09.16.12

Some Israelis to Obama: We Told You So

Demonstrations across the Mideast appear to ebbing, but what remains is a foreign-policy headache for President Obama. Dan Ephron on the deep divisions the riots revealed.

Among Israelis, the anti-American rioting across the Middle East has elicited mostly a sense of sympathy for the United States—and relief that Israelis weren’t involved in the making of the video that spawned the tumult.

But some analysts and government officials, long critical of President Obama’s policies in the region, are also feeling vindicated and expressing it with the four words that seem sure to get backs raised in Washington: I told you so.

To them, the backlash against the United States proves that Obama miscalculated when he supported protest movements in Arab countries where it was clear that the fall of dictators would strengthen Islamic groups largely unfriendly to the West.

America lost the influence it had through its ties to autocrats like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, they say, without gaining the support of the people.

The argument could be heard in Israel on Sunday even as protests across the region appeared to be ebbing. Following particularly violent episodes in Tunis, Tunisia, and Khartoum, Sudan, the State Department ordered most American embassy personnel and their families to leave those cities.

“Despite the support and the kind words that [Obama] has given to the ‘new’ Egypt and Libya, that didn’t stop American flags from being burned in Cairo and the ambassador from being killed in Benghazi,” wrote Boaz Bismuth, a commentator in the right-leaning Israel Hayom newspaper, a day after the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in Benghazi last week.

“What is Obama broadcasting today to the world? Weakness. Is it any wonder that demonstrations were held against the United States in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Afghanistan?”

The commentary echoes criticism Republicans have leveled at Obama and specifically remarks made by Mitt Romney, the presidential nominee, since the eruption in the region last week. Indeed, Israel Hayom is owned by Sheldon Adelson, an American casino magnate who has spent millions to get Romney elected.

But Israelis place the emphasis on the ways American policies can rebound on Israel. Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party like to say that mistakes Obama makes in the region might threaten American interests, but they can endanger Israel’s existence.

The context for that kind of discourse between the two allies lately has been Obama’s unwillingness to impose ultimatums on Iran over its nuclear program. Netanyahu lashed out last week at the “international community”—widely understood to mean Washington—for trying to keep Israel from attacking Iran instead of focusing more aggressively on preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu views in the same vain American pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians.

“Is there any doubt that if a Palestinian ‘state’ is established, it will become a source of existential threat to its neighbors, Israel and Jordan? Another uncontrolled Salafist outpost?” wrote Guy Bechor in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, articulating a point frequently heard in Likud.

“Do we not see what is taking place in Gaza, which itself is undergoing Salafization?” he wrote.

Gaza was one of the many places where Muslims protested in the past week against an amateurish online video that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer and buffoon. One of the people behind the video, California resident Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, initially described himself to journalists as a Jewish Israeli. He is, in fact, an Egyptian-American Copt.

Los Angeles police questioned Nakoula for several hours yesterday. Around the country, police beefed up protection at Coptic churches.

Most Muslim leaders have condemned the attack in Benghazi where the Americans were killed last week. But al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group in Yemen is known, issued a statement calling on Muslims to “set the fires blazing” at American embassies across the region.

"What has happened is a great event, and these efforts should come together in one goal, which is to expel the embassies of America from the lands of the Muslims," the group said.

Tensions still simmered yesterday over the video in countries where anti-U.S. sentiment runs high, like Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Islamabad, former intelligence chief Hamid Gul told a crowd of several hundred protesters that the U.S. government was complicit in the video.

“The blasphemous clips are part of an American strategy to hurt Muslim emotions worldwide. Through such blasphemy, they [the U.S. government] want to test the reaction of the Muslims.”

A 22-year-old religious student at the protest, Qari Sahib, told a Daily Beast reporter that news of the video made him want to take revenge on the U.S. embassy. Why not simply make a law in the U.S. and make sure no one insults any other religion?” he asked.

In Cairo, police swept into Tahrir Square yesterday, carted off the remaining protesters, and patrolled the area in armored troop carriers. Some roads around the American Embassy, not far from Tahrir, were still blocked with barbed wire.

“This is it. There are no more thugs. None of them are even in the square,” said a ranking police officer who would not give his name. He said the police refrained from dispersing the demonstration earlier because “they didn’t want to make it bigger.”

Many Egyptians appeared to be tired of protests at Tahrir, which have been a regular feature over the past 20 months.

“This is no country to live in. It’s like a jungle,” said Ahmed Adel, a 34-year-old computer programmer by day who operates tourist boats on the Nile in the evenings. He had a bandage on his head, where he said he’d been hit with a stone thrown by one of the protesters.

“I’m one of those people who is planning to get out of here. I can’t see myself having a wife and kids here. It’s sad, but I already made my decision.”

Reporting contributed by Christopher Dickey, Vivian Salama, Mike Giglio, Ron Moreau, and Sami Yousafzai.