Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama and Israel: Betrayal in the Broken Places


by Benjamin Kerstein


The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry.

-Ernest Hemingway

For a politician, there is no more dangerous combination of traits than hubris and ineptitude. In a friendly environment, the detrimental effects of these flaws can be staved off, for a time, by talented spin doctors, a sympathetic press, or the enthusiasm of one's followers. In the maelstrom of Middle East politics, however, they tend to be almost immediately apparent, and the resulting fall from grace is often precipitous. President Barack Obama, who appears to possess both traits in unique abundance, has had to find this out the hard way; and whether he has learned his lesson or not remains to be seen.


In Israel, however, conclusions have already been drawn, and the results are not particularly pretty for Obama. Put simply, he is the least popular American president in recent memory. The percentage of Israelis who consider him friendly to Israel has never been high, but it has dropped at various times into the single digits. Considering that the Israeli left polled 16% of the vote in the last elections, and the centrist Kadima party another 22% - higher, in fact, than Netanyahu's Likud - Obama's dismal numbers cannot be put down to simple partisanship. Israelis across the political spectrum are clearly convinced that Obama is indifferent and/or hostile to Israeli interests, sensibilities, and concerns.


It is worth pointing out that Israel was a problem for Obama almost from the beginning. During the 2008 campaign, much was made in Jewish circles of his political roots on the radical left; his friendships with Rashid Khalidi, a vitriolic partisan of the Palestinian cause, and the demented preacher Jeremiah Wright; and his sometimes ambivalent statements on the subject. In February 2008, for example, Obama remarked, "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel," which is practically identical to the rhetoric employed by Israel Lobby conspiracy theorists. His statements on Jerusalem also proved decidedly bizarre, both pledging that it would remain united and asserting that this was an issue to be settled in future negotiations. While everyone is at least vaguely aware of the fact that American presidential candidates always make promises regarding Jerusalem which they have no intention of ever keeping, the suspicion among many was that the candidate was trying to solidify his American Jewish support while signaling his true intentions to his progressive base. When Obama began his administration by demanding that Israel freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, while asking nothing of the Arabs besides a vague call for "normalization," Obama's Jewish detractors believed that their suspicions had been confirmed.


These misgivings, however, were mainly those of pro-Israel American Jews. For the most part, the Israelis themselves adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Obama, both during the campaign and after his election. On the day the returns came in, television and radio stations all over Jerusalem were tuned into the news; and several people spontaneously expressed their sentiments to me (as Israelis are notably wont to do). Overwhelmingly, they were surprisingly well aware of the historical significance of Obama's election in terms of America's long and tortured struggle with the issue of race, and expressed no hostility toward him. If this was the case in one of Israel's most politically right-wing cities, one can assume that similar attitudes prevailed in the rest of the country. Indeed, some on the Israeli left were positively enthusiastic about the new president.


While it is true that Israelis did not greet Obama's election with rapturous celebration, as many others did, it is easy to read too much into this. Israelis tend to be ambivalent about incoming US officials in general, especially when they are - as Obama was - relatively unknown quantities. It is also important to remember that, for much of the world, the president of the United States is largely an aesthetic experience. In the Middle East, however, the policies of the chief executive can have very serious and immediate real world consequences. As a result, Israelis on the whole tend to be more guarded and sober in their assessments. Moreover, a large part of Israelis' apprehension regarding Obama was the fear that he would end up in a clash with Benjamin Netanyahu, who seemed the likely winner of upcoming elections. This was not a judgment on Obama or Netanyahu per se, but rather the understandable desire to avoid a rift with the United States. And when the elections were held in February 2009, it was Tzipi Livni, whose campaign included the claim that she would work more easily with Obama than Netanyahu, who won the highest percentage of the vote; although due to the intricacies of the Israeli electoral system this did not allow her to form a government.


This indicates that Obama's call for a settlement freeze might not have had such disastrous consequences had it been handled differently. Israelis are divided on the issue of settlements, and had Obama proved flexible on Jerusalem and its nearby "consensus" settlements, which most Israelis consider essential to their security and want to retain in any peace agreement, some sort of modus vivendi might have been reached early enough to avoid a serious breach. In his insistence on a total freeze, however, Obama was demanding something that was both too much for most Israelis to swallow and Netanyahu simply could not deliver without destroying the coalition that kept him in government. Obama may have hoped for precisely that, believing that a new, more pliable government led by Livni would replace Netanyahu. If so, it was a horrendous miscalculation. Many Israelis did not vote for Netanyahu, but very few of them like to see their country pushed around.


Obama's reputation in Israel might have survived even this, however, had it not been for his much-hyped "speech to the Muslim world" delivered in Cairo on June 4. Taken as a whole, the speech was simply a craven embarrassment; but the references it made to Israel could not have been more alienating and insulting had they been calculated for the purpose. How Obama's speechwriters and advisors became convinced that equating the Holocaust with the Palestinian nakba (the word means "catastrophe," and Arabs use it to describe the establishment of Israel and its War of Independence in 1948), comparing Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to segregation in the United States, and pointing to the Jewish people's "tragic history" as the sole justification for Israel's existence would assuage Israeli concerns about the new administration must remain a question for history to answer. There is no doubt, however, that this single speech (which everyone in Israel watched) did more to demolish Obama's credibility in Israeli eyes than any of his demands on Netanyahu ever could have.


Israelis come in many political colors, but very few of them believe that if the Jews had not suffered a Holocaust, they would not deserve a state. Zionism predates the Holocaust, and it holds that the Jewish people have an inalienable right to self-determination in their homeland, regardless of their historical sufferings. In claiming otherwise, Obama revealed not only a glaring ignorance of Israeli history and sensibilities, but also the depressing tendency of many American liberals to reduce everything to do with Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people to the Holocaust; as though several thousand years of Jewish civilization never occurred. Obama's remarks about segregation were perhaps less egregious, given that they had some precedent in the words of Condeleeza Rice; but they were disturbingly similar to the notorious 1975 UN resolution that declared Zionism a form of racism. By far the most damaging statement, however, was Obama's equation of the Holocaust with the nakba. It is true that 1948 was a catastrophe for the Palestinians, and many thousands of them were displaced - voluntarily and involuntarily - as a result of the war; but for many Jews (and many non-Jews) the equation of this to the Holocaust was not only morally appalling but served to minimize a genocide that is still within living memory, and did so in front of an audience that often claims it never happened at all.


Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the speech, however, was that Obama clearly believed he was saying things about Israel that were positive. The impression he gave was of a man who was not merely spitting in Israeli faces, but chose to do so because he thought they would like it. In a certain sense, this was even worse than a speech that was forthrightly hostile, because it implied that Obama was perfectly capable of damaging Israel out of the belief that he was actually doing it "for your own good" – a signal that the new president of the United States simply had no idea what he was doing.



Benjamin Kerstein

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