Obama’s distorted Israel image
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Obama’s distorted Israel image

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daniel hertzberg

To hear his opponents tell it, President Barack Obama is the worst president ever when it comes to things Israel.

To hear his supporters and Obama himself, the president is the best president ever when it comes to Israel.

The record supports Obama more than it does his detractors. On paper and by all practical measures, the president certainly is among the best friends Israel has had in the White House. Yet Obama and his aides have managed to say and do things that cause serious doubt even among those who want to believe him.

The so-called “kishke factor” – is not a trivial concern. Assuming Obama is re-elected in November, he will be free of ever again having to face an electorate or troll for votes, Jewish or otherwise. That means that he will be freer than he is now to follow his heart rather than his politics – and if his heart is in a different place than where his politics have been, a second Obama term could be a very bad time for Israel.

No one, of course, can say what is in another person’s heart. Given Obama’s friendships, statements, and actions over the last 20 years or so, it probably is safe to say that he is sincere in his desire to see Israel remain safe and secure behind defensible borders.

That does not mean that the president will always agree with decisions Israel makes, or that he will always see things Israel’s way when it comes to the peace process. Obama’s detractors may expect that of him, but Israel does not. As Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote in an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy.

World War II model

“[E]ven the warmest friendships are never disagreement-free,” Oren wrote. “This was certainly the case with the Anglo-American relationship during World War II, modern history’s most celebrated alliance, but one that was riven by disputes over military planning and postwar arrangements.

“The United States and Israel could not, therefore, realistically be expected to concur on all of the Middle East’s labyrinthine issues. Ronald Reagan, for example, condemned Israel’s attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and Israel objected to his sale of advanced jets to Saudi Arabia.”

Because disagreements arise between the two countries, added to the kishke factor issues, most American Jews have a distorted image of Obama’s record on Israel. There are two classic examples of this distortion, one recent and one nearly two years old.

In the most recent case, the president met on Nov. 3 with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Cannes during the G20 summit. Neither man was aware that the microphone before them was live and feeding into a room in which journalists were gathered.

A few days earlier, on Oct. 31, France had voted to admit the Palestinian Authority to full membership in UNESCO. It was part of the P.A.’s effort to get the United Nations to declare Palestine a state and grant it membership status.

“I didn’t appreciate your way of presenting things over the Palestinian membership of UNESCO,” the president said to Sarkozy, according to a transcript released by the Reuters news agency. “It weakened us. You should have consulted us, but that is now behind us.”

‘Tell them no way’

Obama then got Sarkozy’s assurance that France would not support the statehood bid when it came up. Obama, however, did not want the matter to come up at all. “You have to pass the message along to the Palestinians that they must stop this immediately,” Obama said.

In other words, Obama, in a private conversation he believed was out of the earshot of anyone and therefore offering him no political advantage, took France to task for voting for something that could potentially be damaging for Israel. He then urged France to agree to let the Palestinians know that their statehood bid was dead in the water. (The P.A. dropped its bid later that day.)

What Sarkozy said next, however, and how Obama did not respond, are the only things people talk about when they discuss the incident.

“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy told Obama, according to the Reuters report.

“You’re fed up with him,” Obama allegedly responded, “but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Obama, believing that no one else was listening, nevertheless did not take the opportunity to call Netanyahu a liar, or to disparage him in any way. He also did not defend Netanyahu, however, and it is because of this that he is tarred with the same brush as Sarkozy. The myth is that they both called Israel’s prime minister a liar. That the whole discussion began with Obama upbraiding Sarkozy for an anti-Israel vote, or that he urged France to get the P.A. to back off, or that he said nothing negative about Netanyahu’s character, are ignored or dismissed as irrelevant.

The snub that wasn’t

The second iconic incident – the alleged White House snub of Netanyahu that is contantly being raised by detractors – occurred on March 23, 2010.

According to the London Telegraph, for example, “Benjamin Netanyahu was left to stew in a White House meeting room for over an hour after President Barack Obama abruptly walked out of tense talks to have supper with his family….”

Obama, the Telegraph reported, “treated his guest to a series of slights. Photographs of the meeting were forbidden and an Israeli request to issue a joint statement once it was over were turned down.”

Other news reports insist that Netanyahu was forced to enter and exit the White House through a humiliating side door.

Considering events earlier in March and even earlier that day, it would have been inexcusable but not surprising if the White House treated Netanyahu this way – although it did not, as will be seen.

On March 9, Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel on what was referred to by some in the media at the time as a “fence-mending mission” to assure Israelis that the United States remained committed to its security. Biden was also hoping to kick-start the so-called proximity talks the United States had brokered between Israel and the P.A. The vice president had hardly settled in, however, when Israel’s interior minister announced that Israel was granting permits for the building of 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem. Biden and the United States were livid. Biden, one of Israel’s most steadfast friends in Washington over the years, saw this as a deliberate slap in his face. He expressed his displeasure in words and deeds, including showing up 90 minutes late for a state dinner hosted by Netanyahu.

Last-minute slap?

By March 23, that incident had been smoothed over, only to be given new life when, literally while Netanyahu was being driven to the White House, Israel announced that it was going ahead with yet another east Jerusalem building project.

All of this backstory was lost in the rhetoric that flowed from the March 23 “snub.”

Lost, as well, was the fact that it never happened. Oren, who accompanied Netanyahu that day, tells a completely different story.

To begin with, when Netanyahu’s trip to Washington was announced, no meetings between him and Obama were scheduled – because Obama and his family were going to be visiting Guam, Indonesia, and Australia. The president cancelled that trip at the 11th hour because of the congressional debate over health care reform. The first lady and her daughters went to New York, instead, and were touring sites in Harlem when the president was said to have walked out on Netanyahu in order to have dinner with them.

According to Oren, who gave a detailed account of the event to a meeting of Jewish Democrats a few days later, the meeting with Obama was put on the prime minister’s schedule only when it became clear that both men would be in Washington on March 23.

Netanyahu came through the same door as other dignitaries. There was no media coverage because, said Oren, since this was not an official state visit, no photo-ops were called for. The two men met and discussed a number of issues. Obama made some suggestions, Netanyahu asked for some time to work with his staff on a response, and Obama saw to it that they were given a place to work in private. At 8:20 p.m., after Netanyahu and his aides concluded their meeting, the president met a second time with the prime minister. The two parted later that evening in what Oren described as a friendly atmosphere.

Oren said that Israel was as surprised as the White House to read about the alleged snub in the next morning’s newspapers.

Buchenwald visit
a blunder?

To be sure, Obama probably made a strategic error early in his presidency when he went to Cairo to deliver a major Middle East policy, address but did not then go to Israel for a visit (it would have been his third, but his first as president). The White House, however, had calculated that Obama’s message would be taken more seriously if he did not visit Israel after delivering it, but toured the Buchenwald concentration camp with Elie Wiesel and German Chancellor Angela Merkel instead. Among other things, the president – speaking directly to the Arab world – stated:

“America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

“Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot, and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed – more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve….

“Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed….It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered….”

Of course, Obama used the opportunity to address Israel, as well, including reminding it that continued building in the West Bank was something the United States has always opposed; that agreements that are made must be honored by both sides; and that ordinary Palestinians had legitimate grievances that needed to be recognized and addressed.

‘Ultimate rebuke’

The point, however, is that a president of the United States went into the heart of the Arab world and delivered a powerful pro-Israel message, and then followed it up by visiting a notorious concentration camp to underscore many of his points, including his attack on the Arab penchant for Holocaust denial. “This place,” Obama would say at Buchenwald the next day, “is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts; a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history,” meaning world history.

The president made these same points in his speech in September to the United Nations. Israel praised him for it. “I think that standing your ground, taking this position of principle…, I think this is a badge of honor and I want to thank you for wearing that badge of honor,” Netanyahu said. Obama’s critics hailed the General Assembly speech, as well, but called it election year rhetoric. It is as if the June 2009 Cairo speech never happened.

Obama is also called to task for saying in May that Israel had to return to the borders it had before the start of the June 1967 Six-Day War. The president, however, never said any such thing. “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states,” Obama continued.

In other words, the 1967 borders are the starting point for negotiations, not the end point; Israel’s borders need adjusting in order to make them secure; Israel’s existence is legitimate and must be recognized as such; and Israel and the P.A. must work out the details between themselves. This has been the position of the United States since the Six-Day War ended and represents its understanding of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which the United States considers the basis for any peace agreement between the parties.

Record, in brief

With all this in mind, consider Obama’s record vis à vis Israel:

“¢ The administration fought for and won an unprecedented $2.8 billion direct appropriation to Israel for its security needs – the largest amount ever given to the Jewish state.

“¢ Thanks to U.S. assistance, including $205 million in supplemental funding obtained by the administration, Israel in April was able to deploy the Iron Dome missile defense system. Said Netanyahu of that help, “America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel in critical times, along with ongoing military and material cooperation, is a testament to our shared values and interests, and the bonds between our two peoples.” (The administration, at the same time, sought reduced funding for two other defense systems, Arrow 3 and David’s Sling; Congress increased the funding instead.)

“¢ The administration brought about an unprecedented uptick in the level of security cooperation between the United States and Israel. “In the intelligence field, in particular, the cooperation between Israel and the United States is vast,” Oren wrote in his Foreign Policy article. And, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently told Greta Van Sustern on Fox News, “I can hardly remember a better period of support, American support and backing and cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”

“¢ The United States quashed a declaration of Palestinian statehood by the Security Council and prevented a similar measure from being brought before the United Nations General Assembly.

“¢ The United States, as in most previous administrations, has vetoed anti-Israel resolutions before the United Nations Security Council.

“¢ The president personally intervened in September when the Israeli embassy in Cairo was under attack by violent mobs of Egyptian protesters. Said Netanyahu on Sept. 10, “I asked for his help. This was a decisive and fateful moment. He said, ‘I will do everything I can.’ And so he did. He used every considerable means and influence of the United States to help us. We owe him a special measure of gratitude. This attests to the strong alliance between Israel and the United States.”

On Aug. 3, when President Shimon Peres accepted the credentials of U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, he said, “I want to…say in a clear voice – President Obama is a friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and there is no doubt in this matter….President Obama represents the tradition of deep friendship between Israel and the United States, not only in words, but in actions, and he has emphasized that Israel’s security is a top priority of the American government – and he has acted thusly.”

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