PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — It’s high time to face an unpleasant fact: President Obama and Israel are not on the same page.
This has been true ever since Obama took office in January 2009, but it was most recently apparent this May when the president ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with an adversarial speech the day before Netanyahu’s U.S. visit by advocating that Israel return to the pre-1967 armistice lines (with mutually agreed swaps).
Obama’s speech meant that Israel cannot keep the Jewish neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall or the major settlement blocs without Palestinian Authority approval. No previous U.S. president ever took this position.
Neither has any previous president ever suggested, as Obama has, that the issues of “territory and security” should be agreed upon first, and only then should the issues of Arab refugees and Jerusalem’s status be decided. Thus in Obama’s view, Israel should establish a Palestinian state and give away virtually all the disputed territory, thereby eliminating its negotiating leverage, before negotiating over Jerusalem and refugees from a weakened position.
An anonymous Israeli official interviewed in early August by Reuters denied recent reports that Netanyahu now accepts the pre-1967 lines as a basis for negotiations, and two senior Israeli officials recently told me the same.
It’s also shocking that Obama made these demands of Israel only two weeks after Fatah, the faction that leads the Palestinian Authority, signed a unity agreement with Hamas, the terrorist organization that calls in its charter for the murder of Jews.
Netanyahu has been clear: He won’t negotiate with a Hamas-linked Palestinian Authority. Yet Obama has refused to make diplomatic or financial support for the Palestinian Authority conditional on its abrogating its unity agreement with Hamas.
Obama’s first major Middle East speech, in Cairo in June 2009, made clear his tenuous commitment to Israel. He ignored the legal, historical and religious basis of the Jewish claim to Israel, instead writing it off as a reward for enduring the Holocaust.
Obama also claimed that the Palestinians have been suffering in trying to establish their state for 60 years, but he ignored the fact that they turned down offers of statehood in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008. He spoke about the Arabs being “displaced” by Israel’s founding, ignoring the fact that if there had been no Arab war against Israel, there would have been no refugees.
Most egregiously, the president strongly implied that Palestinian suffering was equivalent to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. And by framing his call for Palestinians to practice only nonviolent resistance by pointing to the experience of U.S. blacks during slavery and black Africans during South African apartheid, Obama effectively lumped in Israeli Jews with history’s oppressors.
In a January 2010 TV interview, Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell — who has since left his post — told PBS’s Charlie Rose that “full implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative is the objective set forth by the president.” The so-called Arab Peace Initiative demands that Israel retreat to the pre-1967 lines, set up a Palestinian state and accept the right of millions of Arab refugees to move into Israel. That would end Israel as a Jewish state.
And let’s not forget Obama’s September 2009 U.N. speech, in which he spoke of the need to couple “unwavering commitment to Israel” with calls for Israel to “respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians.” Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton called this “the most radical anti-Israel speech I can recall any president making.”
Even former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who campaigned for Obama, recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “I weep as I witness outrageous verbal attacks on Israel” that “are being orchestrated by President Obama.” Koch suggested that Obama is “throwing Israel under the bus.”
Perhaps Israel’s deepest concern is the existential threat posed by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Obama needlessly delayed congressional sanctions against Iran for a year while he tried to get multilateral, U.N.-backed sanctions enacted first. Now that sanctions have become U.S. law, Obama has not implemented them in a serious way.
Obama also sent Vice President Joe Biden to Israel to warn Netanyahu not to launch any military strikes against Iran without U.S. approval.
One of my most revealing experiences was a meeting I attended, along with 40 other Jewish leaders, with President Obama at the White House in March. The president told us, according to my notes: “You must speak to your Israeli friends and relatives and search your souls to determine how badly do you really want peace. Israelis think this peace business is overrated; their life is good, their economy is good, and things are quiet.”
Several times he emphasized that “the PA is sincere in wanting a peaceful settlement” and that “Israel has not sufficiently tried to make an acceptable offer.” He asked, “Is the Netanyahu government serious about territorial concessions?”
Things may get better or worse — more likely the latter — but one thing is clear: Obama and Israel are not of one mind, or anywhere close to being so.
(Morton A. Klein is the national president of ZOA, the Zionist Organization of America.)