For my entire adult life, I have been a typical knee-jerk, liberal Democrat. I was ecstatic when Obama was elected in 2008 and because I thought his domestic policy was excellent, supported him in 2012. Still, I do not believe that he understood the Middle East at all. For weeks I have been afraid to write this blog lest it be viewed as history. This week, though, the vestiges of Obama’s Israel policies reappeared when the Democrats in Congress attempted, through legislation, to tell Israel how to deal with peace negotiations.
For many years, numerous “enlightened” critics bashed Bibi Netanyahu blaming him for what they believed to be misguided Israel policy towards the Palestinians. Among these Bibi bashers were the New York Times’s Tom Friedman together with most of the New York Times crowd, the columnists for Haaretz, the Associated Press’ Dan Perry, and, above all, Barack Obama and the J-Streeters. They were wrong, as many of us tried to point out. The problem was not Netanyahu, it was Israel’s policies which so offended them. Now that Netanyahu is no longer Prime Minister, at least some of them have started focusing on Israel, on which they should have been focused all along.
Numerous American presidents have made the same mistake. They did so because when campaigning they emphasized how critical it was that that they be elected. Israel’s adversaries have not made the same mistake. When Iranians took over the American embassy in Tehran and Jimmy Carter was president, they did not chant “Death to Jimmy Carter”. They chanted “Death to America.” Since then, they have continued the same chant through six American presidents.
Barack Obama raised this mistake to new a new level after he became President. His first trip to the Middle East was to Cairo, where he, perhaps the best salesman for hope ever, told the Egyptians that Islam now had a friend in the White House. That pitch was music to the ears of the Europeans, who rewarded him with the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps the first time in history that the prize had been awarded for promises rather than actual accomplishment.
I do not know how Obama’s pitch played in the Arab world, but my reaction would have been skeptical. After all, those were American M-16s the IDF used to keep control of the West Bank. Those were American jet aircraft that Israel used to attack Hamas in Gaza. For years, the United States had given Israel Billions of dollars in military support regardless of who was President and that policy was not about to change. (It never did, even under Obama.)
There is good reason for Obama’s naivete with respect to the Middle East. Obama was born in 1961. He was 6 years old in 1967, 12 years old in in 1973. For his entire adult life he, correctly, has been convinced that Israel had the dominant military in the Middle East, one well able to defend itself. He continued to espouse this belief in a television interview when he was trying to sell the Iran Nuke deal (JCPOA) to Congress. Moreover, he was convinced that Israel would achieve peace, if only Israel would make peace with Palestinian Authority.
When you read Obama’s autobiographies, it becomes clear how he came to this conclusion. In his first autobiography, “Tales from My Father”, Obama explained that as a small child he was raised in Indonesia. When he got older, his mother sent him to Kansas to get an American education. From that point onward, he seems largely to have been focused on the problems of growing up Black in a predominantly White America. That focus persisted for years: through high school, college, law school, and as a community organizer. In his first autobiography, he scarcely mentions the Middle East. It simply was not on his radar. In his second autobiography, “A Promised Land” Obama adds a second area of concern: the problem of wealth v. poverty. “Promised Land” at 8, 627-28.
Eventually, Obama did educate himself about the Middle East; he made friends with a member of the History Department at the University of Chicago, Rashid Khalidi, whom Obama describes only as “an activist and Middle East scholar.” “Promised Land” at 629.
The odd thing is that Obama never describes Khalidi’s background. In the 1970s, when the PLO was unquestionably a terrorist organization, Khalidi was the head of the PLO in Lebanon. While much of the press thought that he was a spokesmen for the PLO, Khalidi denies that, but says that the press just contacted him with questions. Of course they did; they thought he was the spokesman for the PLO. In any event, three things are evident:
1. Khalidi had access to the highest levels of the PLO.
2. Khalidi would have seen the Middle East in terms of Palestine v. Israel. (It was then.)
3. Khalidi would have seen the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in terms of wealthy Jews v impoverished Palestinians.
Given that Khalidi focused on the Palestine/Israel and the wealthy/impoverished issues, it is not surprising that Obama would adopt the same view of the world.
While that view of the world may have had some validity in 2001, it has long been out of date. Since its inception in 1948, Israel has had to face enemies that were trying to wipe it off the face of the earth. That was true in 1948, 1967, and 1973. It has remained the same at least since 2006, by which time it was Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas that sought to destroy Israel, this time to establish a Muslim theocracy that goes from the Jordan River to the Sea. This is an existential threat; together, the three have 150,000 missiles ready to fire at Israel, many of them with sufficient range to reach anywhere in the country. In contrast, the second intifada, which took place during the first decade of this century, was not. It was awful; over 1,000 Israelis, including many, many children, were killed, mostly by suicide bombers. Still, the second intifada, bad as it was, never threatened Israel’s existence. It just caused Israel to crack down harder on the West Bank.
All of which explains why Netanyahu and Obama had such different views of peace. It was like the blind man and the elephant. Obama, who had never defended anything militarily in his life, wanted to solve Israel’s peace problem by effecting an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu, who had spent an adult lifetime defending Israel militarily, understood that the real threat to Israel was Iran. In “My Promised Land, 630-31, Obama describes his early conversations with Netanyahu. He writes, “[Netanyahu] was most interested in talking about Iran, which he rightly views as Israel’s largest security threat, and we agreed to coordinate efforts to prohibit Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon. But when I raised the possibility of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians, he was decidedly noncommittal.”
Of course he was. He just could not make Obama understand that he was only interested in negotiations which would result in peace for Israel. (These are called “peace talks” after all.) Since that was not about to happen any time soon, the best that Israel could do is, once again, defend itself. The cluelessness of the Obama administration became evident when John Kerry, incredibly, publicly asked if Israel wanted another intifada. The answer to that question is, of course, no, but that isn’t really what Israel is worried about. Israel is worried about Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and their 150,000 missiles. Until the Democrats in Congress are able to shake themselves of Obama’s ghost and base their views on the current threat to Israel, they will be 20 years out of date.