Israeli public views Barack Obama as a ‘problematic friend’

Yarden Gazit Contributor
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A year after taking office, with approval ratings dropping every week, the Obama administration is desperate to claim a foreign policy achievement. In a White House press release made public on Tuesday, the administration claims to have “strengthened our enduring alliances and our standing in the world.” A debatable claim in most places, but an undoubtedly false one when it comes to Israel.

A poll conducted in June showed that only 6 percent of Israeli Jews view Obama’s administration as pro-Israel. More recent polls suggest that the figure is higher (up to 41 percent), but still much lower than for Obama’s predecessors. Given the legacy George W. Bush left Israelis — a war in Iraq that galvanized radicals against America and its allies, a strengthened Hamas that was allowed to participate in Palestinian elections because of his insistence and a peace process that amounted to nothing — their perception of Barack Obama seems puzzling.

Nonetheless, the president has been harshly criticized here by figures across the political spectrum. Yossi Beilin, former leader of left-wing Meretz party, has called on Obama’s envoy to the region, former Senator George Mitchell, to resign after “one year in which nothing happened but for the worse.” Yisrael Harel, a leader of the settler movement, called on the government to ignore Obama’s demand to restrain settlement growth in an op-ed titled, “The restraining of Obama.”

But both Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and Dr. Yehuda Ben Meir, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, say Obama should not take the criticism of the far right or the far left too seriously. “They represent a very small constituency,” Ben Meir says. The problem, says Halevi, is the criticism of mainstream Israelis. They have become suspicious of Obama after he made several mistakes.

The first, which is now recognized by the administration, was his insistence on a total settlement freeze, which led to the current standstill in the peace process. A complete freeze that includes Jerusalem is a demand no Israeli government could accept, and, once it has been set as a precondition by the president, no Palestinian leader could settle for less. Halevi describes the administration’s conduct on the settlement issue as “incomprehensible amateurishness.”

The president’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo was hailed by many as balanced and effective, but Israelis, according to Halevi, noticed nuances others did not. Obama mentioned the need for Arab countries to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, but offended Israelis by giving only one reason for this legitimacy — the Holocaust and Jewish suffering. By not mentioning the deep historical connection between Jews and the Holy Land, Israelis felt Obama played into the hands of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who attempts to de-legitimize Israel by denying the Holocaust.

Threatened by Iran’s president, Israelis listened carefully when President Obama declared the end of 2009 as a deadline for negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, and when Secretary of State Clinton threatened Iran with “crippling sanctions” if negotiations failed. Earlier this month, when Secretary Clinton declared that there was “no hard-and-fast deadline,” the administration lost much credibility in the eyes of Israelis.

Ben Meir agrees that Obama made certain mistakes, but argues that he corrected them in recent months. Several steps the administration took — accepting Netanyahu’s partial settlement freeze and calling for negotiations without preconditions, supporting Israel in blocking the Goldstone report (accusing Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza) at the U.N., conducting a joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise in October and adopting a harsher tone on Iran — have made the Israeli public more balanced in its approach to the president. “Only a minority is hostile toward Obama; most Israelis view him as neutral,” says Ben Meir.

Obama is not hostile to Israel, but Halevi says the mistakes he made during his first year in office make him “a problematic friend.” Ultimately, though, he will not be judged on anything he did in his first year. As far as Israelis are concerned, Obama will be judged on what he will have done for their security.

On Sunday, Ha’aretz, a major daily newspaper, reported that the Bush administration violated agreements with Israel by selling sophisticated arms to moderate Arab states, thus diminishing the Israeli army’s qualitative edge. The Obama administration, it was reported, agreed to discuss with Israeli officials how to resolve the problem. If the discussion will be anything like the negotiations with Iran have been so far, Obama should not expect to strengthen his standing in Jerusalem.