November 11, 2012
Washington Diary: Obama, go to Israel
President Barack Obama has many urgent issues on his desk as he enters his second term. His hard work begins now, having won the uphill battle against not just his rival, but also against the unemployment rate; the deficit; the slow economic recovery; and the overall pessimistic mood of the American electorate. He has his plate full with work at home, and work abroad. Naturally, as the political race heated up, the candidates were reluctant to talk about their plans for the world, pretending to only worry about “nation building here at home”, as the president defined it.
But world troubles have the tendency to chase American presidents into the Oval Office. Obama cannot escape the problem of Iran, and he cannot escape the problem of his unhealthy relations with the prime minister of Israel, and Israelis in general. Both issues were prominent in the Policy Forum at the Washington Institute that I attended Thursday. The title was "After the Election: Implications for U.S. Middle East Policy", and the room was so packed that only one of two conclusions can be drawn:
1. That many serious people realize that now, when the game of elections is over, it is time to go back and deal with the more consequential business of governing. Or…
2. That foreign policy issues have become so marginalized that the people still interested in them feel an urgent need to spend some time together, and that one packed room is enough for all of them.
I might discuss some of the issues raised at the Washington Institute later in the week, but would like to first refer to an idea I’ve been thinking about in the past week. In 2009, when Obama’s relations with the Israeli government had already soured, the president considered a move that was supposed to help him overcome his so-called “Israel problem”. He pondered a visit to Israel, as president, in which he would make a speech by way of clarifying his positions to the Israeli public. The idea behind such visit was simple: Obama has a problem with specific policies of a specific Israeli government. Maybe explaining himself in better terms to the Israeli public could make it clear to them that Obama was indeed a friend, not a foe; that his criticism of Israel’s policies was the criticism of a friend, not a foe.
When this speech was considered, I thought - and wrote – that this was a lousy idea. “Hey Obama, don’t waste your time giving a speech in Israel”, I wrote. But now I think the time has come: It is time for Obama to schedule a visit to Israel. It is time for him to address the many issues worrying Israelis – and Americans as well. It is time for him to put his “Israel problem” behind and start afresh. And of course, differences of opinion and interpretation aside, it is time for Israel to stop the nonsensical Obama-bashing.
For starters, it is time for both sides to do these things because no better option is available for either side. Obama was just elected for four more years, and if an Israeli leader did secretly entertain the hope of a Romney presidency (such a suspicion would not be preposterous), he now must contend with reality. Netanyahu, for his part, is likely to get reelected in two months or so for yet another term, and one would hope that Obama isn’t going to try and spoil his expected plans with an uncouth attempt to embolden Netanyahu’s rivals. Such an attempt is not likely to succeed, and is very likely to make Obama even more of a source of suspicion in the eyes of the majority of Israelis.
Obama gains nothing from his rocky relationship with Netanyahu and with Israel. Or, as Rob Satloff put it at the Policy Forum: “there is no advantage in having the next four years resemble the first two of Obama's previous term - a period marked by personal animosities between the two leaders that did not do justice to the depth of the bilateral strategic relationship”. Four years ago, the president might have entertained some hope that putting “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel would help Washington restore America’s standing in the Arab world, and ease some of the tensions that heightened during the Bush years and the wars in Afghanistan and - more so - in Iraq. But those days are over. The 2012 Arab world barely resembles the 2008 Arab world; it is a world in transition, mired in confusion and anger, apt to remain unstable for some time.
Obama rightly wants not to alienate the Arab world, but is unlikely to be able to achieve much by way of moving it toward stabilization and democracy. Battling Netanyahu, privately or publicly, will not get him not even one inch closer to making America safer, or to strategically better its position in the world. Standing with Israel in an hour of danger is the best way to keep Israel calm, thereby diminishing the chances of it becoming trigger-happy. Obama knows all of this, he says it, and he most probably means it.
He should go, not tomorrow or next week, but after Israel’s elections. He should go no matter who wins those elections. He should set a provisional time for such a visit, and before Israel goes to the polls. During the campaign, the fact that he did not visit Israel was unfairly used against him, as if this were a sign of unfriendliness – such a claim was never made against President Bush, who also didn’t visit Israel during his first term in office. So for Obama not to go while the campaign was raging was a sensible decision of a man not wanting to be seen as if the visit were some admission of guilt.
Going now though would be an act of strength and graciousness. An act worthy of a confident two-term leader.