Jerusalem — The moment President Barack Obama declared victory, Israelis — both pundits and private individuals — began pondering what it could mean for Israel-U.S. relations.
“We want the best for the U.S. because we love the American people, but I hope we won’t need their government because, while I respect Obama, I don’t trust him,” said Michal Yehoshua, a 21-year-old government employee, sipping hot coffee during a break.
“In my opinion, the president wasn’t there for us when we needed him to face down Iran. Don’t misunderstand: the Americans have helped us tremendously and gave us the Iron Dome” against rockets fired from Gaza. “I just feel Israel can’t rely on them.”
Danny Gottlieb, a political activist in the Likud Party, was more hopeful.
While Obama “isn’t your classic pro-Israel candidate,” Gottlieb, an American expat from Illinois noted, “I think he is supportive of Israel’s security needs.”
Asked whether the reported lack of chemistry between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could jeopardize U.S.- Israel relations, Gottlieb said that despite occasional “undiplomatic” snafus, U.S. policy “isn’t based on chemistry.”
“No president has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or released Jonathan Pollard, and the policy on Judea and Samaria remains unchanged,” Gottlieb said, using the Hebrew term for the West Bank.
The personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama “won’t really make a great difference in U.S. support for Israel’s security needs,” agreed Peter Medding, a Hebrew University political science professor.
“The relationship “has been strengthened under [Presidents Bill] Clinton, [George W.] Bush and Obama. It’s a matter of the interests of the countries and how they see the world’s problems,” Medding insisted.
Yossi Shain, who heads the Abba Eban Program in Diplomacy at Tel Aviv University, doesn’t expect a big post-election shift in American Mideast policy.
“I predict Obama will proceed very gingerly along the lines of what he’s already done, and I doubt he’ll pay much attention, at least initially to many of the issues in the Middle East.”
Those who expect Obama to act aggressively to revive the Israeli-Palestinian track may be disappointed, Shain said, “because his prestige was injured when he tried it before” and the outcome of any future effort “is unknown.”
While Obama no longer has to worry about being re-elected, he is worried about his place in history, Shain said.
“He needs a legacy and he has a lot to lose from that perspective.”
One issue Obama will almost certainly tackle is Iran, Shain believes.
“Iran is key. He has to show incredible resolve against Iran and, if successful, will be able to use the Iranian result as a lever with the Israelis regarding all other outstanding issues. Of course, we need to wait and see what kind of government will be built in Israel” following Israeli elections in January.
Another issue for Obama: “How to build bridges with Egypt,” which is being led by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Shain said.
The U.S. can no longer speak the language of democracy” in the Middle East. “What’s needed is the language of stability and American national interests,” Shain asserted.
Michla Pomerance, a professor in international relations at Hebrew University, fears Obama will pressure Israel for sweeping concessions.
“A second-term president is not up for reelection, the Jewish vote is no longer an issue, so there might be a move toward some of the Palestinians’ demands to, for example, concede East Jerusalem.”
Pomerance said that from the Israeli government’s perspective, the Obama administration has “a kind of blinkered view” of Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Arab Spring popular uprisings that have destabilized them.
“We’re seeing the kind of Jimmy Carter syndrome that played out with the Shah of Iran,” Pomerance said of the alleged American government support the U.S. has and is giving rebel factions in the Middle East.
“The Shah was no paragon of human rights, but from American and Israeli interests he wasn’t threatening. You always have to consider what the alternative is,” Pomerance said, alluding to the 2011 uprising in Egypt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
“As long as Mubarak was in power the Muslim Brotherhood was suppressed,” she said. Now an Islamist is ruling the country.
It is “naïve,” Pomerance continued, to support the notion of free elections above all else.
“Democracy is much more than free elections, if they really are free. Pressing for the spread of American values while being ignorant of local reality can lead to trouble,” Pomerance asserted.
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