This article is a translation of an article I published in Maariv Daily last Thursday (Hebrew):
Here's an interesting way to examine the updated attitude of the Israeli public to President Obama: Are you looking at his trouble and rubbing your hands with an amused satisfaction – or are you following with a sense of compassion and concern? For several weeks the American President has been on the defensive, his administration is busy with putting down fire after fire. They put down one fire, and another comes along.
Two years ago, it was clear what the leaders of Israel and its citizens would feel if they faced such a political reality: they’d feel hopeful- hopeful that the fires might be an indication of an American leadership turnover. But now that Obama is in the midst of his second term – i.e. he is not going anywhere- and following Obama's presidential visit to Israel that made the public realize he is much more friendly than they thought before, it’s more complicated to asses whether Israelis should rejoice in the President’s troubles, or be sorry about them?
Two weeks ago, the prestigious Pew center identified a significant increase this year, compared with previous years, in the level of “trust” of the Israeli public in the American president. In 2009, 56% were trustful of him, in 2011 there was a drop to 49%, and this year the level of trust peaked at 61%.
But looking at a weakened U.S. government, the question for Israelis goes far beyond the personal issue of trust in Obama. It touches the core: what's better for Israel, a weak or a strong president? What’s better for it, an administration freer to pursue its policies, policies that aren’t always compatible with Israel’s, or maybe an administration that has to turn its attention elsewhere?
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Israel this week, and is still busy with his rigorous feasibility-check of the prospect of resuming negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He came to Israel, leaving behind one of the fires mentioned above- the Benghazi fire. Kerry got a line of credit from the president for his Israeli-Palestinian dalliances, but the credit is not unlimited.
A defensive President doesn’t look for conflicts, and if Obama senses that the Kerry initiative is leading towards confrontation he is likely to neutralize it; On the other hand, the President's hands are tied with domestic issues - and are likely to remain tied until the end of his term, as the prospects for his party to win a majority in Congress diminish with every scandal – so he might be tempted to opt for foreign policy activism; But Israel also has to remember that a weak president does not look too intimidating to America's enemies, such as Iran (which is against Israel’s interest).
But then again, if Obama isn’t intimidating this means that he is also less intimidating when it comes to Israel’s policies; and maybe the president would actually want to strengthen his weak muscles by acting against Iran; but would Israelis believe such a scenario is possible when the President is Obama? Does anyone believe that Obama is going to use force against Iran having seen what we’ve seen in Syria?
Israel's dependence on American support is clear, and therefore Israel has a vested long term interest in a strong America. But even in this context it is difficult to identify Israel’s short-term interests. There are those who’d say that a weaker Obama means a weaker America, which means a weaker ally to rely of for Israel. And there are those who see Obama as a president whose term is weakening America, and hence would be willing to pay a short-term price of a weaker U.S. assuming that in the long term the lessons learned during the Obama years will lead America back to strength.
In any case, the test of current Israeli attitudes toward Obama is not a test for the President and his policies, but rather a test of the Israeli observer, be it a citizen or a leader. Are we really able to trust this President, or maybe at this moment of truth we are tempted by the malicious joy of gloating?