Into The Fray: Obama in Israel-the sinister subtext?

It is difficult to know which is more troubling: Whether Obama actually meant what he said in his speech to students in Jerusalem; or whether he didn’t.

US President Barack Obama lays wreath at Yad Vashem 390 (photo credit: Screenshot Channel 10)
US President Barack Obama lays wreath at Yad Vashem 390
(photo credit: Screenshot Channel 10)
I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those [Palestinian] kids, they’d say I want these kids to succeed.
 – Barack Obama, Jerusalem, March 21
I hope you will walk the same path we took and God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs.
 – Wafa al-Biss, young female terrorist, to dozens of Palestinian schoolchildren who came to welcome her home after her release from prison
Because I love my son, I encouraged him to die a martyr’s death for the sake of Allah...Allah be praised, my son has attained this happiness.
 – Maryam Farahat a.k.a. Umm Nidal a.k.a. Mother of Martyrs, rejoicing at her son’s death in a terrorist attack in which he murdered five Israeli teenagers
Now that the dust is beginning to settle, the spin subside and the fanfare fade, it is perhaps easier to make a more sober assessment of Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and to evaluate the impact it is liable to have on regional developments.
Improved acoustics and aesthetics
Even the most vehement critics of the US president’s policy toward Israel have to concede that, prime facie, the visit did appear to produce a number of encouraging rhetorical elements. It is difficult to deny that from a pro-Israel standpoint, things were certainly made to look and sound far better than before.
As Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin, who has often expressed acerbic disapproval of Obama’s attitude to Israel, remarked, “... one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state.”
Obama appeared to firmly endorse the notion of the Jewish people’s aboriginal rights and historic ties to the Land of Israel, and that the State of Israel should be a Jewish, declaring: “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.”
Moreover, he seemed to have backpedaled on the issue of settlements.
Although he designated their ongoing construction “counterproductive to the cause of peace,” he rebuffed the Palestinian demand that further negotiations be contingent on a renewed settlement freeze. In an apparent reversal of US policy, characterized by The Washington Post as a “stinging rebuttal” of Mahmoud Abbas, Obama sided with Israel’s position, declaring that talks toward a “broad agreement” should resume without preconditions.
Premature diagnosis?
Of course, none of this should be dismissed as inconsequential. However, I would counsel caution before breaking out the champagne.
For despite an apparent pro-Israel metamorphosis in his approach to the Jewish state, it is premature to adopt the upbeat assessment of some conservative columnists who feel that Obama’s “defenders have been... vindicated and his critics chastened, if not silenced.”
Israel and its supporters would do well to recall that in the past, strong statements of support from Obama have had staggeringly short shelf-lives.
For example, his rousing pledge at the 2008 AIPAC conference that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” endured barely 24 hours before backpedaling began, and “clarifications” were issued that the word “undivided” was poorly chosen, leaving us to puzzle over what would have constituted a judicious choice. “Re-divided”?
Four years later, at the 2012 AIPAC conference he boldly reassured the audience: “There should not be a shred of doubt by now... I have Israel’s back.”
But here, too, almost immediately, another “clarification” was forthcoming, which effectively stripped this declaration of any operational value, stating: “It [having Israel’s back] was not a military doctrine that we were laying out for any particular military action.... What it means is that, historically, we have always cooperated with Israel... just like we do with Great Britain, just like we do with Japan.”
Clearly, given the great divergence of existential threat-levels faced by Israel, on the one hand, and by Great Britain and Japan, on the other, the clarification, and the alacrity with which it was made, can hardly have been a source of comfort to Israeli policy-makers or the Israeli public.
Ominous undertones
But putting past disappointments aside, sober analysis of what was said and done on this visit – and of what was not – provides reason for skepticism.
For despite discernibly more attractive wrapping and a more appealing style of delivery, the substantive content of Obama’s policy prescriptions remained essentially the same. The tactics to attain them may have shifted, but the strategic objectives are still unchanged – and just as perilous for Israel.
Below the sugar-coated surface of benign tones and beguiling gestures, there lurk ominous undertones; and once the spin is set aside and we focus on the substance, a disturbing picture emerges, comprised of elements distinctly reminiscent of the acrimony in the not-to-distant past.
But, perhaps even more troubling, the sentiments and predilections conveyed in his public appearances – particularly his address to students at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center – seemed to portray a man so out-of-touch with Mideast realities one can only wonder if the positions he articulated reflect appalling ignorance or artful ill-will.
Sequence of non sequiturs
In essence, Obama’s address comprised an alarming sequence of non sequiturs. It is possible to dispute – even dismiss – the factual veracity, the logical consistency and the contextual relevance of virtually every line of the policy prescriptions he laid out. However, given the limits of space, I can focus on but a few.
He enumerated the dangers and threats that Israel had faced in the past and still faces today: “I know that these issues of security are rooted in an experience that is even more fundamental than the pressing threat of the day... You live in a neighborhood where many of your neighbors have rejected your right to exist. Your children grow up knowing that people they have never met hate them because of who they are...”
But he then proceeded to prescribe that the best way to contend with them was to ignore their existence and make perilous concessions to the very neighbors who reject Israel’s right to exist and hate Israelis merely because of who they are.
Urging his audience to disregard the disastrous failures of the past, he insisted that the only way forward was to make peace via the establishment of a Palestinian state. Blithely dismissing the ascendant Palestinian extremists with little more than a cursory mention, Obama pressed Israel to engage the soon-to-be octogenarian president Abbas, now in his seventh year of his four-year term and his unpopular, unelected prime minister Salam Fayyad as “true partners” for peace – seemingly unmindful, or uncaring, of the fact that even in the improbable event that some agreement might be reached with them, there is little chance that they could ensure its implementation.
Only fixed star in firmament?
Obama acknowledges “the changes sweeping the Arab world. the uncertainty in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics....”
Yet, inexplicably, rather than counsel caution, to pause and take stock of the long-term impact of these sea-changes taking place on Israel’s borders, he invokes them as a reason to push with even greater vigor the very same two-state policy that he promoted before they occurred.
He claims that, today, “This truth is more pronounced... As more governments respond to popular will, the days when Israel could seek peace with a handful of autocratic leaders are over.
Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments.”
Could it have been absentmindedness that caused Obama to forget that it is precisely those new “non-secular” governments and those “people in the streets” to whose “popular will” they respond to, that are the source of the hate he himself referred to just a little earlier – a hate of Israel and Israelis, not because of what they do, but “because of who they are”? So despite all the conditions which apparently made a two-state approach previously desirable/feasible being been washed away, it is now presented as being even more desirable/feasible precisely because they have been washed away.
Really?? It is as if the two-state proposal has become the only fixed star in the constantly changing firmament of Mideast politics. Indeed, one might be excused for questioning whether support for a Palestinian state is really reasoned US foreign policy doctrine, or a dogmatic ideological obsession, that betrays a sinister subtext and a hidden hostility that – despite the beguiling benignity of his recent visit – still imbue the Obama-administration’s attitude to Israel.
Confounding cause and consequence
Obama decries the lot of the Palestinians. Jettisoning context and inverting causality, he pontificates: “It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home,” somehow implying that these unfortunate outcomes are the result of some malicious, and totally unnecessary, Israeli initiative.
This of course is a dramatic distortion of reality. For the mentioned tribulations the Palestinians are enduring, are the exclusive consequence of the Palestinian leadership’s unflagging efforts to harm Jews.
Were it not for the Palestinians’ persistent Judeocidal endeavors, their farmers would not be prevented from cultivating their lands, nor their students’ movements restricted.
(As for displacement of people from their homes, one has the impression that this is something Obama would warmly endorse, as long as those displaced were Jewish.) But how are we to construe his censure of the Palestinian plight? How else are we to interpret this – other than as disapproval of any coercive measure – military or administrative, reactive or proactive, preemptive or punitive – that Israel may be compelled to undertake to protect its citizens from violence against them “simply because of who they are”? Sinister subtext, anyone?
False symmetry
Obama was at pains to persuade Israeli youth that their Palestinian counterparts – and their parents – are very much like them. While this might have some truth to it on the individual level, it is totally misleading at the societal level.
The two introductory excerpts – one from a young Palestinian woman and the other from a Palestinian parent – do not reflect marginal sentiments in Palestinian society. Quite the contrary, both figures are lionized by it.
Wafa al-Bass, who was arrested attempting to blow up her doctors at Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center after receiving life-saving treatment from them, is now a popular motivational speaker for Palestinian schoolchildren.
Moreover, the (recently deceased) Maryam Farahat a.k.a. Umm Nidal, who publicly wished martyrdom for all her sons, was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council and according to ABC (January 26, 2006) was one of the most popular public figures in Gaza. Indeed, The Christian Science Monitor (March 14, 2006) reported that the head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center, an expert in children’s health, depicted her as follows “... with a Palestinian pedigree such as hers... Farhat is somewhat unassailable: For a Palestinian to criticize her would be like attacking mom and apple pie.”
I kid you not!
Need to brush up
So it seems that Obama urgently needs to brush up on his knowledge of Palestinian sociology. He might then discover that the problem is not the lack of familiarity of Israeli parents with the predicament of Palestinian youth, but the priorities of Palestinian parents... and Palestinian youth.
Indeed, he might find it worthwhile to peruse the words of his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who, as US senator, had this this to say about the formative influences Palestinian youth are subjected to: “These textbooks do not give Palestinian children an education; they give them an indoctrination. When we viewed this report in combination with other [Palestinian Authority] media that these children are exposed to, we see a larger picture that is disturbing. It is disturbing on a human level, it is disturbing to me as a mother, it is disturbing to me as a United States senator, because it basically, profoundly poisons the minds of these children.”
“You are not alone” There is still much I have left unaddressed with regard to Obama’s visit: His refusal to let Ariel University students attend his Jerusalem address (contrast with his insistence that the Muslim Brotherhood attend his Cairo one) and what this (subtext) really means for US attitudes regarding the retention of the major settlement blocs; his disdain for Israeli democracy by refusing to address the Knesset and by urging his audience to press its duly elected members to adopt policies they were elected to oppose...
But I can sense my editor scowling. So let me conclude with the following caveat.
When Obama declares “You are not alone,” let’s not forget that last year he proclaimed “I have Israel’s back” only later to add, “just like Great Britain and Japan.”
So when he assures Israelis they are not alone, does that include the folks in London and Tokyo as well? Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.