Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

How the ‘Obama and Israel’ Debate Misses the Point

March 13, 2013 12:56 am 0 comments

WASHINGTON, DC – A persistent theme at this month’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the weightiest and most influential of all the groups making Israel’s case in Washington, centered on President Barack Obama’s record on Israel in comparison with previous Administrations.

Vice President Joe Biden, who addressed the conference on Monday morning, was unequivocal.

“No President has done more to protect Israel than Obama,” he declared. (Interestingly, the applause that greeted this remark was noticeably more muted than that which followed Biden’s other statements, for example on the need to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.)

Many of the numerous tweets from the assembled crowd that conveyed each of Biden’s points noted that there was a massive elephant in the room, in the form of the recently confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Hagel’s record of hostile statements towards the “Jewish lobby” (his phrase) and his queasiness about pursuing the military option with regard to Iran didn’t exactly boost the image of Obama as offered up by Biden, who prudently elected to leave Hagel out of his speech.

The debate about Obama’s friendliness to Israel has essentially been an exercise in number crunching. Partisans of the administration point out that securing Israel’s military edge is a key aim that has been acted upon: close to a billion dollars has been granted for missile defense, including the path-breaking Iron Dome system, along with $3.1 billion in aid last year, and the provision of bunker busting bombs that would presumably be deployed in any pre-emptive strike upon Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Those less sanguine about Obama’s record point out that this level of aid is hardly unprecedented. In 2000, as the Israeli-Palestinian grand bargain negotiated through the Oslo Agreement began to unravel with the second Palestinian intifada, the Clinton Administration provided Israel with $3.12 billion in aid—adjusted for inflation, that’s just over $4 billion in today’s terms. The Obama skeptics also argue that the current level of American aid to Israel was set in 2007 by the previous George W. Bush administration, following a 10-year, $30 billion military aid package agreed to by Washington and Jerusalem.

The bottom line is simply this: If the available data makes nonsense of the claim that Obama is an Israel-hating radical, it also shows that he’s nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, he’s had a frosty relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, but when has the U.S.-Israel relationship been smooth sailing? Ronald Reagan famously tussled with the Israelis over the provision of AWACs to Saudi Arabia, while George H.W. Bush expressed his displeasure with Israeli policy towards the Palestinians by threatening to cut off loan guarantees to the government of the late Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

Why, then, does anxiety persist in pro-Israel circles about Obama? Because, I would argue, his administration’s foreign policy can be encapsulated in a single word: equivocation. And it’s a problem that extends far beyond bilateral relations with Israel.

Take Syria. As Bashar al-Assad’s butchery continues without mercy, we long ago lost an opportunity to take charge of regime change by striking a deal with Syrian rebels, thus leaving the field open to Al Qaeda affiliates and other Islamist groups. (Contrast Obama’s dithering over Syria with the decisive French military intervention against Islamist terrorists in Mali.) Now there is a very real prospect that Assad’s weapons of mass destruction could fall into the hands of such groups, with potentially dire consequences for the security situation on Israel’s northern border.

Or take Egypt. When it comes to the Arab world’s historically dominant country, Obama and his foreign policy team have actively stoked the fiction that the new Muslim Brotherhood regime in Cairo can somehow be moderated.

Further afield, there is a clear lack of U.S. leadership everywhere from the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea’s communist regime is engaging in one of its periodic bouts of hysteria against the South, to Latin America, where a U.S. government delegation dutifully trooped to the funeral of Venezuela’s tyrant, Hugo Chavez, alongside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Such displays fuel the fear that Obama doesn’t do enough to distinguish between our friends and our enemies, and that he takes our friends for granted while exaggerating the degree of goodwill on the part of our enemies.

Put another way, this administration does very little to promote constitutional liberal democracy—a system which, as the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued in the eighteenth century, is the best guarantor of “perpetual peace”—on a global scale. Its conduct of international relations is akin to the “talking cure” favored by relationship therapists: engage in dialogue, and everything will be all right.

That’s why I have no argument with those who say Obama is committed to Israel’s defense. My reservations stem from his over-cautious response to the myriad threats that face not just Israel, but other key allies of the United States as well. And with the main impact of sequestration hitting the defense budget, there is good reason to worry that the administration has made its peace with the decline of American power at precisely the time it’s needed most.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. 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.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Larry King Asks Saudi Arabian Fan If Taking Pictures With Jews Is Permitted

    Jewish former CNN host Larry King asked a Saudi Arabian fan if taking pictures with Jews is allowed in his country, before agreeing to pose for a photo with the man, The New York Times reported on Wednesday. The world-famous interviewer was leaving the Ritz Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. with a New York Times reporter when a “dark-skinned man” approached and asked to take a picture with him, according to the publication. Whereupon, King asked the fan where he was from. When the man said Saudi […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    Britain’s Lord Sugar Says Synagogues Will Be Empty With Yom Kippur Matchup of Jewish-Supported Soccer Teams

    British-Jewish business tycoon Lord Alan Sugar joked on Wednesday that London synagogues will likely be empty during Yom Kippur with congregants fleeing to watch the match-up of two leading English soccer teams known for having hordes of Jewish fans. “Spurs V Arsenal cup game drawn on most important Jewish festival,” Lord Sugar pointed out on Twitter. “Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion Synagogues will be empty.” North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC will go head-to-head in the Capital One Cup third-round […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Jewish Men Pass Jimmy Kimmel Social Experiment, Rescuing ‘Spongebob’ in Distress (VIDEO)

    Two Jewish men were the only unwitting participants in a social experiment conducted by Jimmy Kimmel, for his popular TV show. As part of a candid-camera-like sketch featured Monday night on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the host devised different street scenes to observe human behavior — in particular, to see how long it would take people walking down California’s bustling Hollywood Boulevard to notice and interact with others in distress. One scene involved a man in a Spongebob Squarepants costume who had “fallen down” on the sidewalk and needed help […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    International Jewish Organization Blasts Israeli-Born Star Natalie Portman for Comments on Holocaust Education

    A major Jewish organization rebuked actress Natalie Portman on Monday for saying in a recent interview that Jews put too much emphasis on teaching about the Holocaust relative to other genocides. The Israeli-born movie star told the U.K.’s Independent that the Jewish community needs to examine how much focus it puts on Holocaust education over other issues. She said she was shocked when she learned that a genocide was taking place in Rwanda while she was in school learning only about the horrors of the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israel Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    Book Draws Parallels Between Holocaust and Palestinian Nakba, Sparks Outrage

    JNS.org – A new book that draws parallels between the Holocaust and the Palestinian Nakba (the Arabic term for the displacement of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s War of Independence) has sparked outrage ahead of an official book launch, to be hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute on Sept. 7. The Zionist organization Im Tirtzu wrote a letter to the institute demanding that it cancel an event it planned in honor of the book’s authors, under the title The Holocaust and […]

    Read more →
  • Education US & Canada Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Natalie Portman Says Holocaust Education Shouldn’t be Used for ‘Fearmongering’

    Famed actress Natalie Portman warned on Friday against the use of Holocaust education to evoke fear and paranoia. In an interview with the U.K. Independent she added that the trauma should make Jews more empathetic to others who have also experienced hatred. “Sometimes it can be subverted to fearmongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen,’” the Israeli-American star said. “We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, antisemitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Commentary A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    A Righteous Gentile Navigates the Sharkpool of Washington’s Middle East Correspondents (REVIEW)

    The Tribalist, by Louis Marano, is ostensibly a work of fiction but at its core a kind of love song by a gentile journalist for the State of Israel, and especially its secular Zionist core. (Because of the relentless attacks by left-wing polemicists on Israel’s allegedly “messianic” fringe, it’s often forgotten that most of Israel’s founders and all its leaders have been secular Zionists.) The author, the product of an Italian-American family in Buffalo, served two tours of duty in […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    Rugelach Roundtable: Does Beloved Pastry Need Dairy to Taste Good?

    JNS.org – Rugelach (singular: rugala) are a beloved traditional Jewish pastry, with a quirky history to boot, but they often present a kosher conundrum. Though parve rugelach are often a preferred dessert after a meat meal for those observing kosher laws (which stipulate a waiting period between eating meat and dairy), some of today’s most popular rugelach are known for their dairy fillings. Pastry chef Paula Shoyer—author of the books “The Kosher Baker: Over 160 Dairy-free Recipes from Traditional to Trendy” and […]

    Read more →