Sunday, June 28, 2009

Israeli Take on Obama

Israeli Take on Obama

Allow me to ride my horse somewhat further along the path of criticizing the Obama administration's campaign to stop all construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including some neighborhoods that have been part of Jerusalem for 40 years.

Recall that I do not claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim, some other kind of demon, or beholden to the Palestinians and other Arabs.

However, I wonder at an American president who says that he wants to engage with Iran, Palestine, and other Arab authorities, and is dictating the small details of policy that he insists that Israel adopt.
The absurdity is stark in the presence of Israel's democracy, with a high level of education and political interest among its citizens along with an active and critical media, in contrast with authoritarian governments, controlled media, and low levels of education in Muslim countries.

Obama is dictating to the democrats and engaging with dictators and religious fanatics.

Israelis know their country's problems at least as well as Americans. They are more familiar with their country's problems of security than Americans are familiar with their own problems of security, and infinitely better informed about Israel's problems of security than are Americans. Jewish education in security begins with concerns inherited along with family memories of persecution, along with the present realities of living in a small country that has been at war at least five times in its 60 year history, and maybe eight times, depending on what one counts as a war. Most Israeli adults have served in the military, with numerous men active in the reserves for 30 years. Their parents served, and much of the population over the age of 50 has children in the military.

Israelis know the pressures and the imperfections of national defense. Endless discussions on radio, television and in the press keep them abreast of political maneuverings by officials of Israel and neighboring countries. Neither the perspectives of the military nor the government are anything close to monolithic. Israel's Jews debate military and political options, and are better equipped than anyone else to decide what is best for them.

The men and women who make policy for Israel have not sprung overnight or even in a few years from business, the universities, or local government. The story of Benyamin Netanyahu is not unusual among those at the pinnacle of government. He began his government career in 1982, was Ambassador to the United Nations 1984-88, elected to the Knesset in 1988, served as head of several ministries and an earlier term as prime minister. One does not have to admire his style of speaking or his body language to recognize that he has considerable experience, and currently has assembled a government supported by a substantial majority of the population. One can be suspicious about claims of a political mandate to follow one policy or another, insofar as voters choose their candidates or party for a variety of reasons. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Israeli electorate supports a government that is reluctant to move toward recognizing a Palestinian state or stop all construction in the settlements or Jerusalem's neighborhoods. Among the elements producing those postures are the intifada that began in 2000, seven years of rocket attacks from Gaza, and the widely perceived weakness, stubbornness, and unreliability of the Palestinians responsible for the West Bank.

Against this, Barack Obama's commitment to engage personally in the Middle East, and his pressuring Israel to halt all construction over the 1967 borders, appears naive in the extreme. He may be brilliant, but there is much that he does not appear to know, or to recognize. Likewise for his military and political advisers. Some of them may have learned Arabic and spent time in the Middle East, but they cannot compete with the street smarts of Israelis who have lived all their lives close to their neighbors, and who hear the comments of Arab leaders on a daily basis.

We can disagree about what is best for Israel. Israelis themselves disagree. My point is that Israelis are well enough informed to ponder the alternatives and decide for themselves how to deal with their challenges.

Among those challenges are the demands coming from American and European governments. (Those from other regions do not count for much.) No matter how ill informed and mistaken those demands appear to be, Israeli officials are careful not to ignore them.

Long ago the Jews learned how to deal with powerful others. Lesson #1 is not to annoy them.

What we hear in public are the efforts of Israel's prime minister and foreign minister to dissuade Americans and Europeans from demanding a total freeze on construction. So far the undiplomatic language from the Secretary of State and her spokespersons indicate that the message is not getting through.

Whether Israel or the United States wins this tussle, the greater test is how the Obama policy of engagement will work with the Palestinians, as well as with Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis. Others have tried before him. Humility is not widely recognized as a trait of Americans who think themselves capable of deciding what it best for others.

Past performance does not encourage optimism.


Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)

Department of Political Science

Hebrew University

Jerusalem, Israel

Tel: +972-2-532-2725


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