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...

  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    For Alan Gross, Cuban Prison Didn’t Harden His Heart or Weaken His Ambition

    JNS.org – Alan Gross used to be nothing more to me than a tragic headline. When I started my position at this news service in July 2011, Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009 for what that country called “crimes against the state.” Gross, a subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development, went to Cuba to help the Jewish community there access the Internet. After his arrest, he received a trial he describes as a “B movie,” […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Features New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    New Movie Shows How Global Economic Instability Grew From Very Local Greed

    JNS.org – When I saw the recent Academy Award-winning film “The Big Short,” I was struck by the sheer genius of the financiers who devised the schemes and packaged the loans for resale, but it left me with unanswered questions about how the properties these loans represented were moved. “The Big Short” was largely about paper transactions, big money, and wealthy investors, and it mildly touched on the way the actual end-users — the home buyers and brokers — played into this […]

    Read more →