Just two days after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu put into effect a total freeze on construction in the West Bank, members of the Israel branch of Democrats Abroad held a panel discussion in Tel Aviv about Israel's relations with US President Barack Obama.
The panel discussion was led by Ha'aretz chief political reporter Akiva Eldar and individual members of DA-Israel. Eldar spoke first of his years in the US as Washington correspondent for Ha'aretz during the Oslo years, before delving into Israel's relations with Washington today.
Eldar told the crowd of around 50 Americans and other Anglophones living in Israel that the Netanyahu-led Israeli government had adopted a "waiting-game" policy in regard to Obama, hoping that they could make piecemeal gestures and wait for Obama to lose the 2012 elections.
Regarding allegations that Obama's White House had scaled back traditional US support of Israel, Eldar said he believed that when Obama took office, he felt that to make progress in the Middle East, he had to gain the trust of the Arab world.
Eldar said that trust had historically been difficult to build as long as the US has on the one hand claimed to be an honest broker, and on the other insisted on its commitment to the peace and security of Israel, with all that the "special relationship" between the two countries entails.
At one point the discussion became heated, as Eldar began arguing with DA Counsel Sheldon Schorer, who said that leaving Obama aside, there was little assurance the Palestinians wanted peace.
To that, Eldar responded, "Do you think all the Israelis want peace? We always trust the Arabs whenever they say something terrible, but not when they say something positive."
Schorer told the crowd that he came not to lecture or to express his own opinions about Obama, rather, he wanted to hear from the crowd, in light of what he termed the "terrible" press Obama has received in Israel. The sentiment was reiterated by the rest of the panel and some attendees, who in their questions expressed dismay over the largely negative reception that Obama has received in Israel since he took office in January.
Hillel Schenker, Vice Chair of DA-Israel and a co-founder of Peace Now, said that Obama had built a sense of balance in the eyes of the Arab world, but that he must address the Israelis directly, and show them that he understands Israel's concerns. Schenker added that in Obama's favor, the commitment he had made to Middle East peace since taking office is "the greatest hope for peace we have in our region."
The speakers all echoed the sentiment that the Bush years had isolated the US, and that Obama had restored credibility to the US as a world leader, mainly through engaging the outside world.
Furthermore, speakers stated that the "hands-off" approach to Israel practiced by the Bush administration had only served to push the prospect of peace further away, while Obama's approach, they claimed, has brought it closer than ever before.