Well, “hate” is a strong word, an attention-grabber when used in a headline, but employed here as shorthand for what is a more restrained but still accurate question: why does President Obama seem to have such a visceral antipathy, disregard, disdain, or perhaps just indifference to Israel ? There is no natural empathy on his part for a beleaguered American ally. On the rare occasion when he says the right thing, he mouths the words with little emotion, reading mechanically from a script written by others. In the presence of Israeli leaders, his body language shows him to be uncomfortable and tense. There is little intuitive appreciation for the Jewish narrative, underscored by his much-touted Cairo speech (his outreach to the Muslim world that ultimately failed to achieve any objective) in which he justified Israel’s existence based simply on Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, then adding that this does not give Israel the right to persecute others or build settlements – as if that is the issue.
Other presidents have evinced stronger personal ties with Israel, even if they were unsympathetic to Jews or some of Israel’s policies. One can dislike an ally and still perceive its value as an ally. It is important to underscore that I (and we all should) recognize that the American president is first and foremost the president of the United States, and it is his sworn obligation to pursue policies that further the interests of the United States. Too often, some Jews assume that the American president has to be a closet-Likudnik to be acceptable (or, considering, the pathetic performance and lack of principle of most recent Likud prime ministers, a closet member of the Ichud Haleumi, the National Union Party). That is untrue and unfair, and we should expect policy differences to arise on occasion, as a superpower like the United States has to balance a greater number of interests that does a small regional power like Israel. Still, something seems to be missing in the Obama-Israel relationship that transcends policy and veers into the personal. What might that be ?
The American people have long been avid supporters of Israel and the narrative of Israel. That has waned somewhat in recent years, as Americans have tired of the endless Middle East conflict, and especially among self-proclaimed liberals. Yet, in an April 2009 poll by Zogby International, just 10% of Obama voters, but 60% of McCain voters, wanted the president to support Israel. Eighty percent of Obama voters supported getting tougher with Israel, while 73% of McCain voters disagreed with that stance. Two-thirds of Obama voters want America to dialogue with Hamas, while four-fifths of McCain voters oppose that.
A Gallup survey from last spring revealed that Americans overwhelmingly support Israel over the “Palestinians” – 63%-15%. However, measured another way, only 48% of Democrats supported Israel, as opposed to a whopping 85% of Republicans who supported Israel. Whatever this says about the Jews’ unthinking fealty to the Democratic Party, and it should speak volumes, it is clear that President Obama is not that far removed from his party in his attitude to Israel. What brought this about ?
Historically, there are three compelling factors that drove the America-Israel relationship, both as friends and as allies. Loosely, they can be defined as the Religious Factor, the Values Factor, and the Strategic Factor. The three somewhat overlap, sometimes intersect, and, to be sure, various presidents have allocated the weight of the three in differing ways, resulting in slightly different approaches. (The notion shared by some Jews and Jew-haters that America’s support for Israel is based on Jewish votes and political donations is more perception than reality. There are relatively very few Jews in the United States, and most support and vote for the Democratic candidate in any event – regardless of his enthusiasm for Israel. A candidate cannot be perceived as “anti-Israel” – a very amorphous definition, in any event – but he need not be perceived as “pro-Israel.” Sad to say, most Jews would vote for a candidate who was pro-abortion but lukewarm on Israel than for a candidate that is pro-Israel but anti-abortion. Exhibit #110: President Obama, who had other facets that elicited Jewish support as well. And as prosperous as American Jews are – non-Jews have even more money that is lavishly contributed to their preferred candidates.)
THE RELIGIOUS FACTOR: Americans, a religious people, have long been enamored with the Bible and the story of the Jews. Presidents from the time of John Adams have been avid proponents of the return of Jews to the land of Israel, and that support – with obvious exceptions motivated by antipathy to Jews and the need to scurry favor with Arabs – has animated American policy and been consistently reflected in the attitudes of the American public for the last two centuries. This concept undergirds the passionate support for Israel found today in the tens of millions of Americans who are Christian evangelicals. The realization in our day of the historic vision of the prophets of Israel of the ultimate return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is simply irresistible, and Americans have a keen awareness and appreciation of it.
THE VALUES FACTOR: Americans have perceived the State of Israel since its re-establishment in 1948 as a beacon of light in a region blighted by darkness. Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East; the other “democracies” have to make regular allowances for the whims of despots and monarchs and the potential dangers of genuine freedom. Israel is rightly seen as representative of American values and aspirations in terms of individual liberty, personal freedoms, democracy, a free press, an independent judiciary and often a dysfunctional government – all things dear to Americans. So American presidents have routinely referred to the “shared values” of America and Israel – both proud outposts of freedom that are difficult to maintain in a hostile world.
THE STRATEGIC FACTOR: Concomitant with shared values and engendered by them is Israel’s strategic value to America. Especially during the Cold War, and after PM Ben-Gurion cast Israel’s fate with the West and not the Soviet bloc, Israel was long perceived as America’s only true ally in the Middle East. Its existence prevented the Soviets from complete domination of the region. Israel’s military conflicts regularly served as testing grounds for America’s weapons versus the Soviet’s weapons, not to mention the boon to American security from captured Soviet weapons that were then analyzed and countered (from the first MIG-21 turned over to the US by Israel in 1966, to countless other weapons systems). In the United Nations, useless and harmful though it might be, Israel has the most consistent record of voting with the United States of any country in the world, even when we factor out that most UN resolutions seem to condemn Israel.
In the war on terror, of course, America has no stronger ally than Israel, and has greatly benefited from Israeli tactics and intelligence. The two countries – the primary targets of Islamic terror – have both endured sudden explosions of terrorist atrocities committed against their civilian populations. Shared suffering has to some extent deepened the bond between the two nations, both an alliance and a friendship.
Obama’s Israel problem can be traced to the fact that he subscribes to the merits of none of these factors. The media drumbeat that clamored for his election did its best to suppress the implications of the fact that Obama was spiritually reared not in the mode of traditional Christians but in a church that was a unabashed exponent of black liberationist theology – that the Bible was the “white man’s religion” (Malcolm X’s phrase) and needed to be redefined as an instrument that would advocate the overthrow of oppressors of the black man. As they saw it, the Bible justified racism, slavery, segregation, economic discrimination and other societal ills. Such a Bible is not to be used as a proof text for Jewish rights anywhere, and the “real Jews,” according to the hard-core theologians are the oppressed blacks overcoming the persecution of the new “Egyptians,” the Americans. No wonder Obama had to throw Reverend Wright under the bus; the real question is how he could have sat in those pews for 20 years listening to this claptrap, unless he himself believed at least some of it.
Thus, Obama does not naturally see America as a force for good in the world, the only nation that spreads liberty and freedom to oppressed nations. His default position is that the US is an imperialist nation, a colonizer that has exploited the Third World, and even increased the suffering of millions. That is why Obama has seen fit to go around the globe apologizing for American misdeeds (Africa, Asia, Arabia, South America) without even acknowledging the life-saving, civilizing benefits of American interventions, and why the disdain he feels towards Israel is also directed at allies such as Britain or Canada. No prior president ever ridiculed, as Obama has, the notion of “American exceptionalism,” that the US is different than other nations and uniquely suited to exporting virtues like freedom, liberty, individual rights and democracy. The “shared values” that have always bound America and Israel are perceived by Obama as contrived, hypocritical, phony and arrogant – if anything, they are grounds to downgrade the relationship, as he has done.
Consequently, it seems clear that President Obama sees Israel as a strategic albatross, not an ally. His outreach to the Muslim world is complicated, if not impaired, by the America-Israel relationship that he inherited and that has been a staple of American foreign policy for decades. The Cold War is long over, and itself was founded on a bi-polar view of the world in which America was the natural leader of the free world, a locution that this president likely finds troublesome and rejects. Israel exists, in Obama’s strategic view of global affairs, only as an irritant – and the alliance is a relic of the past that has to be rolled back.
Nothing in the Israeli narrative resonates with Obama and so his dislike for Israel is ill-concealed, and reflected in his policies and attitudes. Indeed, Obama’s discomfort with the narrative and foundational principles of Israel mirrors his discomfort with the narrative and foundational principles of the United States. There are several implications of this analysis. First, it would certainly behoove an Israeli prime minister to disabuse himself of the notion that there is some policy or initiative he can undertake that will sweeten a relationship that has gone sour. There is nothing he can do (not that Netanyahu foolishly won’t try anyway), and to blur all Israeli red lines in the hopes of changing Obama’s world view is a pipe dream, if not a fatal allusion. Second, Obama must be removed from office, and the 2012 election is therefore critical – for many reasons that do not all relate to Israel. Sensible Jews will have to overcome their whimsy of blindly supporting Democrats, and this despite the inevitable charm offensive that will include forced smiles, empty rhetoric that employs Yiddish or Hebrew words, accusations of racism, weapons sales, and who knows – perhaps Obama will even hold his nose and briefly visit Israel, which, along with Zimbabwe, seems to be the only country on earth he has not yet visited.
Third, in the short term, Jews will have to cultivate warmer relations with the new Republican House and friendly Democratic congressmen, and bear in mind that Israel’s base of support in America today is not in the White House, but in the Congress and, more importantly, with the American people. They are the ones who will resurrect and strengthen this relationship that reflects so well on both countries and can yet benefit all of mankind.