Truths and Untruths About Obama and Israel

“As an Israeli-American who cares deeply about the survival of Israel and the future of the Jewish people, I will be voting for President Obama in November,” wrote Haim Saban, founder of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in the New York Times on September 4. If we too care about those things, Saban wants us to believe, then we too must vote for the president. Trying to make an argument convincing by appealing to the natural instincts of a certain constituency is a laudable debate tactic. But it is no more than that: a debating tactic. The fuller story shows that Obama has been good to Israel in some ways, has been bad to Israel in other ways, and has been even worse to the Palestinians in many more ways. Rather than appealing to voters’ instincts, Saban, and commentators like him, should appeal to their intellect through a careful recitation of this fuller story.

Saban gets some of the facts right. He correctly notes that President Obama recently provided $70 million to extend the Iron Dome missile defense system across southern Israel, in addition to the $3 billion in annual military assistance to Israel that the president requests and that Congress routinely approves. These are historically big numbers.

He also correctly points out that Obama persuaded Russia and China to support harsh sanctions on Iran, at a level which Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called “the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country.” Saban, also correctly, recounts that Obama has put all options on the table in regards to Iran, and has positioned forces in the Persian Gulf to showcase his resolve. Any more muscle flexing would be a premature display of brinkmanship.

Obama hasn’t visited Israel, but neither did George W. Bush until his seventh year in office. Obama has disagreed with Israel’s settlement policy, but he didn’t threaten to withhold loan guarantees from Israel, as did George H. W. Bush. Saban argues all this correctly. These are undeniable facts, despite the fact that some elements of the pro-Israel community often choose to turn a blind eye to them.

But these facts do not diminish—cannot diminish—the other facts of Obama’s relationship with Israel. And two of these other facts make voting for Obama in November difficult for some pro-Israel Americans.

The first of these is something that Saban rather awkwardly does not even recount: The settlement debacle of the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In early 2009, Secretary of State Clinton stipulated that the Obama administration “wants to see a stop to settlements.” This handed President Mahmoud Abbas a precondition to force on the Israelis and stalled diplomacy before it could even begin.

Settlements, while empirically an obstacle to peace, have never been the main obstacle. By the time Netanyahu adapted and initiated a full freeze on settlement building, Obama’s faulty premise, Abbas’s intransigence, and Netanyahu’s exasperation made the prospect for any fruitful peace talks hopeless. Any supporter of Israel and of Middle East peace must recognize the historic mistake Obama made here.

The other thing about Obama that bothers the pro-Israel community is more difficult to comprehend, despite how strikingly true it is: Namely, Obama’s perceived low level of affection for the Jewish state. Despite all the pro-Israel things that he’s said, and despite all the pro-Israel things that he’s done, Obama has always seemed overly stern when it comes to Prime Minister Netanyahu and personally aloof when it comes to worrying about the survival and security of Israel.

This aloofness is not reserved for Israel alone; the cold, piercing analysis with which Obama approaches every issue is evidence that this aloofness and sternness is very much the Obama style. But supporters of the State of Israel, out of a sometimes paranoid but largely historically justified fear for the continued existence of their state and its security, need to know that in times of crisis the President will always be on their side. Obama, rather infamously by now, is always on his own side.

It must also be said that from a Palestinian standpoint, Obama has been all too friendly to Israel. But I do not believe that support for Israel, almost always an ideological, strategic, and moral ally, and support for the Palestinian people’s ability to live in a land they can call their own, need to be mutually exclusive. Obama has failed to break any new ground, and he has been insensitive to the sanctity of some old ground. But so much tangible support for Israel cannot, in any honest analysis, be swept under the bus. About this, Saban is undeniably right.