In demanding that Israel retreat to its pre-1967 borders as a starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians, President Obama confirmed what many have suspected for some time: he is not a friend of Israel.
No friend, no true ally, would ask another state to put its very existence in jeopardy. But that is precisely what the president has asked of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly said that the pre-1967 borders are “indefensible.” So, too, is the president’s proposal.
It’s important to bear in mind that Mr. Obama’s remarks were carefully thought out and discussed internally before they were issued on the eve of Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington. All the more reason to conclude that this administration simply does not appreciate the gravity of the security issues facing Israel. If Mr. Obama’s remarks had been made in haste, if he had uttered them in an unscripted moment, they might be explained away as a mere gaffe. But this was no gaffe. This was an expression of the president’s genuine convictions.
That’s the troubling part.
Israel is surrounded by hostile, undemocratic states and an array of terrorist organizations that are nothing if not brutally candid about their objectives: they wish to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. They would do it, if they had the means and the weaponry. No other country on earth is so embattled. No other country’s sovereign territory is so vulnerable to so many threats. Successive administrations in Washington have appreciated Israel’s predicament, even if they occasionally disagreed with specific policies and tactics.
The Obama White House, however, has been an exception. Not long after Mr. Obama took office, Washington called on Israel to suspend new settlement construction in the West Bank, a pronouncement that did nothing to win Mr. Netanyahu’s confidence in the new president’s policies and attitude. The relationship between Washington and Jerusalem has been tense ever since, and, from Israel’s perspective, rightly so.
Mr. Netanyahu apparently was caught off-guard by the president’s proposal. Published reports said that he desperately sought changes in the president’s remarks, but he was rebuffed and humiliated. These are not the actions of a true friend.
Mr. Obama’s subsequent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has been interpreted as an attempt to soothe wounded feelings, even a slight pull-back from his original remarks. The president insisted that the U.S. and Israel continue to share the same basic values and reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to keeping the crazed rulers of Iran from getting their hands on nuclear weapons. He insisted that Israel could not be expected to negotiate with Hamas, or with a government that includes Hamas, as long as the terrorist group refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
While these sentiments are welcome, they are simply statements of the obvious. The U.S., threatened as it is by Islamic extremists who already have killed thousands of Americans, could hardly insist that Mr. Netanyahu’s government engage with the would-be mass murderers in Gaza.
The AIPAC speech, then, changed nothing. It asserted obvious truths. It did not take the sting out of the president’s earlier remarks. Former mayor Ed Koch, a lifelong Democrat, realized the enormity of the president’s dangerous and incomprehensible new course. “If President Obama does not change his position, I cannot vote for his re-election,” Mr. Koch wrote. The former Mayor spoke for many when he added that the president’s AIPAC speech “did not reassure me.”
Nor should it have. The pattern is clear. Mr. Obama has been shifting Washington’s policy of unwavering support for Israel to a more confrontational posture. His position on borders and his formula for land swaps is more in line with the Palestinian position, not with Israel’s. That is a significant and highly unfortunate change in U.S. policy.
Next on the Palestinian agenda is a United Nations resolution recognizing a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The move is expected in September, when the General Assembly meets in New York. The Obama administration must do everything in its power to make sure the resolution dies from lack of support. Opposition from Washington isn’t enough. The U.S. must work behind the scenes with allies in Europe and elsewhere to make sure that this effort to isolate Israel fails.
At this point, it is probably too late to think that the Obama administration will have a change of heart about Israel. The president clearly regards Mr. Netanyahu and his government as an obstacle to U.S. strategic interests.
Israel’s friends in the United States have every right to be angry and sad. Like Mr. Koch, they may be inclined to look elsewhere next year, when the president will be up for re-election. Republican strategists already are trying to drive a wedge between Democrats and Jewish voters, but they won’t have to work very hard to achieve their goals. Mr. Obama, in rejecting friendship with Israel, has done the work for his prospective opponents.
He does not deserve the support of those who continue to embrace Israel as a friend, partner and ally.