Commentary Magazine


Topic: Obama visit to Israel

What Part of No Preconditions Do American Jews Not Get?

In the aftermath of President Obama’s ringing affirmation of Zionism and Jewish rights during his visit to Israel last month, many of his liberal Jewish supporters are justifiably feeling vindicated. But after years of backing Obama and sniping at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, some of them are having a little trouble fully understanding the administration’s moves. While the president also called on Israeli students to pressure their government to make peace, he also reversed course on one of the key elements of his Middle East policy during his first term. When speaking with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, Obama pointedly said that settlements were not the obstacle to peace and that no preconditions should be expected of the Israelis in order to entice the PA back to the negotiating table.

These comments, which received far less play than the president’s Jerusalem speech about peace, represented a significant policy shift. After four years of demanding Israel freeze settlements as well as make other concessions prior to talks, Obama put himself on the same page as Netanyahu when it came to the question of Israel being asked to ante up and virtually guarantee that it would abandon its bargaining chips prior to negotiations. Yet somehow many of the president’s backers haven’t quite assimilated this message.

That was made clear in a letter to Netanyahu organized by the Israel Policy Forum that rounded up many of the usual liberal suspects who have periodically urged Obama to save Israel from itself. While respectful and, for a change, not containing any specific criticisms of Netanyahu’s government and even throwing him a bouquet for his phone call with Turkey’s leader (which they foolishly accept as a “rapprochement” even after the Turks have already reneged on their promises to normalize relations), the group of 100 prominent American Jews did call on Jerusalem to make “concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution.” In other words, in spite of the signals from Obama that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court as far as resuming talks, the IPF’s signees are still reflexively attempting to put the onus on Netanyahu.

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In the aftermath of President Obama’s ringing affirmation of Zionism and Jewish rights during his visit to Israel last month, many of his liberal Jewish supporters are justifiably feeling vindicated. But after years of backing Obama and sniping at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, some of them are having a little trouble fully understanding the administration’s moves. While the president also called on Israeli students to pressure their government to make peace, he also reversed course on one of the key elements of his Middle East policy during his first term. When speaking with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, Obama pointedly said that settlements were not the obstacle to peace and that no preconditions should be expected of the Israelis in order to entice the PA back to the negotiating table.

These comments, which received far less play than the president’s Jerusalem speech about peace, represented a significant policy shift. After four years of demanding Israel freeze settlements as well as make other concessions prior to talks, Obama put himself on the same page as Netanyahu when it came to the question of Israel being asked to ante up and virtually guarantee that it would abandon its bargaining chips prior to negotiations. Yet somehow many of the president’s backers haven’t quite assimilated this message.

That was made clear in a letter to Netanyahu organized by the Israel Policy Forum that rounded up many of the usual liberal suspects who have periodically urged Obama to save Israel from itself. While respectful and, for a change, not containing any specific criticisms of Netanyahu’s government and even throwing him a bouquet for his phone call with Turkey’s leader (which they foolishly accept as a “rapprochement” even after the Turks have already reneged on their promises to normalize relations), the group of 100 prominent American Jews did call on Jerusalem to make “concrete confidence building steps designed to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to a ‘two-states for two peoples’ solution.” In other words, in spite of the signals from Obama that the ball is in the Palestinians’ court as far as resuming talks, the IPF’s signees are still reflexively attempting to put the onus on Netanyahu.

It bears remembering that, as even the president pointed out in his peace speech, Israel has already demonstrated its willingness to make what the letter called “painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.” As the IPF and its backers know all too well the reason why political parties that focused their platforms on the peace process were marginalized in the January election is that the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters understand what happened after Oslo and the withdrawal from Gaza and have no interest in repeating these experiments in the West Bank, let alone Jerusalem.

All of which should cause one to wonder why such a gaggle of presumably well-meaning American Jews are still acting as if the absence of peace is the result of Israeli decisions. Like Obama’s speech, their preaching about confidence building was addressed to the wrong leader.

Should the Palestinians ever decide to accept a peace settlement that would, as President Obama rightly insisted, recognize Israel as a Jewish state and definitively end the conflict, they would find that most Israelis would be willing to make great sacrifices to achieve such an end.

But with Hamas-run Gaza—the independent Palestinian state in all but name—continuing to be a base for rocket attacks on southern Israel and with the supposed moderates of the Fatah-run PA continuing to spew hate for Jews on their official media while avoiding peace talks for years, expecting confidence building measures from Netanyahu to make a difference requires a certain tunnel vision that is impervious to reality. Urging Israel, as this letter seems to do, to release more terrorists with blood on their hands from prison, make concessions on settlements or Jerusalem — the sort of measures that are usually considered appropriate to building Palestinian “confidence” — prior to even sitting down will only encourage more intransigence from Abbas, not peace moves.

With Secretary of State John Kerry heading to the region on yet another diplomatic fool’s errand, advice from Americans about how Israel should be demonstrating its peaceful intentions is the sort of absurdity that we have come to expect from IPF and its ilk. With even President Obama demonstrating that after four years in office he’s starting to catch on to the facts of life about the Middle East, would it be too much to ask that some of his Jewish supporters do the same?

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Should Bibi Have Said No to Turkey Talk?

Much of the commentary about President Obama’s brokering of a supposed reconciliation between Israel and Turkey has broken down into two categories: those extolling the president’s supposed diplomatic magic and those who have castigated Prime Minister Netanyahu for going along with the charade. I tried to pour some cold water on the former on Sunday when I wrote that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s hasty backtracking on the agreement as well as the entire character of his Islamist government rendered the exercise pointless. Michael Rubin, who knows far more about Turkey than almost anybody you can think of who comments about it in the American press, is right to point out how dangerous Erdoğan is and the malevolent nature of his regime.

But I think it’s a mistake to portray Netanyahu’s decision to accede to Obama’s desire for the call as something that will materially harm Israel’s security, as some on the right have asserted. The apology over the Mavi Marmara incident is being portrayed in some quarters as a dangerous dereliction of duty on Netanyahu’s part that potentially opens up Israel’s armed forces to future legal attacks, as well as a sign that the prime minister is acquiescing to banana republic status with respect to the United States. While I share the cynicism about Turkey’s goals and Obama’s naïveté, Netanyahu doesn’t deserve the abuse he’s taking on this issue.

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Much of the commentary about President Obama’s brokering of a supposed reconciliation between Israel and Turkey has broken down into two categories: those extolling the president’s supposed diplomatic magic and those who have castigated Prime Minister Netanyahu for going along with the charade. I tried to pour some cold water on the former on Sunday when I wrote that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s hasty backtracking on the agreement as well as the entire character of his Islamist government rendered the exercise pointless. Michael Rubin, who knows far more about Turkey than almost anybody you can think of who comments about it in the American press, is right to point out how dangerous Erdoğan is and the malevolent nature of his regime.

But I think it’s a mistake to portray Netanyahu’s decision to accede to Obama’s desire for the call as something that will materially harm Israel’s security, as some on the right have asserted. The apology over the Mavi Marmara incident is being portrayed in some quarters as a dangerous dereliction of duty on Netanyahu’s part that potentially opens up Israel’s armed forces to future legal attacks, as well as a sign that the prime minister is acquiescing to banana republic status with respect to the United States. While I share the cynicism about Turkey’s goals and Obama’s naïveté, Netanyahu doesn’t deserve the abuse he’s taking on this issue.

As much as I share the sentiments of those who would prefer that Israel tell Erdoğan to stuff it, Netanyahu’s decision was not a craven collapse or merely the function of unconscionable pressure by Obama.

Israel had, after all, made several previous attempts to put the Mavi Marmara dust-up in the past. It’s not clear that the “apology” delivered last week went any further than previous expressions of Israeli regret. Nor was there anything new about offers to compensate families of those Turks killed when Israeli soldiers boarded the ship.

It bears repeating that Israel was in the right in defending the blockade of Gaza and that the Turkish supporters of Hamas who, with the connivance of their government, were staging this provocation were doing nothing to help the people of Gaza or advance the cause of peace. But that does not mean that Netanyahu was wrong to admit that the operation was “botched” or that his government was sorry that civilians, no matter how wrongheaded or malevolent their motives might have been, were killed. When Netanyahu ordered the seizure of the ship he did not intend for any of its passengers or crew to be killed, even if they did violently resist. There is a difference between asserting that Israel had every right to stop the ship and saying that the seizure went as planned, since it obviously did not.

The fears that this admission will open up Israel to lawsuits in international courts or undermine its right of self-defense are similarly mistaken. Israel was already under siege in such forums and Netanyahu’s limited measure won’t advance or retard any efforts to turn it into a pariah.

Nor did the phone call transform Netanyahu from a thorn in Obama’s side to the status of a client state lickspittle, as some of his critics would have it.

The phone call took place in the context of a state visit in which Obama went farther than any of his predecessors in making the case for Zionism and Jewish rights. As much as it is difficult for some of his critics to admit it, after years of acting as if he cared nothing for Israel, it was Obama who gave ground last week, not Netanyahu.

Obama virtually endorsed Netanyahu’s demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and, in a major shift in U.S. policy from that of the previous four years, peace negotiations must come with no preconditions. No less a conservative critic of Obama than scholar Daniel Pipes noted that this “broke new ground and cannot be readily undone.” While many who have rightly assailed the president for his policies toward Israel during his first term focused on his foolish embrace of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and his call for Israeli youth to pressure their government to make peace, those empty words pale in significance when compared to Obama’s other comments while in Israel.

If, in exchange for these unexpected and important concessions on Obama’s part, Netanyahu had to suffer through a phone call with the likes of Erdoğan, that seems a paltry price to pay.

This sort of thing grates on the sensibilities of some Israelis who resent their nation’s dependence on the United States. Such feelings are understandable, but if some on the right think the country would really be better off on its own, they need to get their heads examined. As much as Israel prides itself on its right to defend itself by itself—an important phrase that was also echoed by Obama last week—that ability is based in no small measure by the strategic alliance with the United States.

Netanyahu has already demonstrated that he is not so intimidated by the need for U.S. support as to allow Obama to force him to give way on issues that were matters of principle or security. Contrary to the claims of some of its critics, Israel has the right to say no to Washington and has done so several times in the past.

But a leader has to be able to distinguish between those requests by its ally that ought to be rejected as dangerous and those which, however misguided, should be accepted for the sake of goodwill. Though I don’t disagree with the concerns being expressed about Turkey—whose efforts to bolster Hamas and to force a unity government on Abbas will undermine the already remote chances for peace—and think Obama deserves to be critiqued for his inexplicable friendship with the Turkish leader, I can’t agree with those who think Netanyahu made a mistake in going along on the Erdoğan call.

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Turks Illustrate Limits of Obama’s Magic

President Obama was already basking in the good review of his trip to Israel when he added what is being seen as yet another bold stroke to his list of accomplishments. Just before he left Israel, he brokered a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which the two seemingly resolved the long running dispute about the Mavi Marmara incident. The president is being praised for his persistence in pushing Netanyahu to make the call and for persuading his good friend Erdoğan to accept it. This has caused Obama’s cheerleaders at the New York Times to say that his “talent for arm-twisting” has “raised hopes” that the president might have similar success in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Though the Times is sober enough to note that the Israel-Palestinian tangle is sufficiently complicated as to resist even the president’s magic touch, it did accept the claim that the call “healed the rift between the two countries” at face value. But other sympathetic observers were not able to restrain their enthusiasm. Writing in Canada’s National Post, Jonathan Kay not only noted with satisfaction my appreciation for the improvement in Obama’s stand on Israel but also extolled the president’s efforts to achieve “a resumption of the Israel-Turkish alliance.”

But apparently the hosannas about the president’s achievement are a little premature. Less than a day after the supposed reconciliation Erdoğan was already backtracking, saying that the resumption of normal relations, let alone the old alliance between the two countries, was still on hold. It is to be hoped that a dose of reality will cool the ardor of those, like Kay, who believe Obama’s “much mocked faith in diplomacy and human rationality” has been vindicated.

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President Obama was already basking in the good review of his trip to Israel when he added what is being seen as yet another bold stroke to his list of accomplishments. Just before he left Israel, he brokered a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which the two seemingly resolved the long running dispute about the Mavi Marmara incident. The president is being praised for his persistence in pushing Netanyahu to make the call and for persuading his good friend Erdoğan to accept it. This has caused Obama’s cheerleaders at the New York Times to say that his “talent for arm-twisting” has “raised hopes” that the president might have similar success in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Though the Times is sober enough to note that the Israel-Palestinian tangle is sufficiently complicated as to resist even the president’s magic touch, it did accept the claim that the call “healed the rift between the two countries” at face value. But other sympathetic observers were not able to restrain their enthusiasm. Writing in Canada’s National Post, Jonathan Kay not only noted with satisfaction my appreciation for the improvement in Obama’s stand on Israel but also extolled the president’s efforts to achieve “a resumption of the Israel-Turkish alliance.”

But apparently the hosannas about the president’s achievement are a little premature. Less than a day after the supposed reconciliation Erdoğan was already backtracking, saying that the resumption of normal relations, let alone the old alliance between the two countries, was still on hold. It is to be hoped that a dose of reality will cool the ardor of those, like Kay, who believe Obama’s “much mocked faith in diplomacy and human rationality” has been vindicated.

Erdoğan’s double dealing on normalization even after Netanyahu’s call is hardly surprising. This is, after all, the same person who recently compared Zionism to fascism and whose regime has encouraged anti-Semitism as it transformed a secular republic into an Islamist regime in all but name. The Mavi Marmara incident, in which a flotilla of ships sponsored by Turkey attempted to run the Israeli blockade of Hamas-run Gaza, was intended to provoke an Israeli attack. While, as Netanyahu admitted, the raid on the ship appears to have been botched by Israeli forces, Ankara’s purpose was to create a pretext for a complete break. This was the end of a process begun years earlier by Erdoğan, not a spontaneous reaction to anything Israel had done.

Thus, no one should be holding their breath waiting for Turkey’s ambassador to return to Israel anytime soon. As for resuming the alliance, it needs to be understood that all those Turks that worked to create the formerly warm relations between Ankara and Jerusalem are no longer involved in the government. Indeed, the main constituency for close relations was secular military officers, and Erdoğan has jailed many of them.

As for what Kay termed a “pride-swallowing apology,” it should also be understood that it didn’t take any “arm-twisting” or diplomatic skill from Obama to force Israel to express regret for the Mavi Marmara incident. Netanyahu had done so years ago. He had also previously offered compensation for the families of those killed while attacking Israeli soldiers on the ship. Netanyahu’s government has made several efforts to solve the impasse over the incident but had been repeatedly rebuffed, not just because of insufficient contrition on Israel’s part but because Erdoğan had no interest in ending the dispute. Indeed, in the day after the phone call, Erdoğan reiterated his determination to make a state visit to Gaza solidifying his alliance with the Hamas terrorists.

So long as Turkey is committed to supporting Hamas, normal relations will be difficult, if not impossible. While there may be issues on which the two countries may be able to cooperate, such as the crisis in Syria, a resumption of the alliance between the Jewish state and Erdoğan’s Islamist state is a fantasy.

To point this out is not a criticism of Obama so much as it is reality check for those who are so besotted with the notion that American diplomacy can remake the Middle East in the image of America’s hopes. What little good the president may have done in brokering the Netanyahu-Erdoğan call should not be represented as a blueprint for a new diplomatic offensive from Obama or Secretary of State Kerry. The president’s faith in and friendship for Erdoğan calls his judgment into question. The same is true about his assertion that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is a partner for peace. The president didn’t solve the differences between Turkey and Israel because they are the product of a shift in Turkish politics that cannot be undone by anything Americans say or do. The same is true of any ideas about bridging the gap between Israel and Palestinian leaders who have no interest in signing a peace accord. 

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Obama Will Need to Curb Kerry’s Folly

President Obama is being praised for his peace advocacy during his visit to Israel this week. But it hasn’t escaped the notice of savvy observers that for all of his eloquent appeals for coexistence, he did not commit himself to any specific peace plan. In fact, he actually endorsed Israel’s call for negotiations without preconditions, a clear change from previous U.S. demands for a settlement freeze and other concessions. Even more to the point, since Palestinian attitudes toward Obama’s visit ranged from indifference to outright hostility, it’s hard to see how the president’s attempt to urge young Israelis to work for peace will change a thing.

The president was wise to avoid specifics since the prospects for progress in negotiations, or even holding talks, are bleak. But it appears that new Secretary of State John Kerry has no such inhibitions. According to an article in Politico today, Kerry is straining at the leash this week as he prepares to dive headfirst into an all-out effort to restart the peace process. Kerry is undaunted by the unbroken record of failure on the part of a long list of his predecessors, and seems blithely indifferent to the current situation in which the Palestinians remain divided and unable to move toward peace. The president appears willing to let Kerry waste his time on another go at mediation, so long as, Politico notes, “he keeps a low profile and doesn’t generate a political backlash.” But Kerry’s open desire to use his new position to make a place for himself in the history books seems to be setting up the president for exactly what he seems to want to avoid: an embarrassing fiasco that could distract both the Europeans and Israelis from the main security threat to the region coming from Iran and set the stage for more Palestinian violence.

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President Obama is being praised for his peace advocacy during his visit to Israel this week. But it hasn’t escaped the notice of savvy observers that for all of his eloquent appeals for coexistence, he did not commit himself to any specific peace plan. In fact, he actually endorsed Israel’s call for negotiations without preconditions, a clear change from previous U.S. demands for a settlement freeze and other concessions. Even more to the point, since Palestinian attitudes toward Obama’s visit ranged from indifference to outright hostility, it’s hard to see how the president’s attempt to urge young Israelis to work for peace will change a thing.

The president was wise to avoid specifics since the prospects for progress in negotiations, or even holding talks, are bleak. But it appears that new Secretary of State John Kerry has no such inhibitions. According to an article in Politico today, Kerry is straining at the leash this week as he prepares to dive headfirst into an all-out effort to restart the peace process. Kerry is undaunted by the unbroken record of failure on the part of a long list of his predecessors, and seems blithely indifferent to the current situation in which the Palestinians remain divided and unable to move toward peace. The president appears willing to let Kerry waste his time on another go at mediation, so long as, Politico notes, “he keeps a low profile and doesn’t generate a political backlash.” But Kerry’s open desire to use his new position to make a place for himself in the history books seems to be setting up the president for exactly what he seems to want to avoid: an embarrassing fiasco that could distract both the Europeans and Israelis from the main security threat to the region coming from Iran and set the stage for more Palestinian violence.

That Kerry would embark on such a quest at a moment when success seems impossible speaks volumes not only about his ego but his inability to grasp the realities of the region.

Though the president addressed his pleas for peace to Israelis, given the fact that, as the president acknowledged in his Jerusalem speech, they have already taken risks for peace, the ball is clearly in the Palestinians’ court. But with Hamas in control of Gaza, the Palestinians are not merely divided; Abbas and the PA understand that any move toward recognition of a Jewish state, no matter where its borders are drawn, would bolster the Islamist terror group’s ambition in its rivalry with Fatah.

The New York Times helped prop up the idea that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is eager to resume negotiations by publishing a piece claiming internal PA memos testify to his willingness to talk. But since this is the same man who has been studiously avoiding returning to the table for more than four years after he fled from an Israeli offer of statehood, it’s difficult to take such stories seriously.

Kerry’s fatal flaw appears to be, as Politico puts it, that he is “in lockstep with European leaders, who view the Israeli-Palestinian issue with great urgency.” He also stands “a bit closer to the Palestinians than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and less likely to reflexively embrace the Israeli position.” But one must ask why Kerry thinks Hamas or a fearful Abbas will respond to his charms when years of President Obama attempting to tilt the diplomatic playing field in their direction yielded only disdain?

As the Arab Spring and the Iranian threat have proved, the notion that bringing Israel to heel can solve all the region’s problems is absurd. Indeed, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt has strengthened Hamas and weakened Fatah and made any movement even more unlikely.

More to the point, as Seth wrote earlier, Palestinians seem mired more than ever in a culture of hatred toward Israel and Jews that renders them indifferent to the president’s peace advocacy since it came within the context of speeches that embraced the Zionist narrative about Israel’s creation.

Though Obama may hope Kerry’s activities will keep hopes for peace alive without compromising U.S. policy on more urgent issues, that may be a snare that will undermine any efforts to focus the Europeans on the Iranian threat. Even worse, like other American peace processors, Kerry’s gambit could serve to raise hopes whose disappointment will be used as justification for a new round of violence that many Palestinians are already openly planning for.

This means the president needs to keep close curbs on his new secretary. Unless he wishes his second term to be embroiled in a failure that will limit his ability to deal effectively with Iran as well as distract him from the need to address vital domestic issues, he’s going to need to stop Kerry’s vain and foolish pursuit of diplomatic glory.

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Obama Channels Clinton, Not Carter

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.

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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.

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Both Right and Left May Be Wrong About Obama’s Speech

Jewish left-wingers are cheering President Obama’s Jerusalem speech in which he once again made the case for a two-state solution. Some are hoping that this will mean a renewed campaign of U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government. With a new secretary of state in John Kerry who may well be foolish enough to believe he can succeed where so many other American peace processers have failed, perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that although Obama was eager to reiterate his ideas about the necessity of peace, the only real insights about the impact of the presidential visit may be coming from Palestinians and some of their cheerleaders.

While they will also welcome the president’s reassertion of the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and his criticisms of Jewish settlements, it is far more probable that the part of his address today that will resonate with them is the section in which he laid out at length not only a defense of Zionism but a case for Israel’s right to self-defense and America’s ironclad guarantee of its security. Though there may be some in the Muslim and Arab worlds who will take to heart the president’s sermon on coexistence and shared goals, the chant of demonstrators that greeted him in Ramallah today, in which the crowd chanted for rocket propelled grenades, not more cooperation with the U.S., was perhaps a more accurate reading of public opinion.

Were Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whom the president inaccurately praised as a “partner for peace,” really interested in pursuing a two-state solution, he would take up the president’s challenge and agree, as Obama insisted during their joint press conference, to a new round of peace talks without insisting on preconditions. But the odds that the embattled Abbas, who is far more worried about Hamas than he is about Israel or the U.S., will do that are slim, making any new U.S. initiative a fool’s errand.

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Jewish left-wingers are cheering President Obama’s Jerusalem speech in which he once again made the case for a two-state solution. Some are hoping that this will mean a renewed campaign of U.S. pressure on the Netanyahu government. With a new secretary of state in John Kerry who may well be foolish enough to believe he can succeed where so many other American peace processers have failed, perhaps they are right. But it is also possible that although Obama was eager to reiterate his ideas about the necessity of peace, the only real insights about the impact of the presidential visit may be coming from Palestinians and some of their cheerleaders.

While they will also welcome the president’s reassertion of the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own and his criticisms of Jewish settlements, it is far more probable that the part of his address today that will resonate with them is the section in which he laid out at length not only a defense of Zionism but a case for Israel’s right to self-defense and America’s ironclad guarantee of its security. Though there may be some in the Muslim and Arab worlds who will take to heart the president’s sermon on coexistence and shared goals, the chant of demonstrators that greeted him in Ramallah today, in which the crowd chanted for rocket propelled grenades, not more cooperation with the U.S., was perhaps a more accurate reading of public opinion.

Were Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, whom the president inaccurately praised as a “partner for peace,” really interested in pursuing a two-state solution, he would take up the president’s challenge and agree, as Obama insisted during their joint press conference, to a new round of peace talks without insisting on preconditions. But the odds that the embattled Abbas, who is far more worried about Hamas than he is about Israel or the U.S., will do that are slim, making any new U.S. initiative a fool’s errand.

Those who would dismiss the president’s speeches as meaningless rhetoric shouldn’t underestimate the power of words, especially from an American president, to set the tone in the region. But those who think Obama’s appeal to Israelis to force their leaders to once again take risks for peace (something that runs contrary to the verdict of the recent Israeli election) may not only be misreading the mood of the Israeli public; they are also ignoring the Palestinians.

It should first be understood that merely stating America’s desire for a renewal of the peace process without demanding anything from the parties other than that they return to the peace table does not in any way constitute pressure on Israel. To the contrary, while Israel’s new government is under no illusion about the president wanting them to change course on settlements, they heard no concrete proposals from him that they must either refuse or accede to. In Ramallah, Obama echoed Netanyahu when he pointed out that the Palestinian demand that Israel concede every main point on borders and settlements prior to the negotiations was a formula for inaction, not peace. Israel’s position remains that it is ready to talk about everything without preconditions and that is exactly what Obama endorsed. Though it is possible Obama may follow this up with pressure on Netanyahu in the coming months and years, his speech actually made it very plain that pressure for peace would have to come from the Israel public and not from an American president who has learned his lesson about the futility of trying to impose his will on the Jewish state or on a Palestinian Authority that has consistently disappointed him.

While some on the Jewish right may only be listening to the latter part of the president’s speech in which he criticized settlements, what they need to understand is that Israel’s enemies probably stopped listening after the part where he endorsed Zionism and said those who wish to erase Israel are wasting their time. It will be those words and not his call for mutual understanding that will have the most impact.

The president may have felt that he had to precede any talk about peace with a stirring paean to Zionism and the right of Israel to defend itself against its enemies in order to make them feel safe enough to compromise. But to a Palestinian political culture that still seeks Israel’s delegitimization, that is an invitation to confrontation, not accommodation. So long as Palestinian nationalism is bound up with rejection of Zionism, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for even a stronger Palestinian leader than Abbas to make peace. And that is why he will, no doubt to President Obama’s frustration, continue to avoid talks like the plague.

Obama’s Jerusalem speech about the virtues of a two-state solution is no more likely to produce one than the one George W. Bush gave in 2002 when he became the first U.S. president to officially endorse the creation of a Palestinian state. Then, too, Bush couched his support for the concept in a context of Israeli security and Palestinian rights (though Bush also endorsed Palestinian democracy, a point that Obama wisely avoided since Abbas is now serving in the ninth year of a four-year term). But while Bush’s heartfelt support helped encourage then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Gaza (a colossal blunder that has worsened the country’s security and that neither Netanyahu nor any other Israeli leader will repeat in the West Bank), it did nothing to move the Palestinians. For all of his rhetorical brilliance, Obama’s chances of succeeding where Bush failed are minimal.

In the absence of any peace proposal that will hinge on American pressure on Israel to make concessions, nothing will come of Obama’s peace advocacy. Obama’s critics on the right, both here and in Israel, may say that his Zionist rhetoric is insincere and that the only aspects of his speeches that can be believed are those that call for Israeli concessions. But while he may not, as Aaron David Miller said, be “in love with the idea of Israel,” he gave a plausible impression of someone who is an ardent supporter of that idea this week. After this trip, it is simply not possible to claim he is Israel’s enemy, even if some of his advice to it is unwise.

The irony here is that the Jewish right that will attack Obama for his speech is probably as wrong about its impact as the left that cheers it. As long as the Palestinians remain unwilling to make peace, it doesn’t matter what the Israelis do or what Obama says about the subject.

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Obama’s Mix of Reality and Fantasy

President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.

The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.

In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.

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President Obama continued his charm offensive with the people of Israel with his speech to an audience of students in Jerusalem that reaffirmed his support for Zionism and Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States. But however far he may have gone toward reassuring Israelis of his concern for their security during this trip, many of the headlines today will be devoted to the part of his address that attempted to prod the Jewish state to recommit to the peace process.

The speech demonstrated that, despite the new warmth between Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, there is still considerable distance between their positions. But even the section devoted to advocacy for a renewed peace process showed that there is even greater distance between the United States and the Palestinians.

In a transparent effort to go over the heads of Israel’s government by appealing to the public, the president made the argument that peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were both just and necessary to secure the country’s future. He urged the hand picked left-leaning audience of students to pressure their leaders to pursue peace. He spent the first half of his speech extolling the legitimacy of Zionism as well as highlighting the threats to its existence from terror groups and hostile neighbors as well as Iran. But his clear purpose was to establish his bona fides as a friend of the Jewish state primarily in order to give him the standing to advocate for a reinvigorated peace process in which the country would once again take “risks for peace.” This was both clever and effective and there’s no doubt that, as many pundits seemed to say in its aftermath, is was a better exposition of the liberal Zionist position on the peace process that had been given in the country in many years.

But however much this may have encouraged Israel’s moribund political left, the president’s warning that “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer” to the question of how Israel was to navigate the future ran aground on his assurance that the goals of the Arabs who attended his 2009 Cairo speech were similar to those of the Israelis who heard him today in Jerusalem. Obama’s high-flown rhetoric about the virtues of coexistence and the need to establish two states for two peoples was widely applauded by the Israelis. But he is tragically mistaken if he really thinks the Muslim Brotherhood supporters who heard him in Cairo or most Palestinians have assimilated this ethos of live and let live.

The president may well be right that the ideal solution to the conflict is one in which the Palestinians have a state alongside Israel that will give them a focus for their national identity without threatening their Jewish neighbors. Were that a possibility, he would be correct in assuming that the vast majority of Israelis would embrace such an option even if, as was the case with the three offers past Israeli leaders made to the Palestinians, it involved far-reaching and possibly dangerous concessions. But his assumption that the Palestinian Authority—which rejected those three offers—let alone the Hamas rulers of Gaza or the Palestinian population for whose support both compete share this desire for two states is unfounded.

The president eloquently and rightly made clear that the United States would never abandon the Jewish state or allow its enemies to prevail:

So that is what I think about when Israel is faced with these challenges – that sense of an Israel that is surrounded by many in this region who reject it, and many in the world who refuse to accept it. That is why the security of the Jewish people in Israel is so important – because it can never be taken for granted. But make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [You are not alone].

This was comforting rhetoric to Israelis and their friends. But the problem facing those who want to solve the conflict is not whether the United States can reassure Israelis that they have nothing to fear but whether it can persuade the Palestinians to redefine their national identity in such a way as to be able to accept a solution to the conflict that does not involve Israel’s disappearance.

In telling Israelis that they were now the most powerful country in the region, he seemed to be saying they should stop thinking of themselves as victims and embrace a future in which their economic prowess can enrich the region. But by speaking of a future in which Israel could be “the hub for a thriving regional trade,” it sounded as if the president was channeling Israeli President Shimon Peres’s fantasy of a “New Middle East” that fueled the post-Oslo euphoria of the 1990s that was debunked by the reality of the Yasir Arafat-ruled terror state the peace accords established.

Unlike in many of his previous comments about the conflict, the president acknowledged that Israel had already taken risks for peace and had been answered with anti-Semitism, terrorism and war. If, as he also noted, Israelis have grown skeptical about the prospects for peace, it is not because they lack the will for it or the idealism to which his remarks appealed, but because they know their foes have not given up their goal of Israel’s destruction.

In Jerusalem, Obama was preaching to the choir about peace. But if he thinks Israelis will rise up and force the Netanyahu government —which was chosen in an election in which the vast majority of the electorate prioritized domestic issues over the futile quest for a solution to the conflict—he’s dreaming. The Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers that heard Obama in 2009 at a stronghold of anti-Semitism and rejection of Zionism may all want a good future for their families just like the Israelis. But they want the future to be one in which there is no Jewish state. The same is true of Hamas and, despite the statements in English to the Western press by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, it is true of Fatah and its sympathizers as well.

Though this speech will, to some extent, satisfy those who continue to long for the American president to “save Israel from itself,” it’s not likely it will have much of an impact on the Palestinians or Muslims and Arabs who agree that Israel and the United States are united by common values and despise both for that very reason.

We can all hope that, as the president said, peace will begin “in the hearts of the people.” But if that was his goal, he had the wrong audience. What Palestinians heard was not so much his advocacy for their rights and statehood as the president’s affirmation of America’s commitment to Israel’s future as a Jewish state whose security will not be undermined. If that will cause some of them to give up their quest for its destruction, that is all to the good. But as much as this speech demonstrated that there are still plenty of differences between the positions of Obama and Netanyahu, it also made clear that there is even more distance between those of the president and a Palestinian public that has yet to accept Israel’s legitimacy.

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A Greeting from the Palestinian State

President Obama visited Ramallah today and held a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during which he reiterated the U.S. stand in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But just before that confab he received a greeting from the real Palestinian state in all but name, already in existence on Israel’s opposite border. Rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel with reports saying that two landed in Sderot and that others may have been fired elsewhere.

While none of the terror groups, including the Hamas rulers of Gaza, took responsibility for the attacks, the message was clear. While the president was engaging in an awkward dance with Abbas about the peace process, the result of the last major Israeli attempt to trade land for peace was illustrating not only that the PA didn’t control much of what would constitute that independent state but that those who did had no interest in a two-state solution.

The Obama-Abbas press conference struck a very different note from the friendly exchanges that marked the president’s appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president was again stating his support for the idea of a Palestinian state and doing so in terms that ought to concern friends of Israel, he also pushed back a little bit on Abbas’s charade that Israeli settlements were preventing the outbreak of peace.

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President Obama visited Ramallah today and held a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas during which he reiterated the U.S. stand in favor of the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. But just before that confab he received a greeting from the real Palestinian state in all but name, already in existence on Israel’s opposite border. Rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel with reports saying that two landed in Sderot and that others may have been fired elsewhere.

While none of the terror groups, including the Hamas rulers of Gaza, took responsibility for the attacks, the message was clear. While the president was engaging in an awkward dance with Abbas about the peace process, the result of the last major Israeli attempt to trade land for peace was illustrating not only that the PA didn’t control much of what would constitute that independent state but that those who did had no interest in a two-state solution.

The Obama-Abbas press conference struck a very different note from the friendly exchanges that marked the president’s appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president was again stating his support for the idea of a Palestinian state and doing so in terms that ought to concern friends of Israel, he also pushed back a little bit on Abbas’s charade that Israeli settlements were preventing the outbreak of peace.

Obama said he wanted an “independent, viable and contiguous” Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, though he did not explain how that could be accomplished given the fact that Gaza and the West Bank are separated and cannot be connected except by rendering the Jewish state non-contiguous. He also returned to a theme familiar from his first term when he said Israeli settlements were “not constructive and appropriate.” He even said that building in the E-1 area in between Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim cold not be squared with the creation of a Palestinian state, even though doing so would not prevent it from being viable or contiguous.

But Obama also said that settlements were not the core issue at the heart of the conflict and that if all the other factors dividing the two sides were resolved settlements would not prevent peace. Even more importantly, he emphasized that there ought to be no preconditions placed by either side before peace negotiations could be resumed. That’s a direct shot at Abbas who has refused to talk to the Israelis since 2008 and consistently set conditions for doing so that were merely a thinly veiled excuse for staying away from the table.

While signs of Obama’s own unhealthy obsessions with settlements were still apparent, this shows the president has learned a thing or two since he began his administration with a drive to force Israel to freeze building in the mistaken idea that this would make peace possible. Years of trying to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of Abbas have shown him that the Palestinian leader’s main priority has always been to find excuses not to negotiate, because doing so might place him in the position of having to actually sign an agreement. Though the president restated his positions on settlements and peace, he seemed to put the ball squarely in Abbas’s court when it came to negotiations. Though many observers thought the president would use his second term to resume a campaign of pressure on Israel to make concessions, even the Palestinian leg of his trip to the country shows that he may no longer be interested in investing scarce political capital in a fight with the Israelis when there is little chance the intended beneficiaries of his policy wish to take advantage of it.

Just as important, the rocket fire from Gaza was a reminder that Abbas, who recently began the ninth year of the four-year-term in office to which he was elected in 2005, is merely the sham leader of his people. Gaza, from which Israel withdrew every soldier and settler that same year, is, for all intents and purposes, the independent Palestinian state that Obama has been talking about. Rather than living in peace with Israel, it is nothing but a terrorist staging ground from which rockets continue to fly as testimony to the unshaken faith of its leaders in the unending war against the Zionism that Obama specifically endorsed yesterday upon his arrival in Israel.

It may well be that the president is hoping to persuade Israelis to trust him on both the peace process and the threat from Iran. That may be a prelude to future conflicts with Netanyahu. But his message to Palestinians seems to be more one of “get your act together” than one that offers them hope they can count on the president to hammer the Israelis on their behalf. While some supporters of Israel will grouse about what the president said today about settlements, what the Palestinians heard actually offered them very little comfort. The lack of a direct demand from Obama for a settlement freeze and the seeming endorsement of Israel’s call for resumption of negotiations without preconditions means the Palestinians have been put on notice that the president’s second term may not be squandered on further attempts to help a divided people that won’t help themselves.

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Has Obama Reversed Cairo?

Four years ago during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Barack Obama not only snubbed Israel but gave a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he made it clear that he viewed the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust. In doing so, he didn’t merely elevate the Palestinian claim to statehood as his diplomatic priority but downgraded the Jewish claim to their homeland as purely a function of international pity in the aftermath of the slaughter of European Jewry. This slight was not lost on the people of Israel who regarded these statements as much as the fights the president picked with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the following years as evidence of his utter lack of sympathy for the Jewish state.

But after years of tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians the president arrived in Israel today singing a very different tune. He may have come into the presidency determined to open up daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel and succeeded in doing so. But his opening remarks upon arriving in Israel today effectively closed the gap between the two countries to the minimum. Even more important, his recognition of Israel’s rights effectively dashed the hopes of many in the Arab and Muslim world that this president, especially after his re-election, would further downgrade the alliance between the two nations.

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Four years ago during his first visit to the Middle East as president, Barack Obama not only snubbed Israel but gave a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world in which he made it clear that he viewed the plight of the Palestinians as morally equivalent to that of the Holocaust. In doing so, he didn’t merely elevate the Palestinian claim to statehood as his diplomatic priority but downgraded the Jewish claim to their homeland as purely a function of international pity in the aftermath of the slaughter of European Jewry. This slight was not lost on the people of Israel who regarded these statements as much as the fights the president picked with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the following years as evidence of his utter lack of sympathy for the Jewish state.

But after years of tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians the president arrived in Israel today singing a very different tune. He may have come into the presidency determined to open up daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel and succeeded in doing so. But his opening remarks upon arriving in Israel today effectively closed the gap between the two countries to the minimum. Even more important, his recognition of Israel’s rights effectively dashed the hopes of many in the Arab and Muslim world that this president, especially after his re-election, would further downgrade the alliance between the two nations.

Barack Obama isn’t the first American president to stand with the people of Israel, but his speech today was important precisely because of the expectations that he has raised among those who hope to isolate the Jewish state and undermine its ability to defend itself. There may be many in Israel and in the United States who still regard Obama with skepticism–and with good reason. He may still be, as veteran peace processer Aaron David Miller memorably said, the first U.S. president in a generation that wasn’t “in love with the idea of Israel” and a persistent critic of both Netanyahu and the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. But his remarks upon arriving in Israel today show he may have learned from his mistakes.

The importance of Obama’s airport speech lies mainly in the fact that these are the words of the same person who went to Cairo University and spoke in a manner that gave much of the world the idea that the U.S.-Israel alliance was on hold. It might not have been significant had George W. Bush or Bill Clinton spoke of 3,000 years of Jewish history and of its citizens being the “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah,” and to refer to the U.S.-Israel alliance as being “eternal,” but from Barack Obama this is remarkable.

This can be dismissed as mere rhetoric that can always be ignored or reversed at the whim of a president who has shown that he is confident that his cheerleaders in the mainstream press won’t hold him accountable. But they also have a power in and of themselves. When the world heard Obama downgrading the alliance with Israel, they drew conclusions that were dangerous to the stability of the region as well as to the security of the Jewish state. But when the president makes plain that even he regards the relationship with Israel as unbreakable and that the rights of the Jews to their “historic homeland” must be respected, that has great meaning too.

One would think that it wouldn’t be a big deal for a U.S. president to express his support for Zionism in the fulsome manner that Obama used today. But in doing so he sent a chill down the spines of Israel’s foes. The campaign to delegitimize Zionism and to regard any act of self-defense on Israel’s part as a war crime may have gained ground in recent years in Europe and on American campuses. But the willingness of the president to speak in this manner is a blow to the hopes of those who think Israel’s days are numbered.

Obama may say plenty tomorrow in his address to Israeli students that may upset some friends of the Jewish state. Given his history, the president’s critics have reason to wonder whether he is hoping to use any leverage gained by this trip to orchestrate pressure on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians. But given his present unpopularity in Israel, the best he can hope for out of this is to lower his negatives there. The idea that he can mobilize Israelis against Netanyahu isn’t realistic.

As much as Obama deserved criticism for his past record of picking fights with Israel and undermining its position in the world, today’s speech undid at least some of that damage. Even his fiercest critics must give him credit for that.

The following is the text of his opening remarks upon arriving in the Jewish state. Let’s hope Israel’s enemies and critics who regarded the Cairo speech as the beginning of the end of the U.S.-Israel alliance take it to heart.

I’m so honored to be here as you prepare to celebrate the 65th anniversary of a free and independent State of Israel.  Yet I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here.  And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.

Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.”  And just as we have for these past 65 years, the United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend.

As I begin my second term as President, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip.  This is no accident.  Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril.  So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.

I want to begin right now, by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship — why?  Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel?  And the answer is simple.  We stand together because we share a common story — patriots determined “to be a free people in our land,” pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.

We stand together because we are democracies.  For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.

We stand together because it makes us more prosperous.  Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples.  Our partnerships in science and medicine and health bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy and have helped transform us into high-tech hubs of our global economy.

We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world.  When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering, from Africa to Asia, we partner to fight disease and overcome hunger.

And we stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land.  For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.

So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can –the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel.  It makes us both stronger.  It makes us both more prosperous.  And it makes the world a better place.  (Applause.)

That’s why the United States was the very first nation to recognize the State of Israel 65 years ago.  That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today.  And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach.

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The Truth About Pollard

Last week, the Knesset took up the issue of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who has been serving a life sentence for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel. Knesset Speaker Benjamin Ben-Eliezer praised the spy as a “true Zionist.” Many members joined the 100,000 Israelis who signed a petition calling for Pollard’s release. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat agreed and said he would nominate Pollard for the prestigious Jerusalem Freedom Award. Pollard’s supporters are hoping this campaign on the eve of President Obama’s trip to Israel will bring attention to the case and lead to his freedom. But they are almost certainly mistaken.

In today’s Haaretz, the paper’s Barak Ravid quotes a “senior American official” as saying that the latest round of public advocacy in Israel on behalf of Pollard is having no impact on President Obama. Though the administration is resigned to being subjected to numerous appeals to release the former U.S. Navy analyst who has been in jail since 1985, none of it is likely to persuade the president to grant clemency to Pollard. Indeed, as the official makes clear, the more Israelis and some American Jews treat the spy like a hero, the less likely Obama or anyone else in a position of authority in Washington is to listen to their appeals. That’s a hard concept for those who are trying to free Pollard to understand but if they are to ever succeed, they must start trying.

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Last week, the Knesset took up the issue of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew who has been serving a life sentence for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel. Knesset Speaker Benjamin Ben-Eliezer praised the spy as a “true Zionist.” Many members joined the 100,000 Israelis who signed a petition calling for Pollard’s release. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat agreed and said he would nominate Pollard for the prestigious Jerusalem Freedom Award. Pollard’s supporters are hoping this campaign on the eve of President Obama’s trip to Israel will bring attention to the case and lead to his freedom. But they are almost certainly mistaken.

In today’s Haaretz, the paper’s Barak Ravid quotes a “senior American official” as saying that the latest round of public advocacy in Israel on behalf of Pollard is having no impact on President Obama. Though the administration is resigned to being subjected to numerous appeals to release the former U.S. Navy analyst who has been in jail since 1985, none of it is likely to persuade the president to grant clemency to Pollard. Indeed, as the official makes clear, the more Israelis and some American Jews treat the spy like a hero, the less likely Obama or anyone else in a position of authority in Washington is to listen to their appeals. That’s a hard concept for those who are trying to free Pollard to understand but if they are to ever succeed, they must start trying.

As I wrote in the March 2011 issue of COMMENTARY in an in-depth analysis of the case on its 25th anniversary, both sides of the long running argument about Pollard have exaggerated their positions to the point of caricature. Those in the U.S. security establishment have wrongly tried to blame Pollard for American intelligence setbacks at the hands of the former Soviet Union in an effort to justify their desire to continue to make an example of him. But Pollard’s backers have also inflated the value of the espionage that he committed on behalf of Israel while also trying to ignore the far more serious damage he did to the Jewish state by souring relations with its sole superpower ally.

Irrespective of these exaggerations, Pollard committed a crime for which he deserved serious punishment. But after more than 27 years in jail the case for mercy for the spy is stronger than ever. As I wrote two years ago, his sentence was disproportionate to that given any other person who spied for an ally as opposed to an enemy or rival nation. Nor is there any conceivable security justification for his continued imprisonment. But the biggest mistake that his supporters have continually made over the years is to think that his freedom will ever be won by efforts that cast him as a martyr. It was Pollard’s own foolish boasts along those lines in a “60 Minutes” interview and in discussions with Wolf Blitzer (the CNN star was then a Jerusalem Post reporter) that caused the government to trash the plea bargain agreement with the spy and led to his draconian sentence to life in prison.

Praise from the Knesset and awards from the city of Jerusalem merely repeat these mistakes.

What Pollard’s fans don’t understand is that lionizing the spy merely increases the desire of the U.S. security establishment to keep him in prison to set an example that spies are punished, not set free to play the hero. The vengeful attitude toward Pollard may stem in part from hostility to Israel by some in Washington. But it’s hard to blame them for resenting a campaign that treats a U.S. Navy employee who broke his oath and did real damage to the United States as somehow deserving praise.

But the pro-Pollard Jews just can’t seem to help themselves. One of the main lessons of 20th century history for Jews was that they couldn’t afford to be silent in the face of a threat or injustice. Such silence or a reliance on traditional modes of quiet diplomacy failed them in the greatest crisis of modern Jewish history during the Holocaust. A desire not to make the same mistake helped inspire the movements to free Soviet Jewry and to support Israel. It inspired in many Jews an understandable contempt for behind-the-scenes diplomacy or reticence on any issue. But it was that discredited strategy of quiet outreach rather than aggressive advocacy that was always the only formula to help free Pollard.

Had the issue been framed solely on the concept that Pollard was a misguided soul who erred but deserved mercy, he probably would have been out of jail a long time ago. But the attempt to cast him as an American “prisoner of Zion” merely strengthened the hands of those U.S. officials who have always been the roadblock to clemency.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine any circumstance in the immediate future that will lead Obama or his successor to free Pollard. But if there is to be any hope, it must begin with the spy’s supporters dropping any mention of anything but a desire for mercy for a man who has already been severely punished. If they ever want to see him freed, there must be an end to awards or rhetoric about his commitment to Zionism.

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