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Obama and Israel: Degrees of separation

Click photo to download. Caption: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Credit: White House and Gage Skidmore.
Click photo to download. Caption: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Credit: White House and Gage Skidmore.

American foreign policy, and specifically its Middle Eastern dimension, came back into play last week in a presidential election campaign that has largely focused on domestic issues. The big dispute centered around which candidate had outflanked the other in reaching out to Israel—as Mitt Romney prepared for his arrival in Israel, President Obama announced that he would sign a bill enhancing cooperation between the United States and Israel.

Congress already passed that bill, the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act, with strong bipartisan support. As an expression of policy, it is a welcome reaffirmation of American objectives with regard to a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That there needs to be a two-state solution is pretty much the global consensus, but the bill places strong emphasis on the requirement that Israel’s neighbors recognize its right “to exist as a Jewish state,” an inflection that, with the exception of Canada, most of the other parties with regional influence tend to downplay. The bill also quotes former President George W. Bush’s elegant 2008 summation of what makes the U.S.-Israel relationship distinctive: “The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty.”

Most importantly of all, the bill commits the U.S. to preserving Israel’s “qualitative military edge,” the one factor that has prevented the Middle East from collapsing into an all-out, genocidal war of elimination since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948. That means speeding up the delivery of F-35 fighter aircraft to Israel and improving cooperation in all areas of security, from counterterrorism to cyberspace.

So is everything now a bed of roses in a bilateral relationship that has been through distinctly sour moments since Obama’s election four years ago? There was never, of course, any question that the U.S.-Israel relationship would be ruptured; the issue has been the degree of separation between the two countries on key political and military challenges.

Obama famously believes that there needs to be, as he told U.S. Jewish leaders gathered at the White House in July 2009, more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel. Obama said this in order to contrast his approach with that of his predecessor; yet, three years later, we are no closer to a meaningful deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

In the meantime, the dynamics of the region have changed radically. The notion, beloved of the United Nations and European governments, that the road to a peaceful, prosperous Middle East runs through Jerusalem was always a dubious one; now, following the regime changes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, the idea that the Palestinians hold the keys to peace seems almost laughable.

Israel’s greatest concerns revolve around the region as a whole, of which the Palestinian aspect is merely one part, and not the most important. Foremost is Iran’s nuclear program, and not far behind is what the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act terms “a rise in the influence of radical Islamists,” most obviously the new Muslim Brotherhood administration of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, and the unmitigated hostility of Prime Minister Erdogan’s Islamist government in Turkey.

All of these governments are supportive, to varying degrees, of the Islamist narrative on Zionism and Israel; at best, they will grudgingly accept Israel as a temporary fact, but they are millions of miles from acknowledging its historic, legal and moral legitimacy.

Israelis are all too aware of this new reality, in which the predictable behavior associated with the old regimes, like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, has vanished. And that is why what might seem to be minor slights —I’m thinking of exclusion of Israel from the counterterrorism forum convened by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Istanbul in June—can be interpreted as an alarming abandonment of Israel at a time when its regional standing is about where it was in 1967.

Even more significantly, as the veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller argued in a recent piece for Foreign Policy magazine, “unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn’t in love with the idea of Israel.” This lack of emotional identification is the main theme of a new advertising campaign launched by the Emergency Committee for Israel, which, in highlighting Obama’s comparative coldness towards Israel, quotes a Palestinian official who observed the absence of an “emotion-based relationship” between Obama and Israel. That’s a major reason behind Miller’s conclusion that more turbulence is inevitable should Obama win in November and should Benjamin Netanyahu remain Israel’s Prime Minister. As he writes, “on the issue of a peace settlement, Obama’s views are much closer to the Palestinians than to Israel.”

That is not the case with Mitt Romney, who has been stepping up the pro-Israel rhetoric of late. In an otherwise bland interview with Ha’aretz as he departed for Israel, Romney made the telling point that “the question is not whether the people of the region believe that there should be a Palestinian state. The question is if they believe there should be an Israeli state, a Jewish state.”

At the moment, by and large, they don’t. Hence the justified concern at the prospect of a second term with a president who has no patience with Israel’s deepest worry of all—that its neighbors don’t think it has a right to be there in the first place.

I once had a fascinating conversation with a former senior official of the Clinton Administration, in which he related a discussion he’d had with a leader of the Palestinian Authority. Asked why the Palestinians had bailed out at the 11th hour on the final peace deal put forward by Clinton in 2000, the PA leader replied that he and his colleagues were expecting a Republican president to take the reins at the White House, and that they would get a more favorable deal under those circumstances. The Clinton official responded that if the Palestinians understood anything about George W. Bush, they would realize that such a waiting game was futile.

In that event, he turned out to be right. Yet, more than a decade later, the Palestinians are still playing the waiting game. Only this time, their calculations might be closer to the mark. A second Obama administration could provide with the Palestinians with, to adapt a well-worn saying, an opportunity not to miss an opportunity. What isn’t clear is whether the Palestinian leadership is smart enough to take advantage of that, and push themselves back to the center of Middle East politics.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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