Don’t talk to them


There was a lot of talk during the presidential campaign about how American Jews and Israelis needed to know what Obama really understood them, that he felt their pain in his kishkes and not just in coolly rational way he’s famous for, before they would support him. Shmuel Rosner says that’s silly. Israelis already know what Obama thinks, and they don’t like it. All the recent calls ( by Aluf Benn in the New York Times and Bradley Burston in Haaretz) for Obama to directly address Israelis, like he did the Muslim world in Cairo, are for naught.

Both Benn and Burston seem to believe that Israelis disapprove of Obama because they don’t understand what he wants–simply because he has failed to explain it to them. It’s unsurprising that columnists friendly to the ideas of the Israeli center-left would suggest that Israelis are actually in line with Obama’s agenda. But there’s an easier way of interpreting Israelis’ uneasiness with Obama: They do understand him, and do not agree with him. If that’s the case, more Obama-talk will not make a big difference. It is very common to blame "communication" when things go badly between two parties. However, there are many things that no improvement of communication will remedy.

Both writers assume that Israelis don’t care much for settlements, and I tend to agree. However, as Benn starts explaining while not quite completing his argument ("Mr. Obama has made a mistake in focusing on a settlement freeze"), Israelis also don’t care much for doing something for no particular reason, or just because there’s a new sheriff in town. The settlements should certainly go, most Israelis believe–but they should go at this specific time only if the president can logically explain the benefit Israelis will gain from letting them go now. If all he has is the general "settlements are bad for Israel" argument, then nothing much has changed; Israelis already know that.

Yes, Israelis might appreciate the honor of having the U.S. president talking directly to them. (As Benn writes, "In the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention.") But what exactly is he going to tell them? That peace is good for all and that he wants to advance peace? They know. That Palestinians suffer? They know. That he cares deeply for Israel’s security? They know he says that, and would like to believe it, but the real game-changer will require proof, not words. Clinton and Bush didn’t just say "We care for Israel" and instantly become darlings of the Israeli public. They showed they care–mostly by getting along well with the Israeli governments of Rabin and Sharon respectively. The Obama administration has done little to curry Israeli trust with their churlish attitude toward Netanyahu. In this sense, I agree with Benn and Burston: Regardless of the inevitable vapidity of an Obama speech directed at Israelis, the act of making the trip to Israel would be at least be a "deed"–a demonstration of good will on his part.

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