After eight years of a tumultuous relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and – by extension – with the Israeli public, US President Barack Obama bid adieu to the Israeli people during a television interview Tuesday night with a simple message: Have the courage of my convictions.
And Obama has strong convictions when it comes to Israel, peace and the Middle East.
Those convictions came out clearly during his interview with Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan – strong convictions he first laid out in his landmark speech in Cairo in 2009, a speech that he told Dayan he still believes in, despite everything that has happened in the Middle East since then.
“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition,” he said in June 2009. “Instead, they overlap and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
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Half-a-million dead Syrians later, a region riddled with failed and failing states, with an emboldened Iran on the move and a barbarous Islamic State terrorizing millions, Obama still dreams, and wants Israelis to dream with him.
But what the US president has consistently failed to appreciate in his dealing with Israel is that it is tough – if not impossible – for many Israelis to dream his idealistic dreams in a reality where what is more real than the values the West shares with Islam is the nightmare prospect of a terrorist plowing a truck into a group of soldiers who could easily have been their own children.
Asked whether he doesn’t think, in retrospect, that his Cairo speech was a bit naïve, Obama said he would not disown a word of it.
“Peace always looks naïve until it comes about. If we had not expressed an aspiration for something different, then all of human progress would evaporate. We would be in the Stone Age, we would be in the era of Genghis Khan. We would rape and pillage and conquer, and any notions of universal rights – all those things sounded naïve, until they happened,” he said.
“What is true, he continued, “is that Israel is in a very tough neighborhood, which is why I have done so much to ensure that they can protect themselves. My point to Bibi has been historically, throughout my presidency, that I will do everything necessary to make sure Israel is in a position of strength, that it can defend itself by itself. But because of that strength, then, you are then in a position to take some risks for peace. Not stupid risks, not reckless risks, but some risks.”
Yes, have the courage of his convictions.
It is no coincidence that at that point in the interview, Obama evoked the name of Shimon Peres. There was the ideal Israeli whom Obama admired – the Israeli leader who talked of compromise and concession even when the buses were exploding and any talk of compromise and concession by the other side was in short supply.
Obama told Dayan that he believes “the best traditions of the Zionist movement in Israel are consistent with the values I have tried to live by and have tried to promote here in the United States and around the world, a belief in the rule of law, a belief in human rights, a belief in freedom of the press, a belief that we treat people fairly and justly – not only when it is convenient politically, but when it is inconvenient. So it breaks my heart to see a situation in which increasingly the prospects for peace are fading away, and it is something that happens in small increments.”
Obama rejected the notion – as he did on the campaign trail in Ohio in 2008 – that “unfettered support for Israel, or more specifically, support for the Netanyahu government’s policies no matter what they are, no matter how inimical they may be to the prospects for peace”– is the benchmark for friendship.
Or, as he said at the Ohio campaign stop, “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”
What was obvious in the televised interview, and in other speeches and remarks he has made over the last eight years, is that he does not see those traditions embodied in the Likud-led Israel of today. But the Israel of 2017 is the real flesh-and-blood Israel, not the idealized country of his fantasy.
And it is an Israel that does not feel his friendship – the president’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Which leads to the second message Obama conveyed in his interview: Netanyahu – and by extension, the Israeli people – had a “good friend” in him in the White House for the last eight years. “It’s just that Bibi did not recognize it,” he added.
Not only Bibi.
On the same day that Obama’s interview aired, the Israel Democracy Institute published a poll that showed that the majority of Israelis and an even greater majority of Israeli Jews did not feel that Obama was their friend.
Asked how they would characterize Obama’s behavior toward Israel, 29% of the general public termed it “very friendly” or “mostly friendly,” and only 22% of the Jewish population felt the same way. And a Jerusalem Post poll published Friday found that fully 65% of the Jewish public characterized the president as “pro-Palestinian,” and only 12% as “pro-Israeli.”
In other words, the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis do not consider him a friend, though he sees himself as a great one. Why not? One of the reasons has to do with a definition of friendship.
In Obama’s telling, he has proven his bona fides.
He signed a 10-year agreement with Israel ensuring $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade, he has given supplemental aid for Iron Dome to the tune of another $3b., there is unprecedented military and security cooperation between two countries, and he has stood up for Israel’s “right to defend itself, by itself, on a whole range of issues, including controversial ones like actions in Gaza.”
You want friendship, he said, that is friendship. But that is friendship defined only as providing for physical security.
Israelis, according to these polls, want much more from their friends.
What is conveniently overlooked in Obama’s telling about what his administration has done for Israel’s security is that from the perspective of the democratically elected government of the country, the administration has let it down in two areas of fundamental importance: Iran and the Palestinians.
That Obama has provided more military wherewithal to Israel than any of his predecessors is not disputed. But at the same time, Jerusalem believes he has significantly increased the country’s long-term security risks by signing the nuclear deal with Iran that does not put an end to the Iranian nuclear dream but, rather, defers it for 15 years. Furthermore, the deal has emboldened Iran and made it a far greater regional power than it was beforehand – not exactly an Israeli security bonanza.
And on the Palestinian issue, Obama’s final act of not vetoing the anti-settlement resolution in the UN is seen by many as having left Israel out there all alone against a hostile world eager to pounce and pressure it to take actions the government believes is inimical to its interests.
There are many facets to a country’s strength. Military strength is of primary importance, but diplomatic strength is also a key component. The UN resolution – as well as the Obama administration’s fixation for eight years on the settlements, and calling Israel out on the settlements – has hurt the country diplomatically.
On the eve of the UN vote, Netanyahu told US Secretary of State John Kerry that “friends do not take friends to the Security Council.” The subtext to that comment is that there is more to friendship than just looking after a friend’s physical security, as critical as that is. And if the polls this week are any indication, that message is resonating loudly with rank-and-file Israelis.
If Obama is willing to make his disagreements with Israel very public, if his spokesmen have little compunction in publicly bashing the government – witness Kerry’s recent 70-minute speech – then those countries who do not have Israel’s interests at heart will see that as a signal to pile on.
This piling on – this placing the onus for the stalemate with the Palestinians on Israel and the settlement issue – will surely be evident in this upcoming week: at the Mideast summit in Paris on Sunday, at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, and during another debate on the Mideast in the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
And then Friday comes, and a new administration will take over in Washington. For most Israelis, at least according to the recent polls, that day can’t come soon enough.