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Obama and Israel: Setting the Record Straight

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When President Obama addresses the annual conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) next week, he will be given an important opportunity to set the record straight on his administration's handling of U.S.-Israel relations. The president's outreach to the Arab and Muslim world, as well as his policy and personal differences with Prime Minister Netanyahu, have led to charges that he is either insufficiently "pro-Israel" or downright "anti-Israel." While these critics are a minority within the American Jewish community -- Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 and will likely receive similar backing in November -- they and their Christian fundamentalist allies will be present in large numbers at the AIPAC gathering, which tends to disproportionately attract hawks on Israel.

Charges against Obama's pro-Israel credentials are ill-informed but have become all the more pronounced in this election year. GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney alleged that the president "threw Israel under the bus" when he announced last May that the foundation for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be a return to the pre-1967 borders, with adjustments based on demographic changes. Yet Obama's statement was consistent with more than a decade of U.S. policy dating to the Clinton Parameters of December 2000. It also echoed a widely-held view in Israel that was articulated by Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

Chomping at the bit to take a swipe at Obama, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum made a similar throwing-Israel-under-the-bus accusation, suggesting that Obama would accept a nuclear Iran in return for a continued flow of oil. Newt Gingrich has likewise entered the fray in an ironic way, accusing the administration of being "out of touch with reality" for its approach to Middle East peace, while, at the same time, repeating the old canard that the Palestinians are an "invented" people.

Obama will surely not be able to silence his critics with a speech, but he can certainly defang them by exposing their false claims and pointing to his administration's very strong record on Israel.

Contrary to the accusations leveled by Obama's critics, bilateral defense cooperation is both broader and deeper today than at any time in history. This is especially the case with respect to missile defense, where the two countries have cooperated in the creation of a three-tiered air defense system. With Iran in mind, the Obama administration signed an agreement with the Israelis in July 2010 to develop a high-altitude Arrow-3 interceptor, a long-range system designed to hit incoming missiles outside the Earth's atmosphere. A month later, the administration signed an agreement with the Israelis to jointly develop David's Sling, an air defense system designed to counter missile and rockets with ranges of 25-185 miles. In addition to the more than $200 million the administration has allocated for these state-of-the-art systems, the Obama administration has provided Israel with $205 million for the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, which is designed to counter short-range rocket and artillery shells from the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and has already saved Israeli lives from rocket attacks emanating from Gaza.

Unprecedented bilateral defense cooperation has also been pursued in other realms. Determined to ensure that Israel retains its status as having the most advanced fighter aircraft in the Middle East, Obama has agreed to sell Israel the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which President Bush had refused to do. Although mechanical problems have held up their production and will therefore delay their delivery date, the Israeli defense establishment regards the purchase of these advanced combat aircraft to be of critical importance to Israel's security.

The Obama administration has also moved to strengthen force interoperability between Washington and Jerusalem. Indeed, the U.S. armed forces and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will conduct the largest joint exercises in the history of U.S.-Israel relations later this year. The "Austere Challenge 12" drills will test new ballistic missile and rocket defense capabilities and improve the capacity of the U.S. and Israeli militaries to operate together.

To be sure, the Obama administration has raised serious concerns about the wisdom of the Netanyahu government's purported inclination to preemptively strike Iran's nuclear facilities this spring. But these concerns are shared, also, by the last two Mossad chiefs, Meir Dagan and Ephraim Halevy, former IDF intelligence head Shlomo Gazit, and a bevy of other Israeli and American security experts. Notwithstanding the president's skepticism of an Israeli military strike against Iran, the administration has been working in "lockstep" with Israel to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Nor has the president ruled out a military operation against Iran; rather, he continues to stress that all options remain on the table and that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.

The Obama administration also has imposed the toughest sanctions on Iran to date and, significantly, won support for tough sanctions from some formerly reticent European allies. In February, Obama signed the executive order approving sanctions on Iran's Central Bank, adding to the growing list of sanctions on Iran. Shortly thereafter, the Treasury Department added Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security to its list of global terrorists, thereby freezing their assets in the United States, barring Americans from conducting business with it, and banning ministry employees from travel to the United States. According to Dennis Ross, who has served five administrations -- he recently stepped down as a senior Middle East adviser to President Obama -- the sanctions are working.

Obama also has been a champion of Israel in international diplomatic forums. From condemning Palestinian incitement against Israel to vetoing anti-Israel resolutions in the UN, Obama has consistently worked to combat efforts at delegitimizing Israel. Most significantly, last fall he opposed the Palestinian request for UN admission as a state, arguing that a Palestinian state can only emerge from negotiations with Israel. According to Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Obama delivered "one of the most impassioned statements in support of Israel ever made by an American president at the [United Nations] General Assembly."

In terms of tangible contributions to Israel's security, Israel has a solid friend in President Obama. Long-term security for Israel, however, will not come from military equipment and diplomatic support alone. Obama has yet to deliver what Israel needs most: a peace deal with the Palestinians. Although the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are largely to blame for the stalemate in the peace process, U.S. engagement on this issue -- including pressuring both sides to compromise -- on a sustained basis and at the highest level is critical if a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be realized. This is not what the AIPAC crowd wants to hear, but it is what any true friend of Israel in the White House needs to do.