Obama’s Israel Problem

It is one of diplomacy’s worst kept secrets that Israel’s prime minister does not like America’s president, nor does the president like him. But after Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise deal establishing a national unity government, giving him more power to govern and negotiate than any recent Israeli leader, he knows he no longer has to worry about the depth of Barack Obama’s commitment to Israel.

White House officials are puzzled why Netanyahu, and many other Israelis, had to worry at all. At the drop of a hat, they are prepared to tick off Obama’s contributions to Israel’s defense. No president, they state with pride, has done more for Israel’s security than Barack Obama. No president has provided more intelligence, more sophisticated weaponry, both offensive and defensive, than Obama. No president has protected Israel’s back at the UN, and at other international organizations, more effectively than Obama. No president has spent more time talking to a foreign leader than Obama has to Natanyahu—in person and on the phone.

All of which is true, confirmed by American and Israeli officials. Never before have contacts between Washington and Jerusalem been as close, as frequent, as collaborative as they have been in recent years. Whether the issue be Iran’s nuclear program, Egypt’s political upheaval or Palestinian uncertainties about the “peace process,” the United States and Israel are described as singing from the same sheet of music, their strategic visions in perfect harmony, even if there are still small tactical differences between them.

Furthermore, Obama could not possibly have been clearer about his support for a strong and independent Israel. “Our ironclad commitment—and I mean ironclad—to Israel’s security,” he stressed in his State of the Union address, “has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.”

And yet, Israelis still feel uncomfortable with Barack Obama as president of the United States. They still wonder whether, in a secret corner of his heart, he feels a greater sympathy for the Arabs than for them. It almost seems as if the Israelis cannot accept Obama’s frequent pledges of an “ironclad commitment” to their security, as if he has been making such a pledge only for political reasons, his eyes fixed on the upcoming November elections.

Talk to Israelis, as I have had the benefit of doing in recent days. Press them for a logical explanation of their concerns. Roughly, this is what they say.

Obama is an intellectual, who happens to be a politician. He understands the Israelis and their security concerns, but only, it seems, from an intellectual point of view. He does not “feel” Israel. Proof, the Israelis stress, is the president’s naïve, foolish and totally non-productive insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank.

Another reason: when, early in his administration, he was in Cairo to deliver a major address on his approach to the Arab world, he chose not to make the short hop to Jerusalem and explain his approach to the Jewish world. He still has not traveled to Israel, though he has been just about everywhere else. (White House officials, present and former, say no other American president has visited Israel in his first term except Bill Clinton, and he went there primarily to honor the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.)

Still another reason: although statesmen are supposed to base their policies on the national security interests of their countries, these two statesmen have allowed personality differences to influence their attitudes. Netanyahu has been caught lecturing Obama on Jewish history, as though Obama knew nothing about the Holocaust. Insulting?

Trust, the essential ingredient in any close relationship—clearly, the Israelis do not trust Obama any more than he trusts them, but they both know they need each other, especially in the volatile aftermath of the Arab upheaval of last year.

In recent months, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has shuttled between Washington and Jerusalem, sharing intelligence and impressions about the ongoing Iranian nuclear program. As a result, both sides agree that they intend to stop the Iranians from building a nuclear bomb. If there is any difference between them, it is in Israel’s belief that Iran can build a bomb within months. The United States thinks it will take a bit longer. Another small difference is that Israel believes nothing positive will come of the current negotiation with Iran; the United States is a touch more hopeful.

What is clear is that both the United States and Israel have been preparing for a military strike against Iran, although both are hoping it will not be necessary. Will Israel attack first? Will there be a joint attack? Will an attack come before or after national elections in the United States this November? Whatever concerns Israel may harbor about Obama, the military planning in both countries continues. Netanyahu’s latest political deal puts him in a powerful position to act unilaterally, if he feels he cannot depend on Obama, who is politically vulnerable. The clock is ticking, more loudly with each week and month.