Jeffrey Goldberg, a highly influential American journalist with close ties to President Barack Obama, told Haaretz he believes Obama will use his visit this week to prepare Israeli public opinion for a renewed challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy toward the Palestinians.
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"In his own way he will do his best to tell you: I love you. I get what you are and I admire what you've done. Obama will thereby create the space that will enable him to combat Israeli policy that seems wrong to him and in his estimation jeopardizes Israel's future and also hurts the United States," Goldberg said. "The Obama of the first term did not come to Israel and demanded a settlement freeze. The Obama of the second term is coming to Israel so he could be in the position to demand a settlement freeze in the future."
A staff writer for The Atlantic, Goldberg, who immigrated to Israel as a young adult and served in the Israel Defense Forces, is seen in Washington as an unparalleled authority when it comes to the relations between the United States, its president, the Jews and the Jewish state. A moment before he boarded a plane this week to Israel, Goldberg explained to Haaretz why Barack Obama is coming here on Wednesday and what may be the ramifications of the visit.
Jeff Goldberg, you know President Obama well. From his standpoint, why Israel? Why now?
"The president got very tired of the recurrent criticism over not having gone to Israel during his first term. He was fed up with hearing the false allegation that he doesn't like Israel, or is indifferent toward Israel, or even hostile to Israel.
Therefore, when his staff discussed the presidential travel plans for 2013, the president himself was the one who put Israel at the top of the list. [Mitt] Romney said that his first presidential trip would be to Israel. Obama is making good on Romney's campaign promise.
"He is thereby also correcting the mistaken impression that was created in the Cairo speech when he tied the justification for Israel's existence to the Holocaust. He is going to visit the Shrine of the Book and see the Dead Sea Scrolls to acknowledge the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. He will pay a visit to Herzl's grave to acknowledge that Herzl was right and that Zionism is a just cause. He will tell Israelis that he identifies with their basic story."
The big question is whether Obama is really coming to make love to us or to make war.
"First love and then war. President Obama listened carefully to the things President Clinton told him. I believe he now understands that the Israelis are a damaged, lonely and neurotic people who face genuine threats to their existence, so they need love badly. Obama won't embrace you the way that Clinton embraced you because he isn't Clinton and he doesn't embrace anyone. But in his own way he will do his best to tell you: I love you. I get what you are and I admire what you've done. Obama will thereby create the space that will enable him to combat Israeli policy that seems wrong to him and in his estimation jeopardizes Israel's future and also hurts the United States.
"The Obama of the first term did not come to Israel, and he demanded a settlement freeze. The Obama of the second term is coming to Israel so he could be in the position to demand a settlement freeze in the future."
Will we hear that demand in his own voice? In his speech in Jerusalem will he speak against the occupation and the settlements?
"I believe that in the speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, President Obama will try to do two things. On the one hand, he will tell the Israelis and Jews that he feels close to them and their tradition and to what they have accomplished in the country. The Passover story is a very meaningful story for the president. He is the first to celebrate the Passover seder at the White House each and every year. Therefore it is likely he will speak about the exodus from slavery to liberty, both as a universal story that speaks to all those oppressed in the world (among them the African-Americans) and as the particular story of a particular people that liberated itself by returning to its Promised Land.
But nevertheless Obama will want to say to young Israelis that they must ask themselves where they are headed. Does what is taking place in the West Bank serve the State of Israel or jeopardize its Jewish and democratic character? It is still unclear just how direct the president's statement is going to be. But the rare opportunity of a speech in Jerusalem and the context of deep sympathy for Israel will enable the president to raise the settlements question. I think there is a good chance that his statement will be fairly blunt. It may be a lot blunter than what Netanyahu would like it to be."
Basically you are saying that Obama is coming to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. He has not despaired of this matter and he has not given up and he really will try to push for peace.
"Not only that, of course. But remember, Secretary of State John Kerry is an ambitious man. He understands that you don't get the Nobel Peace Prize for making peace in Nagorno-Karabakh, but rather for making peace between Israel and Palestine. He also believes that the next four years are the years of the last chance to reach a two-state solution. He thinks that he can and also must end the conflict.
"In my view, Obama is more pessimistic than Kerry. He's been burned before, he doesn't believe that Netanyahu is really interested in a compromise and he also has some doubts about the Palestinians. But Obama will give Kerry the mandate to try. In this sense, the president is advancing for a future trip by the secretary of state. Obama's trip to Israel may be viewed as an epilogue to his first term and as the prologue to John Kerry's future peace initiative."
And Iran? Is Obama coming here also to make sure Israel does not surprise him on the Iranian issue?
"That's part of it. I take Obama at his word. If he has no choice, he will use military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program. He will do so not just because a nuclear Iran is an existential danger to Israel, but also because it is a danger to the United States and to his anti-proliferation goals. This is one reason why the president wants to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan to clear the decks. This is why he tends not to intervene in Syria, so as not to get entangled in two wars in the Middle East. His preference is probably for the situation to remain the way it is: for Iran to always be a year away from a bomb. But he isn't bluffing, and if no other alternatives are left, he will act.
"However, since November the balance of power between Obama and Netanyahu has shifted. If last year Netanyahu had the ability to threaten that he would attack before the presidential election, today the situation is quite different. Obama is arriving in Jerusalem as a magnanimous victor who's in the driver's seat. His concern about an Israeli offensive is much lower than it was a year and two years ago. But at the center of the private conversation he will hold with Netanyahu will be Iran. It may be that in return for his standing by Israel on the Iranian issue he will expect to see an Israeli contribution on the Palestinian front."
Jeff, tell me a little bit about this un-deciphered man whom so many Israelis fear. What really motivates him? How does he truly feel about us?
"I think what a lot of Israelis don't realize is that Obama is the most Jewish president the United States has ever had. When he ran for Congress against an ex-Black Panther candidate, he was accused of being the candidate of the Jewish community. Obama was greatly influenced by Reform Jewish rabbis, liberal Jewish jurists and by his intellectual encounters with Jews at Harvard and in Chicago.
"In a way, he is a representative of mainstream liberal American Judaism, hence his complex attitude toward Netanyahu. Like any American Jewish liberal, when he looks at Bibi he sees a conservative Republican and does not understand how a Jew can be a conservative Republican. It just isn't Jewish in his eyes. The same goes for his attitude toward the organized Jewish establishment. At AIPAC he has to speak, but in the Reform movement he really feels at home. The liberal Jews are his people, and his attitude toward Judaism and Israel is very similar to their attitude toward Judaism and Israel.
"The first time I interviewed him, then-Senator Obama told me how much Philip Roth means to him and how much he admires David Grossman. That is who he is. He isn't a Jerusalem Post reader but rather a Haaretz reader. He isn't a Benjamin Netanyahu man but rather an Amos Oz man. He is a true admirer of Shimon Peres, in whom he sees both a founder of Israel and a representative of Israel's openness. Obama feels alienation toward the Israel of Likud and the settlers. Like any American Jewish liberal, he thinks the national and religious extremists caused Israel to lose its way. But he feels great closeness to the Israel of the kibbutz and high-tech industry and Hadassah Hospital where Jewish and Arab doctors work together.
"Tel Aviv is his base. He would love to tour it and enjoy its cosmopolitanism and address hundreds of thousands in Rabin Square. Obama is not a bleeding-heart liberal. He is a liberal who learned to operate drones. But the president who is arriving Wednesday for his first presidential visit to Israel is a faithful representative of those American liberals who love Israel but don't quite understand the path Israel is taking. "