May 23, 2011
Is Obama good or bad for Israel?
During this latest episode of the long-running Israel-America reality show – which began May 19 with President Barack Obama’s infamous “1967 lines” speech, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant response at the White House the next day, and, finally, Obama’s more conciliatory address at the AIPAC convention on May 22 — I vacillated between my emotional “Sephardi hothead” side and my calmer “Ashkenazi tachlis” side.
My Sephardi side was fuming at Obama for ambushing Bibi with his explosive “1967 lines” speech just before Bibi got on a plane to fly to Washington. Not a way to treat a guest and a friend. As for the 1967 lines, this was the first time that an American president had explicitly endorsed the green line as a basis to negotiate a border — another unwelcoming thought.
I was also fuming at the fact that Obama had asked Israel to take “bold” steps and make painful concessions without recognizing how often Israel has done so in the past and gotten burned, and without asking the Palestinians to take any equivalent steps, such as compromising on the right of return, which everyone knows is a deal-killer.
My Sephardi side also got upset at how Obama spent so little time on the biggest existential threat to the Jewish state and the real problem in the Middle East today: Iran and its terrorist proxies.
My Ashkenazi side, however, stayed calm and kept repeating these words: Business is business — what’s best for Israel? This made me confront the brutal reality that most of the world is against us, and Israel is holding a very crummy hand.
In a few months, for example, the U.N. General Assembly is expected to vote unanimously to recognize a Palestinian state along Israel’s “indefensible” 1967 borders. As a result, as Peter Beinart warned in The Daily Beast: “According to international law, Israel will be occupying a sovereign nation. The result will likely be a bonanza of lawsuits, divestment campaigns and cancelled business deals. Israelis will feel more and more besieged.” As if things weren’t bad enough already.
With this “tsunami” right around the corner, I couldn’t help but see President Obama in a different light.
Despite my misgivings, I had to recognize that Obama had said plenty of supportive things about Israel. As Ari Shavit summarized in Haaretz: “He blocked the Palestinian initiative to unilaterally establish a Palestinian state. He condemned the Palestinian effort to delegitimize Israel. He came out against Hamas. He did not demand a total and immediate freeze on settlement construction. He did not embrace the Arab peace initiative. He showed that he has internalized Israel’s security problems and defense concerns. Above all, he adopted the two main principles of Israel’s peace doctrine: Israel as a Jewish state and Palestine as a demilitarized state.”
Love him or hate him, that’s not a bad list. I said to myself: Here’s the most powerful man on earth, leading the most powerful nation on earth, and he’s saying he wants what’s best for Israel. OK, how do I get him totally on my side for the stormy days ahead?
Well, here’s the deal as I saw it: Israel accepts the formulation, “1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps,” and, in return, the most powerful man on earth backs us to the hilt and protects us against a hostile world.
Honestly, I don’t think I would have had the chutzpah to say no.
Instead, I probably would have given a diplomatic and qualified yes: “Israel accepts, as a starting point for negotiations, the president’s formulation of ‘1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps,’ provided this does not preclude secure borders and the retention of key settlement blocks.”
In addition to buying Israel some gratitude (and latitude), this would have given Obama more leverage to garner allies for Israel against the coming Palestinian onslaught at the U.N. and other international forums.
It would also have shifted the pressure onto the Palestinians. Just like the Palestinians used Obama’s “settlement freeze” to turn Israel into the main obstacle to peace, Israel could have used Obama’s anti-Hamas statement to turn the Palestinians into the main obstacle. Just like they made Israel squirm over settlements, we would have made them squirm over Hamas.
But by responding with an emphatic no, Bibi kept the spotlight squarely on Israel and missed an opportunity to turn the tables on the Palestinians.
It wouldn’t have cost us much to play along. Unlike the settlement freeze — which required 500,000 Jews to stop all construction — the latest American request only required Israel to say a qualified yes. Because the Palestinians are always saying no, this would expose them, rather than Israel, as the no people.
In any event, what Israel desperately needs right now is priceless: the unqualified support of the most powerful man on earth.
Seen in that light, it doesn’t matter if I think Obama is good or bad for Israel. What matters is that he’s really important for Israel — and I need him squarely on my side.
Like I said, business is business, whether you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi.