'Why is this president different from all other presidents? Because this president doesn't support Israel.'
Such an exchange might come up at Passover seders this evening, and if your Jewish family is anything like mine, a common ritual is to draw parallels between the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and Jewish current events. Oftentimes it comes towards meal's end -- somewhere between fishing around for afikomen cash and noticing that Elijah didn't touch his wine. But it will happen. And, from the Toulouse killings to Iranian nuke progress, the world is unsettling enough for Jews without painting the U.S. president like a member of Hamas. So if an uncle brings up our 'anti-Israel' president, here's how you can respectfully correct him.
Ever since the 2008 election, a GOP talking point has been that Barack Obama has the "worst relationship with Israel of any president in history"; that, as Mitt Romney insists, he "throws Israel under the bus." (Better than strapping it to the roof of the bus in a crate, I suppose.)
It's baloney. Please toss it out and replace it with some charoset and maror. Obama's solidarity with the Jewish state has been convincing where it really matters. Just ask Israelis. In 2009, Obama enjoyed the support of just eight percent of the Israeli public, a number that has climbed to a stunning 54 percent after three years in office. The man's gone from being within the margin of error of Pharaoh to wishing he could run for reelection in Tel Aviv.
So, what happened? I asked a former colleague from my time in Israel -- a right-wing Likud party member, in fact. "Well," he said, "it's pretty simple. We just didn't know who he was. Now we do."
Israelis loved President Bush, and were nervous about a new guy marketing himself as the anti-Dubbya. Add that to the fact that Obama spent some of his childhood in a Muslim country and has Hussein for a middle-name, and you land in the single digits. "We live on the edge of a knife here, you know?" the colleague said, "so when we don't know the U.S. leader, we'll believe some rumors and speculation. But we know now, he stands with us."
Still, there's an election in November and somebody told the Republicans there are a few Jews in Florida; thus, the litany of alleged [disasters!] between Obama and Israel. The cited instances have been overblown, and mostly are the result of procedural and symbolic faux pas, rather than substantive policy shifts.
First, yes -- Obama could have visited the Jewish homeland as president, and probably should have (he did so as a senator). When he made the high profile 2009 visit to Cairo, with an address to the Muslim world as its centerpiece, many Jews took his failure to make a similar appeal in Israel as a slap in the face. The President obviously felt the U.S. had more damage to undo in the Arab world than in Israel, which was true. The understandable disappointment, however, was more a matter of propriety than relationship severing.
So too with Obama's early settlement freeze demand in 2009 as a precondition for peace talks. Put aside the fact that many Israelis and American Jews (this one included) felt it was appropriate, and that settlement construction is disastrous for peace. It was also nothing entirely new; multiple U.S. presidents had lobbied for freezes in the past. The fallout was due to manner and context. The Administration failed to prepare Netanyahu adequately beforehand; had it been properly timed and discussed, the settlement freeze may have been well received by the Israeli public. Instead, it appeared as though the U.S. was holding Israel to a higher standard than the Palestinians, and demanding more. And, of course, it was. Like the Cairo visit, the settlement freeze was an expression of intimacy, in some respects -- Obama believed he'd have better luck kick-starting talks with a show of goodwill from our closest ally, than by strong-arming Mahmoud Abbas. Still, nobody likes to be taken for granted, and Obama took Israeli cooperation for granted. But the fiasco was a political miscalculation, not a display of hostility.
The same is true of the '67 borders kerfuffle last May. The outrage over Obama's supposed demand that Israel return to the armistice lines (giving up all settlements and part of Jerusalem) was nothing short of ridiculous. The State Department speech called for a return to the lines "with mutually agreed to land-swaps." Translation: the two-state solution would take into account the demographic reality on the ground. This has been U.S. policy since the Camp David Accords in 2000, and been supported by both Presidents Clinton and Bush. Yet again, it wasn't what Obama said, but the context in which he said it. The decision to give the speech on the eve of Netanyahu's visit -- without informing him beforehand -- was interpreted by many to be a dog whistle of sorts, designed to embarrass Netanyahu. Whether intentional or not, the timing was unfortunate; but a policy shift it was not.
And then there's Iran. The President's economic sanctions are hammering the rogue state's economy, and Obama has repeatedly insisted that no military option is off the table. What he has promised Netanyahu behind closed doors is impossible to know, but the President is no foreign policy dove, and right-wing insistence that he wants the Mullahs to have a bomb isn't even worth laughing at.
So, why the Obama-hates-Israel propaganda? Some of it's the result of a few impolitic moments by an inexperienced president; one forced to deal with an Israeli Prime Minister whom I wouldn't even want to ask for a cup of coffee; and the fact that Republicans detect few vulnerabilities in Obama's foreign policy for November, so they're going after my grandpa's vote in Palm Beach.
But I'll tell him what you should tell your family members if your seder turns political: That our President's no Moses, but he ain't Pharaoh either.
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