Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S.-Israel relations

Israel Likes Its U.S. Presidents Strong

The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

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The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

“Not worth five cents”

What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.

Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:

President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…

We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…

If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…

The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”

Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.

Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.

In his two memoirs, Eban recalled his astonishment at this apparent abdication:

I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….

I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.

The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.

The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.

After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing. There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.

“Too big for business as usual”

In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.

In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”

Views differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, if it should conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.

And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:

Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing Congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has proposed that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”

Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.

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Has Obama Left Israel on Its Own?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday about his country needing to rely on its resources to protect itself against potential threats broke no new ground. At another time, his comments might be considered mere boilerplate material since it has been an article of faith for all Israeli leaders dating back to David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, that if Zionism means anything, it is that the Jewish state must depend on no one but itself on security matters. But coming as it did the day after President Obama’s shocking retreat on Syria, the statement was highlighted in a New York Times article and got major play in the Israeli media. The juxtaposition of the U.S. accepting a dubious Russian proposal that would ensure there would be no Western attack on the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons with the Netanyahu statement left many wondering whether Jerusalem thinks it is now on its own when it comes to other threats, such as those from a nuclear Iran. While it would be an exaggeration to claim Washington has completely abandoned Israel, no amount of White House spin about Obama’s zigzag course on Syria changes the fact that his fumbling has left the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it already was.

The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks yesterday about his country needing to rely on its resources to protect itself against potential threats broke no new ground. At another time, his comments might be considered mere boilerplate material since it has been an article of faith for all Israeli leaders dating back to David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, that if Zionism means anything, it is that the Jewish state must depend on no one but itself on security matters. But coming as it did the day after President Obama’s shocking retreat on Syria, the statement was highlighted in a New York Times article and got major play in the Israeli media. The juxtaposition of the U.S. accepting a dubious Russian proposal that would ensure there would be no Western attack on the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons with the Netanyahu statement left many wondering whether Jerusalem thinks it is now on its own when it comes to other threats, such as those from a nuclear Iran. While it would be an exaggeration to claim Washington has completely abandoned Israel, no amount of White House spin about Obama’s zigzag course on Syria changes the fact that his fumbling has left the Middle East a far more dangerous place than it already was.

The reality after the Syria back-down is one in which the prestige and influence of the United States has declined. The president’s inability to make up his mind has not only gotten Bashar Assad off the hook and convinced Vladimir Putin that there is hope for his long-cherished dream of rebuilding the old Soviet empire. It has also made it difficult to envision the U.S. taking on the even more daunting task of a military confrontation with Iran. Since there is no reason to believe further diplomatic outreach to Tehran will be any more fruitful than past efforts, that leaves Israelis with the unpleasant thought that if Iran is to be prevented from going nuclear by force, then they will have to do it themselves. Under those circumstances, what choice is Netanyahu left with other than to try to send a signal of his own to the ayatollahs?

As the New York Times reported:

“The world needs to make sure that anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction will pay a heavy price for it,” Mr. Netanyahu said Wednesday at the graduation ceremony for a naval program. “The message in Syria will also be heard very well in Iran.”

He cited President Obama’s speech Tuesday, in which he said that Israel could defend itself but also had Washington’s “unshakable support,” and quoted a famous saying of the ancient Jewish scholar Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

“The operational translation of this rule is that Israel should always be able to defend itself and will protect itself by its own strengths against every threat,” Mr. Netanyahu told the crowd. “The state of Israel is today prepared to act with great strength.”

In fact Israel has already applied this principle in Syria repeatedly, striking at weapons convoys they feared might be payoffs from Assad to the Hezbollah terrorists in return for the latter’s efforts to boost his side in his country’s civil war. Israel also knocked out Syria’s nuclear reactor back in 2007 over the objections of the Bush administration, a decision that, in retrospect, seems even wiser now than it did then.

However, the current tangle in Syria illustrates both the mutual interests of the U.S. and Israel as well as their differences. While President Obama has been calling for the fall of the Assad regime for years, Israel has no favorite in the confusing fighting in Syria. But the Jewish state and its American friends are invested in the idea of a strong America as a force for stability in the Middle East. That’s why AIPAC and other elements of the pro-Israel community were drawn into the debate on Syria. They were not so much concerned with helping the rebels or punishing Assad (though many sympathize with that effort) as they were with ensuring that a Congress that is increasingly under the influence of isolationist elements didn’t trash American credibility.

Obama’s surrender to the Russians left Israel to ponder a new balance of power in the region in which the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance is stronger than ever and aided by a more assertive Russia, a point that, as I wrote yesterday, was emphasized by the announcement that Putin has approved the sale of advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran.

Despite Israel’s boasts, its armed forces are nowhere near as capable of dealing a crippling blow to Iran as the United States. Moreover, so long as President Obama is pursuing yet another diplomatic initiative with Iran based on the false perception that its new President Hassan Rouhani is a moderate, there is no chance that Israel would attack on its own. That may put any potential strike on hold until long after the Iranians have made it even more difficult to attack their nuclear facilities.

The upshot of all this is not so much that Israel is on its own—something Netanyahu may have already known last year when he was urging Obama to adopt “red lines” on Iran—but that it is essentially helpless to act on that fact. A weaker United States led by a president who is incapable of acting decisively isn’t just a problem for Israel. But right now it looks as if it means there may be no viable option for heading off the threat of a nuclear Iran before it is too late to do anything about it.

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More Dangerous Administration Leaks

There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

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There is nothing particularly shocking or surprising about the content of the story published today by the New York Times about Israeli attacks on missile sites in Syria. The fact that Israel has launched air strikes on targets in Syria containing weapons that could be used to strike the Jewish state, such as the Russian-made cruise missiles said to be in a warehouse that was hit in Latakia earlier this month, is not a big secret. That some of those weapons might have survived Israeli attacks and that its air force is certain to keep at it until it is sure they are destroyed rather than passed into the hands of Hezbollah seems logical. But the fact that this report was based on detailed classified information that was leaked by people the Times identifies as “American intelligence analysts” and U.S. government “officials” is both shocking and surprising.

The leak from what must be senior officials raises serious questions that beg for answers especially at a time when the administration has been on a jihad against leakers. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this story is either the work of anti-Israel figures working in the Pentagon or has been orchestrated by the administration in order to deter Israel from continuing its efforts to prevent weapon transfers to terrorists and, as Haaretz speculated today, to, in effect, warn the Syrians and let them prepare in advance for subsequent strikes. Either way, this has made an already dangerous situation even more troubling.

This is not the first time official American sources were used by the Times to report on Israeli efforts to deal with the chaos in Syria. Nevertheless, the administration seemed to condone Israel’s actions. Indeed, it has appeared at times as if Washington was quite happy to let the Israel Defense Forces do its dirty work for it as the U.S. preferred to keep “leading from behind” while others dealt with the mess that American indifference helped create.

Israel has no clear vested interest in either side winning the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime kept the cease-fire with Israel but if it survives, as it looks as if it will, it will be even more indebted to its Iranian allies. From the frame of reference of the Jewish state, there’s not much to choose from between a dangerous dictator aligned with Iran and Hezbollah and an alliance of rebels that includes al-Qaeda elements. But it does have a clear interest in preventing Russian weapons from being transferred to the Hezbollah mercenaries who are winning the war for Assad.

If, as might reasonably be inferred from this latest Times story, the Obama administration has shifted from a position of tacit support for Israeli efforts to keep Russian weapons away from Hezbollah to one of active opposition to Israeli strikes, then it is worth asking why they’ve changed their minds.

One possible motive for this decision is a desire to avoid any sort of confrontation involving the Russians. Given the insulting and provocative way Russia has been treating the United States lately—of which the Edward Snowden affair is just the latest—an American effort to spare Vladimir Putin’s feelings at a time when his policy seems aimed at prolonging the war in Syria is, to say the least, curious.

It would be just as curious if a U.S. shift against Israel on this issue were the result of Secretary of State John Kerry’s concerns about upsetting the peace negotiations with the Palestinians that he has convened. One would think assuring the Israelis that America has their back on security issues would be the way to help persuade the Netanyahu government to be more accommodating in the talks. But perhaps the administration thinks any act of self-defense on Israel’s part while the Palestinian Authority is trying to think of an excuse to weasel out of the negotiations would be unhelpful.

Nor does it make much sense to think that Israel’s surgical strikes will have any real impact on the outcome of the fighting in Syria, assuming that the U.S. has actually arrived at a coherent position on what it wants to happen there.

But no matter the reason for the leaking, it needs to be understood that this sort of behavior on the part of the United States is nothing short of outrageous. If the administration is serious about supporting Israeli security, this is not the time to playing games on the question of Russian missiles falling into the hands of terrorists. Israel has every right to keep that from happening and will be justified in continuing air strikes or any other measure that might accomplish this goal. Appeasing Russia in this matter won’t give Obama the “reset” of relations with Moscow he’s always wanted. American efforts to deter or prevent it from acting aren’t merely unhelpful; they are part of a dangerous game that could, if Israel is unable to stop the transfers, result in a situation that could cost both Israeli and American lives.

Lastly, we have a right to ask why an administration that is prepared to spy on the press in order to close up classified leaks it doesn’t like still appears to be a sieve when it comes to leaks that might serve the president’s policy preferences. Hypocrisy isn’t strong enough a word to describe such a dangerous and irresponsible course of action.

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Stopping Iran is America’s Responsibility

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.

No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.

But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Israel this week, and the man who was opposed by many friends of the Jewish state when he was nominated seems determined to make a good impression. Hagel came bearing “gifts” in that he brought the official permissions for $10 billion in arms sales to Israel including vital anti-radar missiles, aircraft for mid-air refueling as well as other planes that can rapidly transport troops and firepower. Just as important, he said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior as he met with his counterpart Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s minister of defense.

No one should doubt these arms sales greatly strengthen Israel’s defenses as well as its ability to project air power if it should prove necessary. President Obama has made good on his promise to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and it is incumbent on those of us who have criticized him for his predilection for picking pointless fights with the Jewish state over the peace process throughout his first term to acknowledge that. Nor can one point to the other pieces of the arms package that included sales of missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 jets to the United Arab Emirates as proof of bad will since it is obvious those weapons are intended to strengthen the ability of those monarchies to defend themselves against Iran, not to attack Israel.

But, as an article in today’s New York Times made clear, there are still grounds for concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship. Although the administration is helping maintain Israel’s defense deterrent, they did not grant everything on Jerusalem’s wish list. The most prominent item missing from the weapons that are to be delivered is a Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a giant bunker-busting bomb that is exactly what is needed to take out Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. That and the “fundamental difference of views” between the two countries about the level of risk that Iran’s program poses are complicating the Hagel visit.

The nature of the weapons the U.S. is selling the Israelis might lead one to think that what Hagel is bringing to the Jewish state is some kind of conditional green light to take out Iran’s nuclear plants. But the absence of the big bunker buster makes it unlikely that what is happening is the U.S. granting permission to the Israelis to act on their own.

On the contrary, the arms sales seem to be an attempt to placate the Israelis while making any attack on Iran highly unlikely. While Israel could certainly gravely damage Iran’s nuclear program without the ability to penetrate the 200 feet of mountain rock at Fordow, the Islamist regime’s all-important stockpile of enriched uranium will be safe. If the centrifuges spinning away at Fordow are spared, an Iran strike can’t be said to have achieved success.

What the Americans seem to be telling Israel is that the reported diversion of some of Iran’s uranium to a research reactor rather than to the store of fuel that would create a bomb gives the West more time to achieve a diplomatic solution. But with former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin saying Iran will probably cross a “red line” in terms of its nuclear stockpile this summer, time is running short for a non-military solution. And with the Iranians continuing to use the P5+1 nuclear talks with the West to keep stalling, there seems little doubt that a decision will have to be made sometime in the next year about ending this threat.

While part of the U.S. message to Israel is just about giving the diplomats more time, the other aspect of the administration’s stance might be more troubling. If they are saying that action must wait until the Iranians weaponize, rather than when their nuclear stockpile reaches the level when a bomb becomes possible, they are asking the Israelis to live with a nuclear-capable Iran. That’s not quite the same as the containment policy Hagel endorsed before joining the administration and which Obama has disavowed, but it is close enough to scare both the Israelis and the rest of a region that rightly fears a radical Islamist bomb.

But by refusing to transfer the big bunker buster the U.S. is saying that it is reserving for itself the option to use force against Iran. That makes sense, since America’s capability to project the airpower against Iran needed for such a strike far exceeds that of Israel. After all, the bunker buster needed to take out Fordow is too big to be used by any of the planes in Israel’s possession.

Iran is a threat to more than Israel, and it is entirely right that the responsibility for stopping them belongs to the U.S. and not the Jewish state. But its still not clear if the U.S. is prepared to use force.

The Iranians again made a mockery of the diplomatic process last month in Kazakhstan. While the talks continue Tehran’s hoard of enriched uranium continues to grow and will almost certainly cross the red line Netanyahu drew at the United Nations last year before the end of 2013. But so long as the U.S. is still acting as if it is more concerned about stopping Israel from attacking Iran than in the nuclear threat itself, the ayatollahs are bound to take that as a sign they have nothing to worry about.

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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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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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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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The American Public, Not the Realists, Understands the Middle East

The idea that America’s Middle East policy is purely the result of the machinations of a shadowy “Israel Lobby” was once again proven to be a canard with the release of a new poll that shows that an overwhelming majority of the American people sympathizes with the Jewish state. The Washington Post/ABC news poll published today on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the country shows that Americans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority by a margin of 55 to 9 percent, with 35 saying they liked both or had no opinion. It also showed that a plurality of those polled thought the U.S. needed to pressure the Palestinians to make peace more than the Israelis. Most interestingly, an even more resounding majority thought the U.S. ought not to be the prime mover of the peace process, with fully 69 percent saying the decision should be left to the parties while only 26 percent thought it should play a leading role.

The results, especially with regard to support for Israel, are consistent with previous polls. But the number of those who want America to be running the peace negotiations has plummeted in the last decade as the futility of trying to coax the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and embrace a two-state solution has been amply demonstrated. This gives the lie to both the “Israel Lobby” theories as well as the notion that Americans want their president to be twisting the arm of the Israeli government to make concessions to revive a process that the Palestinians have shown no interest in.

The basic numbers illustrate why those who claim the across-the-board bipartisan support for the alliance with the Jewish state in Congress is bought and paid for by Jewish campaign finance donations (as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it) is a lie. Israel has the backing of every political and demographic group measured by the poll showing that backing Israel is simply a matter of political survival irrespective of how many Jews vote or donate money in a given district or state.

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The idea that America’s Middle East policy is purely the result of the machinations of a shadowy “Israel Lobby” was once again proven to be a canard with the release of a new poll that shows that an overwhelming majority of the American people sympathizes with the Jewish state. The Washington Post/ABC news poll published today on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the country shows that Americans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority by a margin of 55 to 9 percent, with 35 saying they liked both or had no opinion. It also showed that a plurality of those polled thought the U.S. needed to pressure the Palestinians to make peace more than the Israelis. Most interestingly, an even more resounding majority thought the U.S. ought not to be the prime mover of the peace process, with fully 69 percent saying the decision should be left to the parties while only 26 percent thought it should play a leading role.

The results, especially with regard to support for Israel, are consistent with previous polls. But the number of those who want America to be running the peace negotiations has plummeted in the last decade as the futility of trying to coax the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and embrace a two-state solution has been amply demonstrated. This gives the lie to both the “Israel Lobby” theories as well as the notion that Americans want their president to be twisting the arm of the Israeli government to make concessions to revive a process that the Palestinians have shown no interest in.

The basic numbers illustrate why those who claim the across-the-board bipartisan support for the alliance with the Jewish state in Congress is bought and paid for by Jewish campaign finance donations (as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it) is a lie. Israel has the backing of every political and demographic group measured by the poll showing that backing Israel is simply a matter of political survival irrespective of how many Jews vote or donate money in a given district or state.

That said, the numbers do show a difference between the affection for Israel shown by Republicans and conservatives on the one hand and Democrats and liberals on the other. Republicans back Israel by a margin of 73-4 and conservatives do so by 72-5. However, Democrats back it by only a 49-11 and liberals by an even smaller margin of 39-16. Independents and moderates support Israel by margins of 51-10 and 55-10. Clearly, support on the left for the Jewish state is shaky. This is a trend that ought to worry those who believe that blind partisan loyalties for Democrats can trump principles and strengthening the arguments of those who believe Republicans are more reliable on the Middle East.

But the numbers about Americans not wanting the U.S. to take a leading role in peace talks ought not to be interpreted as indifference or neutrality about the conflict, as even the Post‘s headline on the story about the poll (“Public Wants U.S. Out of Middle East”) seems to say.

To the contrary, the poll reflects an accurate assessment of the two sides’ goals. The healthy majority that sympathizes with Israel understands that it has repeatedly shown its desire for peace by offering the Palestinians statehood in exchange for an end to the conflict and that neither the Palestinian Authority nor its Hamas rivals have ever accepted these deals or given up their dream of destroying Israel.

In this respect, ordinary Americans prove themselves to be far more sensible than many in the foreign policy establishment who call themselves “realists” while clinging to a view of the conflict rooted in the fantasy that Israeli concessions or territorial surrenders will bring peace.

For the moment at least, the Obama administration seems to have assimilated this wisdom. With the president heading to Jerusalem without seeking to impose a peace plan on the new Netanyahu government, but instead concentrating on coordinating policy on the Iranian nuclear threat, for once U.S. policy is in tune with both American public opinion and reality. We can only hope that it will stay that way.

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Like Bibi, Obama May Just Want to Manage Middle East Conflict

There are conflicting reports about a meeting held yesterday between President Obama and some 25 figures from the American Jewish community, including many of his supporters, in advance of his trip to Israel later this month. The Times of Israel says that one of the participants claimed the president said he would present a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East sometime in the next year. But JTA’s report based on a larger sample of participants dishing about the event contradicts that statement. That was backed up by a denial issued by a senior administration official who told the Times of Israel that there was no “framework” for peace mentioned at the meeting.

The consensus about the meeting is that, as one person who quoted the president to JTA said, there would be no “grandiose” plans for peace presented to the Israelis when he arrives for his long-awaited visit. Though the president will be holding out hope that the current “bleak” prospects for peace will improve, the notion that Obama would risk any of his scarce political capital by trying to impose terms of a peace plan on Israel that the Palestinians are not interested in is absurd. Though Obama will put himself on record as opposing Israeli settlements as well as Palestinian attempts to avoid negotiations via the United Nations, he appears to be only interested in keeping the situation calm. After four years of antagonism with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as his Israeli counterpart. At least for now, he’s done trying to solve the conflict and only wants to manage it as well as possible.

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There are conflicting reports about a meeting held yesterday between President Obama and some 25 figures from the American Jewish community, including many of his supporters, in advance of his trip to Israel later this month. The Times of Israel says that one of the participants claimed the president said he would present a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East sometime in the next year. But JTA’s report based on a larger sample of participants dishing about the event contradicts that statement. That was backed up by a denial issued by a senior administration official who told the Times of Israel that there was no “framework” for peace mentioned at the meeting.

The consensus about the meeting is that, as one person who quoted the president to JTA said, there would be no “grandiose” plans for peace presented to the Israelis when he arrives for his long-awaited visit. Though the president will be holding out hope that the current “bleak” prospects for peace will improve, the notion that Obama would risk any of his scarce political capital by trying to impose terms of a peace plan on Israel that the Palestinians are not interested in is absurd. Though Obama will put himself on record as opposing Israeli settlements as well as Palestinian attempts to avoid negotiations via the United Nations, he appears to be only interested in keeping the situation calm. After four years of antagonism with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the president seems to have arrived at a similar conclusion as his Israeli counterpart. At least for now, he’s done trying to solve the conflict and only wants to manage it as well as possible.

That probably comes as a surprise as well as a shock to many of Obama’s most ardent Jewish supporters who would like him to ratchet up the pressure on Netanyahu, as well as to his greatest critics who harbor the suspicion that his goal is bring the Jewish state to its knees. It may be that were circumstances different, the president might well come closer to making those hopes and fears come true. But right now, Obama has higher priorities than pursuing his feud with Netanyahu.

That won’t preclude the president from trying to arrange a grand gesture, such as a summit at which Jordan’s King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas will join Obama and Netanyahu for a photo op. But even those observers, like myself, who don’t trust Obama, need to give him credit for having paid some attention to what the Palestinians have failed to do over the last four years. The Palestinians have made it clear that they have no intention of signing a peace agreement that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. That means a solution to the conflict is impossible in the foreseeable future and that the only logical approach to it is one that seeks to manage it while preventing conflagrations.

As the reports from the meeting and other signs coming from Washington show, the president seems to understand that the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear threat has eclipsed the Palestinian issue as a priority. While Obama is trying to dampen any expectations that his visit to Jerusalem might restart the peace process, the one thing he may hope to accomplish there is to ensure that the Israelis refrain from any unilateral strike on Iran.

In order to do that, he has to show that the United States is committed to Israel’s security and can be trusted to do the right thing on any security-related issue. That’s a tall order given the president’s low popularity in Israel, but the trip could go a long way toward repairing the faith the average Israeli has in Washington’s good will. It may do just that provided, that is, the president doesn’t do or say anything that can be interpreted as revealing his disdain for the Jewish state.

As much as both the left and the right are seeking to figure out the specific motives for the trip, making a symbolic statement of Obama’s support for Israel that will give America the leeway to act on Iran at its own pace may be the only plausible answer.

There are good reasons to worry that the president’s reluctance to, as JTA says, do any “chest beating” about Iran may be a symptom of his lack of urgency about the issue or his reluctance to actually take action before it is too late. There’s little reason to believe diplomacy or sanctions can work after years of failure. But if Obama can finally convince Israelis that he should be trusted, its likely they will give him all the time he asks for. As much as there is still a wide gap between the positions Obama and Netanyahu may have on Iran, it may be that, at least for the moment, they are on the same page when it comes to the Palestinians.

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Hagel’s Critics Are Still the Winners

With the defection of one more Republican from the ranks of those opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, it appears the saga of the battle to stop the Nebraskan from taking office is coming to a close. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby announced today that he would vote for Hagel when the nomination comes to the floor. Shelby’s support is yet another blow against the hopes that the 10-day delay caused by last week’s failed cloture vote would result in a game changing event that would sink the chances of Hagel’s confirmation. Of course, the fate of this struggle was probably already sealed last Sunday when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they wouldn’t try to extend the filibuster when Congress reconvened next week. And if that left any doubt about the final outcome, it was removed when New York Democrat Chuck Schumer reconfirmed his support for Hagel with a speech that was as dishonest as it was morally dubious.

This will, no doubt, lead some on the left to crow about the failure of the pro-Israel community to stop the advancement of one of its worst critics. Others will say the effort was itself a mistake, since even after a concerted campaign to undermine support for the nomination and a disastrous confirmation hearing performance by Hagel his critics were unable to pry a single pro-Israel Democrat from the ranks of his backers. The result, we will be told, demonstrated the impotence of the vaunted “Israel Lobby” and will only encourage President Obama in the belief that he need not fear the consequences of another campaign of pressure on Israel or a decision to reverse course on containment of a nuclear Iran (the policy that Hagel has always supported and flubbed his recantation of at his hearing).

But those who will say the fight wasn’t worth it are wrong. Far from suffering a defeat, the last six weeks of close political combat on the issue have only strengthened the position of the pro-Israel community.

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With the defection of one more Republican from the ranks of those opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, it appears the saga of the battle to stop the Nebraskan from taking office is coming to a close. Alabama Senator Richard Shelby announced today that he would vote for Hagel when the nomination comes to the floor. Shelby’s support is yet another blow against the hopes that the 10-day delay caused by last week’s failed cloture vote would result in a game changing event that would sink the chances of Hagel’s confirmation. Of course, the fate of this struggle was probably already sealed last Sunday when Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham said they wouldn’t try to extend the filibuster when Congress reconvened next week. And if that left any doubt about the final outcome, it was removed when New York Democrat Chuck Schumer reconfirmed his support for Hagel with a speech that was as dishonest as it was morally dubious.

This will, no doubt, lead some on the left to crow about the failure of the pro-Israel community to stop the advancement of one of its worst critics. Others will say the effort was itself a mistake, since even after a concerted campaign to undermine support for the nomination and a disastrous confirmation hearing performance by Hagel his critics were unable to pry a single pro-Israel Democrat from the ranks of his backers. The result, we will be told, demonstrated the impotence of the vaunted “Israel Lobby” and will only encourage President Obama in the belief that he need not fear the consequences of another campaign of pressure on Israel or a decision to reverse course on containment of a nuclear Iran (the policy that Hagel has always supported and flubbed his recantation of at his hearing).

But those who will say the fight wasn’t worth it are wrong. Far from suffering a defeat, the last six weeks of close political combat on the issue have only strengthened the position of the pro-Israel community.

Hagel’s inevitable confirmation will be a source of great frustration to many Americans who were dismayed at the prospect of letting a man who had clearly demonstrated his incompetence at his confirmation hearing run the Pentagon. And having defeated the first attempt by the Democrats to end debate on the nomination last week, the unraveling of the GOP filibuster is particularly disappointing since it also came at a time when fresh revelations of outrageous and even anti-Semitic statements made by Hagel were reported and polls showed most Americans opposed him. The fact that Hagel’s unsavory record and insincere walk-backs of his positions were so thoroughly exposed makes his confirmation a bitter pill for his critics to swallow.

But the process that unfolded since the president’s announcement was no defeat for friends of Israel. For all of Hagel’s trouble in mouthing the stands that he was forced to adopt since his nomination, the mere fact that he had to disavow his contemptuous dismissal of the pro-Israel community and pledge his everlasting support for the alliance with the Jewish state and readiness to use both sanctions and force against Iran is no small thing. In essence, Hagel had to renounce every single position that endeared him to his biggest fans among the so-called “realists” and other assorted Israel-bashers.

The pressure put upon Hagel during the lead-up to his confirmation hearing as well as the difficulty he found himself in when questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee wasn’t merely the usual grind nominees are subjected to. The process reaffirmed a basic truth about the strength of the pro-Israel consensus that was placed in doubt by the president’s choice: support for the alliance with the Jewish state isn’t merely mainstream politics, it is the baseline against which all nominees for high office are measured. Republicans and Democrats, foes of Hagel as well as his backers, fell over themselves to demonstrate that opposition to a close relationship with Israel is not acceptable.

There may be good reason to doubt the sincerity of Hagel’s confirmation conversion, but the mere fact that he had to do it will make it all the more difficult for him or the president to backtrack on these positions. Far from a defeat, the manner in which Hagel found himself betraying his Israel-bashing supporters should not give them any comfort.

Chuck Hagel will be a weak secretary of defense whose influence has been dramatically lessened by the way he has been snuck into office. His usefulness as a spear carrier in any hoped-for administration pressure play against Israel has been diminished. Defeating Hagel’s nomination would have been far better for the United States as well as the U.S.-Israel alliance. Forcing him to renounce his past positions in order to get confirmed is almost as good.

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Obama’s Israel Visit Not That Big a Deal

There is some debate as to what the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Israel in a few weeks portends. Those on the left, both here and in Israel, ardently hope it is intended to signal a new U.S. push to revive the Middle East peace process during which the president will personally twist the arms of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. However, the lack of any real preparation for such talks, or signs that there is a ghost of a chance that they might succeed, make such expectations seem highly unrealistic.

There is little doubt that the peace process will be on the agenda when Obama goes to Israel. But the notion that the president will be seeking to implement a set plan to force concessions on the Jewish state or that it, as one hysterical left-wing columnist put it in Haaretz, means the “centrality” of the conflict with the Palestinians will be reaffirmed is pure fantasy. It is far more likely that the main point of it will be reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance at a time when conflict with Iran, instability in Egypt and civil war in Syria makes coordination between the two governments more essential than ever. That explanation doesn’t speak to the hopes of leftists who want Obama to hammer Israel or the fears of friends of the Jewish state who believe he plans to use his second term to bring it to its knees. But given the timing of the trip, this more humdrum explanation makes a lot more sense.

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There is some debate as to what the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Israel in a few weeks portends. Those on the left, both here and in Israel, ardently hope it is intended to signal a new U.S. push to revive the Middle East peace process during which the president will personally twist the arms of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. However, the lack of any real preparation for such talks, or signs that there is a ghost of a chance that they might succeed, make such expectations seem highly unrealistic.

There is little doubt that the peace process will be on the agenda when Obama goes to Israel. But the notion that the president will be seeking to implement a set plan to force concessions on the Jewish state or that it, as one hysterical left-wing columnist put it in Haaretz, means the “centrality” of the conflict with the Palestinians will be reaffirmed is pure fantasy. It is far more likely that the main point of it will be reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance at a time when conflict with Iran, instability in Egypt and civil war in Syria makes coordination between the two governments more essential than ever. That explanation doesn’t speak to the hopes of leftists who want Obama to hammer Israel or the fears of friends of the Jewish state who believe he plans to use his second term to bring it to its knees. But given the timing of the trip, this more humdrum explanation makes a lot more sense.

Those who either hope or fear Obama intends to get tough with Israel have good reason to think the way they do. The president’s open hostility toward the Netanyahu government has been a keynote of American foreign policy since he took office in 2009. It is no secret that many in the White House and the State Department would like to take another futile crack at reviving talks with the Palestinians. Even more to the point, the president must be itching to end the Jewish charm offensive he had been forced to adopt during his re-election campaign and get back to his previous pattern of ambush and attack when it comes to Israel.

But the idea that the president would parachute into the Middle East and attempt to jump-start a peace process that has been stalled for years by himself without any indication that genuine progress is even a remote possibility gives Obama less credit than he deserves. The president may intensely dislike Netanyahu, but he has no desire to preside over a fiasco or to be seen as a failure so early in his second term.

Lip service will no doubt be paid to the peace process and grand words will be uttered about the need to end the conflict during the course of the visit. There will even be some who will give the president credit for pushing Netanyahu to call for a new round of talks even though the prime minister has been regularly issuing that appeal for years to no effect. But after more than four years in office, even the Obama administration has caught on to the fact that Abbas is more afraid of a return to the negotiating table than he is of his Hamas rivals. The chances that the Palestinian Authority will sign any document that recognizes the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, or end the conflict for all time, are virtually nonexistent.

President Obama may hope to push Netanyahu to make more gestures to the Palestinians, but there are other and, frankly, more important things for them to discuss than the sensibilities of the corrupt gang that presides over the PA in Ramallah.

Both the U.S. and the Israeli governments are closely monitoring the chaos in Syria as well as the situation in Egypt where the installation of a Muslim Brotherhood government has complicated the strategic equation in the region. And looming over everything is the desire of the United States that Israel not act on its own to forestall the nuclear threat from Iran. No matter how much of the atmospherics of the trip center on the peace process, it is those topics that are really at the top of the agenda.

To assert that the topic of talks with the Palestinians is not the most important subject of discussion between the two countries is not to argue that Obama and Netanyahu will agree on most things. They don’t like each other and don’t share the same frame of reference about the imperative to convey the message to the Arab and Muslim world that there is no daylight between their governments’ positions on major issues.

But there is no reason to believe this visit will mark a turning point in the alliance or that it will be primarily employed by the U.S. to exert pressure on Israel. As the recent Israeli strikes on Syrian targets show, the U.S. still needs the Jewish state to do its dirty work in the region. The close security cooperation between the two nations transcends Obama’s biases and that means the danger from Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries are bound to take precedence over the Palestinian issue. Not even the enthusiasm of new Secretary of State John Kerry for new negotiations can change that reality.

President Obama could have done himself some political good had he taken this trip last year, but he may not have wanted to do what he considered a favor to Netanyahu when the latter was poised to face his own electorate. Now that Netanyahu has been re-elected, albeit not by the large margin he had hoped for, there is no reason to put off a routine visit anymore. More to the point, the start of new terms in office for both men is a good a time for a “reset” of relations at a moment when further conflict between the two could complicate U.S. strategy for dealing with problems in the region.

Obama’s critics made more of his stubborn refusal to visit Israel during his first term than it probably merited. Now that he’s finally given in, they shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that it means more than it does. That conclusion won’t please some of the president’s liberal supporters with an axe to grind against Israel. Nor will it calm the anxieties of the pro-Israel community. But it is probably the most sensible explanation of the president’s decision.

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part Three

As I noted in parts one and two of this post, there are good reasons to believe that tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to simmer during their respective terms. The disconnect between the president’s view of the region and the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Israelis about the future of the peace process has created a gap between the two countries that continues to cause trouble. The fact that the two men don’t like each other also doesn’t help. But as I wrote, the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace on the one hand and the determination of the Iranians to push toward their goal of a nuclear weapon may render the disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem moot.

But even if we don’t assume, as I think we should, that Israel’s enemies will continue to force the United States and Israel into the same corner whether the president likes it or not, there is another important factor that will also put a limit on how far any quarrel can go: the overwhelming support for Israel among the American people. As much as some in the administration and its cheerleaders on the left may believe that the “Jewish lobby,” as President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense put it, has too much influence, the fact remains that the U.S.-Israel alliance remains a consensus issue in this country. As we have seen over the past two years, no president, not even one as personally popular as Barack Obama, can afford to ignore it or blow it up.

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As I noted in parts one and two of this post, there are good reasons to believe that tension between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will continue to simmer during their respective terms. The disconnect between the president’s view of the region and the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Israelis about the future of the peace process has created a gap between the two countries that continues to cause trouble. The fact that the two men don’t like each other also doesn’t help. But as I wrote, the Palestinians’ refusal to make peace on the one hand and the determination of the Iranians to push toward their goal of a nuclear weapon may render the disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem moot.

But even if we don’t assume, as I think we should, that Israel’s enemies will continue to force the United States and Israel into the same corner whether the president likes it or not, there is another important factor that will also put a limit on how far any quarrel can go: the overwhelming support for Israel among the American people. As much as some in the administration and its cheerleaders on the left may believe that the “Jewish lobby,” as President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense put it, has too much influence, the fact remains that the U.S.-Israel alliance remains a consensus issue in this country. As we have seen over the past two years, no president, not even one as personally popular as Barack Obama, can afford to ignore it or blow it up.

It may be that a re-elected President Obama is still spoiling to get even with Netanyahu after his humiliation in May 2011 when the Israeli demonstrated the consequences of a picking a fight with a popular ally. At that time, Obama ambushed a visiting Netanyahu with a speech demanding the Israeli accept the 1967 lines as a starting point in future peace negotiations. Netanyahu didn’t just reject the U.S. diktat, but the ovation that he received when he addressed Congress a few days later showed that both Democrats and Republicans were united in backing Israel’s position.

That was the last major fight picked with Israel by Obama over the peace process since in the following months he launched a Jewish charm offensive with an eye on the 2012 presidential election. As I noted earlier, a major factor behind a decision not to try again may be the refusal of the Palestinians to take advantage of the president’s opening. But the president also understood that a posture of hostility toward Israel was political poison and not just with American Jews whose votes he assumed would remain in the Democratic column.

The problem with the Walt-Mearsheimer Israel Lobby thesis is not just that it is rooted in an anti-Semitic mindset that sees the Jews as manipulating the United States to do things that are against its interests. Rather, the real problem with it is that it fails to take into account the fact that the pro-Israel consensus cuts across virtually all demographic and political lines in this country.

As I wrote in the July 2011 issue of COMMENTARY in the aftermath of the worst Obama-Netanyahu confrontation, the alliance between the two countries is not only politically popular but is now so integrated into the infrastructure of U.S. defense and foreign policy as to be virtually indestructible. If a president who is as ambivalent about Israel and as determined to create daylight between the two countries as Obama has proved to be understood that he could not afford to downgrade that alliance, that point has been proven.

It is true that as a result of his re-election, the president does not have to fear the voters’ wrath on this or any issue. But the idea that he has carte blanche to do as he likes to Israel is a myth. The bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress will always act as a check on any impulse to take revenge on Netanyahu. The process by which defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has been forced to reverse all of his previous stands on Iran and Israel and to disavow his “Jewish lobby” comments is reminder that a second Obama administration cannot undo the laws of political gravity. Most Americans will regard Netanyahu’s re-election next week as an argument against any U.S. pressure to force Israel to do what its voters have rejected.

To say all that is not to discount the very real possibility that tension between the two governments is probably a given to some degree as long as these two men are in power. But a president with a limited amount of political capital and only two years in which he can use it would be a fool to expend his scarce resources on another losing fight with Netanyahu.

Four more years of this oddly mismatched tandem will make for a rocky ride for friends of Israel. But the alliance is stronger than even Barack Obama’s dislike for Netanyahu. As nasty as this relationship may be, the fallout in Washington from the Israeli’s easy re-election may not be as bad as you might think.

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part Two

As I wrote in part one of this post the all but certain prospect that Benjamin Netanyahu will be re-elected prime minister of Israel next week will be viewed with dismay by President Obama. But the assumption that four more years of the Barack-Bibi show will worsen relations between the two countries may be exaggerated for three reasons. The first was, as I wrote in part one, the very real possibility that Obama may have learned his lesson about trying to pressure the Israelis in order to entice the Palestinians to make peace. It hasn’t worked and probably never will and though the president may think Netanyahu is wrong, he would have to be an incorrigible ideologue to want to waste any scarce political capital on more fights with Israel over the peace process when he knows it will lead nowhere.

The second factor that might act as a brake on U.S.-Israel tension is Iran. There is more than a little irony in this. Disagreements between the United States and Israel over the timetable of Iranian nuclear progress, the futility of diplomacy and the ultimate necessity of an attack have divided the two governments for years. Many assume, not without reason, that the president’s reluctance to get tough with Iran (a belief bolstered by his nomination of a new secretary of defense in Chuck Hagel that previously opposed both sanctions and the possibility of using force against Iran) will only make things worse in the future as Israel gears up for the possibility of having to forestall a nuclear Iran if the United States won’t. But as much as this issue appears to be the one which will do the most to escalate tension between Washington, there is also the very real possibility that Iran’s refusal to negotiate seriously and its determination to push ahead toward its nuclear goal will leave the president little choice but to work with Israel to eliminate the threat.

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As I wrote in part one of this post the all but certain prospect that Benjamin Netanyahu will be re-elected prime minister of Israel next week will be viewed with dismay by President Obama. But the assumption that four more years of the Barack-Bibi show will worsen relations between the two countries may be exaggerated for three reasons. The first was, as I wrote in part one, the very real possibility that Obama may have learned his lesson about trying to pressure the Israelis in order to entice the Palestinians to make peace. It hasn’t worked and probably never will and though the president may think Netanyahu is wrong, he would have to be an incorrigible ideologue to want to waste any scarce political capital on more fights with Israel over the peace process when he knows it will lead nowhere.

The second factor that might act as a brake on U.S.-Israel tension is Iran. There is more than a little irony in this. Disagreements between the United States and Israel over the timetable of Iranian nuclear progress, the futility of diplomacy and the ultimate necessity of an attack have divided the two governments for years. Many assume, not without reason, that the president’s reluctance to get tough with Iran (a belief bolstered by his nomination of a new secretary of defense in Chuck Hagel that previously opposed both sanctions and the possibility of using force against Iran) will only make things worse in the future as Israel gears up for the possibility of having to forestall a nuclear Iran if the United States won’t. But as much as this issue appears to be the one which will do the most to escalate tension between Washington, there is also the very real possibility that Iran’s refusal to negotiate seriously and its determination to push ahead toward its nuclear goal will leave the president little choice but to work with Israel to eliminate the threat.

Obama’s decision to waste years of his first administration on pointless attempts at engagement with Tehran and then assembling an international coalition on behalf of watered down sanctions did little to instill confidence in U.S. resolve. The president was late to push sanctions against Iran and has left loopholes in these measures that have allowed the Islamist regime enough money to keep investing in nuclear development even as their people suffer. Should the United States go back down the garden path with Iran diplomacy in the coming months that will merely give the ayatollahs even more time to run out the clock until they reach their goal.

Indeed, the Iranians cannot be blamed if they interpret the Hagel appointment as evidence that Obama would like to go back on his promises about stopping them and not to try to contain them if they get their bomb.

But the storm over Hagel has also made it clear that the president may not have as much room to maneuver on Iran as many on the left hope he has. Though Hagel’s likely confirmation has encouraged those who would like a softer line on Iran as well as the chorus of Israel-bashers (two groups whose membership generally overlaps), the process that led to the former senator doing a 180 on his views about Iran ought to make it clear that the president has painted himself into a corner on Iran. Both Hagel and the president can go back on their promises but doing so will be a devastating blow to the president’s credibility. As much as there is good reason to suspect that the president would like nothing better than to avoid a confrontation with Iran, he may also have come to understand that the prospect of an Iranian nuke on his watch constitutes a grave threat to U.S. interests and security that will be a permanent blot on his legacy. More to the point, the Iranians may close off any avenue of escape from this dilemma.

Since Iran refuses to negotiate in good faith even when the Europeans are prepared to offer them a deal that might let them keep their nuclear program, the assumption that a diplomatic solution is inevitable is one that is getting harder for even the most ardent opponents of the use of force to cling to. Having successfully forced Netanyahu to stand down from any possible Israeli attack up until now, it could be that, almost in spite of himself the president may wind up being forced to agree with the Israelis on the necessity of action sometime in the coming year.

Given its record on the issue, it may be a tremendous leap of faith to assume that the administration intends to keep his word on Iran. That’s why a lot of people, including myself, have viewed Jeffrey Goldberg’s belief in Obama’s rhetoric on Iran as naive. But Obama has acted up until now on the assumption that sooner or later the Iranians would crack and get him off the hook. If they don’t, and there is no reason to think they will, he may find himself at long last in agreement with Netanyahu that a strike is inevitable. Goldberg is probably right when he writes that if the president is drawn to that conclusion, his hard feelings about Netanyahu won’t be enough to stop him from doing something he believes is important to solidifying his legacy.

Tension between Israel and the United States over a decision to pull the trigger on a strike on Iran may be inevitable. But the one factor that may unite the two countries is the adamant desire of the Iranian regime to get a nuke. If they aren’t careful they may do the impossible and bridge the gap between Obama and Netanyahu and forge an unlikely alliance between them.

In part three of this post, I’ll write about the third factor that may ameliorate a problematic relationship: the American people’s affection and support for Israel.

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Anticipating More Obama-Bibi — Part One

The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

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The final polls before Israel’s election were published today and the results will provide little comfort to Benjamin Netanyahu’s many critics in the United States. All the surveys of opinion before next Tuesday’s vote point in one direction: Netanyahu will win. Even the most pessimistic estimates of his party’s vote shows the Likud getting approximately twice as many seats in the next Knesset as the next largest competitor and the parties that make up Netanyahu’s current coalition will gain a decisive majority. Netanyahu will be in charge of a comfortable majority that is, if anything, more right-wing than the government he led for the past four years.

That’s a bitter pill for an Obama administration that believes, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported earlier this week, that the president knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than Netanyahu and which spent much of its time in office battling him. It makes sense to think the two leaders will continue to distrust each other and to quarrel over the peace process and how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. The rightward tilt of the next Netanyahu government and what appears to be the aggressive and confident tone of the second Obama administration in which the president appears to be surrounding himself with people who agree with him rather than centrists or those who have different perspectives both seem to argue for more rather than less conflict between Washington and Jerusalem. But the doom and gloom scenarios about four more years of this tandem may be exaggerated. There are three good reasons that may serve to keep tensions from boiling over.

The first factor that may keep the conflict in check is something that the controversial Goldberg column made clear: the president may have learned his lesson about the peace process. Though Goldberg and the president both wrongly assume that Arab “moderates” want peace and need to be encouraged with “conciliatory gestures,” the writer notes that Obama understands that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is weak. He also knows that every attempt by the administration to pressure Netanyahu and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the Palestinians’ direction on settlements, Jerusalem and border, was met with disinterest by the PA. Nothing Obama could do or say, no matter how damaging to Israel’s cause was enough to tempt Abbas back to the negotiating table. Indeed, the Palestinians’ decision to go to the United Nations to get recognition was not so much aimed at Israel, as it was an end run around the Obama administration.

Though Goldberg frames the president’s reluctance to repeat this cycle of misunderstand as a judgment on Netanyahu’s lack of interest in peace it is actually an indictment of the Palestinians. Had Abbas responded positively to any of Obama’s initiatives, he could have helped the president pin the prime minister down and perhaps even undermined his support at home. Netanyahu has already endorsed a two state solution and frozen settlements for a time to appease Obama and Abbas didn’t respond to either gesture.

Abbas is interested right now in making peace with Hamas, not Israel. He has stayed away from talks not because he thinks he can’t get a deal but because he fears being put in the same uncomfortable situation in which he found himself in 2008 when Ehud Olmert made the last Israeli offer of Palestinian independence including Jerusalem. Abbas knows he can’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and survive so he didn’t so much turn down Olmert as to flee the talks. He won’t allow himself to be that close to political extinction again.

Though, as Goldberg pointed out, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry may be eager to play the peace process game with the help of his European friends, President Obama may understand that heading down that dead end again is not worth any of his precious second term political capital. If the Palestinians go any further toward Fatah-Hamas unity and/or if a third intifada is launched that will effectively spike any hope for new negotiations no matter what Obama may personally want to do.

Obama may believe Israel is dooming itself to isolation but the majority of Israelis have paid closer attention to the last 20 years of attempts to make peace and know that further concessions would only worsen their security without bringing peace. Yet as much as he can’t stand Netanyahu, picking another fight with him over an issue that can’t be resolved due to Palestinian intransigence is bad politics as well as bad policy.

In parts two and three of this post I’ll examine the other factors that may keep U.S.-Israel tension in check.

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Morsi’s Context of Hate

The truth about the disgusting anti-Semitism that is at the core of the belief system of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt is finally gaining the attention it deserves. As we wrote yesterday, the belated coverage given by the New York Times yesterday puts the Obama administration’s embrace of the regime of President Mohamed Morsi in an extremely unflattering light. But when put on the spot about the video in which Morsi employed a standard Islamic epithet for Jews calling Israelis “the descendants of apes and pigs,” the White House and the State Department both condemned the Egyptian president’s statements, as did the Times in an editorial. But when a delegation of visiting U.S. senators confronted Morsi today over his hate speech, they got the sort of answer that ought to make Congress as well as the administration reconsider the continuation of the massive aid package that Egypt receives.

According to Reuters, Morsi told a group of senators, including John McCain and Richard Blumenthal, that his remarks were taken out of context. What conceivable context could justify this sort of hate? Morsi said his comments should be understood as an understandable response to Israel’s counterattack against terrorist rocket fire from Gaza. In other words, in the view of Egypt’s president an Israel willing to defend itself against the rocket attacks launched by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas ally is excuse for any sort of vile slander against the Jewish people or the United States. That may make sense in an Egyptian political culture in which anti-Semitism has become so drilled into the minds of the people by groups like the Brotherhood as to be unexceptionable. But it can only be a reminder to Americans that while we desire friendship with the Egyptian people, there can be no question of further American subsidies for a regime that is built on hate.

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The truth about the disgusting anti-Semitism that is at the core of the belief system of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt is finally gaining the attention it deserves. As we wrote yesterday, the belated coverage given by the New York Times yesterday puts the Obama administration’s embrace of the regime of President Mohamed Morsi in an extremely unflattering light. But when put on the spot about the video in which Morsi employed a standard Islamic epithet for Jews calling Israelis “the descendants of apes and pigs,” the White House and the State Department both condemned the Egyptian president’s statements, as did the Times in an editorial. But when a delegation of visiting U.S. senators confronted Morsi today over his hate speech, they got the sort of answer that ought to make Congress as well as the administration reconsider the continuation of the massive aid package that Egypt receives.

According to Reuters, Morsi told a group of senators, including John McCain and Richard Blumenthal, that his remarks were taken out of context. What conceivable context could justify this sort of hate? Morsi said his comments should be understood as an understandable response to Israel’s counterattack against terrorist rocket fire from Gaza. In other words, in the view of Egypt’s president an Israel willing to defend itself against the rocket attacks launched by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas ally is excuse for any sort of vile slander against the Jewish people or the United States. That may make sense in an Egyptian political culture in which anti-Semitism has become so drilled into the minds of the people by groups like the Brotherhood as to be unexceptionable. But it can only be a reminder to Americans that while we desire friendship with the Egyptian people, there can be no question of further American subsidies for a regime that is built on hate.

Ever since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, much of the American media as well as the administration has chosen to buy into the myth that the Brotherhood is composed of well meaning moderate Muslims who aren’t different from any other political or social party except for the fact that they take their faith seriously. That was always a transparent lie easily dismissed by those who knew anything about the Brotherhood’s history and ideology. But the notice given to the Morsi video, unearthed by the essential Memri.org group that monitors the Arab media, has made it impossible for Washington to go on pretending that normal, friendly relations were truly possible with Cairo while it was ruled by Morsi and his party.

There will be those who will argue that while Morsi’s calumnies are to be condemned, they are matched by hate speech uttered by Israelis. The Times slipped in a piece of this sort of false moral equivalence in its editorial when it stated:

The sad truth is that defaming Jews is an all too standard feature of Egyptian, and Arab, discourse; Israelis are not immune to responding in kind either.

While it cannot be denied that individual Israelis are as capable of uttering vile things as any other group of humans, there is no comparison between stray haters and the way anti-Semitism and hatred of the West is mainstream discourse in the Muslim and Arab worlds. It should also be pointed out that while hatred of Jews and Israel is part of the standard curricula in Arab countries (this is especially the case in Gaza and the West Bank), peace education is standard in Israeli schools. Israel’s leaders, be they from the left or the right, have always condemned hate against Arabs as well as instances of violence or discrimination. To mention Israeli attitudes against Arabs in the same breath with a discussion of the Arab and Muslim prejudice against Jews that fuels the ongoing war against the Jewish state is to turn the truth on its head.

It is to be hoped that McCain and Blumenthal and their colleagues will return home from Cairo determined to press the administration to stop coddling Morsi and the Brotherhood as well as to put a hold on any further disbursement of the billions in U.S. taxpayer cash to Egypt. If they don’t, Morsi will be forgiven for concluding that he is free to say and do anything he likes without fear of being held accountable by his American patrons.

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Why Hagel is Doing a 180 on Israel, Iran

How badly does Chuck Hagel want to be secretary of defense? As Politico reports, the answer comes in a letter he wrote to Senator Barbara Boxer that won the California Democrat’s support for his confirmation. In it, he didn’t merely apologize for his bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby,” but also backtracked from previous stands on the U.S.-Israel alliance, the threat from Iran and even specified that he now considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups.

As expected, Hagel flipped on his anti-gay stance as well as his opposition to abortion rights for members of the armed services—issues that are important to the liberal Boxer. But by explicitly reversing his positions on Middle East issues that he had held throughout his years in the Senate and after he left Congress, Hagel has made it clear that he is willing to say anything necessary to win the approval of pro-Israel Democrats without whom he cannot win confirmation. The man who once popped off about how he was not like all the members of the Senate when it came to embracing the pro-Israel and anti-Iran consensus now can’t be loud enough in his professions of support for that line.

This tells us two things.

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How badly does Chuck Hagel want to be secretary of defense? As Politico reports, the answer comes in a letter he wrote to Senator Barbara Boxer that won the California Democrat’s support for his confirmation. In it, he didn’t merely apologize for his bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby,” but also backtracked from previous stands on the U.S.-Israel alliance, the threat from Iran and even specified that he now considers Hamas and Hezbollah to be terrorist groups.

As expected, Hagel flipped on his anti-gay stance as well as his opposition to abortion rights for members of the armed services—issues that are important to the liberal Boxer. But by explicitly reversing his positions on Middle East issues that he had held throughout his years in the Senate and after he left Congress, Hagel has made it clear that he is willing to say anything necessary to win the approval of pro-Israel Democrats without whom he cannot win confirmation. The man who once popped off about how he was not like all the members of the Senate when it came to embracing the pro-Israel and anti-Iran consensus now can’t be loud enough in his professions of support for that line.

This tells us two things.

One is that the administration knows that the real Chuck Hagel who was well known to be hostile to the pro-Israel community and was an advocate of engagement with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah can’t be confirmed as secretary of defense. If they are to sell the Senate on their former colleague, it will require a complete rebranding in which the Nebraskan throws his “realist” foreign policy views, which endeared him to Israel-bashers and caused even the Iranians to embrace his nomination, out the window.

That means the campaign launched against his confirmation by those who rightly viewed him as a figure outside the mainstream when it came to many foreign policy issues is succeeding. Hagel’s cheering section in the media and the Washington establishment has sought to put down his opponents as mad dog neoconservatives and extremists. But the former senator’s willingness to abandon his views shows that his White House handlers understand that it was Hagel that was out of touch, not his critics.

Secondly, the process by which Hagel has been forced to do a 180 on stands that were integral to his worldview also illustrates that President Obama is not as free to pursue policies in his second term that contradict the rhetoric he used during his re-election campaign as some of his left-wing supporters hoped and his right-wing foes feared.

The president painted himself into a corner last year when he specifically disavowed the possibility that the U.S. might choose to “contain” a nuclear Iran rather than forestalling the Islamist regime’s production of such weapons. He also vowed that any deal with Iran would preclude their having a nuclear program. And though he spent much of his first term seeking to undermine Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and trying to force it to make concessions, the president stopped talking about those issues last year and merely stuck, as Hagel did in his letter to Boxer, to enunciating support for the U.S.-Israel alliance.

This doesn’t mean that the second Obama administration can’t reverse itself on any of these points. It could back down on Iran and it is not unlikely that it will embrace a revived peace process aimed at pushing Israel into a corner. But the Hagel confirmation process shows that making such decisions will come at a high political price. There’s good reason to believe that Hagel was chosen precisely because the president privately shares some of those views that the nominee is now disavowing. But this is also a president who understands that his political capital is finite and can’t be squandered on anti-Israel grudges when there are much larger and more important battles to be fought in the next four years. The campaign against Hagel may not succeed in stopping his confirmation. But by forcing him to start talking like a neoconservative on Israel, it has demonstrated that there is a limit to how far even a re-elected Obama can go when it comes to straying from the foreign policy mainstream.

UPDATE:

Reports now say that New York Senator Chuck Schumer is satisfied with Hagel’s backtracking on Israel and Iran and is now prepared to endorse his nomination. This makes it a certainty that Hagel will be confirmed. But as I wrote earlier, the fact that he was forced to do a 180 on the positions that had endeared him to the foes of the Jewish state will make it difficult for Hagel to revert to his previous antagonism toward the pro-Israel community.

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Why Hagel Is a Fight Worth Having

The stakes will be high when Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, meets with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Along with Republican John McCain, Schumer is the key to the question of whether critics of the appointment can rally enough votes to derail Hagel’s chances. Though he is understandably reluctant to pick a fight with the Obama administration, Schumer takes a dim view of Hagel’s antagonism toward Israel and the pro-Israel community as well as his soft stands on Iran. The question is whether Hagel’s rapid backtracking from these positions is persuasive enough to convince Schumer that trying to take him down is not worth the effort.

But regardless of the outcome of that meeting, the discussion about Hagel is bound to heat up in the coming days and weeks. Hagel’s past bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and his history of opposition to sanctions or the use of force against the Iranian nuclear threat places him outside of the mainstream of American opinion and also could create the dangerous impression that U.S. policy could be shifting. But there is a still a genuine reluctance on the part of many in the Jewish community to turn this nomination into an all-out battle that would pit the administration against the pro-Israel community. The dangers of such a confrontation, especially if Hagel were to survive a close vote, are real. But the argument here is that win or lose, this is a battle worth fighting.

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The stakes will be high when Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, meets with New York Senator Chuck Schumer. Along with Republican John McCain, Schumer is the key to the question of whether critics of the appointment can rally enough votes to derail Hagel’s chances. Though he is understandably reluctant to pick a fight with the Obama administration, Schumer takes a dim view of Hagel’s antagonism toward Israel and the pro-Israel community as well as his soft stands on Iran. The question is whether Hagel’s rapid backtracking from these positions is persuasive enough to convince Schumer that trying to take him down is not worth the effort.

But regardless of the outcome of that meeting, the discussion about Hagel is bound to heat up in the coming days and weeks. Hagel’s past bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and his history of opposition to sanctions or the use of force against the Iranian nuclear threat places him outside of the mainstream of American opinion and also could create the dangerous impression that U.S. policy could be shifting. But there is a still a genuine reluctance on the part of many in the Jewish community to turn this nomination into an all-out battle that would pit the administration against the pro-Israel community. The dangers of such a confrontation, especially if Hagel were to survive a close vote, are real. But the argument here is that win or lose, this is a battle worth fighting.

The downside of a confrontation over Hagel is that it will further antagonize President Obama, reducing the ability of pro-Israel groups to influence his decision making about another return to a policy aimed at forcing the Jewish state into foolish concessions in a vain attempt to revive the Middle East peace process. It might also make him less, rather than more, inclined to adopt policies toward Iran that would match the tough rhetoric he has used on the subject. There is also the question of who would get the job if Hagel were rejected. Would it be someone even worse?

These are serious points to consider. But though the possibility of turning Hagel into a rerun of the disastrous 1981 battle over the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in which the Reagan administration overcame the opposition of AIPAC are not negligible, the risks are not as great as some make them out to be.

First of all, it needs to be understood that if anyone has picked a fight here it is the president and not the friends of Israel. By choosing a man who was one of the most openly hostile senators to Israel and the pro-Israel community, President Obama has invited this battle certain that a re-elected president won’t have his choice for the Pentagon thwarted over his comments about Israel, the Jews and Iran. In doing so, the White House has placed the bipartisan consensus on Israel and Iran in jeopardy and it is up to both Republicans and Democrats who care about these issues to ensure that it is not completely destroyed by the president’s bad judgment.

The process by which Hagel is being called to account for his comments about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and for his desire for engagement with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran is actually quite helpful to restoring that consensus. The plain fact is that if Hagel wishes to survive what should be a difficult confirmation process he’s going to have to keep walking back his past statements and beliefs. Cynics are right to question the sincerity of any such retractions or attempts to spin his long history of hostility to the pro-Israel community. But in doing so, Hagel will be put in the same position that the 2012 campaign put Obama. Over the course of the last year, the president was forced to first disavow any thought of containing a nuclear Iran or making a deal that would allow them to retain a nuclear program. That’s painted the administration into a very tight corner on an issue where there’s little doubt the White House would prefer to have more room to maneuver to craft an unsatisfactory compromise that might be a disaster for Israel and the West.

As for the alternatives to Hagel, the idea that the president could come up with someone worse than the former Nebraska senator seems a bit far-fetched. It’s unlikely that there is any possible candidate, no matter how liberal, that would bring the kind of baggage that Hagel carries with him. To ponder the alternatives is to make plain just how much of an outlier Hagel is.

If the president is thwarted on Hagel or even just seriously challenged, he will be upset about it. But does anyone think that will make him even less favorably inclined toward the current Israel government or those Americans who support it? The president’s temper tantrums directed at Israel over the past four years have already exposed his antagonism. Stopping Hagel won’t make him any friendlier, but it is doubtful that it could produce anything nastier than his May 2012 ambush of Netanyahu about the 1967 borders.

Most of all, the notion that friends of Israel or Jews should fear being singled out for opposing the president or that they should seek to avoid raising the hackles of the foreign policy and defense establishment is absurd. Those who don’t like Israel or the Jews need no excuse or extra motivation. Were those who care about Israel to be silent about Hagel, advocates of the pernicious Walt-Mearsheimer thesis would not stand down or seek trying to isolate the Jewish state or stigmatize its friends. The Israel-haters and the critics of AIPAC will be just as loud even if not a word is said about Hagel.

There are times when it is better for Israel’s friends to keep their own counsel rather than seeking to contest the administration on every possible point of contention. But this is not such a moment. Hagel’s nomination is a chance for Congress to reaffirm the U.S.-Israel alliance and to put Iran on notice that its expectation that a second Obama administration will be no obstacle to their nuclear ambitions. Whether or not Hagel gets the job, this is very much a fight worth having.

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Hagel Backers Trying to Redefine Pro-Israel

Yesterday Chuck Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star there wasn’t “one shred of evidence that [he is] anti-Israeli.” President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense claimed the criticism of his record and statements on both Israel and Iran is nothing but “falsehoods and distortions.” That’s a message that is being taken up with gusto by Hagel’s defenders on the news talks shows this week. In particular, some of those who are fighting for his confirmation are taking the position that not only is Hagel pro-Israel but that those who have criticized his positions are in fact a noisy, extremist minority that doesn’t speak for American interests or those of American Jewry, or even the people of Israel.

This is a nasty piece of business that was best exemplified by journalist Carl Bernstein who, during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today, denounced Hagel’s critics as “Likud” supporters that didn’t speak for American Jews like him. Bernstein’s diatribe in which he claimed the prime minister of Israel also didn’t speak for Israel was then praised effusively by fellow guest Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose own reputation as a bitter critic of Israel seemingly gave him the authority to decide what is and isn’t pro-Israel (something that could perhaps only happen on a show hosted by his daughter). Bernstein—a typical example of a public figure who only cites his Jewish heritage so as to enable him to bash supporters of Israel—has as little authority to speak on the subject as Brzezinski, but his comments go to the heart of the effort to push back at criticism of Hagel. The point here isn’t really about false accusations, since Hagel’s opposition to Iran sanctions or the use of force to stop its nuclear program as well as his boasts about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” are a matter of record. The issue here is one more attempt by Israel’s critics to change the terms of discussion on the issue, in order to make those who are outside the national consensus on the U.S.-Israel alliance appear to be mainstream thinkers while those who support it are castigated as extremists.

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Yesterday Chuck Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star there wasn’t “one shred of evidence that [he is] anti-Israeli.” President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of defense claimed the criticism of his record and statements on both Israel and Iran is nothing but “falsehoods and distortions.” That’s a message that is being taken up with gusto by Hagel’s defenders on the news talks shows this week. In particular, some of those who are fighting for his confirmation are taking the position that not only is Hagel pro-Israel but that those who have criticized his positions are in fact a noisy, extremist minority that doesn’t speak for American interests or those of American Jewry, or even the people of Israel.

This is a nasty piece of business that was best exemplified by journalist Carl Bernstein who, during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program today, denounced Hagel’s critics as “Likud” supporters that didn’t speak for American Jews like him. Bernstein’s diatribe in which he claimed the prime minister of Israel also didn’t speak for Israel was then praised effusively by fellow guest Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose own reputation as a bitter critic of Israel seemingly gave him the authority to decide what is and isn’t pro-Israel (something that could perhaps only happen on a show hosted by his daughter). Bernstein—a typical example of a public figure who only cites his Jewish heritage so as to enable him to bash supporters of Israel—has as little authority to speak on the subject as Brzezinski, but his comments go to the heart of the effort to push back at criticism of Hagel. The point here isn’t really about false accusations, since Hagel’s opposition to Iran sanctions or the use of force to stop its nuclear program as well as his boasts about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” are a matter of record. The issue here is one more attempt by Israel’s critics to change the terms of discussion on the issue, in order to make those who are outside the national consensus on the U.S.-Israel alliance appear to be mainstream thinkers while those who support it are castigated as extremists.

Let’s first dispense with the disingenuous nature of the defense of Hagel as being a mainstream backer of Israel. During his time in the Senate, the outspoken Nebraskan made no secret of the fact that he did not wish to be seen as part of the bipartisan consensus on Israel. That was the whole point behind his refusal to sign letters on anti-Semitism and terrorism that virtually every other member of the Senate supported. It was also the whole point behind his now-famous rant recorded by Aaron David Miller in which he bragged that unlike his colleagues he was one politician who wasn’t intimidated by the “Jewish lobby.”

Hagel was always one of those members of Congress who would couch any expression of support for Israel in words that made it clear that he disdained the decisions of its democratically-elected government (where it was run by Likud or its opponents) and that it needed to be saved from itself by forcing it to make concessions to its enemies that the people of the Jewish state believe to be unwise, if not suicidal. Nor is there any point trying to spin his long opposition to sanctions or force against Iran or Syria, or his advocacy for outreach to Hamas and Hezbollah as just another way of being a backer of Israel.

These are not mainstream positions. Nor do they require much courage since advocating anything that smacks of opposition to the pro-Israel consensus or talk about the “Jewish lobby” is bound to generate applause among the chattering classes and the liberal media, where resentment of Israel’s popularity is widespread.

Chuck Hagel does not publicly advocate Israel’s destruction, but there is more to the issue than this. To be pro-Israel one needn’t be a fan of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu or of his hapless political opponents. But Americans who purport to care about Israel’s fate do need to respect its democratic process and understand that the idea that Americans have the right to override the judgment of the voters there is illegitimate. Israel, like any democracy, especially one that is still besieged by its enemies, has plenty of problems. But it does not need to be saved from itself, especially by those, like Hagel, who have long demonstrated little sympathy with its security dilemmas or alarm about the existential threats facing it.

People like Bernstein who claim that respect for the stands of Netanyahu’s coalition—which commands the support of a far larger share of Israel’s voters than President Obama won here in 2008 or 2012—is not consistent with supporting Israel are way out of line. So, too, are their attempts to brand the overwhelming majority of Americans who think Israel’s government deserves U.S. support as a conspiracy of neoconservatives and others who don’t speak for the best interest of this country or the Jewish community.

The failure of 20 years of peace processing and concessions to the Palestinians effectively destroyed the Israeli left. That is why Netanyahu is poised to be re-elected later this month with a coalition that is more right-wing than his last government. That may dismay many Americans, but they need to understand that it is the result of Israelis looking at the facts and drawing the inevitable conclusions from them. Unfortunately, many Americans prefer to ignore the reality of the Middle East. Such dreamers who insist on blaming Israel for the lack of peace can call themselves what they like, but that does not allow them to pose as the country’s ardent friends the way Hagel and his fans are trying to.

Hagel is a decorated veteran and a loyal supporter of President Obama. Those are both good reasons for him to sit in the president’s cabinet. But his views on Israel and Iran don’t mesh with the public positions of the president or most Americans. No amount of rhetorical overkill or disingenuous attacks on the pro-Israel community can disguise this fact. Nor can they transform him from the proud opponent of the “Jewish lobby” into the Jewish state’s friend.

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