Recently, the Obama Administration picked a fight with Israel because a bureaucrat announced the approval of the fourth of seven stages for 1,600 housing units to be built in Jerusalem, even though construction won’t begin until at least 2013. Let me repeat: this unspeakably horrendous affront was over the middle stage of an approval process for housing that might be started three years from now. Is it any wonder that Israelis consider Obama to be their least favorite U.S. President in the country’s history?
It’s pretty clear that the Obama administration has pursued a different policy toward many of our traditional allies, including England, Japan, France and Israel. Why the Administration has taken these positions has been the subject of great analysis and speculation. Israel’s American supporters are justifiably disturbed about the administration’s treatment of the country, but it doesn’t even come close to what Israelis themselves think about Obama.
Most of us rely on the American viewpoint of the U.S.-Israel relationship, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year getting the Israeli perspective. Both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had particularly good relationships with Israel, and you will find little criticism of either in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. But Israelis are not nearly as reticent about criticizing Obama and they have several reasons for their attitude.
The principal concern stems from Obama’s attempt to dictate Middle East policy. Israelis believe The administration appears to have concocted an agenda – making assumptions about what is best for all stakeholders – without taking the time to listen and learn. Israel, like any other sovereign country, rejects outside attempts to dictate her security and domestic policies. In fact, they regularly reject Jewish-American efforts to influence Israeli policy even though some of those parties have in-depth knowledge of the Israeli experience. The recent brouhaha is over a perfect example of this behavior: Mr. Obama has in a very confrontational manner determined that there will be no construction in any area that he deems to be in dispute.
Israel’s second concern is symbiotic with the first. Obama’s attempt to appease certain Arab countries has raised great suspicion among Israelis who live among these countries and know quite well their history toward Israel and each other. Obama’s Cairo speech turned many Israelis against his administration, especially when he spoke of six million people being killed in the Holocaust without mentioning that they were Jews and that they were murdered.
Israelis realize the existential danger presented by Iran and they believe that Obama has played footsie with Ahmadinejad’s aggressive regime. Every week there are new promises of deadlines and sanctions, but nothing ever gets accomplished. Both Israel and Iran believe that Obama has no backbone, which leaves the Israelis in serious danger without being able to count on America’s historically steadfast support.
Israelis are particularly enraged over Obama’s position on the issue of Jerusalem. The fact that Palestinians say Jerusalem is in dispute does not make it a disputed area. Obama needs to realize that the Israelis are not giving back any area of Jerusalem. Even if they did, it is still an unworkable situation.
In The Berlin Wall, Frederick Taylor’s excellent book, he explains the mistakes made the last time a major city was divided between opposing countries. Not only were families separated, but so were the municipal services – such as sewage and water – that had been inextricably connected for decades. Those who suggest that Jerusalem simultaneously be the capital of two different countries apparently have not learned the lessons of Berlin. In fact, never in recorded history have two countries successfully shared a single capital city. It is a preposterous proposal that is doomed to failure.
Some have speculated that Mr. Obama’s hard line toward Israel may be because he wishes to replace Netanyahu with a more appeasement-oriented prime minister like Tzipi Livni. There is some historical basis for this. Rahm Emanuel was deeply involved when Clinton took on Netanyahu in 1999, who was ultimately replaced by Ehud Barak. The difference is that by 1999 – near the end of his term – Clinton had generated a strong rapport with the Israelis. Yet it still turned out to be a disaster. Flash forward 11 years and there is a more experienced, more confident Israeli people and a wildly unpopular American president. The more Obama digs in his heels against Netanyahu, the less popular Obama becomes. Worse, Obama has chosen to pick a fight with Netanyahu over a sacrosanct issue – Jerusalem – a place that has been part of Jewish life for over two thousand years.
Confrontation with Israel is not a new phenomenon; this has been a theme of the Obama presidency. Regrettably, it appears that the negative opinions of Obama setting in among Israelis may be irreversible. They know that there are presidential cycles in America; they also realize that Jews have existed for almost 6,000 years, and they fully expect to be around long after Obama leaves office.
The Jewish people don’t have to remember as far back as Haman, King Herod and the Spanish Inquisitors to understand that they have dealt with far more problematic and intractable opposition than Barack Obama. They are just surprised that an American president is their antagonist.