Why Israelis are nervous about Obama


Everybody wants something from Obama.

Expectations are high as the American president kicks off his first Middle East tour since taking office. He’s already met in Riyadh with Saudi King Abdullah, and on Thursday Obama will deliver a much-anticipated speech in Cairo that is being cast as an address to the entire Arab world.

While Obama’s meetings and remarks will be scrutinized closely, perhaps nowhere will they be followed more intently than in Israel.

There is great concern in Israel about Obama’s trip, and an atmosphere of general nervousness about the new American president. Hardly three months into his presidency, Obama already has criticized Israel — its settlement policy, to be precise — with a public candor and directness unseen during the Bush era. As columnist Thomas Friedman notes in Wednesday’s New York Times, this U.S. president believes there is little point in "saying one thing behind closed doors and saying something else publicly.”

Obama told Friedman: “We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East.”

Israelis have a few things making them nervous:

  • After an election campaign rife with speculation (much of it fueled by the Republican Jewish Committee) that as president Obama would back away from Washington’s unstinting support for Israel, Israel and its supporters are fearful about Obama. Many judge him guilty until proven innocent, and every move he makes is likely to be interpreted in the most pessimistic way possible.
  • Despite his suggestions to the contrary, Israel’s new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, does not see eye to eye with the new American president. They differ on settlements (Bibi’s position on allowing "natural growth" in settlements has the support of most Israelis), on the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Bibi has not publicly endorsed such a solution) and on what Israel needs to do to ease conditions for the Palestinians. Israelis remember well the rift between Washington and Jerusalem that developed the last time Bibi was prime minister, when Bill Clinton was president. They’re nervous about the same thing happening again, this time with Obama.
  • Israelis have not failed to notice that Obama’s first trip to the region as president does not include a stop in their country. Many are asking why, and see in it an omen of bad things to come.
  • Finally, Israelis are nervous generally about their future and their security. Wars with Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2009 woke Israelis up to the fact that the northern and southern thirds of their country are vulnerable to rocket attacks that they do not have the power to stop. They know that in the next war those rockets are likely to reach Israel’s densely populated center, making no place safe anymore. On top of that, Israelis are nervously watching Iran move ever closer to nuclear weapons capability, and their politicians and media keep hammering home the message that this will put Israel’s very existence in jeopardy.

Some of these fears are more valid than others.

But one thing Israelis should not fear is that Obama will use his platform in Cairo — as some have suggested — to deliver a new broadside at Israel. While I am loathe to make predictions (and I’m usually pretty careful about avoiding doing so), I’ll go out on a limb and say that no American president would be so foolish as to stake out new ground challenging Israel from an Arab capital.

It remains to be seen whether he’ll use the goodwill and high expectations with which many Arabs are greeting his trip to challenge some of his Arab counterparts on the values America holds dear, such as civil liberties.

Let’s wait and see.

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