Obama Tells Israelis: We Can Argue About Iran - but It’s All in the Family

American Jews are more likely to be captivated by the president’s combination of vulnerability and schmaltz in his interview with Thomas Friedman.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama speaking at Hill Air Force base on April 3, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

If you are one of those people who believe that Barack Obama is a socialist, defeatist or nihilist; the prince of darkness, the anti-Christ or a danger to humanity; a clandestine or potential Muslim brother, a hater or betrayer of Israel, an anti-Semite, anti-Zionist or someone who simply has it in for the Jews – you are exempt from watching the 46 minute video of the extraordinary interview that Obama gave to New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman. You won’t believe a word he says and you weren’t his target audience anyway.

But if you do not find yourself in one of the aforementioned categories, do yourself the favor and watch: It’s worth the time and effort. Among other things, Obama tries to address the Israeli people – as well as American Jews – as close relatives who are facing sharp disagreements; he wants to be seen not as an enemy, but as a close friend whose wounds or admonitions, as Proverbs 27 states, should be trusted. He is open for debate, but rejects the effort to attach malevolence to his motives. If Israel becomes more vulnerable during his tenure, he tells Friedman, he will view it as both “a strategic and a moral failure”.

His message, nonetheless, is unequivocal: Obama intends to use this “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to try and reach a nuclear agreement with Iran by June 30 that will be based on the framework achieved last week in Lausanne - and he will fight off any attempt to sabotage his efforts. He knows he will have to do battle with Netanyahu “who is expressing the deep seated concerns of the Israeli people,” but does not want the argument to deteriorate to total rupture. In order to alleviate the Israeli apprehension he seems willing to expand current levels of military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries and to offer more binding security guarantees, perhaps even a formal defense pact, so that everyone in the area knows that “if anybody messes with Israel, America will be there."

Obama says he “respects” Netanyahu but finds his positions unrealistic: Even the most moderate Iranian leaders wouldn’t meet the threshold set by the prime minister. Obama concedes that the understandings of Lausanne may not be optimal, but they are far better than the two main alternatives: Military conflict or a return to the sanctions regime. Both scenarios, he says, will spur the Iranians to race towards an atomic bomb. Only a diplomatic solution, with stringent international supervision, can achieve the desired outcome and prevent a nuclear Iran, a different outcome that would surely benefit Israel’s security.

Obama protests the fact that criticism of Israel’s settlement policies, for example, immediately casts him as an enemy of the state. He rails against the fact that support for Israel is becoming increasingly partisan and calls on both sides to “respect internal debate and to not work with just one side.” Seven years ago, before he was elected, Obama expressed similar sentiments: one doesn’t have to be pro-Likud in order to be pro-Israel, he said then, but apparently has yet to learn the error of his ways. After all, if Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni can be dubbed “anti-Zionist” by Netanyahu just because they oppose his policies – who is Obama to complain? “Hitler got less from Chamberlain than what the Iranians got from American negotiators” Republican Senator Mark Kirk said over the weekend, echoing the same kind of unbridled rhetoric that is often hurled at Obama from Israeli government circles and from his critics in the Jewish right wing in America. Obama didn’t say, but some of his advisers are convinced, that both branches are inspired by the same Las Vegas-headquartered source.

It’s hard to tell how Israeli public opinion will react to Obama’s overture: Israelis are a stubborn and cynical bunch and they tend to shy away from sentimental sweet nothings. But American Jews - especially those who voted for him - are more than likely to be captivated by Obama’s combination of vulnerability and schmaltz. His critics might say, with some justification, that Obama is being manipulative, but they will fail to acknowledge the sincere affinity for both Israelis and Jews that lay underneath and that many of Obama’s acquaintances swear by.

Though some of Obama’s haters continue to suggest that there is something “un-American” about him, his message in this Friedman interview is American through and through: the “Yes we can” president exudes American optimism, prefers to see the glass half full, believes that even the strife-engulfed Middle East can still expect a happy Hollywood ending. In this regard, his talk about shared values and culture between Israelis and Americans is nonsense: Israelis are not only fatalistic and pessimistic by nature – not without reason, of course – but they also tend to elect leaders and parties that make sure they stay that way.

Obama makes it very clear that in this American-Jewish-Israeli family there are no divorces, but with all due respect to his possibly nave efforts for reconciliation, at this late stage it could very well be that his differences with Israelis, in general, and Netanyahu, in particular, are simply irreconcilable.

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