President Obama leaves Saturday for a three-day trip to Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. On the way home he should stop in another Asian country, Israel. It's a trip he should have made early in his first term and is long overdue.
The timing is good. He just won a decisive election victory that the Israeli prime minister tried very hard to prevent, and this would be a good time to have a heart-to-heart with him and the Israeli people about his view of where the bilateral relationship is headed over the next four years.
As soon as Benjamin Netanyahu recovered from the shock that his preferred candidate lost the election, the prime minister congratulated Barack Obama and told U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro, "I look forward to working with him to advance our goals of peace and security."
Does he really believe that after four years of sniping and trying to undermine this president and working for his defeat that Obama believes him or trusts him now? Especially since on the day before the American election Netanyahu announced he didn't need American permission to strike Iran (as if anyone said he did), and that he was going ahead with the construction of 1,200 new homes in settlement neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that he knew would upset Washington and only strengthen the Palestinian case at the United Nations where he is depending on Obama to try to block the PA's bid for membership later this month.
Netanyahu was one of the big losers in this election, and elections have consequences.
He has a long history of not being able to get along with Democratic presidents and collaborating with the Republican opposition to undermine them. It will take more than the kind of platitudes he delivered to Amb. Shapiro last week if Netanyahu is serious about repairing the damage.
The Republicans ran a very vigorous anti-Obama campaign in the Jewish community, largely fueled by Netanyahu's friend and financial backer Sheldon Adelson, accusing the president of not affording the prime minister the deference and policy support they felt he deserved.
They got it backwards. The relationship is a two-way street, but one side of the street has wider lanes than the other. So much of Israel's security, financial, diplomatic and political well being depend on its relationship with the United States, and when there is a prime minister in Jerusalem with a reputation for undermining that relationship, meddling in the American election and losing the trust and respect of the American president, the question has to be asked: is he a fit steward for this important alliance?
It was no secret that Netanyahu preferred Mitt Romney, and the PM did nothing to stop Republicans from using his image and speeches in their anti-Obama ads.
One Likud leader in Knesset, Danny Danon, a longtime bitter critic of Obama who came to the United States this year to encourage the president's opponents, greeted his reelection by admonishing Obama to cease trying to "endanger" Israel and "return" to the policy of "zero daylight" between the two allies.
He clearly does not understand that it is not the duty of the American president to march in lock step with the Israeli government regardless of its policies. America is more than Israel's best (and often only) friend; it is its arsenal, its financial backer, its political and diplomatic bulwark. There are good reasons the Israeli people expect their leaders to protect the American relationship and not undermine it.
The bad news for Netanyahu in this election is not just that he and his billionaire buddy Adelson backed the wrong horse. There was a small uptick in Jewish votes for Republicans to a level not seen since the 1980s, but it had no impact on the outcome of the election. It showed once again, to the consternation of the GOP, Jews are not one issue voters. With Jews giving Obama some 70 percent of their votes and telling pollsters Israel is not a top priority or a determinative issue in casting their ballots, the President has some new room for maneuver in the Middle East -- if he plays it smart.
That starts with an early trip to Israel to reassure voters in person of his continuing "unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security," his determination to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions and his readiness to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace when they are ready. It should be an opportunity for him also to share his vision of the Middle East and America's role in it over the next four years. He shouldn't tell Israelis how to vote or that he feels their prime minister has mismanaged the American portfolio for the past four years. That is a decision for the Israelis themselves.
On January 22, the day after Obama is to be sworn in for his second term, Israelis will go to the polls to elect a new government, hopefully it will be one that understands the value of the American relationship, one that can work with the American administration and not against it, regain the confidence and trust of the President of the United States and work to repair the damage done to Israel's international stature over the past four years.
One of the reasons aides said Obama did not visit Israel during the past four years is that he didn't want to bolster Netanyahu, who he felt was trying to undercut administration policies. That was a mistake. The reality was that Obama's failure to visit actually bolstered and emboldened Netanyahu, Adelson and the Republicans to go after him.
There is no excuse for further delay. A presidential trip to Israel is long overdue, and the sooner he goes the better.
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