Five reasons Obama’s reelection is good for Israel

For Israelis, these American elections have been somewhat controversial. The candidates themselves spent airtime and delivered countless speeches meant to address why they are a better friend of Israel than the other.

Now, with the results of the US elections made clear, many observers in Israel are celebratory and hopeful while some of their fellows are not. But, setting aside “hope”, there are solid pragmatic reasons to think that Obama’s reelection is good for Israel and the Israelis.

Here are five:

5. The Arab Spring

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have cautiously followed all of the events in the Arab world over the last two years, and have regularly responded with soft power. On their watch, the US has taken part of a coalition to intervene and stop Ghaddafi’s brutal regime in Libya; while likewise supporting democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. In Syria, the Obama administration has emphasized that Bashar Al-Assad must go, and supported the Syrian opposition in intelligent fashion, attempting a measured but decisive response. These attempts have been hampered however through real barriers such as opposition from China and Russia through their position as permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo (photo credit: Amr Nabil/AP)

Most importantly, the Obama administration has consistently taken Israel into its strategic considerations when defining the future of the US relationship with these new governments. Egypt, he said in mid September, is neither an ally nor a friend. When answering questions about the future of the US-Egyptian relationship he said: “We are going to have to see how they respond to this [Benghazi] incident, how they respond to, for example, maintaining the peace treaty with Israel”.

By carefully supporting moderates in all affected countries rather than supporting hardline factions only temporarily aligned with their interest through a common enemy (such as the Taliban during the Soviet invasion) Obama is helping to create a less hostile environment for Israel in the Middle East.

4. The war on terrorism

Osama bin Laden (photo credit: AP)

Obama has been tough on global terrorism. He led the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, and has left Al Qaeda in its weakest position ever in recent memory.

Obama has also announced an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, based on the fact that the US has accomplished its mission there, and the expectation is that he will live up to this promise but only in a responsible way — making sure the local government officials can take over the control of their countries. Doing so should help stabilize the region, thus providing more political capital should any US president need to intervene militarily in any other parts of the globe (such as Iran, for instance).

However, ending these two wars does not mean that Obama has declared an end to the war on terrorism. Wisely, he has shifted towards a more “intelligence-driven” approach, stepping up unmanned drone attacks against terrorist cells in areas of Pakistan, for instance. The number of drone strikes has likewise increased considerably under Obama’s term, as opposed to his republican predecessor. The effectiveness –and legitimacy under international law- of this policy, however, is yet to be evaluated.

3. Commitment to the Security of Israel

There is enough evidence to support that the Obama administration is strongly committed to the security of Israel, perhaps even more than previous US governments.

Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget request calls for $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel –roughly 20% of Israel’s defense budget-, an increasing trend since the end of the Bush administration.

Furthermore, the Obama administration has provided additional funding which is fully dedicated to the Iron Dome. For this purpose, Obama recently approved extra $70 million in addition to the $205 million already provided this year.

The Iron Dome system deployed near Ashkelon in southern Israel, December 2011 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

But there is more, in case you are not convinced yet. Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, publicly admitted that President Obama’s support for Israel, security-wise, has been “unparalleled”. In saying so, Barak was likewise referring not only to the increase in funding, but also to  cooperation in intelligence and military activity. Similar views were also expressed by Haim Sabban, an American-Israeli entrepreneur, when he laid down the facts in his New York Times piece earlier in September.

There is no way around it. When Obama says that the US commitment to Israel’s security is “unshakable”, he means it.

2. Stopping Iran from having nuclear capabilities

President Obama has stated repeatedly that under his administration, the US will not allow Iran to have nuclear capabilities, and that all options are on the table for securing that they do not. He has stressed (as did Mitt Romney also in the third Presidential debate) that the military alternative should be the last resource.

But, besides talking, what has he actually done? A lot. Obama has led the western world in imposing the toughest sanctions on Iran in history. Through a number of executive orders, put in place during 2010 and 2011, Iran’s Mullah now found themselves in a position where it has become nearly impossible to import and to export goods. While, for their part, Iranian financial institutions have likewise lost crucial access the US financial system

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks at a public gathering in the northeastern city of Bojnourd, Iran (photo credit: AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)

We are starting to see the effects of these tough sanctions more recently. The Iranian currency has lost 80% of its value since the end of 2011.  There are likewise reasons to believe that the sanctions are applying effective pressure upon Iranian leaders so that they will stop their nuclear program. Yet President Obama has taken these limited gains not as a reason for relaxing the sanctions, but rather has strengthened them in order to get the Iranians to the negotiating table by any means necessary

The tough sanctions not only punish the Iranian regime, but also other terrorist groups (e.g. Hezbollah), enemies of Israel, who are funded by the Iranian government.

In terms of its commitment to a military option if there is the need to, Israel can likewise rely on the Obama administration. Now, having secured his second and final term, the president has less to fear in terms of internal political consequences at home should military action become necessary against Iran.

1. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the two states solution

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The primary reason why Israelis might welcome President’s Obama reelection would be his ability to push forward our country’s agonizing peace process. Unfortunately for people who support peace, however, there is little in the president’s record thus far with which to support an assessment either way. But, in a second term, things can change.

A friend is someone that stands with you through the good and the bad. Obama backed Israel in rejecting the Goldstone report; and has voted with and for Israel in the UN at every chance, including vetoing many resolutions in the UN Security Council and blocking the Palestinian attempt to gain membership in the organization.

Yet a good friend does more than just stand with you. A good friend will warn you when you are on the wrong path, and nudge you, if necessary, back on track. From this perspective, we, Israelis, should see in Obama our best friend.

Obama understanding of our conflict with the Palestinians runs deep, and he has voiced his support for a two states solution based on the ’67 borders with agreed swaps between both sides (as have many of his predecessors, to say nothing of every Israeli Prime Ministers after Oslo).

But here is the catch: when Obama talks about a path to peace, and condemns settlement activity, he is not “throwing Israel under the bus”, but quite the opposite. He understands, as do many Israelis, that settlement activity threatens the feasibility of any lasting peace through a two states solution. Obama understands that the only solution that guarantees Israel’s security AND its existence as a Jewish and Democratic state is the fundamentally fair idea of “two states for two people.” In his second term, we must have faith that he will make Israel’s government understand this as well, and push us back to the negotiating table.

Congratulations President Obama, and Mazal Tov Israel!

About the Author
Dany Bahar is a fellow in the Brookings Institute in Washington DC. He holds a PhD in Public Policy from Harvard University.