Obama and Israel

10.17.12

Neither "Best Friend" Nor "Anti-Israel"

A Washington Post editorial on October 16 matter of factly stated the obvious: that President Barack Obama “sought to publicly distance himself from Israel early in his term” and that Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu “have made a mess of their personal relationship.” Both of these statements are quite obvious even to many casual observers of the Middle East. But it contradicts the central claim of many pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrats that Barack Obama has been “Israel’s best friend,” with some even claiming he is the best presidential friend Israel “ever” had.

The claim that Obama is Israel’s “best friend” is as annoying and untrue as is the counter-claim that he is “anti-Israel.” If Obama were “anti-Israel” he would not have approved the largest military aid going to Israel, he would not have authorized his U.N. representative to block Palestinian statehood and fight delegitimization, and he would not have worked with Israel and Europe to impose sanctions on Iran that are now crippling the Iranian economy. At the same time, if Obama were Israel’s “best friend,” he would not have derailed peace talks by giving the Palestinians the new demand of a settlement freeze before showing up, he would have visited Israel after his Cairo speech, and he would have avoided the repeated confrontations with Bibi Netanyahu. 

Both exaggerations emerge from the unhappy overlap between a common Israeli political pathology and a common American pathology. For decades now, the discourse about Israel has been far too hysterical, far too polemical, far too zero-sum. I call this the IAF—just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. Too many of Israel’s most ardent supporters brook no dissent, deeming anyone who deviates from their particular political playbook “anti-Israel.” This hawkish defensiveness is partially understandable, given the harsh anti-Israel voices out there, who quickly jump from criticizing an Israeli action to repudiating Zionism and the Jewish State. While being careful to avoid suggesting any moral equivalence between Israel’s overzealous defenders and its genocidal critics, we can acknowledge that such extremism is not helpful, on either side. 

Having endured attempts to delegitimize us as Zionists, we should be careful not to delegitimize others. Obama, therefore, is not “anti-Israel,” but he is critical and skeptical about some Israeli policies, which has led him sometimes to be unreasonably hard on Israel.

Unfortunately, admitting that is not only difficult in the hysterical Israeli context, such nuance is no longer welcome in the American political context either.

In the age of the red-blue, right-left, Mitt Romney-Barack Obama polarization, shades of grey are welcome as trashy literature but not in American politics. In my book “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: From George Washington to Barack Obama,” I quote New York’s legendary mayor Ed Koch, who challenged voters, saying, “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”

American politics has also too frequently become an all-or-nothing proposition, making the USA the United States of Agita. As Republicans and Democrats twist themselves into ideological pretzels, or stretch further than “The Incredibles’” Elastigirl to accommodate their particular party’s most outlandish positions or politicians, subtlety is lost. Candidates get labeled as pro-this or anti-that, when effective politics or governance often requires a lighter touch, some acknowledgement of complexity.

So, yes, even as the campaign culminates in a down-to-the-wire slugfest, let’s try to restrain ourselves, and avoid extremes. I am waiting for a pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrat either to admit to voting for Obama despite his Israel position, or to support Obama’s Israel position as measured, complex but not the most enthusiastic support, ever. Similarly, I invite others who condemn some, not all, of Obama’s Middle East policies to join me in repudiating them, complimenting other positions, and calling Obama an Israel-skeptic but not anti-Israel. Let’s reserve that term of opprobrium for Israel’s enemies, who unfortunately earn that ignominious label, far too frequently and enthusiastically, day after day.