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Friday, May 27, 2011

Go to Israel: How Obama Can Do Better with Israelis

While he has many fans in Israel, most Israelis distrust and even dislike Obama.  This is unusual for an American president.  On the backdrop of the recent less-than-diplomatic clash between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, it is worth asking why this is the case.  The negative sentiments many Israelis harbor towards Obama are not adequately explained by the administration’s actions or policies, which have thus far been no less friendly to Israel than those of the previous two administrations.  The President’s middle name and race are also not the keys to unlocking the reasons for why so many Israelis dislike and distrust Obama, even though (and this may be part of the problem) the president himself has suggested as much (here).        

One seemingly plausible explanation is the ideological discord between the current (disgraceful) government of Israel and the Obama administration.  Simplistically put, the American presidency has moved to the left while Israel’s government has become more hawkish.  Moreover, the three most central members of Israel’s current government– Netanyahu, Barak, and Lieberman – have come to be personally despised in the Obama administration.  And who can blame them?  But friction between leaders is hardly new and is not a sufficient explanation for Israelis’ animosity towards Obama.  Neither is the ideology gap, considering that neither American nor Israeli policy has really changed all that much in the past two years and seeing that the recently proclaimed positions on the Palestinian issue of Obama and Netanyahu are not all that different, the brouhaha not withstanding.

The better explanation of Obama’s low “approval ratings” in Israel is more psychological, and the person most to blame for it is Obama himself. 

Obama is a populist everywhere but in Israel.  Obama’s two Middle East speeches – the Cairo speech and the recent “Arab Spring” speech – were addressed to the Arab people attempting to talk directly to the people of the region above the heads of the region’s governments and leaders.  Yet, unlike President Clinton who also pushed Israel towards peace, Obama has put little effort into speaking to Israel’s populous and gaining its trust.  When taken against the backdrop of Obama’s grand efforts towards winning the hearts and minds of the Arabs, neglecting to also visit Israel or to speak directly to its people is understandably experienced as an attempt to gain the favor of the Arabs by turning a cold shoulder to the Israelis.  When Obama looks to the Middle East Israelis eagerly search for that familiar gaze of recognition and find it exclusively affixed on others.   

If he truly wants to achieve peace Obama must win the trust and affections of Israelis.   Speaking at the yearly AIPAC convention and rehashing the old platitudes about a commitment to Israel’s security will not achieve this.  Go to Israel Mr. President.  Stand in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and speak to its people.  Get to know them.  Israelis, unlike many of their neighbors, love America and will be eager to listen.  And stop thinking of Israelis as if they were American Jews – all those references to your Jewish friends, advisers, the Holocaust, the civil rights movement are off the mark.  Make Israelis feel that you genuinely care and that you will be there when the chips are down, and more of them will entrust their security to you and follow your lead towards peace.  As of now – for most Israelis – you are a storm to be weathered.              

Posted by Ori Herstein on May 27, 2011 at 10:14 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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