Obama’s Israel trust gap

It's true that by the second half of his tenure, the president’s approach toward Israel seemed to evolve, but it was never clear that his basic thinking had changed

Among the famed undecided in next week’s elections are American Jewish voters for whom the security of Israel is of supreme importance. These voters are skeptical of a discourse in the pro-Israel right that has veered toward demonization of the president. They are distressed that unlike his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, this president (to invoke a Yiddish expression) “doesn’t feel Israel in his kishkes” — that is to say, viscerally, in his guts. Perhaps that is why Mr. Obama not only overwhelmingly failed to win the trust of the Israeli public, but – worse still – he never even tried.

While the president’s supporters lambasted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “going over his head” to speak to the American public (as he did with his address to Congress in May 2011), they seem to be unaware that the opposite scenario is exactly what the Israeli public desires. Israelis crave the attention and concern of a sitting American president.

The result has been a lack of trust between the US and Israel as they seek to confront the threat of the Iranian nuclear program. “I think the trust between Israel and the United States is absolutely essential and it’s not at the level that I would like to see,” Stuart Eizenstat, former US ambassador to the EU, lamented in an interview with The Times of Israel this summer.

Two instances during Obama’s presidency contributed to this “trust gap.” The first was the June 2009 Cairo speech, in which he drew a rather egregious parallel between the Holocaust and the fate of many Palestinians after the 1948 War of Independence. The second was his May 2011 speech at the State Department in which he spoke about “the 1967 lines.” While some pundits claimed that the speech was no different from a December 2010 joint statement issued by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu, this contention doesn’t hold water. The joint statement refers to borders along “the 1967 lines” as a “Palestinian goal,” whereas the State Department speech does not.

What these two speeches suggest is that Obama’s policy toward Israel is deeply rooted in the flawed perspective of a small cohort of Chicago Jews, most notably the controversial Rabbi Arnold Wolf, that he imbibed early on in his political career.

A modern-day Jonah? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)
A modern-day Jonah? (illustration: Arie Katz/The Times of Israel)

It is true that by the second half of his tenure, the president’s approach toward Israel seemed to evolve (in part due to pressure from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch). The speech he gave at the UN General Assembly in September 2011 diminished the distance between his Israel policy and that of his two immediate predecessors, Bush and Clinton.

Yet it was never clear that Obama’s basic thinking had changed, even if his behavior had. In this way, the president comes off looking like a character who will be familiar to many Jews, and Christians: the Biblical figure Jonah.

In the Bible, Jonah resists God’s command to go to the ancient city of Nineveh to urge the inhabitants to quit their wicked ways. Instead, he flees and boards a ship; a storm ensues, and his shipmates toss him into the sea where he is swallowed by a whale. After the whale ejects him, he finally goes to Nineveh to encourage them to repent. Jonah is, however, ultimately left as distraught as he was at the beginning of the story. (He had wanted God to punish the sinners, not take mercy on them.)

Jonah changed his behavior (he finally went to Nineveh) without changing his mind (he thinks divine justice should always trump divine mercy). The same could be argued about the president: His behavior toward Israel has changed, but his mindset regarding Israel is the same.

Supporters of the president know this concerns many undecided American Jews. Still, they maintain, the difference between the two candidates on America’s Israel policy is marginal.

Recently, Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi compared the current stand-off with Iran to “the terrible weeks of May 1967.” Undecided Jewish voters in Ohio may seriously wonder whether, at such a crucial moment for Israel, a marginal difference – if that’s what it actually is – might just make a world of difference for Israel’s future.

About the Author
Matt Abelson is a Conservative Rabbi living in Somerville, MA.