Jewish Journal


January 15, 2013

So, Obama says Israel doesn’t know its own interests…



Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama meeting at the White House, March 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

The Israeli press – and some Americans – became apoplectic over a nugget of trivia exposed by the indefatigable and indispensable Jeffrey Goldberg: When informed about the Israeli decision to build in E1, "Obama, who has a famously contentious relationship with the prime minister, didn’t even bother getting angry. He told several people that this sort of behavior on Netanyahu’s part is what he has come to expect, and he suggested that he has become inured to what he sees as self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart".

E1 was a hasty and unnecessary decision, and Israel is one week from elections, which might be the reason for this overreaction. But that Obama says that "Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are” is hardly a surprise. It is also hardly a genuine expression of Obama's frustrations – it is not Israeli "interests" that the president has in mind (nor should he). Obama doesn't like Israel's policies because they don't fit with his worldview and with his ideals and with his plans for the Middle East and with his understanding of what's best for America.

Obama might be right or wrong – depends on one's worldview – this post isn't about the question of whether settlements are good or bad for Israel, whether the two-state solution is an option that Israel should still pursue or not. Whatever one might think about the validity of the president's positions, there's nothing new about this recent airing of grievances on his part. The meaning of having differences with the Netanyahu government all along is exactly that: Obama believes that Netanyahu's policies are wrong, and Netanyahu believes Obama's policies are wrong. They don't see things eye to eye.

I'd assume that one can attribute similar quotes to Netanyahu, only turn the subject on its head, and the result isn't going to be far from real-life expressions: "This sort of behavior on Obama's part is what he has come to expect", could fit Netanyahu's behind-closed-doors reaction to the Hagel appointment; "self-defeating policies of his American counterpart" could work nicely about any indication of American hesitation regarding Iran, or any a hint of another American attempt to jumpstart peace negotiations by pressuring Israel on settlements; "America doesn’t know what its own best interests are" is probably what Netanyahu felt the night Obama was reelected.

Thus, there's nothing utterly surprising or out of the ordinary about the Obama quotes – they are little more than juicy gossip, and the kind of gossip that one would expect. The far more significant feature of Goldberg's article is this one: "it is in terms of American diplomatic protection - among the Europeans and especially at the UN - that Israel may one day soon notice a significant shift". Goldberg writes that it wouldn't surprise him if a UN vote inconvenient to Israel should arise again, "Israel may find itself even lonelier". No quote is attached to this prediction, hence we don't know if this is mere speculation based on Goldberg's reading of White House mood or maybe an actual piece of news - namely, someone in the WH told him that there will be such a next time, and that a decision to abandon Israel come the next vote has been made.

There are demands supposedly made by Obama through this article: for "Netanyahu to acknowledge that a two-state solution represents the best chance of preserving the country as a Jewish-majority democracy". Alas, Netanyahu came fairly close in the so called Bar-Ilan speech: "We do not want to rule over them, we do not want to govern their lives, we do not want to impose either our flag or our culture on them. In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect. Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other".

The truth must be told: Obama will gain nothing from another such an "acknowledgment" – or an even more specific one - since he doesn't believe Netanyahu's words anyway, and doesn't think even Netanyahu believes his own words when he talks about the two-state solution. In other words: Obama doesn't want Netanyahu to publicly confirm that he is wrong, what he wants is for Netanyahu – and Israel – to abide by Obama's priorities and policies. And he might have decided to use UN-related coercive means to achieve such goal.

And yes, it is probably easier for the president, and is surely easier for his Jewish American supporters, to believe that Israel would eventually benefit from such a presidential approach. Hence, all this talk about Israel that "doesn't know its own interests" – a talk the only aim of which is to sanitize the coming coercive action (if it is coming – I'm not yet convinced). But this is all hogwash: Obama won’t do it because he thinks that he better understands the "Israeli interest". If he does it, it's because he believes that American interests are at stake – American interests that might even contradict Israel's interests.    

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