I think it’s fair to say that most friends of Israel were deeply unhappy with President Obama’s relations with the Jewish state during his first term and deeply fearful of what the second term would bring, now that he was freed of any need to court pro-Israel votes in the future. His reaction to the new Gaza war has, therefore, been as welcome as it is unexpected. He has been whole-hearted in his support of Israel’s right to defend itself against missile attacks. During a press conference today in Thailand he said: “Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory.”
That’s an excellent start and will help to reassure Israelis (as Obama no doubt hopes) that he is a reliable ally—which in turn would give him more credibility to forestall an Israeli air strike on the Iranian nuclear program. The question is whether his support will hold if Israel feels compelled to order a ground offensive to clear out the Hamas infrastructure responsible for terrorizing much of southern Israel—something that is notoriously difficult to accomplish from the air.
Obama did go on to issue a veiled warning against a possible Israeli ground offensive: “If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable. It’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It’s also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
There is nothing in that statement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could disagree with on its face—he too is very wary of sending Israeli troops into Gaza, not only because of the risk of casualties on both sides but also because of the diplomatic risks involved: A Gaza incursion could lead Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood government to sever or at least suspend ties with Israel.
But, much as Israel may be reluctant to move ground troops into Gaza, it may be unavoidable unless Hamas can be convinced to stop firing rockets in the meanwhile. If a Gaza ground incursion were to occur, Israel will need the U.S. to run diplomatic interference at the United Nations and elsewhere to buy time for its troops to finish the job. This is always a difficult undertaking and even the George W. Bush administration–led by the most pro-Israeli president in U.S. history—put considerable pressure on Israel in 2006 to end its incursion into Lebanon after a few weeks. The real test of President Obama’s attitudes will come if there is indeed a ground war. But in the meantime, his full-throated backing for Israel is certainly welcome.