by Joel Fishman
The attitude of any American president to Israel is a matter of concern because it affects our lives and security. Even this week, President Obama publicly exhorted Israel to extend the settlement freeze. Many Israelis found this interference insensitive and unwelcome. One would not ask if this president is a friend of Israel, because in his Cairo speech of 4 June 2009 he publicly revealed his preference. Just the same, one continuously asks whether Obama is “good for the Jews” (and Israel), even if the question is left unstated.
Normally, one would expect that any president first be good for America, but Obama has not convinced many Americans that this is the case. It is remarkable that a parallel questioning process is taking place in the U.S., where senior political commentators, such as Peggy Noonan, Dinesh D’Souza, Charles Krauthammer, Andy McCarthy, and Victor Davis Hanson, are also asking if the President is good for America, and they are not convinced. Their vantage point may be different, but if America and Israel share the same [Judeo-Christian] values, then the interests of the U.S. and of Israel should largely coincide. The historical record is mixed.
There is a need to examine the recent past, because the two previous American presidents who claim to be friends of the Jewish state have actually caused considerable harm.
From a broader perspective, as president, Bill Clinton’s great failure was that, even after the attacks on the World Trade Center [February 1993] and the Khobar Towers [June 1996], he did not regard radical Islamic terror as a serious threat.
To make things worse, the Clinton administration defined terror down, making it as a criminal offence rather than an act of war. The response to each is different. If one considers terror a criminal act, one brings offenders to law. If one considers terror an act of war, one may fight it by every possible means. There is a difference, and, as Albert Camus wrote, “naming things incorrectly, whether intentionally or not, adds to the misfortune of the world.”
An unwillingness to deal with the dangers of terror helped create conditions which left America vulnerable to a devastating surprise attack. Although the 9/11 report did not assign personal responsibility, the late Professor Emeritus Ernest May of Harvard, Senior Advisor to the 9/11 Commission, independently went public. He reported that “the CIA turned against him [Clinton] when he failed to attend a ceremony for two employees gunned down by a terrorist at the entrance to agency headquarters.” He was also not on speaking terms with Louis Freeh, the director of the FBI. Thus, President Clinton did not have an effective working relationship with America’s main security agencies, and the consequences are known – for America and for its allies, among them, Israel.
With regard to bi-lateral relations, it is not generally remembered that in the spring of 1993, President Clinton compelled the Rabin government to repatriate four hundred and fifteen members of the Hamas leadership which it had expelled to Lebanon in December 1992. Thus, Clinton contributed to the ascendancy of Hamas in Gaza. If we take the combined effects of Condoleezza Rice’s contribution and that of Bill Clinton, it is obvious that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Republic of Iran owe a tremendous debt to the two recent American administrations.
In addition, there are some things that we may never know. During the advice and consent hearings for Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State, the William J. Clinton Foundation reluctantly disclosed that that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia donated between ten and twenty-five million dollars to the Clinton presidential library fund. We need to know exactly what Prince Bandar meant when he said that “If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have when they are just coming into office.” Clearly there is a lack of transparency here. We still do not know what the Saudis bought with their considerable investment which took the form of a deferred payment.
Just last week, former President Clinton spoke up, and openly criticized Israelis who emigrated from the former Soviet Union because they were critical of the “peace process.” It is inconceivable that an Israeli prime minister would criticize attitudes of any ethnic group in the United States, and this was simply bad manners.
For his part, George W. Bush took great pains to demonstrate his open friendship with Israel. When he came to Israel for the celebration of sixty years of independence, he and Prime Minister Olmert acted like brothers. However, there was a disharmony between appearances and reality. As a consequence of Saudi pressure and threats at the end of August 2001 (right before 9/11), the Americans, for the very first time, sponsored the idea of a Palestinian state. Also, in November 2005, Condoleezza Rice compelled Israel to open the Rafah border crossings. Against advice from all quarters, Rice pressed for elections in the Palestinian Authority (January 25, 2006) which then included Gaza. This turned out to be a colossal mistake. Hamas won in Gaza, and this district became a sanctuary for terror – like Laos in its time. We now live with the consequences of this failure. Thank you, Condoleezza! Mention should also be made of the scandalous and dishonest November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which dismissed the threat of the Iranian nuclear program. This report confused the public and prevented an effective response to the problem.
To date, President Barack Obama has not yet succeeded in doing the same degree of harm to Israel as his two predecessors. To his credit, he does not claim to be a friend. For the present, we must respect his frankness but watch him closely.
Dr. Joel Fishman is a Fellow at a research institute in Jerusalem.
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