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Obama Is Finally Doing the Right Thing on Israel—For Now, At Least

Not yet two months into his presidency, Barack Obama designated Chas Freeman as chair of the National Intelligence Council. It wasn’t the first indication that the United States would likely embark on a new and what was at best a jejune and shallow foreign policy. But the appointment was disturbing all the same. Altogether aside from some raw anti-Jewish biases, Freeman had done a good deal of time in the foreign service, stationed in venues where the instincts of his hosts were especially appreciated by this oh, so cooperative Washington emissary. His two major postings were in Beijing and Riyadh. He would later actually criticize the red regime over how late and weak its suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations had been. When it came to Saudi Arabia, he was simply what the kids call a “suck-up.” He renamed the Saudi monarch “Abdullah the Great.” Yuck. Oh, yes, and he despised Israel. He later became chairman of the Middle East Policy Council, succeeding George McGovern who also despises Israel. (Both of them are, of course, completely now out to pasture, daffy in the head.) If you like, you can read what I wrote on the Freeman appointment here. Alas, Freeman withdrew his name even before his designation could be vetted by the Senate. He complained that folks like me had jettisoned his appointment. It would have been nice to see Democrats and Republicans question him and then pummel him a bit. Still, the nomination itself was a signal as to what Obama intended for the Jewish state.

The very surprising words in Obama’s address to the General Assembly on Wednesday assured Israelis, Jews, Zionists, and literally millions and millions of Christians (along with other religious humanists) whose beliefs ally them with Jewish civilization that America had not actually turned its back on the very nation that was the first in history to define and give content to the idea of peoplehood.

Read these words carefully:

Let us be honest with ourselves: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile and persecution, and fresh memories of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they are. Those are facts. They cannot be denied.
The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine.

Well, for the first time the president had actually been honest with himself, not totally honest, to be sure, but honest enough, giving him the undeserved benefit of the doubt. Had he spoken like this in any one of the venues where he had previously addressed crowds actually concerned about a peace settlement in the region he would have first of all assured the State of Israel that he understood its history, its security needs, and its very realistic anxieties about the mercurial neighborhood in which it lives. Had Obama done something like this before he would have reassured the lovers of Zion, the many tens of millions in America, and similar numbers elsewhere that all of his talk about statehood for the Palestinians was not just about satisfying their grievances but also calming the deep foreboding of the Jewish commonwealth that practical arrangements will not be made to balance the obvious instability of Arab countries and present Muslim civilization. This would not be easy to achieve.

I don’t imagine that the president cottoned lightly to the tactics and strategy of his own U.N. speech. It was not his natural bearing or disposition. But the raw fact is that Mohammed Abbas refused to compromise on his insistence that America be the party that negotiates with Israel over settlements in the West Bank and about the myriad issues surrounding Jerusalem. By his anger and his ongoing reproaches to Netanyahu (and the almost day-in-day-out cuts at the Israeli prime minister) the president seemed to oblige the Palestinians. The administration also mounted a campaign among fashionable media to demonize Bibi, a campaign taken up irrationally by nearly the whole salient staff of The New York Times: Helene Cooper, Tom Friedman, Ethan Bronner, Nick Kristof, Isabel Kershner, and the anonymous but consistent writers of almost identical cliches on the editorial page. Even New York magazine has mounted its own campaign against Israel and its prime minister, a virtually fact-less campaign beginning with cover art of the back of Obama’s head covered by a kippah.What is Netanyahu’s sin? He would not permit the Obama administration to negotiate on Israel’s behalf. Which self-respecting country would have parlayed with an intermediary, even one so crucial to its own security like America, over such defining matters? That Obama somehow felt that he could force Israel to participate in such an unrealistic gambit shows how innocent he is or how malevolent he was. Indeed, both his innocence and his malevolence were bolstered by his essential sympathies with the Palestinian cause. But I suspect that Obama will not indulge the Arabs in such dangerous fantasies again.

Obama’s shift is actually a reproach to Israel’s desperate and declining peace lefties. They had counted on him to turn the tide against Bibi, whose center of gravity is, alas, the right. But as the American administration now stands, willy nilly, with Netanyahu, it can count on a shift in the Israeli populace to be more open to risk. This means testing the Palestinians so long as the testing is gradual and the risks not life-threatening. My guess is that the authoritarian foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, from the ultra-nationalist party “Israel Our House,” would have preferred Obama to adhere to his traditional punitive approach to Israel so that he—Lieberman—could push further with what is nearly a fascist disposition.

As it happens, almost none of the cognoscenti have pointed out that Abbas has now refused to negotiate with Israel at all for a year and a half. Sainted man, he has served as president of the Palestinian Authority two years past the expiration of his term. In insisting on going to the Security Council for what he will not in any case get, Abbas has undercut many of the accomplishments of his premier, Salaam Fayyad, which include deep cooperation with Israel on security, economic development, and urban expansion, particularly in Ramallah and Jenin. You are also invited to forget that the power of the P.A. does not extend to Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, a terrorist group that also portends to be a real government. The U.N. is being courted to establish a state. Any state established will be two warring states—unless, of course, Israel keeps them apart. Which, if I were it, I wouldn’t. Who will keep them apart? Maybe Turkey.

Turkey is the big new actor over Palestine. I’ve written that Obama may have inspired Erdogan to involve himself and his country in the resolution of the “Palestine question.” Perhaps, yes; perhaps, no. If yes, it was another one of Obama’s infatuations. In any case, Erdogan is obsessed with the mischievous flotilla which he launched against the perfectly legal Israeli blockade against Gaza. Nine Turks were killed by the Israel Defense Forces in a confrontation on the high seas. All of them understood the danger to their lives.

As soon as Obama made clear that the U.S. will not countenance a state invented by the United Nations but without real borders, the European Union fantasy intruded itself on the General Assembly in the person of Nicolas Sarkozy. Of course, the E.U. barely exists—what with its monetary troubles already threatened by the insolvency or coming insolvency of Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and maybe Iceland. And what about Belgium? It hasn’t had a government for almost two years. This is silly, portentous, and unreal. 

Robert Satloff, the brilliant analyst of Middle Eastern matters, has written a short paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on “Obama’s Focus at the U.N.: Getting Passionate About Israel.” My analysis above and his coincide in many material details, especially about the consequences for the Jewish state of the turn in the president’s rhetoric.

Aside from the president’s objections to the Palestinian Authority not shelving what he calls Abbas’s “U.N. gambit” for Palestinian statehood, Satloff writes:

Obama’s statement was not, one should point out, the unvarnished, chapter-and-verse recitation of Israel-friendly policy views on substantive issues. He could have noted that only one of the two parties—the Palestinians—has refused to negotiate since last September. He might have specifically underscored the reality of a divided Palestine, in which a sizable part of the state seeking UN recognition is under the control of a terrorist movement committed to Israel’s (and the Palestinian Authority’s) destruction. He did not take the opportunity to clarify certain aspects of his parameters for peacemaking that he sidestepped in his May remarks, such as the eminently logical principle that Palestinian refugees will return to Palestine, not Israel, or the urgency of an agreement that ends the conflict and terminates all claims once and for all. He could have scolded many in the room, especially Arab states and their all-talk-but-no-action approach to the Palestinian state-building project. And he should have called specifically on rulers and peoples in countries that already have treaties with Israel (i.e., Egypt and Jordan) to strengthen the regional environment for peace by defending their strategic choice for peace, rather than letting it be the preferred pinata for discontent over domestic issues.
Still, those deficiencies only marginally detract from the declaratory power of his speech. Many factors may have motivated the president to make his passionate statement opposing Palestinian UN recognition, but whether it was born of high policy, moral conviction, or crass politics, it will be compared in the annals of America’s lonely defense of Israel at the United Nations alongside Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s castigation of the Zionism-is-Racism resolution during the Ford administration, and John Negroponte’s declaration during the George W. Bush administration that the United States would veto any Security Council resolution on the Middle East conflict that failed to condemn terrorism against Israel.
Beyond the peace process, the more substantial critiques of the president’s speech concern the following:
● On Iran, the president could spare just one bland sentence; he passed on the opportunity of linking Iran’s atrocious human rights record with the equally atrocious repression of Iran’s only Arab ally, Syria; and he offered no specific suggestion on ways to impose what he called “greater pressure and isolation” on their nuclear program. The rhetorical sidelining of the multifaceted challenge posed by Iran was the most disappointing—and worrying—aspect of the speech.
● On Syria, the president talked of the need for rhetorical measures—“we must speak with one voice... [and] stand with the Syrian people”—but he offered no glimpse of U.S. commitment to take practical measures to protect innocent Syrians from the brutality of their government, such as the creation of internationally protected humanitarian zones on Syria’s borders or the formation of a formal contact group to engage with the Syrian opposition.
● On support for Arab transitions to democracy, Obama confirmed that America’s cupboard is bare and there is little to spare. Whereas he spoke in May 2011 of supporting Egypt and Tunisia with “trade, not just aid,” there was no mention of aid at all in yesterday’s remarks, just “greater trade and investment.”
● As is now customary in the president’s speeches on the Middle East, he boldly affirmed America’s commitment to a range of “universal rights” (about women, religious tolerance, etc.) but never mentioned a country in which these rights are routinely and legally denied—Washington’s premier Arab ally, Saudi Arabia.
● And in the a-bit-too-much category, the president could not restrain himself from three specific references to Usama bin Laden, as if the assembled gathering needed multiple reminders that he was the commander-in-chief who ordered the raid on the compound in Abbottabad.
Taken together, the president’s words on the broader Middle East lacked both the power and the import of his passionate statement on behalf of Israel. That is almost surely the way he planned it.

We shall see what we shall see. Will Obama’s sudden counter-instinctive respect for Israel’s predicament be long-lasting? Will Israel see Obama’s shift as both grave and truthful? Will it, can it aim to reinforce that change? How does he deal with his own sensibility and his many anti-Semitic allies so at odds with the millennial journey of Zion to the State of the Jews?

Martin Peretz is editor-in-chief emeritus of The New Republic.