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Jewish World Review
August 11, 2009
/ 21 Menachem-Av 5769
More Obama PR will not a successful Mideast policy make
The idea that the president's eloquence can be used to convince Israelis to change their tune is astoundingly arrogant, and wrong
After running into a dead end in its efforts to jump-start Middle East peace talks, the Obama administration has signaled that it has evaluated the situation and understands that not all is well. But instead of a course correction, senior administration officials have decided that what they need to do is to deploy their most effective weapon - the rhetorical brilliance of President Barack Obama - on a recalcitrant state of Israel.
They say that in the next few weeks the White House will begin a public relations program in Israel and Arab countries to better explain the president's intention to broker a comprehensive peace agreement. The highlight would be interviews with Obama on Israeli television as well as appearances broadcast in Arab countries. In particular, the officials say they hope to convince the majority of Israelis, who have been shown in polls to view Obama and his policies with distrust, to support his stand on freezing building in Jewish settlements in the West Bank as well as in Jerusalem, rather than the policies of Binyamin Netanyahu, their own prime minister.
The idea here seems to be that if the Israeli people are sufficiently exposed to the charms of the American president, they will force Netanyahu to do as he has been told by Washington. However, the administration misunderstands the nature of its problem. Contrary to its belief, the Israeli people already understand Obama very well. His problem is that they don't buy what he's selling. Indeed, this decision to launch a PR campaign reminds one of stereotypically "ugly American" tourists who believe the proper response to foreigners who don't understand English is to merely speak English louder. The administration needs to win the trust of Israelis through more realistic policies, not a bigger megaphone.
The reason many Israelis think they have been singled out for rough treatment by Obama is not because they don't understand that his intentions are good and that his motives are pure; it's because he has unfairly singled them out. The dispute about settlements between the two governments was a calculated decision on the part of Washington to pick a fight with its smaller ally and raise the stakes until Netanyahu gave in. That would have handed Obama an easy triumph and a way to show the Arab world that American friends of Israel no longer have a decisive say in American foreign policy.
But that's not what happened and the administration appears to be baffled by the reaction inside Israel to the ginned-up settlements squabble. Instead of behaving as most liberal American Jews have done and blindly backing Obama's pressure because of partisan loyalties and support for the administration's domestic agenda, ordinary Israelis are supporting their prime minister and viewing Obama with suspicion.
Why? It is true that part of the problem has to do with perceptions. Obama's Cairo speech in June was offensive because of the way he equated the Holocaust with the predicament of Palestinian refugees and the fact that he snubbed the Jewish state by avoiding it during his Middle East tour. But the problem is bigger than either the president's penchant for false moral equivalencies or his itinerary.
Obama's policy seems to be based on the notion that Israel's refusal to make new concessions on security and land is the primary obstacle to a peace breakthrough. Though most Israelis would actually be willing to give up most settlements, they know that neither the Fatah-ruled Palestinian Authority in the West Bank nor the Hamas mini-state in Gaza are interested in a peace that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, no matter where the borders were drawn. The failure of the Oslo Accords, the July 2000 Camp David summit, the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and last year's desperate effort by former prime minister Ehud Olmert to hand the PA a state on a silver platter all illustrate the Palestinians' lack of interest in signing such a deal.
In the clear absence of a credible peace partner, what point is there, they are entitled to ask, in bullying Israel to make concessions? Nor has anyone been impressed by the administration's half-hearted attempt to get the Saudis and other Arab states to act as if they mean it when they claim to want peace.
President Obama has not turned out to be a conventional liberal Democrat who is also willing to be a faithful friend of Israel as many, if not most Jewish Democrats expected when they pulled the lever for him last year. Though Republican talking points that asserted that Obama's associations with anti-Israel extremists such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi would color his judgment in office were dismissed by the vast majority of Jewish voters, it turns out there was more to this line of argument than mere partisanship. As his decision last week to honor former Irish president Mary Robinson, best remembered for presiding over the orgy of anti-Semitism that characterized the 2001 UN Durban conference, with the presidential Medal of Freedom again shows, Obama is not a man who understands or respects mainstream Jewish sensibilities.
Obama's eloquence is a formidable diplomatic tool, but the idea that it can be used to convince Israelis to "reflect" on their policies and change their tune is not only astoundingly arrogant, it's frankly wrong. Israelis already want peace, and have shown time and again they are ready to make sacrifices to achieve it. What is lacking is a similar commitment from the Palestinians. No amount of presidential eloquence or American PR ought to convince Israelis that further concessions will bring peace until Palestinian leaders match Obama's words with deeds.
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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine.
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