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Can Obama Be Trusted To Save Israel?

Can Obama Be Trusted To Save Israel?

Gary Rosenblatt is The NY Jewish Week's editor at large.

Let me make clear at the outset: I don’t know what Israel plans to do about the Iran nuclear threat, and I don’t have any new advice for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about what actions he should or should not take as he and his government face an impossible dilemma.

But I do know that the mainstream press (and especially The New York Times) has had a steady drumbeat of reports these last few weeks characterizing Israel unfairly in the delicate diplomatic dance of Jerusalem, Washington and Tehran.

There are two deeply disturbing elements to these media reports. First, they downplay, or don’t even mention, that Israel’s possible military actions are based on the fact that the leadership of Iran consistently and passionately describes Israel as an evil, immoral country that should be erased from the planet.

Perhaps we’ve become numb to the threats because Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been calling for Israel’s destruction for so long. After all, when he describes Israel as Satan and as a cancer that must be eradicated, neither the United Nations nor any world leader outside of Jerusalem responds in any meaningful way. Yet much of the reporting about Israel planning to strike Iran assumes the reader knows the views of Tehran’s leaders, who deny the Holocaust and portray Jews as a menace to the world; why not tell us?

Second, the message and tone of these articles is that Israel is trigger-happy and planning to drag the U.S. into yet another war with an Islamic country.

One recent Times story, for example, based on “classified war games,” shows that if Israel attacks, Iran will retaliate against Navy warships in the region and kill hundreds of Americans.

The overall impression I come away with is that the administration is more worried about preventing its only democratic ally in the Mideast from taking military action than preventing a sworn and powerful enemy, Iran, from having a nuclear bomb that threatens not only the region but the U.S. and the free world.

I have come to believe, reluctantly, that the administration is leaking these stories to the press, which strongly suggests that the president views Israel as more of a nuisance than a partner regarding Iran, and perhaps the wider Mideast conflict.

No, I am not a member of the Obama-is-no-friend-of-Israel club.

Trust me, I know the arguments on both sides. Supporters of the president point to the fact that the military relationship between the U.S. and Israel has never been stronger, that last fall Obama stepped up and spoke out eloquently at the UN against the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic effort to gain statehood; that in his AIPAC speech last month, the president came closer to Israel’s position on Iran, speaking out against containment, acknowledging that Iran represents a threat not only to Israel but to the Mideast region and the U.S., and noting that Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself as it sees fit.

All true, important and very much welcome.

I also believe that the president’s record on Israel is decidedly mixed. He stumbled badly from the starting gate, thinking he could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by making settlements the focal point of negotiations six weeks into his tenure in the White House. If nothing else, the pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction wasted two years of precious time, made Jerusalem increasingly cautious about White House’s support and convinced the Palestinian Authority to stay away from the peace talks until Israel stopped all settlement activity, which was never a criteria for negotiating before.

Thus, the lack of any peace talks, or hope, at the moment.

I have come to view Obama as neither the enemy of Israel some in our community make him out to be, based more on their projected fears than his actions, nor “the Jewish president” Peter Beinart describes him as in his book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” as a leader driven by a liberal Zionist agenda. I also don’t see Obama as “Israel’s best friend” and perhaps the best president ever for Israel, as Tom Friedman has written in his New York Times column, based on how Obama framed the Iran situation in his AIPAC speech.

In my view, Obama is a supporter of Israel, but a less than enthusiastic one.

Fairly or not, I base some of my impressions of presidents on my kishkes, on an internal feeling. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, different as they were in so many ways, shared a deep and personal connection to Israel, perhaps based on their Christian views. You trusted their instincts, if not their policies. And I think Israelis sensed that. In the same way, I think they view Obama as a cool rationalist who doesn’t share that emotional attachment to the Jewish state. Israel is an ally, yes. But maybe more like Taiwan is an ally. We still support Taiwan, but would we go to war with China over its future?

These questions and impressions are so important now because Israel has to decide very soon whether or not to trust Obama with its very existence.

The president has sought to assure Israelis that he has their back. It’s clear, though, he wants more time for the increasingly tough sanctions he helped place on Iran to take effect, and to try another round of negotiations, which many view as a waste of time while Iran rushes to complete a nuclear weapon. His reluctance to become involved in a third costly war in the Muslim world is more than understandable.

But Obama’s timetable is not Israel’s, strategically or politically. Israel believes that a military action must be carried out before Iran reaches what Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak calls the “zone of immunity” — Iran’s capability to complete the bomb out of striking range — while Obama talks about not allowing Iran to have the bomb itself.

Big difference there, especially if you are Israel and the presumed target.

And while Obama wants to get past the November election before making a difficult decision — note his “open mic” chat last week with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — the Israelis feel they have only a few months to act. Plus they no doubt take into the equation that if Obama is re-elected, it will be that much more difficult to get him on board.

I’m not at all convinced that Israel has decided to strike Iran on its own. Mainly because the government is well aware of the huge risks at stake, from the potentially devastating retaliation that is sure to come, to jeopardizing future relations with Washington. In addition, in the past when Israel prepared to take such a bold action, like bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 or the Syrian one being built, in 2007, it didn’t talk about it in advance. It just acted.

Perhaps all the talk about a strike is meant to scare Iran and pressure the U.S. to lead the way.

In the meantime, the tension is building and the leaders of Israel are facing a “Lady or the Tiger” moment, deciding whether to go it alone or take Obama at his word that he truly has their back.

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