Friday, August 17, 2012

The Myth of the "Anti-Israel" Obama

Speaking with other Jews, one of the themes that often arises when one discusses the current presidential campaign is the notion of President Obama's purported hostility to Israel. Even staunch Democrats who avow their support of Obama will opine that "Romney would be better for Israel." There is a broad expectation that such concerns will make many more Jews vote Republican in this cycle.

Relations between the Obama White House and the Netanyahu government have been visibly strained, but other than this particular friction it is difficult to fathom why so many American Jews are persuaded that President Obama is "anti-Israel" in the abstract. His opposition to the building of new settlements in the Occupied Territories and his open endorsement of "pre-1967" boundaries as a baseline for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority have been seized upon by the President's critics as blatant provocations, but they do not open any daylight between Obama and his Republican opposition.

An example of the hazy logic behind this conventional wisdom can be seen in a recent piece posted on the blog Israel Commentary by Michael Freund: "Where Does Paul Ryan Stand on Israel?" In it, Freund calls upon Jewish voters to vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket, noting that "On Ryan’s Congressional website, Israel features prominently in the section entitled 'Homeland Security.'" But if one goes to the actual text concerning Israel on Ryan's website, there is nothing to distinguish his position on Israel from President Obama's. Indeed, Ryan declares that "Real peace will require Palestinians to recognize that Israel has a right to exist, even as it will require two states for the two peoples," a key pronouncement which might be lifted out of the speech for which President Obama has been so decried among some of Israel's supporters. Freund admits sullenly that "Unfortunately, Ryan also endorses the so-called two-state solution, which is clearly a non-starter," demonstrating how far out of the mainstream those who have most actively promulgated the myth of Obama's "anti-Israel" stance really are.

The stubborn persistence of the image of Obama as "anti-Israel" is sometimes quite puzzling.  Mitt Romney has moved to capitalize on the impression, asking in a recent campaign ad why Obama has never visited Israel. Though it is true that Obama has never visited Israel officially as President of the United States, the same is true of all but four of the eleven U.S. presidents that have served in office since Israel first came into existence: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The two Republican presidents who did visit Israel (a list that noticeably does not include Ronald Reagan) did so only in their second terms.

Moreover, the notion that "Obama has never visited Israel" is simply not true. Senator Barack Obama visited Israel while campaigning for president in 2008. On that trip he made a point of visiting with victims of a rocket attack by Hamas forces in the town of Sderot, declaring that, "I came to Sderot with a commitment to Israel's security. Israel has the right to defend itself, and peace should not undermine its security." That proved to be more than an empty promise. As Colin Kahl notes, "Obama has championed efforts to provide Israel with $275 million over and above its annual FMF to help finance Iron Dome, an anti-rocket system that has already saved Israeli lives by intercepting approximately 90 percent of projectiles launched against protected areas in the country's south in the past year."

Indeed, Foreign Military Financing (FMF) to Israel has hit historic highs under the Obama administration, reaching $3.1 billion in FY 2013. Monetary aid is only one dimension in which the security relationship between Israel and the U.S. has grown historically close under Obama's stewardship. Technological exchanges and cooperation on key defense matters have accelerated under this administration faster than under any previous president, prompting Ehud Barak, Bibi Netanyahu's Defense Minister, to declare: "It's been proven to all the doubters, President Obama is an ally and friend of Israel. The Obama administration gives backing to Israel's security in a wide, all-encompassing and unprecedented manner."

Despite all the evidence, the notion that President Obama is hostile to Israel persists, fueled by sound-bite impressions and skewed rhetoric. The Romney-Ryan campaign believes that they can win Jewish votes on the strength of this myth, and their success in winning the allegiance of backers such as Sheldon Adelson seems to bear out their strategy. The facts, however, tell a different story. Though Obama's advocacy for a two-state solution has occasionally produced friction between his administration and that of Bibi Netanyahu, it does not in any way distinguish him as a matter of policy from his Republican rivals. Those who vote against President Obama on the suggestion that he "has been bad for Israel" are being sorely misled.

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