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What Would Obama Do If His Only Concern Was Israel?

By MJ Rosenberg, June 9, 2009

The Middle East story line this week is that President Barack Obama is getting tough on Israel. He is insisting on a total settlement freeze (with no exceptions) and expects Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to endorse the two-state solution (with no conditions). In his groundbreaking speech in Cairo, Obama made it clear that just as the right of Jews to their own state cannot be questioned, neither can the right of Palestinians to theirs.

Observers have noticed that President Obama frames his policy toward Israel in the context of U.S. interests. He eschews sentimentality in favor of rationality: the recognition that the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict damages U.S. interests throughout the Middle East. He also believes that the perception of America as utterly one-sided in its approach to Arabs and Israelis fuels anti-American sentiment among Arabs and Muslims in general.

In short, President Obama’s Middle East policy is primarily about American interests, which is as it should be, and not domestic politics, which it has long been.

But what if President Obama’s primary concern in Middle East policy-making was Israeli, not American interests? Suppose that he, like some critics of his policies, only thought about the Middle East in terms of what is considered best for Israel.

That is, in fact, how the neocons of the Bush administration approached U.S. policy.

It was out of that concern that they promoted the Iraq war, rebuffed any dialogue with Iran, blocked U.S. aid to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that would have helped him defeat Hamas in the 2006 election, and supported Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his determination to leave Gaza unilaterally rather than negotiating the withdrawal with Abbas.

It was out of that concern that they torpedoed efforts by Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Senator George Mitchell, General Anthony Zinni, and others to produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before Hamas came to power.

In short, it was their professed, but utterly wrong-headed, concern for Israel that produced a set of policies that did more damage to Israel (and produced more Israeli victims of terror) in the period 2001-2008 than ever before in Israel’s history.

By the time the neocons were expelled from their positions of power, Iran was no longer checked by Iraq but rather was in alliance with it; Hamas, Hezbollah, and Ahmadinejad were all stronger than ever; Gaza was a launching pad for attacks on Israel; and the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process was in the dumpster.

By the end of George W. Bush’s term, Israelis felt less confident about the future of their state than at any time in decades. Anxiety and fear replaced the upbeat and proud patriotism that had defined Israelis’ view of their country for six decades. Leading politicians, most notably Binyamin Netanyahu, actually compared the peril of Israel’s situation at the dawn of the twenty-first century to the condition of Europe’s Jews in 1942.

And who did Israelis have to thank for this? One, the shortsightedness of their own leaders. And, two, the simple-minded policies promoted by Americans in the U.S. government and among some of those who believe themselves to be Israel’s best friends.

Obama is not that kind of friend.

In an interview with NPR this week, Obama said that he was dedicated to maintaining the “special relationship with Israel”:

“I think that as a vibrant democracy that shares many of our values, obviously we’re deeply sympathetic to Israel. And, I think, I would also say that given past statements surrounding Israel: The notion that they should be driven into the sea, that they should be annihilated, that they should be obliterated—the armed aggression that’s been directed toward them in the past—you can understand why not only Israelis would feel concerned, but the United States would feel it was important to back this stalwart ally.”

But then he elaborated on how his conception of friendship does not simply mean agreeing with Israel on every issue. He said that, “part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory in the region, is profoundly negative—not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that’s part of a new dialogue that I’d like to see encouraged in the region.”

That brings me back to my original question. What would Obama do in the Middle East if his sole concern was Israel?

Would he support the expansion of settlements, an end to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, repudiation of the two-state solution, a military attack on Iran, the permanent occupation of the West Bank, and perhaps the reoccupation of Gaza? Would he simply pay, as George W. Bush did, mere lip service to the two-state solution while confiding to Israeli leaders that the status quo is just fine with him? Would he tell the Arabs, as Bush essentially did, that the United States wanted their oil but not their policy input? Would he be prepared, as Bush was, to stand in splendid isolation alongside Israel in support of occupation but totally estranged from the rest of the world?

If Barack Obama suddenly abandoned his activist policies—his call for a settlement freeze and the two-state solution—would that make him a better friend of Israel?

The answer is obvious.

Barack Obama’s friendship with Israel is demonstrated by his determination to help it out of the disastrous fix it is in.

Unlike most of his predecessors who learned about Israel when they started courting Jewish political support, Obama first learned about Israel from close Jewish friends in law school and later when he moved to Chicago. It was those Jewish friends—among them former Congressman Abner Mikva, a lifelong Zionist—who tutored Obama on Israel. Today, two of those friends, David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, are the first Jews ever to hold the two top staff positions in the White House.

He knows about Israel and he empathizes with its people (as was evidenced in the Cairo speech where he explained to the world’s Muslims the nexus between Israel’s creation  and the Holocaust). He understands what it needs to survive and thrive. And that, along with our own security interests, is why Obama is not backing down on settlements, the two-state solution, or on his determination to achieve a final status agreement in his first term.

He is not doing any of this exclusively to help Israel. But if that was his only goal, his program would be exactly the same. The pro-Israel community understands that, which is why Obama has its support.

MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.





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