Obama and Israel: A Friend, but Curiously Tone Deaf to Our Concerns
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Friend or foe?

Since President Obama’s much-promoted speech about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process two weeks ago, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s heated reaction to it, the Jewish world has been engaged in serious if familiar impassioned conversation about exactly that. Is this President a “friend of Israel,” or something other?

To be sure, there are sectors of the American Jewish community, particularly the religious/nationalist sector, that are completely convinced that Obama is a soneh Yisrael -  an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people. This intense and unambivalent animus is often visceral, not rational in the strict sense of the word, and difficult to counter. And as bad as it can be here in America, it’s even more visceral in Israel, where the ill feeling is coupled with existential fear. Some of the things I’ve heard said by people whom I otherwise respect have deeply dismayed me.

There’s really no talking to those people about Obama. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything much the President could do to change their minds except maybe convert to Judaism, join Beitar, and make aliyah to a West Bank settlement - all unlikely. And really - who would accept his conversion?

On the other side, there are people in the Jewish community who are so ready to make any concession necessary to the Palestinians to advance the peace process that they, too, are difficult to take seriously. I would like to see the world through rose colored lenses also, but I can’t. I desperately want peace- but I am not willing to take a chance on sacrificing Israel to achieve it.

And so we are left with the middle, where little is clear, and nothing at all is absolute. I ask if the President is a friend or “something other” because I simply cannot bring myself to believe that he is a foe, or that he has done anything to indicate that he is a foe. I do believe that President Obama is committed to Israel and her survival, and to Israel’s special relationship with the United States. He has proven that in his strengthening of the strategic relationship between the two countries, in his repeated iterations of the “ironclad” nature of the bond between us, and in his clear recognition of Israel’s status as a Jewish state.

If one researches the recent history of previous negotiations and encounters between Israel and the United States, he will find that the President’s claim is true. He said nothing particularly groundbreaking in his State Department speech. The idea that any future resolution of this dispute would be based on the 1967 truce lines (no, they’re not borders) with land swaps to account for changes since then and security concerns was an idea that Israel herself had accepted long ago. There is absolute documentary proof of this. It has been the basic, over-arching idea of all negotiations between America and Israel, through Rabin, Barak, and even Netanyahu. This is not a new idea.

So perhaps the better way to ask the question is- what kind of friend is President Obama? And why is what he said so very difficult for large swaths of the Jewish community to hear?

Those, I think, are legitimate questions, and difficult ones to answer.

No - the ideas that the President addressed in his speech were not new. But what was new, and obviously troubling to many who love Israel, is how President Obama advanced the idea, when he advanced it, and the tone of voice in which he advanced it. That is new, and worthy of note… and maybe worth worrying about.

The President promoted his speech as a major address on the Middle East peace process, and summoned the world to listen. He delivered it against the backdrop of continued unrest and troubling developments in Egypt, violent demonstrations in Syria, and, perhaps most significantly, shortly after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority merged into one government to represent the Palestinian people.

President Obama’s call to Israel to make “painful choices” seemed oddly oblivious to the last painful choice that Israel made for the sake of peace- withdrawing from Gaza. That certainly turned out catastrophically for her. All pain, and no gain.

With Hamas wresting control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, Gaza became a launching pad - literally and figuratively- for attacks against Israel. Since Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has been steadily re-arming. Now that Mubarak is no longer in charge of Egypt, there is no blockade of weapons being smuggled in. Public opinion in Egypt has shown no sign of being more favorably disposed towards Israel, even though the peaceful uprising there was not about Israel at all.

Mr. President - are there dramatic changes in the tone of Palestinian textbooks, or the sermons of Imams, or on Palestinian public media that would give Israel any reason to believe that “making painful choices for peace” is what the moment calls for, or that those choices would indeed at all advance the cause of real peace? With Hamas still calling for Israel’s destruction, with whom exactly is Israel to be negotiating with?

If President Obama really wants to move the peace process along and believes that a change in Israel’s attitude is necessary, he will have to earn the trust of Israelis, and the American Jews who support her. It has to begin with trust.

President Clinton had Israel ready to make previously unimaginable concessions during the Barak/Arafat negotiations, because Israelis believed that Clinton had Israel’s back. His connection with Israel, particularly around the time of the Rabin assassination, was so clearly heartfelt that Israelis were willing to trust that he would never do anything to hurt them. They believed him when he said that he cared for Israel. One wants that feeling from a true friend.

I personally think that the best way for him to accomplish this is to go to Israel and speak directly to the people of Israel, from the podium of the Knesset, as he did to the Arab world in Cairo. But that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon.

President Obama, in his cool and detached manner, does not inspire the same trust in American Jews, or in Israelis. And until such time as he does, he is unlikely to prod Israel to change its posture- Israel’s own internal political considerations notwithstanding. I thought that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response was out of proportion to the perceived provocation. It was an over-reaction, and not helpful to Israel. But I must also admit that the President’s speech left me scratching my head and wondering why his friendship is so hard to relate to.

I think I know why. I believe that he is a friend, and most certainly not an enemy. But I am not at all convinced that he is the kind of friend who identifies with Israel’s narrative. I do. I want to believe in him. I really do. But he has a lot of convincing left to do.

 Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more  "A Rabbi's World" columns, click here




Last Update:

06/13/2011 - 12:38
Barack Obama, Israel, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Jewish politics

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What was so disturbing was the way the issues were switched. Israel cannot negotiate with an entity that does not recognize her as legitimate. How can there be a meeting of the minds, when the "partner" you are dealing with does not recognize you? This has been the fundamental problem all along. The exact nature of concessions, is secondary. This is a matter that the parties to the negotiation will have to work out, with an eye toward the numerous issues that are on the table: refugees, security, Jerusalem, etc.

with a "friend" like obama israel needs to watch its back. i've looked at photos of obama over the last couple of years when he greets other heads of state. he has had big smiles for any number of arab and nonarab despots, but when he is photographed with bibi his expression is consistently sour and antagonistic. i think this overt body language really spells out obama's negative attitude towards both israel and its leader.

Regarding Gaza,

Regarding the Gaza withdrawal, I'm not sure what Sharon's motive was, though there is evidence that he thought it would be such a mess that it would foreclose withdrawal from the West Bank. In any case you ignore that many on the left, in Israel and outside, warned at the time that it was a mistake not to do it in co-ordination with the PA, to create a viable situation in the strip after withdrawal.

Since Obama is no friend of America, why should he be a friend of Israel?

Right on, Rabbi Skolnik! The president's words were ok, mostly, but something is missing in his music. You articulate that imbalance in precisely the right way.

I am pleased to see Rabbi Skolnik's acknowledgment that the Religious Zionist movement's hatred of Barack Obama is irrational, although the correct word for it -- racist -- is avoided. He's also right in noting that nothing in Obama's much-ballyhooed speech was remotely new, let alone unfavorable to Israel.

But I'm afraid this column also shows how little real difference separates self-described centrists like Rabbi Skolnik from the bigoted fanatics he (mildly) criticizes. On what substantive points do they differ? Rabbi Skolnik describes Israel's "withdrawal" from Gaza as if Israel were the victim of a brutal campaign that began as "economic warfare" (Israel's words) against a million and half Palestinians and climaxed in the slaughter of some 1,400 essentially defenseless people, including over 300 children. And he complains that Hamas is "still calling for Israel's destruction," while ignoring the fact that Israel's Prime Minister has gone beyond Hamas (which has repeatedly sought to negotiate peace) by denying before the U.S. Congress that Israel is even an occupying power. Would he call a Palestinian "moderate" who denied the very existence of Israel?

Moderates like these only strengthen the hands of the extremists. If Rabbi Skolnik really wants to "prod Israel to change its posture," what about demanding a stop to West Bank Jewish settlement (much of it peopled by Americans like himself) -- a movement that violates not only international law but Talmudic dictates as well?

How about this for an answer: Because he's NOT really a friend?

Doesn't seem like it would take a rocket scientist to figure this one out.

Let me ask you this one Rabbi:

OBAMA on Pre-1967 Borders for Israel....

Imagine he is your Real Estate agent selling your house. You are asking $200K but he says that since you only paid $50K when you bought it 30 years ago, he'll start the negotiations there .... With agreed upon adjustments, of course.

Would you hire him?

If you are a Democrat, you did....now let's fire him.

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