Obama and Israel: A Friend, but Curiously Tone Deaf to Our Concerns

Friend or foe?

Since President Obama’s much-promoted speech about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process two weeks ago, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s heated reaction to it, the Jewish world has been engaged in serious if familiar impassioned conversation about exactly that. Is this President a “friend of Israel,” or something other?

To be sure, there are sectors of the American Jewish community, particularly the religious/nationalist sector, that are completely convinced that Obama is a soneh Yisrael – an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people. This intense and unambivalent animus is often visceral, not rational in the strict sense of the word, and difficult to counter. And as bad as it can be here in America, it’s even more visceral in Israel, where the ill feeling is coupled with existential fear. Some of the things I’ve heard said by people whom I otherwise respect have deeply dismayed me.

There’s really no talking to those people about Obama. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything much the President could do to change their minds except maybe convert to Judaism, join Beitar, and make aliyah to a West Bank settlement – all unlikely. And really – who would accept his conversion?

On the other side, there are people in the Jewish community who are so ready to make any concession necessary to the Palestinians to advance the peace process that they, too, are difficult to take seriously. I would like to see the world through rose colored lenses also, but I can’t. I desperately want peace- but I am not willing to take a chance on sacrificing Israel to achieve it.

And so we are left with the middle, where little is clear, and nothing at all is absolute. I ask if the President is a friend or “something other” because I simply cannot bring myself to believe that he is a foe, or that he has done anything to indicate that he is a foe. I do believe that President Obama is committed to Israel and her survival, and to Israel’s special relationship with the United States. He has proven that in his strengthening of the strategic relationship between the two countries, in his repeated iterations of the “ironclad” nature of the bond between us, and in his clear recognition of Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

If one researches the recent history of previous negotiations and encounters between Israel and the United States, he will find that the President’s claim is true. He said nothing particularly groundbreaking in his State Department speech. The idea that any future resolution of this dispute would be based on the 1967 truce lines (no, they’re not borders) with land swaps to account for changes since then and security concerns was an idea that Israel herself had accepted long ago. There is absolute documentary proof of this. It has been the basic, over-arching idea of all negotiations between America and Israel, through Rabin, Barak, and even Netanyahu. This is not a new idea.

So perhaps the better way to ask the question is- what kind of friend is President Obama? And why is what he said so very difficult for large swaths of the Jewish community to hear?

Those, I think, are legitimate questions, and difficult ones to answer.

No – the ideas that the President addressed in his speech were not new. But what was new, and obviously troubling to many who love Israel, is how President Obama advanced the idea, when he advanced it, and the tone of voice in which he advanced it. That is new, and worthy of note… and maybe worth worrying about.

The President promoted his speech as a major address on the Middle East peace process, and summoned the world to listen. He delivered it against the backdrop of continued unrest and troubling developments in Egypt, violent demonstrations in Syria, and, perhaps most significantly, shortly after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority merged into one government to represent the Palestinian people.

President Obama’s call to Israel to make “painful choices” seemed oddly oblivious to the last painful choice that Israel made for the sake of peace- withdrawing from Gaza. That certainly turned out catastrophically for her. All pain, and no gain.

With Hamas wresting control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, Gaza became a launching pad – literally and figuratively- for attacks against Israel. Since Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has been steadily re-arming. Now that Mubarak is no longer in charge of Egypt, there is no blockade of weapons being smuggled in. Public opinion in Egypt has shown no sign of being more favorably disposed towards Israel, even though the peaceful uprising there was not about Israel at all.

Mr. President – are there dramatic changes in the tone of Palestinian textbooks, or the sermons of Imams, or on Palestinian public media that would give Israel any reason to believe that “making painful choices for peace” is what the moment calls for, or that those choices would indeed at all advance the cause of real peace? With Hamas still calling for Israel’s destruction, with whom exactly is Israel to be negotiating with?

If President Obama really wants to move the peace process along and believes that a change in Israel’s attitude is necessary, he will have to earn the trust of Israelis, and the American Jews who support her. It has to begin with trust.

President Clinton had Israel ready to make previously unimaginable concessions during the Barak/Arafat negotiations, because Israelis believed that Clinton had Israel’s back. His connection with Israel, particularly around the time of the Rabin assassination, was so clearly heartfelt that Israelis were willing to trust that he would never do anything to hurt them. They believed him when he said that he cared for Israel. One wants that feeling from a true friend.

I personally think that the best way for him to accomplish this is to go to Israel and speak directly to the people of Israel, from the podium of the Knesset, as he did to the Arab world in Cairo. But that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon.

President Obama, in his cool and detached manner, does not inspire the same trust in American Jews, or in Israelis. And until such time as he does, he is unlikely to prod Israel to change its posture- Israel’s own internal political considerations notwithstanding. I thought that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response was out of proportion to the perceived provocation. It was an over-reaction, and not helpful to Israel. But I must also admit that the President’s speech left me scratching my head and wondering why his friendship is so hard to relate to.

I think I know why. I believe that he is a friend, and most certainly not an enemy. But I am not at all convinced that he is the kind of friend who identifies with Israel’s narrative. I do. I want to believe in him. I really do. But he has a lot of convincing left to do.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.