March 21, 2013
Obama’s More Important Audience: Israel’s Neighbors
President Obama continues his celebrated first visit to Israel, by which he hopes to “repair” his occasionally contentious “relations with America’s primary Middle East ally”. Clearly, the Israeli public is Obama’s audience, and "his objective is to deliver a message to the Israeli people”. Thus, the main focus of the hundreds of reporters covering this visit has also been on the reception and responses Obama has been receiving from the Israeli public. That’s an understandable choice, but we mustn't forget that there are also some other- arguably more important- responses which need to be monitored just as closely: those of the Arab world.
Obama’s relationship with the Israeli government has been rocky at times, and his periodical tussles with Prime Minister Netanyahu have become a form of entertainment which both Americans and Israelis have learned to expect (and even enjoy) from time to time. Obama was often criticized by political rivals for not traveling to Israel during his first term as President and he is still often accused of not being strong enough in his support for Israel (and even of 'throwing Israel under the bus').
His administration – obviously – doesn't particularly appreciate all this criticism and has repeatedly iterated that Obama is one of the presidents most dedicated – if not the most dedicated – to enhancing Israel’s security and the cooperation between Israel and the US on security and intelligence matters.
Nevertheless, the Israeli public remains somewhat indifferent to the visit and skeptical about the Obama administration's continuous attempts to befriend it: as late as last week a mere 12% of Israelis believed that Obama has done enough to help Israel to deserve the coveted title of a “pro Israel” president.
However, the Israeli public's assessment of the contribution of the American president to its security is an issue of modest significance. Much more important is how Israel’s enemies view the state of the relations: The close US-Israel bond is an “inseparable part of Israel's deterrence”, as the newly appointed Justice Minister and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni recently described it. This alliance- according to Israel’s former Consul General in New York, Alon Pinkas- “has constituted the pillar of Israel’s deterrent power since the 1970s”. Indeed, when Richard Ullman, editor of Foreign Policy at the time, wrote an article in 1975 about the potential benefits of enhancing US-Israel defense ties, he specifically referred to the “signal to Israel’s neighbors that the forces behind Israel’s defense would be, in effect, inexhaustible”. Such deterrence reduces the threat of war because the enemy knows that Israel, assisted by a superpower, is undefeatable.
The way in which Israel’s neighbors interpret American-Israeli ties has a lot of impact not just on preventing wars but also when it comes to the advancement of peace. Back in 2009, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas calculated that negotiating with Israel is no longer a necessity for him. Looking at the deteriorating Obama-Netanyahu relationship, the Palestinian leader believed that he should just wait for Obama to force Netanyahu into submission.
Misinterpreting the signs Obama was sending and under-appreciating the rigidity of the US-Israel bond have led Abbas to miscalculation. “We both went up the tree”- Abbas later complained- “After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump”. Abbas rightly blamed Obama for sending him a message that he could not possibly understand. Abbas thought that the US is finally becoming less of an Israel-ally and more of a neutral mediator. Had he not received such a message, he wouldn’t have climbed up the ladder from which it was later difficult for him to climb down.
Had he been a keener reader of American polls, Abbas might have also avoided misinterpreting the president. Last Friday, Gallup registered the highest percentage of American support for Israel compared to the Palestinians since 1991. So, clearly, the American public has no desire for its president to be less staunch in his support for Israel. Besides, the president has never stopped explaining that the US-Israel bond is “unbreakable” and has never stopped adding even more muscle to the US’ commitment to enhancing Israel’s security. Obviously, though, Obama wasn't clear enough in the past: Israelis weren’t convinced, Palestinians didn’t get the message, and, possibly, other neighbors might still have doubts as well.
That’s why the more important response to Obama’s message of support for Israel is not that of the Israeli public. If Israelis fail to grasp Obama’s commitment the visit will not be seen as a great success; but the real danger is that Israel’s neighbors will remain unconvinced about Obama’s true intentions. If they think that Israel is more alone when Obama is in power than it is when other presidents occupy the White House, then they might decide to seize the opportunity and strike sooner rather than later. Obama’s embrace of Israel will hopefully convince them that such an opportunity isn’t there.
That being said, yesterday's press conference, from which it was clear that Israel and the US still don't see eye-to-eye about the Iranian threat, once again makes Obama's message a bit more inconclusive and makes it all the more critical to monitor the Arab response.