrows about some of the choices, carping about the schedule misses the point. The only real symbolism of this visit is that he will be there. Though there are strong disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem on some vital issues, the Obama trip remains a nightmare for Israel-bashers. There has been no U.S. president who has been less sympathetic to Israel than Obama in a generation. Yet he will be journeying to the Jewish state to unequivocally pledge his nation’s support for its security. If the tone of the foreign policy of his first term was set by his 2009 Cairo address where he pointedly snubbed Israel and treated the complaints of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to the Holocaust, it is to be hoped that the sight of showing respect for symbols of Jewish sovereignty over the land will be just as influential.

The most controversial aspect of the Obama itinerary is the decision for him to drop the seemingly obligatory visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That smacks of a lack of respect or support for Israel’s claims to the Old City of Jerusalem as well as to Judaism’s holiest site. That he will go to the Church of the Nativity in Palestinian Authority-controlled Bethlehem while also avoiding any Muslim sites will also raise the hackles of some.

The other sore point will be the fact that the president will not address the Knesset but will instead give a major address to an audience largely composed of students—as was the case in Cairo—at Jerusalem’s convention center (though students from Ariel in the West Bank were not invited).

Obama’s decision to speak at a religious university in Cairo was fitting because it was the perfect symbol of Egyptian society. But the Knesset is living proof of Israel’s status as the sole real democracy in the region. But given the president’s belief that he knows what’s good for Israel better than its democratically elected leaders, it’s hardly surprising that he would have little interest in paying homage to that institution. However, to be fair, it is also possible that the motivation for the snub had more to do with Obama’s notoriously thin skin than his contempt for the country’s representative government. Unlike Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was repeatedly cheered to the echo when he addressed a joint meeting of Congress in 2011, the president knows there is every chance that he will be heckled or jeered by some members of the raucous and unruly parliament.

That said there will still be plenty for friends of Israel to cheer in the visit.

Obama will not only go to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial, he will also make a stop to Israel’s version of Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. That will be a telling rebuke to the increasing chorus of those who wish to delegitimize Israel and its reason for being. Also important will be a visit to the Israel Museum where he will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, a telling reminder of Jewish history and claims to the land that no amount of Palestinian revisionism and propaganda can erase. This, as much as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire to show the president the new high-tech industries, helps establish the justice of Israel’s cause.

One element of the trip will be entirely self-serving. Obama will inspect an Iron Dome anti-missile battery. That will be a not-so-subtle reminder of his attempt to claim sole credit for the creation and funding of the vital defense system. However, Obama won’t bother to visit an Iron dome at its normal station but will instead take a look at one that will be towed to Ben-Gurion Airport to save him time.

Obama’s predilection for moral grandstanding and condescension is well known, and that means there is every chance he will say some things that will offend Israelis and give comfort to their enemies. But no matter what he says, his long awaited trip tangibly reaffirms the alliance between Israel and the United States that can’t be ignored.

For all of the tension between the two countries in the last four years and whatever disputes will ensue in the next four, even Barack Obama feels compelled to pay tribute to Israel and some of its most important national symbols. Those in the Muslim and Arab worlds as well as in Europe and elsewhere who have been encouraged by the distance that the Obama administration has sought to create between the U.S. and Israel will be upset by his presence in the country no matter what Obama says.

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