The sickening news started filling my inbox during a family dinner. The three boys had become three bodies. “Not for publication yet,” my first source warned; I chose not to announce the news because I still wasn’t ready to bury my hopes for those kids. Half an hour later, my teenage son glanced at his ever-pinging cellphone and shared the bad news. My slightly prolonged denial didn’t ease the pain. I still had that constricted feeling in the chest so many of us have felt for 18 days, the recurring pit in the stomach that members of the three families now will never lose.
It is strange to mourn for three kids you never met from families you don’t know. But that’s what community is all about, especially Jewish community, and most especially the Israeli community. Our parallel lives, shared values and common fate bind us. Beyond the altruism and transcendent tribalism, we all know it could have been one of our kids. Naftali, Gil-Ad, and Eyal were not strangers; they are us.
Because they were murdered deliberately for political reasons the grief mixes with fury. When three teenagers die tragically in an accident we nevertheless look for causes, seeking to assign blame. Acts of terrorism clearly implicate the terrorists and their enablers.
Yes, I remain disgusted by the Hamas terrorists and by Palestinians’ nihilistic political culture that repeatedly chooses violence over negotiations. But as an American – and a presidential historian – I am also furious at President Barack Obama. His seemingly heartfelt comments when the boys were found dead came two weeks too late. His aloofness from the three families during the search exposed a callousness toward Israel which goes far beyond the episodic Netanyahu-Barack follies. Just as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s quick condemnation of the kidnapping meant a lot positively, Obama’s emotional miserliness meant a lot, negatively.
True, Palestinian terrorism predated Obama’s presidency and will outlast him. True, Hamas psychopaths don’t need incompetent American leaders to embolden them. True, Obama’s words would not have saved the doomed teens.
I admit that it sounds provincial to bellyache about Obama’s silence in this particular case given the chaos around him. This, after all, is a flailing president who is losing in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Russia and the Ukraine. This is a blame-America-first president who tried attributing the terrorist murders in Benghazi, Libya – which occurred on the momentous date of September 11 – to some idiotic American video. This is a power-fearing president who is degenerating from being as bad as Jimmy Carter to being worse than Jimmy Carter. And this is an inept president who, through indecision, insecurity and incompetence has elevated the few foreign policy messes he inherited to a chain of foreign policy disasters.
Of course, Obama and his acolytes will blame George W. Bush. While Bush reflects Republicans’ excess faith in American power, Obama reflects Democrats’ intemperate retreat from it. Words matter. Leadership counts. Strength breeds strength while weakness breeds weakness. America’s enemies smell Obama’s softness, his ambivalence, his tentativeness. Like unruly kids torturing an ineffectual substitute teacher, they have learned you can push his buttons, cross his red lines, dare to defy, without suffering serious consequences. Strategically, Obama’s longstanding critique of American power and primacy has handcuffed him while, tactically, his inexperience in executive leadership roles has him flummoxed.
I take no joy in watching Senator Yes We Can become President Don’t Blame Me as he weaves and bobs and dodges rather than stabilizing, shaping and forging. I don’t wish to demonize him, as too many opponents do; I am, however, deeply disappointed in him. Obama’s tenure shows – as Carter’s did – that a leadership vacuum at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue emboldens dictators and bullies worldwide.
In the Middle East, Obama’s flaccidity becomes even more troublesome given his distaste for Israel. He is not “anti-Israel”; he just sees the country as a presidential and regional irritant. Intellectually, he endorses the Jewish state’s existence and even occasionally gets swept up rhetorically in celebrating the romance of Jews’ redemptive return.
However, usually, Obama sees Israel as a pesky little country which should do America’s bidding. He echoes the elite trend to condemn Israel for one-sidedly occupying Palestinian land rather than understanding that Israel is struggling with a stubborn and dangerous neighbor over disputed territory. As he admitted in his Cairo speech, he views this conflict through the civil rights prism. This absurd, insulting analogy, making Palestinians victimized blacks and Israelis misguided racist rednecks, excuses Palestinian terror and minimizes Israel’s tough security dilemmas.
Obama also accepts the ridiculous assumption that solving the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is the keystone to calming the Middle East – as if Iran’s nuclear power grab, Iraq’s implosion, Syria’s explosion, Islamist extremism and the centuries-old Sunni-Shia conflict would disappear, if only Israel withdrew to 1967 borders. In his inability on June 12, 13 and 14 to embrace American citizens and two other innocent families in distress, Barack Obama showed his true feelings. I challenge his supporters, who have run out of excuses for him, to condemn his inaction and consider repudiating him.
Instead, his backers will support him and his calls for evenhandedness. They will debate the easily refuted “anti-Israel” charge instead of this tougher critique of insensitivity and ineptitude. As Israel mourns and fights, as Israeli soldiers take great risks to root out those kid-killing terrorists and their armories, Obama will demand “restraint.” Meanwhile, The New York Times will run absurdly amoral articles comparing Israeli kids victimized for being Israelis with Palestinian kids hurt while menacing soldiers, the UN will condemn Israel, and Israel will have to continue protecting itself militarily while fending off an ideological onslaught. That’s why it is fair to denounce Obama’s incompetence and iciness, along with Palestinian evil and enablement.
The author is a professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on US history, including, most recently, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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