Is Obama anti-Israel? This question has plagued him since the Democratic presidential primary, way back in 2008. This has been something that has forced him on the defensive since before being elected President of the United States.
Every blight, small or large, has been “proof” of his anti-Israel agenda. He visited Cairo and not Jerusalem in 2009? He called Abbas before calling Bibi upon taking the oath of office? Clearly, every fiber of his hates Jews!
On the flip side, those who have defended Obama, (whether his staff or his supporters in the US,) have pointed just as well to anything, small or large, as “proof” that never has the White House had a closer friend of Israel’s than Obama. More funding for Iron Dome, “historic visit” to Israel in 2012, mentioning in the Cairo speech about the Jews right to settle in the land of Israel.
What bothers me most is why Obama’s side responds thusly. Why not just admit that he’s not a fan of Israel? At this point, he has no more elections to win. He can’t claim that he “fears the ‘AIPAC lobby.’” And Obama has made clear that he is not a friend of Israel. Attempts to turn this into a partisan issue are meaningless (the White House has tried claiming that Republicans are attacking him regarding his support for Israel, simply because he’s a Democrat). There are numerous Democrats who support Israel, strongly and proudly. Support for Israel is either a non-partisan or bi-partisan platform. Those who understand the shared interests and values as well as the two-directional strategic importance to a close relationship support Israel, whether they are Republicans, such as Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) or Democrats, such as Robert “Bob” Menendez (D-NJ).
Does Obama dislike Israel or just Bibi?
Perhaps though, it’s not Israel that Obama dislikes, but actually Israel’s right-of-center leadership. Because heading back to 2008, Candidate Obama had no problem visiting Israel. Although he was dogged by questions then regarding his support for Israel, these were included in a larger barrage of complaints regarding his suitability for the White House, many ranging the gamut on foreign policy in general. At the time, Israel was still led by left-of-center PM Ehud Olmert (Kadima), perhaps sharing a similar vision of Israel with Obama. But ever since the election of Bibi, that shared relationship of importance has gone down the drain.
Much of the Israeli media (with the obvious exception of Yisrael Hayom) has devoted ink blasting Bibi for ruining the strategic relationship with Obama. But the truth is, Obama has done as much as he can to ruin the relationship to unprecedentedly low levels. The relationship was already in “crisis” in 2009. We heard the same in 2012. Yet here we are, heading to new elections in 2015, and the relationship is at, yet again, a “dangerous crisis.”
Why has the relationship tanked this time?
Looking at the current issue, Bibi’s expected speech in Congress two weeks before the upcoming elections, it’s very hard to see how Bibi is responsible for the newest chapter in deteriorating relations. Speaker of the House John Boehner invited Bibi to address Congress on the situation in Iran. This is hardly surprising for a few reasons:
- Iran is dominating the news (as usual), thanks in part to the international nuclear negotiations, in part due to the internal American politics between the Executive Branch and Legislative Branch regarding sanctions on Iran, and in part due to the desire for stability in the Middle East broadly, considering the gains being made by IS.
- PM Netanyahu is viewed quite favorably by Congress, having already addressed a joint session twice, and having held numerous meetings over the course of his past two terms with Senators and Representatives, both in Washington D.C. and in Jerusalem.
- PM Netanyahu is viewed globally as one of the experts on the nuclear issue in Iran, having written extensively about it already before his first term in office (1996-1999), and having raised the issue again and again as “the number one threat facing the world” since returning to the Prime Minister’s office in 2009.
Having been invited by Boehner, Bibi had two options facing him: Reject the invitation, slapping the US Legislative Branch in the face or accept it, showing the close relationship. Although Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have made the claim “there will be a price to pay,” “Bibi violated diplomatic protocol,” and “Bibi is ruining relations,” these claims don’t hold water. Already Boehner has released proof that the White House was notified regarding the invite before it was sent out and that they raised no objections. If they had no objections, why are they so mad that Bibi accepted Congress’s invitation? Would the White House have preferred that Bibi slap Congress in the face instead, which would anyways have turned into “Bibi is running relations with Israel?”
This is unfortunately the latest example of Obama taking his issues with Israel’s current leadership quite public in efforts to intervene in Israel’s domestic political system. Already, Obama is now refusing to meet with Bibi on this trip. Although the White House claims that the reason is because “it would appear that we are interfering in another country’s election by hosting a candidate,” any high school student can tell you that there’s a difference between viewing Bibi as simply another candidate versus viewing him as the current elected Head of Government of a sovereign state and ally of the US. It’s nice that they have backed this up with a stated policy of not meeting with candidates two weeks before elections, but where is this policy stated? When has it been employed before? In the past, Obama had no qualms with meeting leaders within a month before the elections. It almost sounds as though the “two week mark” was calculated a week ago, specifically to include Bibi and exclude other world leaders.
And it’s not as though there’s precedent for this. Clinton had no issue meeting with Shimon Peres two weeks before the 1996 election. It was no secret that Clinton preferred Peres over Bibi in that election and interfered somewhat in the election. Unfortunately for Clinton, that support backfired and helped propel Bibi to victory. What Clinton did smartly, and Obama seems to not have internalized, was he immediately put their differences aside and worked with Bibi. Friendship of Israel among US presidents has never been partisan: While Clinton and Bush (“Junior”) were both noted as close friends, Bush (“Senior”) and Obama have not been. Note that the former list includes a Democrat and Republican and the latter is of a Republican and Democrat respectively. And these are the past four presidents of the USA.
Now let’s say Obama wants to use the argument that he’s “changed” and really doesn’t want to interfere in Israel’s elections. His public attacks on Bibi, and his publicizing of everything right now is doing exactly that, helping fuel the fire in favor of Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party, and Bibi’s main challenger. Or is interfering for Bibi’s benefit banned but allowed when it helps a fellow left-winger?
So far, we’ve seen Obama refuse to meet with Bibi on numerous occasions. In each and every instance, it’s been “scheduling conflicts” or “unfair interference” or some other seemingly valid excuse. As the saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Sure an excuse may come up once or twice. But to consistently be unable to meet, to travel multiple times to the Middle East and yet “never have time” to visit Israel (until the so-called “historic” visit in 2012), to publicly berate the PM in the first visit and refuse to grant a standard state reception that you granted to others, to refuse to address the Knesset when invited, to consistently blame Bibi for said deteriorating relations that you seemingly never wanted in the first place – all this points to someone who has simply had an agenda against Bibi from the beginning.
So what should Bibi do?
In this current case, there’s not much Bibi can do. Go and you’re a pariah – from Obama for “violating diplomatic protocol” and from the Left in Israel (and the majority of the media) because they take Obama’s free political advertising for them and spew it out until they’re blue in the face; don’t go and you’ve slapped Congress in the face (remember that Obama and Congress have their own fights) and the Right is mad for capitulating.
I believe that Bibi should not go until after the election. I know, sounds crazy coming from someone on the Right. He should privately explain to Boehner that the political climate has made everything so bad, and ensure that Boehner understands that Bibi understands the deep importance to the relationship Congress shares with Israel. Publicly, simply state that, “President Obama does not want me in the US so I will not attend.” The speech is primarily ceremonial; the majority of the US Congress knows Bibi’s positions and they’re welcome to visit Israel for higher level meetings. In addition, Congress already plans on placing more sanctions on Iran, with a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate (though still working on the magical 67 to be able to override a presidential veto).
The move will stop the Left dead in their tracks and can be explained to the Right as Bibi recognizing that Obama is uninterested in Israel, and he’s tired of trying to “convince him to change his mind.” Instead, use the time to publicly appeal to other allies that share an understanding of the issue and have a desire for strong relations with Israel, be it Canada, India, or Azerbaijan.
And if Bibi really wants to stick it to the US, he can always announce that a visit by a member of the US Executive Branch would also a “breach of diplomatic protocol,” and that they are not welcome in Israel. Before thinking that this doesn’t matter, recall that Kerry’s dream is a Nobel Peace Prize for solving the Israel/Arab conflict. Without being allowed in Israel, his dream goes out the window.
Maybe we do have leverage over Obama!