How Obama Can Assure Israelis


We are pleased to see the report this week that President Obama plans to visit Israel. It’s about time.

According to The Jerusalem Post, U.S. Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham told Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin that the president “wants to visit Israel and will do so.”

No date was mentioned, but the ambassador said the trip is on the president’s agenda.

Some say the trip is being timed to pressure the Palestinians not to push for a United

Nations vote on statehood in September; others see it as an attempt to bolster Obama’s support among American Jews as he gears up for a re-election campaign.

Rivlin is quoted as telling Cunningham that “Israelis sense that the atmosphere in the White House has changed for the worse. The feeling is that Obama views Israel as a burden more than as a strategic asset.”

He noted that many Israelis were upset when Obama did not include Israel on his trip to the Mideast two years ago when he delivered his Cairo Speech to the Muslim world. (The president visited King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and spoke at the Buchenwald concentration camp during that June 2009 visit.)

Cunningham reportedly told Rivlin that the negative assessment was not accurate.

Like previous presidents, Obama has spoken of Israel as a great friend and ally, and insisted that the relationship between the two democracies is rock solid. Moreover, strategic and military ties between the U.S. and Israel today are as strong as ever, if not stronger.

But many Israelis and American Jews make assessments in their kishkes, or gut, when it comes to evaluating a president’s position on Israel. And this president doesn’t inspire confidence on that score.

Bill Clinton, a Democrat who tried hard to come away with a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, was seen as a great friend and supporter of Israel. So was George W. Bush, a Republican who tried hard to leave Israel alone during his tenure. Two very different approaches, but Clinton and Bush, fervent Christians who have a special place for Israel in their hearts, were perceived widely as protectors of the Jewish state.

Not Obama. He’s seen as too pragmatic and even-handed in assessing the Israel-Arab equation, deeply concerned about how he is perceived in the Arab world and lacking in emotion when it comes to support for America’s most loyal Mideast ally, Israel.

But is that fair? A new Gallup poll indicates that for all of the controversy surrounding the president’s recent State Department speech that called for the 1967 Israeli borders to be the basis of future peace talks, a solid majority of American Jews continue to approve of him. His approval rate did dip last month to 60 percent, down from 68 percent in May and 64 percent in April. But it is generally consistent with how Americans in general feel about the president, while skewing higher. Thirty-two percent of Jews polled in June disapproved of the president’s overall performance, about the same level as it has been all year.

It is difficult to determine how much of that approval/disapproval rate depends on issues related directly to Israel.

Lost in the debate over the ‘67 borders was the fact that the president, in his May 19 speech, spoke of Israel as a “Jewish state,” a key point that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been advocating.

Surely, though, Obama has made serious mistakes in dealing with the Mideast dilemma. At the outset, he perceived the West Bank settlements as the crux of the issue, not the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize a Jewish state in the region. If nothing else, that miscalculation resulted in wasted time as the administration pushed hard for a settlement freeze. More recently the president has appeared to take a tougher stand with the prime minister of Israel than with Arab demagogues like Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader who continues to mow down his own people while Washington resists calling for his ouster.

The practical question in considering an Obama visit to Israel is what could he say or do to convince doubters of his sincerity? Praying at the Kotel, meeting with the family of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and visiting Sderot (which he did as a presidential candidate three years ago) all make for dramatic photo ops. But we’d be more impressed by tangible steps that would indicate that Washington sees Jerusalem as a vital asset rather than a political problem. Those would include putting the onus on the Palestinians for the lack of progress on peace talks, making it clear that the Palestinian Authority will lose U.S. political and financial support if it goes ahead in its plan to form a government with Hamas, calling on the Arab states to recognize the reality and benefits of Israel in the region, and asserting that the Palestinian “right of return” is a non-starter for peace negotiations because it spells the end of a Jewish state.

Overall, Obama should indicate that he understands full well that only a confident and secure Israeli people will be willing to make the deep sacrifices required for a peace deal with the Palestinians and that it is his job as president to make Israelis feel safe.