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November 30, 2020 1:18 pm

Obama’s Promised Land

avatar by Jerold Auerbach


Former US President Barack Obama. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

A Promised Land, Barack Obama’s newly-published 768-page memoir that tops The New York Times Best Seller List, borrows its title from the Biblical recounting of God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. Millennia later that promised land was understood by Zionists to be the Land of Israel, where their ancient homeland would be restored. Curiously, the American president least friendly to the State of Israel since its birth in 1948 recasts the promised land of Jews to highlight the narrative of his own presidency.

Obama’s recounting of his relationship with Israel (in fewer than five pages) begins with the Balfour Declaration, noting that the promise of “a national home for the Jewish people” ignored the reality of “a region overwhelmingly populated by Arabs.” Following World War II, when the United Nations approved a plan to partition Palestine between Arabs and Jews, “Zionist leaders embraced the plan but Arab Palestinians … strenuously objected” and “the two sides fell into war.” They hardly “fell” into war. Arabs — as yet there were no self-defined “Palestinians” — waged war to exterminate the fledgling Jewish state. In Obama’s cursory narrative, “Israel would engage in a succession of conflicts with its Arab neighbors” — which, he fails to note, those “neighbors” provoked.

As president, Obama writes, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … weighed on me personally.” He claims to have believed that “there was an essential bond between the Black and the Jewish experiences” that made him “fiercely protective of the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own” — an absurdly inflated claim. Obama “thought it was reasonable to ask the stronger party to take a bigger first step” toward peace. But “the noise orchestrated by Netanyahu” — his favorite villain — “had the intended effect of gobbling up our time, putting us on the defensive, and reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister … exacted a domestic political cost that simply did not exist” when he dealt with “any of our other closest allies.” In translation, he was no match for Netanyahu.

Obama’s narrative conceals far more than it reveals about his impatience with, and eventual hostility toward, Israel. In his 2013 Jerusalem speech to “the people of Israel” he made clear his belief that “the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine” — “two states for two peoples.” In translation, all that was required was for Israel to relinquish its Biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria.

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The final blow to the relationship, and to Obama’s fantasy of presiding over peace, came when Israel announced permits for the construction of new housing units in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting. As “the window for any peace deal had closed,” he realized that “the children of despair” (Palestinians) would inevitably revolt against the “old order in the Middle East” and “those [Israelis] who maintained it.” In other words, Palestinian terrorism was predictable and forgivable.

Even before he arrived in the White House, Obama had pledged that he would create “daylight” between the United States and Israel. It may have been his singular foreign policy achievement, topped only by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (2015), his nuclear deal that provided Iran with a clear path toward atomic weapons — that is, until Israeli attacks (as recently as last week) killed Iran’s top nuclear scientists.

It is hardly surprising that A Promised Land would receive a fawning front-page review in the Sunday Times Book Review (November 29). Five pages long, comprising one-third of the Review, it was written by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, who deserves a prize for hero worship. In her ludicrous opening she writes that Obama’s pedestrian prose is “gorgeous in places, the detail granular and vivid.” More revealing is a Jewish Journal poll, taken just after Obama’s presidency ended, asking, “Which US President was the worst for Israel over the last 30 years?” Not surprisingly, in a landslide, Obama ranked highest at 63%. (His nearest challenger was Jimmy Carter at 16%.) A Promised Land reveals why.

In the final days of his presidency, Obama abstained from UN Resolution 2334 maligning Israeli settlements as a “flagrant violation of international law.” But for eight years he had made quite clear his discomfort with Jews living in their Biblical homeland. Yet, the title of his book — A Promised Land — is a biblical reference to God’s promise of the land to the Jewish people. Does he know that?

Ironically, the president most hostile to Israel was followed by the president who has done more for the Jewish state than any of his predecessors since Harry S. Truman recognized it moments after its declaration of independence.

Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, chosen for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.

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