It’s a cliché that every newly elected president takes office determined to rectify his predecessor’s mistakes. It’s less common for a newly reelected president to take office determined to rectify his own. But that’s exactly what U.S. President Barack Obama will be doing next week when he visits Israel.
In his first term, Obama spoke frequently about Israel. What he didn’t do was speak frequently to Israelis. It’s not just that in his first year in office Obama visited Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt while never visiting the Jewish state. For many Israelis who, in the words of veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas, had “become junkies of presidential sympathy and presidential love” during the Clinton and Bush years, Obama’s inattention confirmed the right’s warnings that Obama secretly disdained the Jewish state. Thus, when Obama greeted newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by demanding a settlement freeze, even some progressive-minded Israelis reacted with alarm. By August 2009, according to a Jerusalem Post poll, only 4 percent of Israeli Jews viewed Obama as more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian whereas 51 percent believed the reverse.
This is the reason that Obama’s visit to Israel will involve, if nothing else, a lot of talking to the Israeli people. Obama will give a public speech in Jerusalem at which the White House has requested the presence of at least 1,000 Israelis. The idea is that by wooing ordinary Israelis first, Obama will find a more receptive audience when he unveils another initiative for Mideast peace. Administration aides are well aware that Netanyahu surrendered his first prime ministership after resisting demands for territorial withdrawal by Bill Clinton. And they know that Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s chief political rival, has criticized him for mismanaging the Obama relationship. A charm offensive, in other words, may do more to push Israel’s government in the direction of two states than a hard line.
It’s all reasonable, as far as it goes. The problem is that even if ordinary Israelis soften on Obama, most still don’t feel an urgent need to help birth a Palestinian state. With terrorism from the West Bank way down, and the militant group Hamas in power in Gaza, Israeli Jews have turned inward. In January’s election, the relationship between secular and religious Jews dwarfed discussion of the relations between Jews and Palestinians. Given this relative apathy, there’s little political incentive for an Israeli prime minister to risk his career, and perhaps his life, trying to hand over the West Bank.
Charm isn’t enough. Obama also needs to scare Israelis. He needs to tell them that by subsidizing settlement growth, and thus pounding nails into the coffin of the two-state solution, their leaders are imperiling Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state. He need not threaten to withdraw U.S. support. But he should say, clearly, that if Israel tries to permanently control millions of Palestinians who lack citizenship and the right to vote, the Zionist dream will die. Obama should hold up a mirror to Israel. And more important than whether Israelis like him, he must hope they don’t like what they see.
From our March 29, 2013, issue; Shalom, Obama!