Last March, President Obama visited Israel for the first time since taking office. There he gave several speeches that must be considered among the most pro-Zionist ever uttered by an American leader. He annoyed supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by asking Israelis to pressure their government to take risks for peace — the same risks, as it happened — that his predecessors had already tried with disastrous results. But the genuinely supportive tone of his remarks persuaded some observers that despite a first term marred by almost continual fights with Jerusalem, the president might finally win over an Israeli public that had never warmed to him. But less than a year later after that long-delayed visit, it might as well have never have taken place, as far as the Israelis are concerned. A new Times of Israel poll published this week shows that an overwhelming majority do not trust Obama to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and a clear majority view him unfavorably.
This frustrates the president’s defenders who cite the strong security cooperation that has continued on his watch, the generous aid to Israel that continues to flow, to the Jewish state, as well as the fact that he retained the support of more than two-thirds of American Jewish voters in his reelection campaign. Obama’s apologists also say he should be trusted to do the right thing on Iran and be given a chance to let diplomacy work to end the nuclear threat. They insist the administration’s push to force the Jewish state to make more concessions to the Palestinians is in Israel’s interests.
Israelis, however, aren’t impressed by any of these arguments. They distrust him more now than they did before his visit. That should prompt Americans who claim to be friends of Israel to ask themselves what the Israelis know that they don’t.
The reason for Obama’s low approval and trust ratings among Israelis is no mystery. He came into office in January 2009 determined to establish daylight between Israel and the United States and wasted no time in achieving that goal. The fights he picked with Netanyahu were largely intended to undermine the prime minister’s standing at home but only served to strengthen him among his countrymen. Netanyahu’s defiance of Obama’s demands was based on positions widely agreed upon by the majority of Israelis such as a refusal to divide Jerusalem. Most Israelis aren’t any more enamored of West Bank settlements than the president, most view American insistence on pushing Israel back to its 1967 borders as madness because, unlike Obama, they vividly recall the events of 2005. In that year the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza produced a hale of rockets fired on their towns and cities along the border which they now see as a clear warning of what would recur if the tragic experiment were repeated.
The president’s disastrous retreat on Syria—after promising that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line,” that would trigger an American response —in which he has effectively conceded that there is nothing the U.S. is prepared to do to restrain an Assad regime backed by both Russia and Iran has also undermined Israeli trust in his judgment, not to mention his promises.
That skepticism is even greater on Iran. Much was made in the American media in 2012 and 2013 about the lack of support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran among members of the country’s security establishment and the Israeli public. But that stance was based on a belief that the only way to deal with Iran was in concert with a resolute United States. There is little disagreement in Israel about the absolute necessity for the West to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program as well as to force it to give up its ballistic missile program and to end its support of terrorism. Thus, the U.S. decision to embrace an interim nuclear deal that does nothing to dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (a position reaffirmed today by Iran’s foreign minister) and loosens sanctions in a way that has led many in Europe to believe that the restrictions will soon be eliminated altogether, has rightly alarmed Israelis.
Though Obama has consistently pledged to stop Iran from getting a bomb, Israelis view the American embrace of diplomacy with the Islamist regime very differently from the president’s supporters in the United States. While many Americans accept the administration’s arguments that the only alternative to its engagement with Iran is war, Israelis understand that the talk emanating from Washington about détente with Tehran represents nothing short of a profound betrayal of Obama’s pledges.
The United States seems to be retreating from the Middle East, a position that frightens many Arabs as well as the Israelis. They see the drift toward the appeasement of Iran as a sign that this administration is prepared to accept a compromise with Tehran that will leave the nuclear threat in place. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to blame the Israelis for believing that Obama can’t be trusted. American friends of Israel—including those who voted for Obama—have good reason to take a long, hard look at the Israeli poll results and reconsider their longstanding unblinking trust in this president.