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Bibi and Obama — A new persepctive

It is said that newspapers are the first draft of history. Since the first draft of the clashes between Netanyahu and Obama were written over five years ago, it is time to examine them with a new perspective. To understand the men, one needs to compare their histories. Both men were born with exceptional talents. They are extremely bright, articulate, and used to being the smartest person in the room. They are both well educated. Obama has a Harvard J.D. Netanyahu has a Masters degree from M.I.T.

Their backgrounds are very different. Netanyahu was born in 1949, the year Israel’s War of Independence ended. Growing up in Israel, he would have heard often how Israel had been forced to fight for its very existence in that war. Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961.

In 1967, the year Obama moved to Indonesia and Netanyahu graduated from high school. Israel was again attacked by the surrounding countries. Netanyahu returned to Israel and joined the IDF, but Israel won the war in six days. For the next four years, as an Israeli Commando, Netanyahu fought Egypt in the War of Attrition, being wounded five times. In 1972, he was wounded a sixth time when, along with fellow commandos, he boarded an SAS jet, freeing the passengers, who had been held hostage by terrorists.

In 1973, the surrounding countries once again attacked Israel. Netanyahu fought in that war, which Israel won. In 1978, Netanyahu’s brother was killed leading the raid on Entebbe airport. Obama, who had returned to Hawaii, was still in high school.

In 1980 Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty which has brought the countries over 40 years of peace with each other. With Egypt out of the picture, the surrounding countries were no longer a threat to Israel.

There have been numerous threats to Israel since, some of which were awful (the second intifada cost over 1,000 Israelis their lives), but, unlike the wars, they have not threatened Israel’s existence.

By 2009, Netanyahu had served one term as Prime Minister and as Finance Minister to Ariel Sharon. Earlier that decade, there had been a split within Likud over whether Israel should unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. Netanyahu opposed such a withdrawal, arguing that the Palestinians would use Gaza as a base from which to attack Israel. Sharon disagreed and formed his own party, Kadima, taking many members of Likud with him. Kadima won the next election, Sharon remained the Prime Minister, and Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza.

Soon after Hamas took control of Gaza two years later, it became clear that Netanyahu had been correct. One cannot understand Netanyahu without realizing how his being right about Gaza has affected his subsequent conduct. Since then, Netanyahu has been convinced that nobody understands Israel’s security better than he does.

Obama’s three books, including two autobiographies, reflect how different his background was from Netanyahu’s. Growing up in Hawaii, Obama was consumed with what it meant to be a Black man in America. As a Freshman at Occidental College, he read the works of Frantz Fanon, whose principle theme was that European imperialism determined the European view of Africans. Obama understood. On a visit to see his Black father in Kenya, he had seen British imperialism at work. In his second year in college, Obama became active in the movement to divest funds from Apartheid South Africa.

After two years at Occidental, Obama transferred to Columbia University in part because he would be close to Harlem. After graduating from Columbia, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago organizing the Black community. From there he went to law school, where he became the first Black editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review. He then took a job in Chicago with a civil-rights law firm. Barack Obama’s three books as well as Michelle Obama’s autobiography, demonstrate that until this point, the issue of Israel/Palestine was not on Obama’s radar.

That changed when he became a member of the faculty at the University of Chicago, The Obamas bought a house close to Rashid Khalidi and his wife. Obama talked to  Khalidi many times about Israel/Palestine. Obama has said publicly that the whole world should hear what Khalidi, a history professor, has to say. In his recent autobiography, Obama describes Khalidi as an “activist.” To describe Rashid as an “activist” is misleading. Khalidi was the head of the PLO’s Beirut office at a time when the PLO was unquestionably a terrorist organization.

Khalidi has three themes which should have been attractive to Obama. He argues that peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the key to peace for Israel. When Khalidi was with the PLO, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas were not even on the horizon as threats to Israel. Khalidi also argues that Israel is the result of European imperialism, going so far as saying that the Balfour Declaration was a “declaration of war” on Arabs. Khalidi could also have characterized the Israel/Palestine conflict as rich Israelis against poor Palestinians. Obama was receptive to all three arguments.

By the time he became President, Obama had long thought that Israel had the strongest military in the region. That helps explain the dynamic between Obama and Netanyahu. In his second autobiography, Obama describes his initial discussions with Netanyahu:

“[I]n my early conversations with Netanyahu, he was mostly interested in talking about Iran . . . . but when I raised the possibility of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians, he was decidedly noncommittal.”

It is no surprise that Netanyahu took the positions he did. Netanyahu had spent an adult lifetime defending Israel and understood the difference between threats that were existential and those that were not. Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas were existential threats. The Palestinian Authority was not. Yet Obama, who had never defended anything militarily in his life, was convinced that the key to peace for Israel was resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict.

That is not to say that Netanyahu does not have serious faults. He has been in office far too long. He will do almost anything to get re-elected. He overestimates his own importance, ignoring that no matter whomever the Prime Minister has been, it is the people of Israel who have built and defended Israel.

In America, the animosity between Obama and Netanyahu lingers. Before Obama, American support for Israel was bipartisan. Since Obama became President, especially after he urged Democrats to boycott Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, it largely has not. President Biden is constantly walking the line between the J-Street Democrats, who supported Obama’s policies, and supporting Israel. Today, the legacy of the clash between Netanyahu and Obama casts a shadow on both Israel and the United States.

About the Author
Before making Aliyah from the United States, I spent over three decades as a lawyer in the United States. My practice involved handling many civil rights cases, including women's- rights cases, in State and Federal courts. I handled numerous constitutional cases for the ACLU and argued one civil rights case in the United States Supreme Court. I chaired the Colorado Supreme Court's Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure and served on the Colorado Supreme Court's Civil Rules and Rules of Evidence Committees. Since much of my practice involved the public interest, I became interested in environmental law and worked closely with environmental organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I was on the Rocky Mountain Board of EDF. I received an award from the Nebraska Sierra Club as a result of winning a huge environmental case that was referred to me by EDF. I also developed significant knowledge of hazardous and radioactive waste disposal. I was involved in a number of law suits concerning waste disposal, including a highly-political one in the United States Supreme Court which involved the disposal of nuclear waste. As I child I was told by my mother, a German, Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, that Israel was a place for her and her child. When I first visited Israel many years later, I understood what she meant. My feeling of belonging in Israel caused me to make Aliyah and Israel my home. Though I am retired now, I have continued my interest in activism and the world in which I find myself.
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