Only the most hard-core anti Obama-ites could fail to be impressed by President Obama’s visit to Israel this week, notwithstanding all the inconveniences to travelers and residents. He said all the right things, went to some (not all) of the right places, effectively retracted some of the anti-Israel rhetoric from his Cairo address four years ago, publicly demanded nothing of Israel, and read speeches that could have been (actually, have been) delivered by Shimon Peres and others on the Israeli left.
The only discordant note – and a familiar rhetorical trope of the last 20 years – was his plea to Israeli youth to force their government to “take risks for peace.” The university youth with whom he spoke – there was no dialogue at all on this “listening tour,” unless by that he meant listening to applause – was effectively hand-picked, and trend to the far left of Israeli society with little influence on the political system. No Hesder students, or students at the University of Ariel, need apply.
The notion of taking “risks for peace” is quite rich coming from someone who does not walk four ells without hundreds of bodyguards, who will not drive on a road with other cars or fly in a helicopter unless the traffic below is routed elsewhere. That is to say, how about you taking some risks first, to show your good faith in humanity, as you wish Israelis would do?
Of course, the Secret Service would never allow it, and the American President faces special threats that deserve – he is a symbol, after all – special protection. But every human being is precious, and knowing as he does that territory surrendered by Israel to the enemy has always become a base for new terror against Israel, how can he propose that Israelis should take risks that he would not in his own life, and risks that have blown up in the faces of Israelis when ever carried out? Even this, timed for Obama’s visit, Hamas fired rockets from Gaza that destroyed a house in Sderot.
He can suggest it because that phrase – “risks for peace” – has been uttered by Shimon Peres for decades, and is a close cousin to its still-grieving relative, “sacrifices for peace,” the label affixed to the unfortunate Israelis who were murdered by Arabs when “risks for peace” were taken in the 1990s and 2000s. It asks that hope triumph over experience and logic, and sounds compassionate, albeit short-sighted and foolish. But people of the left often glorify and extol compassion more than they do facts and logic.
Nonetheless, Israelis warmed to Obama, who was charming, gracious, eloquent and used all the code words that Israelis want and like to hear. So, what’s the catch? The Arabs were beside themselves with irritation bordering on rage; the only anti-Obama demonstrations took place in Ramallah (except for some environmentalists here protesting something about exploration in the Arctic; there are all types of Jews). They genuinely expected threats, recriminations and pressure; none of that happened. In fact, the opposite occurred. Obama essentially said to Abbas, if you want to keep talking about talking, you can, but nothing will change ever. That suits Israel well, as the current situation can easily continue until Messiah comes, whenever he comes. (The real threats to Israel are again external, and even if the local Arabs resume their terror – as has happened recently, on a low scale, the IDF and security forces are well-situated in the cities to thwart it. What is end game?
A few possibilities present: First, that we had Obama all wrong, and that he is as pro-Israel as other American presidents like Bush II or Reagan, but leans more toward Labor and they lean more to Likud. It could be that his first term speeches were written by an anti-Israel speechwriter who has now been dispatched to al-Jazeera.
Second, that Barack Obama is playing good-cop, bad-cop, and after Obama leaves to universal acclaim, Kerry and his hammer will come down hard on Israel, and make demands for new settlement freezes, more withdrawals and prisoner releases, and other empty good faith gestures. That is very possible, although Israel – if it wishes – is well-suited to deflect that pressure because the Arab leadership is so inept and always looks angry and cantankerous. They just make demands, and – like a petulant child – do not know how to respond to a “no.” (Part of the reason is for twenty years, they became accustomed to hearing “yes” to whatever they wanted.)
Third, that Obama was playing to a domestic American audience. Presidents always look good on friendly foreign soil, and he has been stung by criticism (he is remarkably thin-skinned for a public figure) that he is anti-Israel. This doesn’t seem likely at all, as he is not running for re-election, and could say or do anything and still get 70% of the Jewish vote.
So, why, why? It might be (I can certainly hope) that Obama has tired of the Mideast mess, realizes the problem is intractable, and that there is nothing to gain – politically, militarily or otherwise – in pressuring Israel or catering to the Arabs. The real obstacles to negotiations dwell in Ramallah. Why should Obama waste his time in this region? So, he came here, paid his debts, spoke his piece, did his due diligence and can now move on without being accused of “ignoring” the problem. He basically challenged both sides to work it out, employing the empty arguments of the left, but nothing that is completely outside the broad consensus of Israeli life. He realizes that with Egypt and Syrian in turmoil, the specter of Iran looming, and Jordan and Saudi Arabia trembling before the future, the odds are not great that Israel will take “risks for peace,” but the words sound good, as does the applause. At least he did something.
Of the four possibilities, the last strikes me as the most plausible. Israel could benefit from a little benign neglect of the American president, who was quite clear that Israel has the complete right to defend itself. With the demographic edge shifting to Israel (unlike the hackneyed claim of the left here and Obama himself), and the balance of power heavily in Israel’s favor, there is no reason at all for Israel to respond with concessions to a vicious, hateful enemy.
As for Obama, if this is why he came, and this is his end game, I can only say – despite the inconveniences to residents – “please come again.”
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- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 20: Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski [audio]
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- The Rabbinate as Inheritance [audio]
- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 18: The Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 12: Crisis and Faith, the 1990's [audio]
- Introduction to Selichot: Old Me, New Me [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 11: Build-Up and Breakdown, the 1980's [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 10: Darkness and Light, the 1970's [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 9: Golden Opportunity - The 1960's [audio]