President Obama, facing attacks at home over his health-care overhaul, is coming under fresh criticism from abroad this week—for failing to reach out to Israel. A series of op-eds taking on his Israel policy has forced a hasty response from the White House and put supporters of the administration’s approach on the defensive.
But soothing Israeli anxiety may require special attention from Obama, thanks to the legacy of the previous administration, said Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and current director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Obama “gave Israelis generally the impression that they were no longer in favor in Washington.”
“It’s important to understand that the Israelis love to be loved, and they received a great deal of love from George Bush—indeed, it was a blank check of love—and they got used to it,” Indyk said. “Obama came in, and instead of showering them with the affection they had become accustomed to, started going after ‘the other woman’ that is the Arab and Muslim world. In the process, he gave Israelis generally the impression that they were no longer in favor in Washington.”
Writing in The New York Times on Tuesday, Aluf Benn, editor at large for the left-leaning Israeli paper Haaretz, warned that Obama had alienated the Israeli mainstream with his focus on the Muslim world.
“The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence,” Benn wrote. The policy, he argued, has allowed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to argue persuasively that Israel is being pressured unfairly.
Obama must take his “campaign directly to the Israeli people, and soon,” wrote Bradley Burston in Haaretz the same day.
The White House responded quickly to the op-eds, with senior officials telling The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Obama spoke of America’s “unbreakable” bond with Israel in Cairo and criticized Arab leaders for using the Jewish state as a scapegoat for their own problems. By the end of the day, Time’s Joe Klein was reporting that Obama planned on doing television interviews with Israeli news media in the near future.
Despite the administration’s struggle to win over the Israeli public, Indyk suggested that turning things around was far from impossible, given the relatively short distance between the two groups over policy issues. The Israeli settlements that have been the primary source of tension between the two countries in recent weeks, for example, are unpopular with the Israeli public, despite the governing coalition’s hard-line stance.
“It’s relatively easy if the issue is not substance but rhetoric, because he’s a maven when it comes to rhetoric—that’s his forte,” Indyk said.
Rhetoric aside, news reports this week suggested that Obama was planning to take a tougher line with Arab countries, as well, a development Indyk said could help put to rest claims of favoritism by Israeli critics.
The Daily Telegraph reported on Tuesday that the White House had informed seven Arab nations to offer incentives to Israel in exchange for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. A BBC article the same day quoted a U.S. official criticizing the Saudi Arabian government for not demonstrating it was serious about supporting peace talks.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit this week could also help reassure Israelis worried about the threat of a nuclear Iran that the U.S. is committed to their security.
But if Obama has hurt his cause by not directly addressing Israelis with a major speech in Jerusalem or an interview with Israeli media, Israeli hard-liners have been quick to fill the void with their own message. A recent report in Haaretz quoted Netanyahu deriding Jewish members of Obama’s administration, such as senior adviser David Axelrod and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who served as a civilian volunteer on an Israeli base during the Gulf War, as “self-hating Jews.”
“This is a favorite game of the right wing in Israel,” Indyk said of Netanyahu’s apparent disdain for Obama’s staff. “When they want to go after the president, they understand that it’s not a good idea to go after him directly, and we experienced this in the Clinton administration.”
Indyk said he once asked a friend of Netanyahu’s during his first stint as prime minister in the mid-’90s why he had been singled out for criticism, despite considering himself pro-Israel.
“The guy said very simply: ‘Well, we can’t go after [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright or Bill Clinton, so you’re the next best thing,’” the former ambassador said.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.