Friday, June 12, 2009

The Obama Watch

We Jews are a nervous people with much to be nervous about because of past and present circumstances and it is therefore understandable that we are nervous about President Obama. We have also been edgy about several of his predecessors, although not to the extent of climbing the walls as more than a few of us are now doing. Whether this arises from his ethnicity, primarily the Islamic roots, or his current Middle East advocacy or both, is an interesting question.

The starting point for analyzing the attitude of any president toward Israel is the recognition that he is, after all, the president of the United States and not the prime minister of Israel. This has or should have two implications, firstly that he rightly sees Middle East affairs in terms of American national interest which may not coincide exactly with Israeli interests. Secondly, Israeli policy should rightly be decided by Israelis and not by American policy makers. Both considerations often get lost in the shuffle as, at times, we imagine that presidents should look at issues through Israeli eyes and American policy-makers too often think that they are empowered to determine Israeli policy.

If any good comes from the tensions induced by Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech, hopefully it will be the lessening of Israel being treated, partly with its acquiescence, as a quasi-American colony.

Let’s have a reality check. George W. Bush was super-friendly toward Israel, never making threats and always saying nice things, yet during his tenure Israel was severely pressured by the U.S. to get out of Gaza (Gush Katif), ostensibly because the U.S. felt that this would help the Palestinian Authority and Mr. Abbas. We know the tragic results. The Bush Administration had substantial control over Israel’s relationship with China and, to a lesser extent, with India. Israel was not able to expand so-called settlements, such places as Maale Adumim which is about as close to Jerusalem’s City Hall as the Capitol is to the White House. The same administration vetoed Israeli action against Iran. The lesson is that friendship is a dialectical relationship that exacts a cost for the weaker partner.

It is too early to know whether the Obama approach represents a major shift in policy, although it is clear that there is the new hot button issue of the natural growth of communities that have been designated by those outside of Israel as settlements although everywhere else in the world such communities are called suburbs. In rhetoric and style, it is certain that the Obama administration is taking an entirely different tack than any of its predecessors. Rhetoric and style count for much in international politics.

Israel must say “no” to the U.S. on natural growth and it must not yield additional territory as long as Islam is saturated by fierce anti-Israel sentiments and terrorism. Diplomacy is not a suicide pact and the lesson of Gush Katif must be learned, else the harm to Israel may be enormous.

Yet, I cannot understand the argument against a two-state solution. States in general have greater responsibility and are more readily held accountable than vague governmental arrangements such as the Palestinian Authority. Even if this is not true of the Palestinians given the ascendency of Hamas, Israel’s security will be no less than it now is should the Palestinians have a state. It’s time for Israel to stop its rhetorical game of “We want two states…but.”

Whatever the focus of the White House, much will depend on what the Palestinians and their supporters do. If the past is a guide, then Abba Eban’s peerless formulation will be evident once more and the Palestinians and their supporters will again not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In formulating its response to the new administration, Israel is hampered by its over-reliance on the U.S. and the collateral desire not to impair its “special friendship” with this country. There are times when friends must say no. The United States is accustomed to Islamic countries saying no, to European countries saying no, to Asiatic countries saying no and the world or the special friendship will not come to an end if Israel says no.

Israel does have a problem in the incredible circumstance that its foreign minister is a man for whom “diplomacy” is a dirty word. Mr. Netanyahu obviously felt that if his ambition to become prime minister again was to be fulfilled, he would have to enter into a deal with Avigdor Lieberman’s party and since he was desperate, the foreign ministry was the bait. Whatever the justification, Lieberman is unfit for this responsibility. Hooray to Abe Foxman for speaking the truth about this.

The greater deficit is in the realm of perception. The Obama administration has framed its policy in terms of “settlements” because that word has severe connotations that are entirely negative to Israel. Of course, the new administration in Washington did not invent the term, as it has been promoted by the media, as well as by nearly as many governments that can make it into the anti-Israel society known as the United Nations. Admittedly, the usage was also used throughout the Bush years and without sufficient challenge by Israel or its supporters in this country.

Doubtlessly, Israel can do a better job marketing its message and there are occasions when it undertakes actions that do little to enhance its security and much to enhance the notion that it is overly harsh. On the issue of settlements, however, the best marketing would not improve Israel’s image. Still, if and when Mr. Obama gets around to visiting Israel, perhaps at least his motorcade will enter Jerusalem via the close-by suburbs, also known as settlements.