President Obama’s first trip to Israel as president is an opportunity to speak directly to the people and persuade them he is committed to their security. Unfortunately, he chose not to speak before Israel’s Knesset. This is an indication that he still does not appreciate the problem he has in Israel and has not fully learned the lessons of the catastrophic policies of his first two years in office.
From the outset of his presidency, Obama seemed to go out of his way to communicate to Israelis that he was far more interested in winning favor with the Muslims and Arabs than maintaining the traditional alliance with Israel. Moreover, by demanding that Israel freeze settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem, Obama failed to jumpstart the peace process, as he had hoped, but instead set it back.
The Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, never demanded a settlement freeze as a condition for negotiations, but was compelled to adopt that policy out of fear of looking less committed to the issue than the U.S. president. He has subsequently refused to negotiate with Israel for the last four years.
During the first two years, the president took a number of other steps that led Israelis to doubt his commitment to their security. Moreover, he did everything to communicate his displeasure with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu short of writing BO hates BB on the White House sidewalk.
At one point, a poll found that only 4 percent of Israelis believed Obama was a friend of Israel. Obama did not recognize how the distrust of the Israeli people undermined his strategy. He was expecting Israel to make risky concessions to the Palestinians, something Israelis are prepared to do, but only when convinced America has their back. Many Israelis were afraid Obama was more likely to put a knife in their backs.
Obama also failed to understand that Abbas was not willing or able to negotiate an agreement. Moreover, Abbas had no control over Gaza, which remains in the grip of Hamas, a terrorist group committed to the destruction of Israel.
State Department Arabists suggested taking a hard line with Israel and supporting a Palestinian state would convince other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, of his commitment to the Palestinians and to Arab/Muslim interests. On his first trip to Riyadh, however, Obama discovered the Saudis had no interest in peace with Israel or helping him achieve a comprehensive agreement. Moreover, by skipping Israel on that first trip to the Middle East, Obama set the tone for his policy toward Israel.
Obama’s policy changed nearly 180 degrees in the last two years. It is hard to discern whether the change was inspired by polls showing American Jewish support dropping from 78 percent to 54 percent or by recognizing the mistakes he had made.
Regardless of the motivation, during his last two years Obama was outspokenly supportive of Israel and was particularly generous in enhancing military cooperation. Palestinian efforts to make an end run around negotiations through the UN were stopped by the president as well. American and Israeli Jews began to feel better about the president.
Obama wants a fresh in his second term by making his first trip abroad to Israel. Tensions between Netanyahu and Obama remain over perceptions that each of them tried to sway recent elections to their opponents. Nevertheless, the issues are too important for the continuation of petty personal grudges. Israel is surrounded by turmoil, which threatens to provoke a new Arab-Israeli war, and Iran continues its steady progress toward building a nuclear weapon.
Obama is being pushed, however, by the traditional specious view of the State Department Arabists that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the source of all problems in the Middle East. Despite signs that the time could not be worse for pushing for negotiations, Obama will do so anyway.
Besides the Palestinian conviction that the international community will force Israel to capitulate to their demands without them making any concessions, another obstacle to resuming peace talks is Obama’s residual credibility gap with the people of Israel. To overcome this problem, Obama’s top priority should be to speak before the Knesset. Like Congress, this is the people’s house and a symbol of Israeli democracy. More important, it offers Obama the opportunity to tell the people of Israel, in his own persuasive way, that he does in fact have their back. Obama’s words are important, but the symbolism is as well. Remember, it was Anwar Sadat’s decision to address the Knesset that completely changed the psychology of Egyptian-Israeli relations. Few people remember that Sadat gave an uncompromising speech because the symbolism of Israel’s enemy speaking directly to the people in their capital was so powerful.
Unfortunately, Obama has chosen not to address the Knesset, a slap at Israel’s democracy. Moreover, he is already stirring controversy with what he does plan to do. He plans to speak to Israeli university students, but reportedly is barring any students from Ariel University, presumably because of its location in the West Bank. Since Ariel is expected to be annexed to Israel in any peace agreement, and it is the Israeli university with the most Arab students, this decision again reflects the overall tone deafness this administration has toward Israel.
Hopefully, these errors of planning and judgment will not undermine the purpose of the president’s trip and raise more questions about his commitment to Israel than it answers.