Friday, May 22, 2009

By Request: Is Obama Trouble for Israel?

This article was brought to my attention by an "anonymous friend" (who should feel free to send me an e-mail if they'd like) interested in my opinion.

In short, this editorial on the YNet website suggests that for a number of reasons Barak Obama is trouble for Israel. Amongst the dangers Obama supposedly represents are engagement with the Muslim world at Israel's expense, disassociation of the US from Israeli policy or support thereof, and that Obama is choosing to visit Cairo for his speech to the Arab/Muslim world without even a stopover in Israel.

It's true that the US is charting a new course in its policy in the middle east, namely engagement with the Arab world for purposes other than purchasing petroleum. Obama seems to be hoping for a return to a policy that recognizes a value in the African adage, adopted by Roosevelt "speak softly and carry a big stick." The US has the capability to exert itself pretty much anywhere in the world not only through its military, but also its economy, and its diplomatic influence. This is no secret. Nobody from the US, however, seems to have tried actually talking to the so called "Arab street," to the millions upon millions of Muslims and Arabs some/many of whom deeply resent the US and are the source of very real security threats to the US and its interests.

The success of this outreach will likely have much to do with what exactly Obama wants to say to the Arab world and the content of his comments remain unclear as the speech is still being drafted. One thing it may contain, aside from US middle eastern policy is his view of a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, though this is not meant to be the focus of the speech and it is being played down. It is also likely to repeat Obama's statements in Turkey that "...the concerns of most Muslims are the same as most Americans and that they have a joint interest in defeating extremist ideologies." It seems a stretch to contrue this message as harmful. Perhaps it could serve as a wake up call to moderates in the Arab/Muslim world to become more active and reply to those who criticize their silence with action.

No matter what Obama says in his speech though, and despite some of the differences in opinion between him and Netanyahu it seems a far cry to suggest that the US is going to end its support for Israel. Indeed Obama says just the opposite. In his public comments after his meeting with Netanyahu Obama referred to the special relationship between Israel and the US and said that "...that Israel's security is paramount, and...It is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel's security as an independent Jewish state is maintained." In response, Netanyahu called Obama not only a great personal friend but a great friend of Israel. None of this suggests a negative impact on US-Israeli relations. Even if one were to try to read between the lines the interpretation is even more favorable to Israel as the US president has equated Israeli security with the security of his own state and has qualified--significantly--that this security has a Jewish character to it. This language makes the ominous predictions in the YNet editorial seem overly alarmist and unfounded.

As for differences in opinion between Israel and the US: a tempest in a teacup. States often disagree (and it is difficult to characterize the comments by Netanyhau and Obama as a disagreement), even over important issues and especially in the case of negotiations where one state (Israel) seeks to maximize it's "winnings" in any settlement and the other seeks to "award" less. I would expect a Palestinian leader to make comments of similar resolve to those of Netanyahu. The adoption of different positions on an issue does not jeopardize close diplomatic, economic, military, cultural and ideological ties between states. See, for example, Canada's decision not to participate in the war in Iraq. Canada-US and Canada-Anglo relations were not overly strained by Canada's refusal to join the war.

Indeed, it is probably in Israel's interests for the United States to have an improved image in the Arab world. Beginning with the premise that Obama's and Netanyahu's comments are sincere and that the US has Israel's security as an independent Jewish state at heart then Israel would want such an ally to mediate negotiations. The other party will need to have equal trust in such a negotiator. If Obama can instill such trust through his outreach a win-win-win situation is created. Israel wins a party with its interests at heart as a mutually acceptable honest broker. Palestinians (for example) win by knowing that the mediator is sensitive to their interests and can be trusted not to betray them and to be even handed and the US wins by "saving the day" with a peace agreement and germinating stability in the region.

The YNet article is overly alarmist and cites benign reasons for which to be afraid of Obama and his policies. Obama merely wishes to speak to people who have never been addressed in this way by a US leader. He is not 'kowtowing' to them. He is not making and concessions to them, he's merely speaking. This messaging is in US interests (which Obama ought to place first) and little to no evidence is provided that should convince a reader that the US will "sell Israel short" or open a rift between the two countries. Indeed, many of the words spoken by Obama and Netanyahu lead to just the opposite conclusion.


Nobody said...

Obama scares the Arabs just as well with his Iran's engagement. Probably the most correct way to describe Obama is an innocent abroad, as one Jpost contributor put it. He also very nicely summarizes it all:

It seems more likely, however, that the president remains enthralled by the sunny illusions of the peace process of the 1990s, and is about to give them another run around the block. He has four years to follow the well-trodden path from innocence to experience. The problem is that further afield, there are other, more urgent clocks ticking.

Charlie H. Ettinson said...

Thanks for the comment and the link.

I agree with the point made in the article you linked to that making peace with "the Palestinians" is not as simple as adhering to the Arab plan, or the Road Map or whatever else these plans are called.

The Hamas-Fatah rift and the possibility that an agreement with the authorities in the west bank could be rejected by those in Gaza (or Damascus) and turn the strip into a Middle Eastern Taiwan is frightening.

Obama may well be an innocent abroad and his strategies may be somewhat naive, however, I don't think the same can be said of his entourage. Especially on issues like the Middle East, where Obama is being advised by people like Emanuel, Clinton, Mitchell and others. My hope is that Obama will try his strategy, but that these experienced individuals around him will have his ear and know when to tell him to try something different.

Anonymous said...

Hello Charlie,

The first comment in this string is not mine....

I left another comment (much longer) but doesn't appear (second time it happens).

A friend.

Steve Lieblich said...

Here's your answer: