Commentary Magazine

A Cautious Optimism in Israel

To the Editor:

I wish I could agree more fully with Lazar Berman and Uri Sadot, as many of the parallels they adduce seem accurate [“Israel and America: The Eternal Return,” April]. But they inaccurately describe the nature of President Obama’s response to Israel and the difference between his administration’s positions and actions and those of President Ford. 

In 1975 it did not enter anyone’s mind that the United States felt ideological sympathy for the positions taken by Israel’s Arab interlocutors. America may have had reasons or incentives for wanting to bend the terms of the dispute in directions that Israel opposed, but no one thought that was because the United States actually considered Egypt’s positions to be substantively, or morally, well founded.

Now, however, things are different. We have a president whose first major foreign-policy speech outside of the country was his Cairo address to the Arab world, in which he acted on his naive belief that American diplomatic relations with one or another part of the world could be improved by pressing a reset button like the one on a Sony PlayStation. More gravely, we have a president whose underlying sympathies seem to reside with Israel’s enemies—so that his video-taped farewell to his dear friend, and Israel basher, Rashid Khalidi cannot be publicly revealed lest it tell us something that Obama does not want known.

Because all this is so, Messrs. Berman and Sadot are wrong in saying that President Obama merely gave “artless public statements” about settlements, with “no clear plan in mind.” Obama had an entirely clear plan in mind, and his statements about settlements were entirely consistent with his view about what Israel should, and should not, be claiming. The very recent statement by the State Department spokeswoman that Israel’s claim to Jerusalem—any of Jerusalem, east or west, populated now by Jews or Arabs—cannot be determined without the agreement of Palestinian Arabs is a clear indication of what this administration really believes. 

It may be that, as in 1975, Congress’s, and the American people’s, commitment to Israel will be sufficient to prevent lasting damage. But on this as on many other issues, Barack Obama’s foreign policies are unique, and uniquely hostile, to countries that have been American allies for decades. 

Jerome Marcus
Narberth, Pennsylvania

To the Editor:

Missing from Lazar Berman and Uri Sadot’s article is any reference to perhaps the most important change since the 1970s: a growing support for Israel among the evangelical Christian population in the United States. 

Arguably, Israel’s true support base is no longer the fading World War II generation of Jews and veterans. Even as young Jews have distanced themselves from a powerful, expansive Jewish state, the 40 million evangelicals with their literalist interpretation of the Bible are now among its strongest supporters.

Secondarily, thanks to spectacular attacks on the West, including 9/11, radical Islam has emerged into clearer focus as a genuine threat. Israel, as an Islamist target and an experienced fighter of radical Islam, is now viewed more favorably by conservative Americans in general. Even those who do not love Israel regard it as the “enemy of my enemy.”

Israel’s toleration of a large Muslim minority, its decisive and competent military reactions to gross acts of Muslim aggression, and its demonization by the worst terrorist groups are all points in the Jewish state’s favor among average Americans who perceive an overly apologetic and pro-Arab tilt to U.S. foreign policy, especially since the election of President Obama.

Terry Traub
Watertown, Massachusetts

Lazar Berman and Uri Sadot write:

Jerome Marcus makes an astute and accurate observation. President Ford and Secretary Kissinger bore no ideological sympathy for Egypt or any other enemy of Israel. President Obama’s sympathies are more complex and somewhat difficult to divine. He has been solid on the security relationship, but Israel and its American supporters feel that he needlessly antagonizes them—perhaps because Palestinian claims resonate in the political and social universe in which Obama operates.

This reinforces a major conclusion of the article. The present tension—lingering and seemingly intractable—is not rooted in the conflicting national interest of Israel and the United States. Because it hinges on the ideological and personal disagreement between the president and prime minister, there is not much room to negotiate a solution to the current diplomatic impasse. If it were rooted in objective policy realities, there would be concrete needs for both sides to discuss issues in an atmosphere of trust and good will.

Whatever one thinks about Obama’s sympathies, U.S.-Israeli relations over the past 64 years have been on a markedly positive trend. Despite the fall of some countries and massive political changes in others, Washington and Jerusalem have moved closer to each other on Palestinian statehood, security cooperation, and even the future of Jerusalem, as an examination of Israel’s past two governments shows. Compare today’s state of affairs with the Franco-Israeli relationship during the 1950s. Israel’s air force flew French jets, France helped build Israel’s nuclear-weapons program, Shimon Peres was a regular attendee at top-level meetings in the Elysée, and they fought together in 1956. Under Charles de Gaulle, the special relationship was brought to an end, despite the objections from the French bureaucracy. In America, no single president could similarly affect the U.S.-Israel relationship. Congress and the American people would use their many levers to counter any president’s attempting to “de Gaulle” the relationship.

Still, as recent history shows, there is reason for concern. As Terry Traub points out, evangelical Christian support for Israel is indeed a crucial staple of the America-Israel relationship. They have been far less reserved than much of the Jewish community has in publicly and wholeheartedly defending Israel. Even without the important support of the American Jewish community, America would still be a country sympathetic to Israel. 

But the big question in coming years concerns the direction of mainstream liberals. Among many liberal Zionists, no discussion of Israel can begin without a preamble that criticizing Israel is the greatest act of friendship, that they love Israel while decrying the policies of its democratically elected government. Liberals in general are much less comfortable proclaiming love for Israel than they are pointing out her shortcomings.

For now, and for the foreseeable future, the roots of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and the two largest Jewish communities, are healthy and stable, and they run deeper than the personal animosity between the current Israeli and American leaders. Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama might be forced into finding a way to cooperate when they deal with an issue that really hinges on core national interests: the Iranian
nuclear program. 

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