Why Obama needs to show Israelis that he feels their pain

Following the most recent round of negotiations between the international community and the Islamic Republic in Baghdad on May 24-25, there appears to be little chance that a deal will be inked any time soon to resolve Iran’s deeply controversial nuclear enrichment question. Fears that the Iranians are playing for time, while drawing out negotiations so as to advance their nuclear enrichment, continue to simmer in Israel. Calls for a military strike are growing louder than before, as the closing of the “operational window of opportunity” draws closer. With the effectiveness of the sanctions appearing as a resounding question mark, discussions in Israel continue to abound regarding whether the American administration has their best interests at heart.

Since the election of President Barack Obama in late 2008, Israelis have held a deep uncertainty concerning his commitment to maintaining the Jewish State’s security. After experiencing eight years of an ambivalent yet seemingly supportive Bush administration, many in the Israeli street worried about an end to the operational freedom that they had enjoyed to fight against those who would challenge the security of the state. Left-leaning statements by Obama concerning the stalled peace process, and his speech in Cairo following his election, have led Israelis to wonder about the state of the historical special relationship between the two nations. The notion that Obama will opt to sign a deal with the Islamic Republic that ensures the flow of oil and meets US security needs — while throwing Israel under the bus — is rampant in discussions among policy wonks in the cafes of Tel Aviv.

Israelis will never place control of their security fully in the hands of another power. The Jewish psyche has been so traumatized by mistreatment throughout history that Jews will always have the need to be the masters of their own destiny, for better or worse. When the leader of a hostile country threatens to wipe them off the map, Israelis are apt to take it to heart. That said, this insecurity could be mitigated by concrete American assurances to come to Israel’s aid in the face of an existential threat.

Obama needs to channel a little from former president Bill Clinton and emulate a bit of President Anwar Sadat in order to win over Israelis — by satiating their need for empathy. Obama needs to show Israelis that he feels their pain of a nuclear war with an unencumbered Iran by pulling a play out of Sadat’s handbook and go to Jerusalem to speak directly to them. He needs to show them that he truly understands their fears. That means to show Israelis that he understands when they describe this as an existential issue as well as the Jewish perception of threats from history and will do all within his power to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout.

Should President Obama come to the Knesset, stand up on the podium and say to the Israeli and Jewish people, “I am not a sucker. I understand that Israel finds itself within range of a hostile regime that is on the brink of achieving one of the most terrifying weapons that humanity has ever known and it scares me. I, as President of the greatest power on earth, will do all that I can to keep Iran from going nuclear and will hold them to task in the negotiations to end this conflict peacefully while keeping the threat of force on the table should they stray from their obligations under the international treaties of which they are signatories,” he will likely find a much more receptive audience as well as a less bellicose-sounding Netanyahu government with which to contend. Global concerns over Israel’s anxiety have led to a growing fear that an over zealous Netanyahu might launch a preemptive assault on Iran in an attempt to stave off the nuclear threat.

Will this be enough to satisfy all of the hard liners in Israel? Obviously not. Are his Republican pro-Israel critics in the States going to automatically come over to his way of thinking? I doubt it. Is it going to resolve the differences between the administrations regarding the peace process? Highly unlikely and unfortunate. It will, however, go a long way in winning back the Israeli street which has been on a drift to the right in years past and make them more amenable to taking President Obama more seriously as he strives to minimize the threat being posed by an increasingly dangerous Iranian regime that seems bent on becoming a regional hegemon. If a presidential visit to Jerusalem were to succeed in these areas, lowering the possibility of a likely ineffective Israeli strike in the coming months in favor of a longer-term solution and serves to build confidence in the Israeli public, it should be well worth the trip.

About the Author
Gabi Avner is a security consultant, intelligence analyst, and writer living in Ramat Gan. Born and raised in the DC area, he has lived in Israel since 2003, serving in the Nachal, studying and working in security and education. Gabi is interested in politics, security, Brazilian Ju Jitsu and food.