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.