Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
What Would Obama Do If His Only Concern Was
By MJ Rosenberg
ccun.org, 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.
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
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.
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
That brings me back to my original question. What would
Obama do in the Middle East if his sole concern was Israel?
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?
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
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