Obama – good for the Jews?

It’s time to ask the question through another lens to ensure Israel isn’t a partisan issue in US.

By
February 22, 2012 22:07
Republican Mitt Romney gives victory speech in NH

Republican Mitt Romney gives victory speech in NH 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

 
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Mitt Romney is finally emerging as the Republican nominee for president. In the weeks ahead, he will begin to face off directly against President Barack Obama, and this will cause American Jews to once ask again the oft-repeated question of whether or not Obama is good for Israel. The debate so far has regrettably been overly partisan and more than a little close-minded. A sincere discussion of the issue requires us to go beyond the present tendency of each side to rummage through facts in their mad search for evidence that proves their view. The truth is that even the most “pro-Israel” administrations have had their very “anti-Israel” moments, and vice versa. Most crucially, however, we must alter our myopic view of what is really at stake here for Israel’s national security.

Common wisdom these days, it seems, holds that Obama is a disaster for Israel. His critics – such as this paper’s Caroline Glick – begin any and every critique with his past connection to the rabidly anti-Israel pastor Jeremiah Wright. From there, they recount his unwillingness to visit Israel since swearing his oath (visiting as candidate seems not to count), the priority he put at the outset of his term on improving relations with the Arab world, and his insistence on a settlement freeze in 2009.

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His defenders counter by pointing out that two out of three chiefs of staff – arguably the most important job in the White House – were ardent Zionists: Rahm Emanuel and now Jack Lew. Obama supporters repeat their mantra that “defense cooperation between the two countries has never been closer” and point to Obama’s willingness to take heat for thwarting Palestinian statehood efforts at the United Nations last fall.

This debate misses two key points. The first concerns the “evidence” that each side employs to prove their case. The problem here is that it is easy to cherry pick whatever fact suits one’s case, because there have been no purely “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” administrations.

In 1981, the “pro-Israel” Reagan administration disregarded Israel’s strident objections and sold cutting-edge AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the “anti-Israel” Carter administration was the first to give Israel billions of dollars in US foreign aid. Former president Bill Clinton, among the most “pro-Israel” presidents ever, pressed Israel far more than his predecessors to make concessions on the Golan Heights and territories within the West Bank. Like Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Clinton made little secret of his disdain for the way Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu frequently backtracked on his promises. Finally, in 2000, with mind-numbing irony, Clinton forced Israel to cancel its own AWACs sale to China. The arguments put forth by Clinton about the crucial strategic value of these aircrafts were the same ones the US itself had dismissed in 1981.

Similarly, our starry-eyed recollections of the George W. Bush administration continue untarnished, even though in 2005, administration officials imposed harsh defense-related sanctions on Israel in an attempt to coerce the latter into firing then-director general of the Ministry of Defense Amos Yaron. At the time, Israeli leaders realized that this meddling in our internal affairs marked an unprecedented and grave violation of Israel’s sovereignty. Indeed, it seems that the presidents who were ostensibly the strongest supporters of Israel had far more leeway to whack their little ally upside the head when they thought no one was looking.

The second, and far more consequential flaw regarding the entire “is Obama good for the Jews” debate, is that we seem to have a myopic view of what is really at stake here for Israel’s national security.



To take issue with Ms. Glick, how many hilltops we do or do not settle in the West Bank, at the end of the day, is a minor concern and does little to secure the future of the State of Israel. Instead, what should concern us greatly is that the foundations of our alliance with the United States may be faltering. Should Israel become a partisan issue in American politics, it could eventually spell real disaster. For it is due to strong American backing alone that we still do not face international sanctions and isolation over the settlements. With unflinching American backing, Iran will realize that even a nuclear first strike cannot prevent nuclear retaliation and destruction.

If ensuring continued American support should be our prime national security concern, then it should trouble us greatly to read Mark Perry in Foreign Policy relaying quotations from “senior intelligence officials” who grumble, “Israel is supposed to be working with us, not against us.... You know, they’re supposed to be a strategic asset. Well, guess what? There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don’t think that’s true.”

In this long-term war for the “heart and minds” of the American public, there are only a few main battlefronts. Foremost among them is on college campuses. Universities are the greenhouses for the next generation’s leadership, and crucially, students’ opinions are still often in flux. Which is why we should be deeply troubled at the success pro-Palestinian groups on American campuses are having in convincing tomorrow’s leaders that Israel is a human-rights-abusing abomination.

Much of this success derives from pro-Palestinian groups being supported by a number of non-Arab organizations while pro-Israel groups on campus usually stand alone. The result is that uninformed by-passers often walk away with the impression that there is a rainbow coalition of justice on one side and the Jews (who are biased) on the other.

Having watched these battles up close, I can say that there remains one extraordinarily powerful ally that pro- Israel groups can call upon: Barack Obama. Pro-Israel groups can spout out all the historical facts they want, but nothing is so persuasive for an uniformed undergraduate as a huge placard with Obama’s picture, followed by him quoted as saying, “If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that.... And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

However disliked Obama may be by certain segments of the American public, he is still wildly popular among that generation, and their belief in him remains largely unshaken. Moreover, when combined with statements by Martin Luther King Jr., embattled pro- Israel groups can suddenly find themselves flanked by two of the most prominent African-American leaders of the past century, both with bona fides as community organizers and activists. Suddenly, the Jews are not alone, and maybe – thinks the left-leaning, Wikipedia-informed undergrad – Israel isn’t so bad after all.

For those who understand what is at stake in this war of ideas, Barack Obama’s re-election is crucially important. It will prevent Israel from becoming a partisan issue in American politics and will be hugely important for winning the “hearts and minds” of the next generation of American leaders. These are the keys to ensuring continued American support for Israel for decades to come.

The writer is the former deputy director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) in Herzliya.

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