For better or for worse, presidential attitudes shape US foreign policy, and it is clear that the current president, unlike his two predecessors, feels little instinctive warmth for Israel. In his address last week to AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, Obama described America's commitment to Israel as "unwavering," "ironclad," "unbreakable," "profound," and several other synonyms for "strong" -- which it is. He also described himself as a friend of Israel, which is not so clear. Between behavior. Obama later backtracked, and his apologists have been arguing that his words were misconstrued. But the president knew those words would spark a firestorm, and he insisted on saying them anyway. Clearly he intended to intensify the pressure on Israel.
Yet even the president of the United States is limited in the amount of pressure he can put on an ally with which the American people feel such a powerful affinity.
There are many illustrations of American exceptionalism, but surely one of the most striking is the solidarity with Israel that is such an abiding feature of US opinion. That solidarity is deep-rooted and durable; it cuts across age and sex and party line; and it is mirrored in the views of America's elected officials.
The thunderous reception Prime Minister Netanyahu received on Capitol Hill last week was as heartfelt as anything in American politics can be. It reflected the kinship of common values that links the greatest liberal democracy in the world with one of the smallest -- and that has done so since Harry Truman recognized the embattled state of Israel within minutes of its birth 63 years ago this month.
Israel is still embattled, and its enemies hate Americans as much as they hate Jews. That too helps explain the bond that Americans feel for Israel.
"Israel has no better friend than America," Netanyahu rightly told Congress, "and America has no better friend than Israel." The truth of those words is something most Americans know intuitively. No wonder Congress cheered.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).