Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama and his supporters have been dogged by
criticism of his position on Israel. From the very outset of his tenure in
office, critics and supporters alike have not been able to shake the sense that
Obama is deeply hostile to the Jewish state.
Obama and his supporters
have responded to every criticism of his treatment of Israel by pulling out a
list. Every time his record on Israel is criticized, Obama and his supporters
pull out a list of the things he has done for Israel. Just this week, in an
op-ed in The New York Times, Democratic donor Haim Saban pulled out the list to
justify his support for Obama.
As the list notes, Obama has given
billions of dollars in military assistance to Israel. He has gotten stiff
sanctions passed against Iran by the UN Security Council. He has agreed to sell
F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Israel. During his presidency, they say, the US
has expanded its intelligence and military coordination with Israel. Obama has
opposed some anti-Israel resolutions at the UN.
Obama’s critics respond
to Obama’s list with a series of points. They note that in approving increases
in US military assistance to Israel, including for the Iron Dome rocket defense
system, Obama is simply carrying out a pledge made by his predecessor George W.
Bush. They note that the UN Security Council sanctions have had no impact on
Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
So, too, Obama opposed even stronger
sanctions against Iran passed with the overwhelming support of both houses of
He had to be forced, kicking and screaming, to sign those
sanctions into law. And since he signed the sanctions law, he has used his
presidential power to water them down.
Obama’s critics mention that due
to his insistence on appeasing Iran, last week Iran enjoyed its greatest
diplomatic triumph since the 1979 Iranian revolution. More than a hundred
nations sent representatives to Tehran to participate in the 16th Non-Aligned
Movement Summit. And in the presence of UN Secretary-General Ban Kimoon, those
nations expressed support for Iran’s nuclear program.
And while it is
true that Obama has blocked two anti-Israel initiatives at the UN, he has been
more supportive of the inherently anti-American and anti-Israel UN system than
any of his recent predecessors.
As for Israeli-US intelligence
cooperation, under Obama for the first time, the US has systematically leaked
Israel’s most closely guarded secrets to the media.
Indeed, critics of
Obama’s policy towards Israel have their own list. It includes Obama’s repeated
humiliations of Israel’s prime minister. It includes the multiple clashes Obama
has initiated with Israel with regards to Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. It
includes Obama’s adoption of the Palestinians’ position on Israel’s
But still, as Obama and his supporters will say, facts are facts
and they have a list. And because the list is true – as far as it goes – they
can argue that Obama is supportive of Israel.
Given its superficially
compelling argument, it is remarkable that Obama’s list has failed to end the
debate about his position on Israel. Today Americans have no interest in foreign
They don’t want to hear that by leaving Iraq as he did, Obama
squandered everything that the US fought for. They don’t want to hear that he
effectively handed the country over to Iran, which now has the ability to use
Iraq as its forward base for operations in Syria, Lebanon and
They don’t want to hear that Obama’s surgeand- leave strategy in
Afghanistan is fomenting a US defeat in that war and setting the conditions for
the reinstitution of the Taliban government.
They don’t want to hear
about how Russia and China view the US with contempt and challenge its economic
and strategic interests every day.
They don’t want to hear how Obama
played a key role in overthrowing the US’s key ally in the Arab world, Hosni
Mubarak in Egypt. They don’t want to consider the implications of the fact that
the US is now bankrolling the Muslim Brotherhood’s transformation of Egypt into
an anti- American, radical Islamic regime.
And yet, in the face of this
absence of interest in the world outside their borders, Americans remain
interested in the question of whether or not Obama is supportive of
There are two reasons for Americans’ enduring interest and
concern about Israel. And they were both revealed this week at the Democratic
National Convention when the story broke about how this year’s Democratic
platform differs from its 2008 platform. First it was reported that the platform
contained no mention of God.
Then it was reported that unlike the 2008
platform, this year’s Democratic Party platform made no mention of Jerusalem as
This year’s platform watered down the language on
Israel in other significant ways as well.
It did not refer to Israel as
the US’s “strongest ally” in the Middle East. It did not call for the continued
eschewal of the Hamas terror group by the international community. It did not
mention US opposition to the Palestinian demand for the so-called “right of
return” – through which Israel would be destroyed by an influx of millions of
foreign Arabs in the framework of a peace treaty between Israel and the
Palestinians. But whereas these other deletions were generally ignored, the
platform’s silence on Jerusalem generated a maelstrom of criticism that exceeded
even its deletion of God.
Significantly, rather than treat the deletions
of God and Jerusalem as separate issues, the media and the Democrats themselves
presented them as two sides of the same coin. When on Wednesday the party’s
leadership decided to restore the language of the 2008 platform on God and
Jerusalem – but not on Hamas, the so-called “right of return,” and Israel’s
strategic significance to the US – they opted to do so in the same
The widespread perception of God and Jerusalem as related
issues tells us something important about the American character. And it tells
us something equally important about Obama and the party he leads.
Walter Russell Mead described Israel’s place in the American mindset last year.
As he put it, “Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country
on earth. Well beyond the American Jewish and the Protestant fundamentalist
communities, the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and
most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli
exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The
belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God
favors and protects America.”
Mead continued, “Being pro-Israel matters
in American mass politics because the public mind believes at a deep level that
to be pro-Israel is to be pro-America and pro-faith. Substantial numbers of
voters believe that politicians who don’t ‘get’ Israel also don’t ‘get’ America
and don’t ‘get’ God.”
By removing both God and Jerusalem from the
platform, Obama and his fellow Democrats stirred the furies of that American
soul at its foundations.
They showed they don’t “get” Israel or God. And
by extension, they don’t “get” America.
The intellectually confusing
decision to lump Jerusalem and God together in the same amendment no doubt owed
to the fact that someone in the party recognized how disastrous the deletions
were for their ability to convince wavering voters that the Democratic Party has
And this brings us to nature of the Democratic Party today.
For the amendment to the platform to pass, it needed the support of two-thirds
of the convention’s delegates. And so, on Wednesday morning, the convention
chairman, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, brought the amendment to the
floor for a voice vote.
Much to his obvious shock, the amendment did not
receive the requisite support. Calls supporting the amendment were met by at
least equally strong calls opposing it. Villaraigosa was forced to call the vote
three times before declaring – contrary to the evidence – that the amendment had
More than anything else, the floor vote showed how out of step a
large and significant constituency in the Democratic Party is with the basic
character of their country. The spectacle should raise concerns among all
supporters of Israel who believe Obama’s pro-Israel list is proof they have a
safe home today in the Democratic Party.
Jerusalem’s conflation with God
in the American imagination is not the only reason so many people attacked the
platform’s watered-down language on US-Israel ties. The second reason for the
uproar explains why the issue of Obama’s support for Israel is the only foreign
policy question that has dogged his administration since he took office. It
explains why American support for Israel is a more salient issue for Americans
than Iraq or Afghanistan, Britain, Turkey or Russia.
Here, too, Israel’s
symbolic importance in the American imagination is central for understanding the
matter. Beyond its religious significance, there is a widespread perception that
Israel is on the front line of the war against America. As a consequence, Israel
is the only foreign policy issue that telegraphs messages about the nature of
America’s foreign policy to an otherwise disengaged and largely indifferent
For most Americans – if not for most Democrats – support
for Israel is the most important plank of US foreign policy because it indicates
the nature of that foreign policy as a whole. A president who supports Israel is
a president who has his priorities straight. A president who is hostile to
Israel is a president who can’t be trusted on Iran or Russia or China or
In an apparent effort to end this state of affairs, Obama
has adopted a policy towards Iran – whose nuclear program represents the
greatest rising threat to US national security – that frames the issue as
In so doing, Obama seeks to achieve two goals. First,
he seeks to decouple Israel’s national security from America’s national security
in the popular imagination. And second, he seeks to diminish popular support for
Israel by presenting Israel as a country that is pushing America into an
Obama’s list of pro-Israel actions is essential to his
ability to achieve this specific goal, and through its achievement to convince
Americans of the overall success of his foreign policy. The list is essential
because it transforms Israel in the public mind from a strategic ally into a
strategic basket case in need of America’s constant assistance.
with this, it is telling that the amendment of the Democratic platform did not
return the 2008 platform’s characterization of Israel as America’s “strongest
ally” in the Middle East.
But as the outcry the platform changes provoked
demonstrated, Obama has failed to achieve this goal. And this is wonderful
But as long as he has supporters willing to publish op-eds and give
interviews devoted to repeating the list, Obama will continue to make the case
that he can be trusted on foreign policy despite his abandonment of God,
Jerusalem and America’s most vital interests.