Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Obama administration to Israel: Forget about what we do! Didn't Obama say he supports Israel?

By Barry Rubin

It is truly remarkable that even when the Obama administration is consciously, explicitly trying to show that it understands the Middle East, it shows that it…doesn’t understand the Middle East.

And Israel most of all.

Here’s the background. Aluf Benn, a brilliant reporter for whom I have great respect, wrote a New York Times op-ed that says what everyone in Israel knows (and what I’ve written repeatedly): the Obama administration has alienated Israeli public opinion across the political spectrum.

(True, foreign reporters can find some people who say Israel should go along with Obama, but even they are clear that this is only to avoid making him angry and because they think his policy will fail any way.)

Then Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, another superb reporter, interviewed two senior administration officials who claim that Benn and everyone else in Israel--which is after all the point, isn’t it?—got it wrong. Obama did two things in his Cairo speech for which Israelis are supposed to be grateful.

First, he spoke of America’s strong support for Israel, while talking directly to the Muslim world. (This was no doubt useful in case anyone in the Muslim world didn't know that the United States supports Israel.)

Second, he pointed out that regimes used the Palestinian issue as a diversion from their own problems and spoke in favor of democracy. (And then went on to fit his own policy completely into that deception.)

Goldberg seemed to find this claim at least partly persuasive. I find it completely ridiculous.

Here is a president whose administration publicly stated--before any consultation with the Israeli government--that he's going to force Israel to make a major concession, offered nothing in return, and made no demand on the Arab world. (Obama suggested politely and privately that Arab states should give Israel some confidence-building measure.)

Meanwhile, he told a Jewish leaders' delegation--into which he forced leaders of two anti-Israel groups--that the United States needed to distance itself more from Israel. Oh, and he said that a U.S. guarantee to Israel which Israelis believe had been given--correctly, I am positive--by the previous president never happened.

How could those silly Israelis be uncertain of his firm and reliable backing, administration officials say. Let me count the ways:

In the Cairo speech, Obama pandered to Islam, exonerating Muslims of any past intolerance whatsoever, focusing on Palestinian suffering (and alleged eagerness for a comprehensive peace agrement) while strongly implying that Israel only existed because of the Holocaust.

Yes, he also said that the United States strongly supported Israel and would continue to do so. Well, every president has said it and they actually did it. When Obama put that into his Cairo speech it had to be viewed by his audience as either something obvious or--wink, wink; nudge, nudge--a figleaf for a drastically different new policy.

And he did say Arab states used the Palestinian issue as an excuse to avoid democracy and to face their own failings.

But so what? At the same time his administration stopped any pressure toward democracy (he could barely support it verbally in Iran after a stolen election when millions were protesting) and accepted the idea--precisely the point he was supposedly contesting--that the Palestinian issue is the most important thing in the Middle East, maybe even in the world.

Let's review that last factor. Obama says: You're just pushing this issue to hide behind. But we will go along with this game and act as if we have to deliver on it to get anywhere with you.

Obama himself completely negated the point he was supposedly making.

No doubt, these senior officials are sitting around in Washington DC congratulating themselves on how they showed Israel that it could feel secure with an Obama administration.

At the same time, everyone in Israel keeps saying: No, we don't feel secure.

And when someone points that out right in their faces--the op-ed page of the New York Times-- so they can't ignore it--the response is: oh, no, you aren't paying proper attention.

What a wonderful symbol this is for the Obama administration's foreign policy! It takes a wrong tactic, strategy, statement, but then interprets it as if everyone else gets it wrong.

Iran;s regime doesn't understand that the United States is getting tough? Arab states don't understand that the United States will protect them from Iran? Central Europeans don't get it that Obama isn't selling them out to the Russians?

Hey! They just aren't paying attention!

But it's the Obama administration officials who aren't paying attention. They still didn't respond to Benn's point: Obama should speak to Israelis. They responded by saying that he spoke about Israel to Muslims. Isn't that better? No, it isn't.

It reminds me of the Stalinist Bertolt Brecht's reaction to the workers' uprising in East Germany and Poland in the 1950s: The workers have failed us. Let's elect a new proletariat.

Or perhaps to paraphrase the famous statement falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette: They aren't finding any bread in our policy? Didn't they see the cake we gave them!

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