Obama Is Pro-Israel… and Pro-Palestinian

By Alon Pinkas

Obama is a realist whose approach to foreign policy is much more similar to that of Republicans Richard Nixon or George Bush Sr.

US President Barack Obama is pro-Israel, even though he does not shower Israel with love on a daily basis, as was the case during 16 years of pampering under Clinton and Bush. In addition, the president does not mutter at every opportunity how deep America’s commitment is to Israel’s security and qualitative advantage; yet when it comes to all the parameters that count, Obama is pro-Israel.

The American president stood up at Cairo University and declared that the alliance with Israel is unshakeable. Moreover, before criticizing him for his “humiliating” attitude to Prime Minister Netanyahu, we should note that Obama maintains no warm personal ties with any foreign leader, including the French president, the British PM, the German chancellor, and even America’s neighbours, the Mexican president or the Canadian PM.

Obama is also not a romantic diplomat such as Jimmy Carter or an idealistic diplomat like Bill Clinton. He is a realist whose approach to foreign policy is much more similar to that of Republicans Richard Nixon or George Bush Sr. Obama, and the Washington officials in his camp, sees US interests and regional balances before them: India-Pakistan, Iran-Iraq and the Gulf, and Israel and the Arab world. The aim of these balances is to produce or maintain stability.

Obama pledged to pull many of the US forces out of Iraq by August, he continues the war against Al-Qaeda and its satellites and “franchisees,” and he attempts to formulate effective policy to counter Iran’s nuclear efforts. Hence, the US has an interest in seeing a strong Israel that would constitute part of the deterrence vis-à-vis the radical and violent bloc in the Arab-Iranian theatre.

In light of the above, the criticism levelled at Israel by General Petraeus and again this past week by Secretary of Defence Gates is incisive: The absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, or at the very least a robust and ongoing diplomatic process, poses challenges and produces problems in promoting America’s interests in the Middle East.

If we wish to sum up the criticism, Israel is turning from an asset to a burden. We do not have a Soviet Union here and a balance of power involving a superpower and a client state. We only have the US, allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and an Iranian threat. In the view of many members of the establishment in Washington, Israel is not helping the US, and hence is not helping itself. After all, Israel’s national interest is to maintain the alliance and special relationship with the US. This is Israel’s greatest strategic asset and most amazing diplomatic achievement throughout its 62 years of independence.

To a large extent, America’s commitment to Israel is incommensurate with its regional interests, yet nonetheless, our relationship developed into what it is. Hence, Israel has an interest in a strong US, because a powerful America and a stable special relationship imply a strong Israel, clearly boosting our power and deterrence.

The price required of Israel is not genuinely high and does not undermine its vital interests. Beyond the dourness and cool reception accorded to Netanyahu by Obama, we should note that the Administration’s demands of Israel are not new and do not constitute a radical change in policy; rather, they constitute a repetition – which is certainly more incisive and unequivocal – of demands presented by previous Administrations. Those who claim this is a policy change absolve themselves of responsibility for failing to comprehend the Obama Administration. Everything, and this includes everything, had been said in the weeks that passed between Obama’s swearing-in ceremony and the general elections in Israel early in 2009.

Netanyahu’s survival in power, preservation of the current coalition, and ongoing construction in the settlements located outside the three large blocs and east of the security fence are legitimate interests for Netanyahu himself, yet it would be difficult to characterise them as vital interests for the State of Israel; it’s even more difficult to convince us that these interests justify a rift vis-à-vis the United States.

There is no need to resort to doomsday scenarios in respect to our ties with the United States; such scenarios are unlikely to materialise. It’s enough that the Arab world and Europeans are watching Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and that Israel’s isolation will grow.

There is no point in constantly analysing the “implications of the crisis”, as millions of words have been devoted to the topic by now. There is also no point in again criticising Netanyahu over the year that had been wasted without an Israeli initiative and about the tainted relationship. The same is true for stating that this is an especially volatile conflict as it combines fundamental gaps between Israel and the United States as mutual mistrust. This statement does not constitute an answer for the following question: What do we do next?

There are two strategic Israeli interests which are overwhelming here: Firstly, preserving the alliance with the United States while undertaking adjustments that would reflect an understanding of US interests; secondly, a diplomatic process vis-à-vis the Palestinians, regardless of whether it is painted in hawkish or dovish colours. This is the agenda and that’s the president in power – and he’s pro-Israel in his “realist” approach.

Alon Pinkas is Israel’s former consul general in New York.

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