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Contentions

A Portrait of the President as a Young Man

Benjamin Kerstein has a 3,500-word essay entitled “Obama and Israel: Betrayal in the Broken Places” that is essential reading. It is a portrait of Obama as a dangerous combination of hubris and ineptitude, and a description of the process by which he “lost the Israelis, possibly for good,” with “no one to blame but himself.”

Obama centered his policy on an unrealistic call for complete cessation of all settlement-building, violating longstanding understandings with Israel underlying the “peace process.” But if it had been handled differently, it might not have had such disastrous consequences:

Had Obama proved flexible on Jerusalem and its nearby “consensus” settlements, which most Israelis consider essential to their security and want to retain in any peace agreement, some sort of modus vivendi might have been reached early enough to avoid a serious breach. In his insistence on a total freeze, however, Obama was demanding something that was both too much for most Israelis to swallow and Netanyahu simply could not deliver. . . . Obama may have hoped for precisely that, believing that a new, more pliable government led by Livni would replace Netanyahu. If so, it was a horrendous miscalculation.

But it was not the push for a total, uncompromising settlement freeze, however, that was the key moment. That moment was, ironically, the one Obama considered one of his triumphs: the Cairo “address to the Muslim world”:

Taken as a whole, the speech was simply a craven embarrassment; but the references it made to Israel could not have been more alienating and insulting had they been calculated for the purpose. How Obama’s speechwriters and advisors became convinced that equating the Holocaust with the Palestinian nakba . . . comparing Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to segregation in the United States, and pointing to the Jewish people’s “tragic history” as the sole justification for Israel’s existence would assuage Israeli concerns about the new administration must remain a question for history to answer. There is no doubt, however, that this single speech (which everyone in Israel watched) did more to demolish Obama’s credibility in Israeli eyes than any of his demands on Netanyahu ever could have.

The Cairo speech, with its emphasis on the Holocaust as the justification for Israel (to the exclusion of thousands of years of Jewish civilization and historical claims to the Land predating by centuries the birth of Islam and extending through the 20th century in the Balfour Declaration) revealed a “glaring ignorance of Israeli history and sensibilities,” as did the reference to segregation, which recalled the 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism.

But the worst was Obama’s moral equivalence between Nazi genocide and the Arab displacement in 1948, occasioned by a war the Arabs started after rejecting — not for the first or last time — a two-state solution:

It is true that 1948 was a catastrophe for the Palestinians, and many thousands of them were displaced — voluntarily and involuntarily — as a result of the war; but for many Jews (and many non-Jews) the equation of this to the Holocaust was not only morally appalling but served to minimize a genocide that is still within living memory, and did so in front of an audience that often claims it never happened at all.

Watching Obama, Israelis recognized something they have seen before in the violent and unstable Middle East: idealistic incompetence. That judgment was confirmed by Obama’s failure, also glaringly obvious, to obtain any steps toward normalization to accompany any new settlement freeze, and his passive encouragement of maximalist Palestinian claims even after the most pliant prime minister in Israeli history had spent a year in the Annapolis Process unsuccessfully offering the Palestinians a state.

The result is that “[Obama’s] relationship with the Israelis is now so damaged that Netanyahu probably could not sell further concessions to the Israeli public even if he wanted to (which he most certainly does not).”

The portrait of Obama that emerges in Kerstein’s article has ramifications beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Obama’s idealistic but unrealistic belief that speeches, videos, reset buttons, bows, unclenched fists, and other gestures of goodwill are the key to resolving international disputes is now well-known. His combination of extreme self-regard and absence of actual accomplishments (both before and after he became president) reflects a mindset that is, in Abe Greenwald’s perceptive phrase, anti-decisive (since it is easier to protect a self-portrait by merely voting “present”). He is tough on small allies (Israel, Honduras, Georgia), or those deemed inconsequential (Poland, the Czech Republic, the UK), but endlessly patient and non-confrontational with adversaries. It is not a very presidential picture.



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