Advice to Obama on Israel

Posted on July 28, 2009 In Blog

Now that there’s not only anecdotal evidence, but hard data (a newly released Pew Trusts survey showing that, “Israel [is]… the only public among the 25 surveyed where the current U.S. rating is lower than in past surveys” that Israelis across the board view President Obama unfavorably, thus freezing the President’s Mideast initiatives, the advice and counsel from an array of pundits is starting to flow.

Yossi Klein Halevi offers six ways Obama can regain Israeli trust in The New Republic while Haaretz’s Aluf Benn urges that Obama make a grand speech to Israelis directly.

These two essays are probably a representative sampling of all the other advice that will flood the op ed pages (and, for the well connected, White House and Capitol Hill email inboxes).Thus, comparing them is a useful exercise (especially if people inside The White House are reading them) because they highlight underlying agendas which Obama must be wary of.

In particular, while Aluf Benn’s analysis of “what went wrong” in the U.S.-Israel dynamic over the past six months, he belies the agenda of his homebase – Haaretz – which is passionately anti-Netanyahu with his prescription for the President. The Haaretz cafe crowd who, in Benn’s words, “rarely have anything to do with the settlements; many have no idea where they are, even when they’re a half-hour’s drive from Tel Aviv” are despondent that Netanyahu is in power, with the Labor Party in his coalition, and has majority support. Thus, as Benn says: Obama “has failed even to stir debate about the merits of one: no Israeli political figure has stood up to Mr. Netanyahu and begged him to support Mr. Obama; not even the Israeli left, desperate for a new agenda, has adopted Mr. Obama as its icon.”

So, Benn’s advice to Obama is not to change his policies, but to make a speech in Israel and explain them better so that, presumably, the Israeli Left will be able to take on Netanyahu. In other words, they are asking for a sequel to what President Clinton did when he unsubtly intervened in Israeli politics and forced the fall of Netanyahu’s first tenure as premier.

In contrast, Klein-Halevi suggests concrete steps in diplomacy and policy that President Obama should undertake. These steps would forge a working relationship between the U.S. and Israeli governments and resonate with the Israeli populace too. Some are rhetorical (Halevi: “In his Cairo speech, Obama rightly noted that the key obstacle on the Arab side toward making peace is the ongoing refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist. Crucially, he has made clear that he intends to carry the issue of Israel’s legitimacy into his dialogue with the Muslim world. This presents an unprecedented opportunity for Muslims to hear Israel’s case. So far, though, the president has failed to make it. By referring only to the Holocaust, and ignoring the historical Jewish attachment to the land of Israel, the president has inadvertently reinforced Muslim misconceptions regarding Jewish indigenousness. The Holocaust helps explain why Israel fights, not why Israel exists. It doesn’t explain why thousands of Ethiopian Jews walked across jungle and desert to reach Zion;”) but others are substantive (Halevi: *”*Make clear that renewing the peace process requires simultaneous Israeli and Arab concessions….Reaffirm the Israeli status of the settlement blocs in a future agreement.”)

President Obama is a gifted orator and speeches are a key tool
for how he advances his agenda. But presidents don’t just make speeches, they implement policy – and that will be the key metric by which the Obama Administration will be measured by Israelis and their allies should the President seek a new start in his still-new relationship with Israel.