Israel’s New Gaza Honeymoon With Obama (And Why It May Not Last Very Long)

The U.S. President’s unflinching support for the Gaza operation and his role in the success of Iron Dome have restored much of his long lost credit with both Israelis and American Jews.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Even though there are no new public opinion polls to rely on, it’s probably safe to assume that 1. President Obama’s popularity in Israel is skyrocketing; 2. Most American Jews are more than satisfied with his response to the conflict in Gaza; 3. Die-hard Republicans are having a hard time explaining the giant gap between their dire campaign warnings and Obama’s attitude towards Israel thus far.

Rather than treating Israel “as a punching bag”, as the Emergency Committee for Israel predicted, or exhibiting his  “antipathy” towards Israel, as the Republican Jewish Coalition diagnosed only a few short weeks ago, Obama’s response to Operation Pillar of Defense has been impeccable, from an Israeli point of view: sympathetic, supportive and understanding. The right-wing Zionist Organization of America tried to salvage some remains from Obama’s alleged anti-Israel animus by complaining that he hadn’t “personally” condemned Hamas, but even that grievance lasted only 24 hours after Obama stated his position on-camera during the first leg of his tour of Asia.

If there’s been any “daylight” between Israel and the U.S., it has been only a small sliver. Obama has upheld Israel’s right to self-defense and has refrained from any outright criticism of the assault on Gaza, even after an entire 12-member Palestinian family was wiped out as a result of an erroneous air force attack. He has remained steadfast in his support for almost a week, surprising many of his right-wing critics and dismaying some of his supporters on the left.

True, Obama has been urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from a ground assault, but most Israelis, including Netanyahu himself, share Obama’s apprehension that such a development would inflict much heavy casualties on both sides, inflame the volatile Arab world and possibly expand the conflict to other arenas. In this regard, Obama was simply preaching to the converted.

More importantly, Obama is also the beneficiary of Israel’s starry-eyed love affair with its Iron Dome anti-missile system, which has enjoyed spectacular success in protecting Israeli citizens from Hamas missiles. The ingenious Israeli development, which could potentially change the ground rules of modern warfare, was bankrolled by the Obama Administration to the tune of $274 million, with over $600 million pledged for the next three years.

As former top U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross told the New York Times on Monday, these commitments, coming at a time of severe cuts in the U.S. budget, are “emblematic of the Administration’s commitment to Israel’s security.”  Israelis, it appears, will now be inclined to see it that way as well.

It is ironic, of course, that the starts of both of Obama’s terms in office have been accompanied by an Israeli incursion into Gaza. In December 2008, then President-elect Obama also backed Israel’s right to protect its citizens from Hamas missiles, though he deferred to the outgoing Bush Administration to handle the day-to-day diplomatic reactions to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead.

A few days before his inauguration, however, Obama sent a warning shot across the bow of many Israelis when he made a direct link between the Gaza conflict and his intention to launch an “immediate” peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.  In an interview on ABC’s “This Week” on January 11, 2009, Obama told host George Stephanopoulos: “We cannot have two administrations at the same time simultaneously sending signals in a volatile situation. What I am doing right now is putting together the team so that on January 20th, starting on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole.”

Obama then added two statements that, together, would doom his efforts to get the peace process moving: “I think that players in the region understand the compromises that are going to need to be made,” he said. “But the politics of it are hard.” Obama has since learned, the hard way indeed, that “understanding the compromises” doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness to make them. And that “the politics are hard” didn’t even begin to describe the obstacles and the criticism that he would face.

It is too early to tell, of course, whether the current Gaza operation will have a similar effect on Obama’s second term plans. His decision to visit Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia soon after his reelection reflects his wish to pivot his foreign policy around the Asia-Pacific arena. Israelis who have been in contact with Administration officials in recent months have come away with the conclusion that Obama has adopted a “once bitten twice shy” attitude to Arab-Israeli peacemaking and that he does not plan to expend time, energy or political capital in order to force the sides to negotiate an agreement that their leaders are either unwilling or incapable of concluding.

But like a dead and buried corpse in a Tim Burton movie, the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum has a way of reaching out from its supposed grave, sending out its tentacles and dragging in even the most reluctant of presidents. The headlines from Gaza, after all, have completely overshadowed reports of Obama’s Myanmar journey and should serve as a reminder both to him and to his future Administration that as far as the Middle East is concerned, you can run but you can’t hide, and you can’t even hide for very long.

Obama’s current support for Israel is refilling his relatively empty coffer of goodwill among many Israelis and probably helping to allay lingering suspicions among many American Jews, including some of those who voted for him. He may need to use some of this credit quite soon, in the efforts to achieve a cease-fire, and much more so, in order to contain the fallout from any ground incursion that Israel may be forced to launch, against its better judgment.

This will be doubly true if Obama decides – as he should - that the situation in the Middle East is too volatile for him to sit on the fence, that the future stability and moderation of countries such as Egypt, Turkey and Jordan require energetic U.S. intervention, that the U.S. will need to muster as much regional goodwill as possible in order to take on Iran’s nuclear program, one way or another, and that the next Israeli military operation could very well spiral out of control, even if this one hasn’t. And if he understands that for any 21st century U.S. president, opting out of the business of Middle East peacemaking is simply not an option.
Nothing will happen, of course, before Obama appoints his own foreign policy and national security team and before Israel holds its own elections on January 22 or perhaps a few weeks later, if the elections are postponed. This gives the President about three months to formulate a new policy towards the region that will hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls of his previously discarded efforts.

One of the President’s cardinal mistakes in his first term was to completely disregard Israeli public opinion – and U.S. public opinion as well, but that’s another matter - and to thus overlook its potential usefulness in prodding the Israeli government to move forward on the peace process. If he’s learned from his mistakes, he will build on his new reservoir of good will in order to enlist the Israeli public as a potential ally in the years ahead.

It’s certainly safe to assume that for each and every move that Obama makes to try and advance an arrangement with the Palestinians, however modest or miniscule, he will lose a chunk of the Israeli public that is currently willing to give him a second chance, or at least suspend judgment. The settlers and their supporters in both Israel and in the American media will cry foul the moment Obama even looks at renewed peace talks, especially one that elicits unease in the Israeli government itself.

The question is whether Obama will be able to retain the support of those who appreciate his current support but also understand that without any diplomatic movement, Israel is doomed to periodically repeat its military operations, in Gaza or in Lebanon or elsewhere, and at a much greater cost, both in terms of casualties and economic burden.

In fact, Obama may now be the only leader capable of resuscitating the dwindling block of Israelis who have not succumbed to one-state fatalism, who continue to support a two-state solution and who insist on believing in a negative answer to the question posed by King Saul’s army commander, Abner, to his rival and future assassin Joab: “Shall the sword devour forever?”

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Netanyahu and Obama at the White House's Oval Office in March 2012.Credit: AP
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during his election night victory rally in Chicago, Nov. 7, 2012. Credit: Reuters