‘Obama won’t seek revenge or pressure Israel’

Five experts on US-Israel relations speak out; President Obama will not punish nor pressure Israel.

Moshe Arad 370 (photo credit: Barak Aharon)
Moshe Arad 370
(photo credit: Barak Aharon)
Contrary to the expectations of many of Israel’s American citizens, President Barack Obama will neither punish nor pressure Israel, five experts on US-Israel relations agreed on Thursday evening.
The quintet – four former diplomats who had served in senior capacities in the US and a Chicago-born professor emeritus of diplomatic studies who edits the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, think that in his second term, Obama will put much more emphasis on solving domestic problems than in dealing with foreign policy. They were brought together under the auspices of Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Center for European Studies and the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
The five were Lenny Ben- David, a former deputy chief of mission at the Israel Embassy in Washington where he spent his growing up years; Zvi Rafiah, a former minister counselor at the embassy in Washington, and now a consultant and commentator on US affairs and US-Israel relations; Colette Avital, a former consul- general in New York; Prof. Aharon Klieman; and Moshe Arad, a former ambassador to the US who acted as moderator.
While there was disagreement among the panelists as to whether this was an historic election, there was consensus that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s perceived interference in the US presidential election and his presumed support for Mitt Romney will not undermine Israel-US relations.
More than one of the panelists recalled that when Yitzhak Rabin was ambassador to Washington, he was actively involved in Richard Nixon’s campaign, even to the extent of riding in Nixon’s plane. Arad noted that Ezer Weizman, as defense minister, had been involved in Jimmy Carter’s campaign, but as far as Arad could remember, this was the first time that a prime minister of Israel had given support to a US presidential candidate.
Another point of consensus was on the issue of bipartisan congressional support for Israel regardless of which party was in the White House.
As far as America’s domestic affairs are concerned, Ben-David emphasized the importance of restoring what he called “the divided states of America” to the united states now that the election is over.
Rafiah seemed to think that there was historic significance in the phenomenon that a black American had twice been elected despite the fact that the US economy had not recovered and that the situation is not promising. He regarded this as an important revolution, a turning point in American political history, because it set a precedent for other minorities such as Hispanics and women.
Rafiah underscored that it was in Israel’s best interests to cultivate Hispanics because they are growing in number and in their participation in the American political process.
He questioned whether Israel was doing enough to gain support from either the Hispanic or the black communities in the US.
As for American foreign policy, while he agreed that it would take second place to domestic policy, he said Obama will still have to make decisions about Iran, what if anything America will do about the civil war in Syria and how America will relate to the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt.
Theoretically and practically, Obama can give orders to attack Iran, Rafiah said.
The plans, the weapons, the intelligence and the coordination with Israel are all there. The question is why he doesn’t give the order.
Rafiah surmised that had Romney won the election he would wait till at least the end of 2013 before giving the order, because he had to make appointments, learn the system and concern himself first and foremost with the economy and with housing.
Avital said that Obama’s second victory could not be qualified as historic as the first time. What was more important was that he had brought with him the values of human rights and social justice. His being black is no longer an issue, she said, but the values that he brought with him have become rooted in the American ethos.
“This is a new America we haven’t seen before,” she said.
What bothers Rafiah about Obama is his tendency to relate Israel to the Holocaust instead of to the Bible. He finds that strange in a church-going Christian.
Avital attributed a significant part of Obama’s success to the women’s vote. “The role of women is a rising tide in America. Women recognized this election as being very much about them, and the election was as much about their future as it was the election of the President.”
In Avital’s view, the Republican Party moved much more to the Right, and many of its traditional voters no longer felt at home there.
When it came the Jewish vote, Avital commented that American Jewish society cannot be seen as a monolith. It is a diverse, pluralistic society with varying attitudes toward Israel, she pointed out, adding that when it comes to the vote, “one can determine without any shadow of a doubt that Israel is not their main concern. Israel is not a priority in the lives of American Jews.” The younger generation of American Jews is less engaged with Israel than previous generations, she continued.
“Today Judaism is not a must for them. It is a choice. For them human rights has become almost a religion and for them Israel is not a country that is par excellence on human rights issues,” Avital said.
She warned that today’s younger generation of Jews may not play the same role vis-à-vis Israel as did its predecessors.
Avital strongly doubted that Obama would try to get even with Netanyahu or would seek some kind of revenge.
“Relations are not based on emotions but on what is perceived to be in America’s interests,” she said. “We have to make sure that Israel will continue to be viewed by the US administration as a strategic asset.”
In this context she said that renewal of the peace process with the Palestinians is important for the State of Israel not only because of Israel’s isolation and the tensions that permeate the area but also for the US if it wants to have an impact on the region.
Avital also doubted that Obama would put pressure on Israel. “If he gets involved, it will be where he can have success,” she said.
Klieman made the point that there is a difference between victory and a mandate.
Obama did not receive a sweeping mandate, he said, and if he did receive one, it was a limited mandate to focus on domestic affairs.
There is a growing consensus among both US liberals and conservatives that America must first rebuild its economy so that it can later have a more robust policy for overseas, Klieman said.
There is a lack of interest and enthusiasm among Americans for global leaders and global commitments, and this extends to the direct use of force or military intervention to make the world a secure place for democracy. There are exception, Klieman noted, citing the use of special forces, cyber warfare and drones.
“The US under Obama is in the midst of a major downsizing of foreign policy aspirations and is making a mockery of pundits who predicted that America would be a global super power,” Klieman declared, and suggested that one of the reasons for America’s distancing itself from involvement abroad is that countries in the region (other than Israel) to which the US has given support and foreign aid, have in return been the most anti- American.
Klieman also suggested that Israelis become less obsessed with the Netanyahu-Obama relationship and realize that Obama is disappointed with the Palestinians and their leader Mahmoud Abbas. That's something that most Israelis tend to forget, he said.