Coming after Netanyahu calling Emanuel and Axelrod both “self-hating Jews,” the latest salvo from another prominent Israeli is not as insulting, but certainly as obtuse. Ignoring that Pres. Obama has already met with PM Netanyahu, Mr. Benn’s argument today sounds alarmingly like a spoiled brat having a tantrum.
So far, Israelis have embraced Mr. Netanyahu’s message. A Jerusalem Post poll of Israeli Jews last month indicated that only 6 percent of those surveyed considered the Obama administration to be pro-Israel, while 50 percent said that its policies are more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli. Less scientifically: Israeli rightists have — in columns, articles and public statements — taken to calling the president by his middle name, Hussein, as proof of his pro-Arab tendencies.
“More pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel” because Pres. Obama has put a condition of no new settlements in Israel. To give you an idea how outlandish the Netanyahu response has been to Obama’s U.S. policy, look no further than his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who demanded a photo of a prominent Palestinian leader sitting with Hitler be distributed to embassies after the latest clash over another settlement. Allan Dershowitz, as if on cue, used the opportunity to take to a new slanderous low, even for him. A little coordinated incitement, Allan? What Matt Duss wrote.
Now comes Aluf Benn, the editor at large of Haaretz, whose op-ed in the New York Times today illustrates just how counterproductive U.S. policy has been in the Middle East throughout the Bush-Cheney years. Mr. Benn is opining and moaning about Obama not personally talking to Israel. It matters not to the Israelis that Obama met with Netanyahu, or how many envoys have been in their country. They want Obama to change what he’s said and speak to them directly to tell them so. Given the breadth and lack of common ground revolving around the settlement issue, it’s a good thing he has not.
What went wrong? Several explanations come to mind.
First, in the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention. Memories of State Department “Arabists” leading American policy in the Middle East were erased. The White House coordinated its policy with Jerusalem, and stayed out of the way when Israel embarked on controversial military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza. This approach infuriated America’s Arab and European allies, which blamed Washington for one-sidedness — something they were willing to forgive of Bill Clinton but not of George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama came to office determined to repair America’s broken alliances in Europe and the Middle East. One way to do this — to prove that he was the opposite of his predecessor — was to place some distance between Israel and himself.
To say that we “stayed out of the way” when Israel laid waste to parts of Lebanon in 2006 is a joke. Bush rushed weapons to Israel’s side. This disastrous war also infuriated many Americans (myself included, writing about it extensively), but also including Jewish Americans, which brings me to another point from Benn’s op-ed.
Third, Mr. Obama seems to have confused American Jews with Israelis.
On the contrary. Israelis like Mr. Benn seem to have confused Obama’s job with doing whatever Israelis want, even when his own constituents support his current policy. Mr. Benn obviously believes in the theory of continuing to do the same thing through policies that haven’t worked hoping for a different result.
It’s called madness.
Mr. Obama’s stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial, immediately after his Cairo speech, appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel. Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle — not guilt over the Holocaust — brought Jews a homeland. Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
I mean, really. But if you think that’s bad…
Fourth, as far as most Israelis are concerned, Mr. Obama has made a mistake in focusing on a settlement freeze. For starters, mainstream Israelis 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.
More important: in the past decade, repeated peace negotiations and diplomatic statements have indicated that larger, closer-to-home settlements (the “settlement blocs”) will remain in Israeli hands under any two-state solution. Why, then, insist on a total freeze everywhere? And why deny with such force — as the administration did — the existence of previous understandings between the United States and Israel over limited settlement construction? There is simply too much evidence proving that such an understanding existed. To Israelis, the claim undermined Mr. Obama’s credibility — and strengthened Mr. Netanyahu’s position.
Inside Israel, Netanyahu’s position may be stronger than before. If Obama’s credibility inside Israel has been “undermined,” it’s because people like Mr. Benn refuse to see the Palestinian side of this story. That’s what’s been wrong with the push for “peace,” what we call equilibrium around here, for a very long time. No one has been willing to stand in the middle and look both ways.
There are two sides to the story on a two-state solution. Settlements are a line in the sand that Obama has drawn, which has broad support, though not in Israel. Obama’s already talked to Netanyahu when he was in Washington, laying this out. The ball is actually in your court, Mr. Benn.
UPDATE: Obama officials respond to Benn’s article via Jeffrey Goldberg. The Administration’s responses are dead on and illustrate just how petulant Benn and other Israelis in that camp are being. Obama will at some point talk to Israel, of which no one should doubt. But the groundwork being laid by his envoys is also providing him invaluable information on where he can go and what he should focus on and how it should be said.
These two senior officials — sorry, those were the ground rules — made the plausible argument that the Cairo speech was, in fact, directed at Israelis as much as it was directed at Arabs. “The President went before a Cairo audience in a speech co-sponsored by Al-Azhar with Muslim Brotherhood members in the audience and spoke of America’s strong, unshakable support for Israel,” one of the officials said. “He could have gone to a million different venues to say this, but he went to Cairo, and it wasn’t exactly an applause line. Isn’t it more important to say this to the Muslim world than it is to say it to an audience of Israelis or American Jews?”
These two officials pointed out something that I forgot about the speech, which is that it contained strong condemnations of the cynical Arab ploy to use the Palestinian issue as a diversion (in other words, to keep the focus of unhappy Arabs on Israel and not on the weaknesses of their own anti-democratic, corrupt governments), and of course it contained an unequivocal denunciation of terrorism committed in the name of resistance.