Obama loves the wrong Israel

Every time I hear President Barack Obama tell us how much he loves Israel, I feel like asking him: Which one?
May 26, 2015

Every time I hear President Barack Obama tell us how much he loves Israel, I feel like asking him: Which one?

Apparently, he’s not too crazy about the current Israel. The Israel that owns his heart is the one from before 1967, when the Jewish state was a noble little nation struggling against all odds.

“I came to know Israel as a young man through these incredible images of kibbutzim and Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir and Israel overcoming incredible odds in the ’67 war,” Obama told a Washington, D.C., synagogue last Friday. “The notion of pioneers who set out not only to safeguard a nation but to remake the world. Not only to make the desert bloom but to allow their values to flourish, to ensure that the best of Judaism would thrive.”

Obama is not alone in allowing nostalgia to cover up complexity. We all do it. It feels good. It gives us hope. In Obama’s case, it allows him to dream of the old Israel in his mind, what he calls an Israel of tikkun olam, repairing the world, an Israel ensuring that “the best of Judaism would thrive.”

But like all hazy nostalgia, that old Israel is a mirage. 

The Israel of pre-1967 was far from the grand ideal Obama describes. The early Zionist pioneers did not set out to “remake the world.” They had no time for that. They were too busy building a country that could survive the onslaught of Arab armies who dreamed only of throwing them into the sea.

As Eli Lake noted in Bloomberg, when Obama waxes romantic about the days of Golda Meir, he overlooks that it was the hard-nosed Meir who famously said, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”

In fact, until 1966, Arabs in Israel lived under military rule and had virtually no rights. They weren’t even allowed to contact their brethren in the West Bank. Since 1967, the Israeli Arab population has grown from 400,000 to nearly 1.8 million. And despite the hurdles they still face, Israeli Arabs are significantly better off today than they were before 1967, and it’s widely acknowledged that they have more rights, freedoms and economic opportunities than any Arabs in the Middle East.

Similarly, before 1967, Jerusalem was a dark and divided city that trampled on religious rights and turned away tourists. Since Israel united the city, it has become a top global destination and an open gateway to the world’s three great religions. 

Although far from perfect, modern Israel is a messy, loud, open, complicated, flawed, fascinating, multicultural success story that has managed to thrive despite being surrounded by Jew-hating neighbors sworn to its destruction. It’s a country that has done more tikkun olam than the early pioneers ever dreamed about, a country with a culture of self-criticism that has the built-in capacity to change and correct itself, a country, in other words, that should be a model for the rest of the Middle East.

But this messy and miraculous modern Israel has failed to seduce Obama — he’s still dreaming of the old model. In his synagogue speech, the president could only express his love for what Israel was and could be, not for what it actually is today.

Even on the all-consuming and explosive issue of Israel's disputed occupation of the West Bank, he failed to provide the crucial context: that Israel has offered to end the occupation several times over the years, and the Palestinians walked away each time; that Israel was rewarded with 10,000 terror rockets after it gave up Gaza; and that Palestinians have continued the indoctrination of Jew-hatred throughout their society. He could have added that it is chronic Palestinian rejectionism that is mostly responsible for hardening the hearts of even peaceniks.

None of this has stopped Obama from putting the bulk of the pressure on Israel, a failed strategy that has alienated him from the majority of Israeli Jews. While portraying this pressure as an expression of his tough love, he never explained why he doesn’t offer the same kind of tough love toward the Palestinians. Don’t they deserve it? 

As he always does, the president talked about the “shared values” and “deep friendship” between America and Israel, and America’s unshakable commitment to the Jewish state’s security and right to exist. Those comments are wonderful and reassuring, but they’re also generic and automatic, a far cry from the effusive emotions he expressed for the old Israel he so misses.

Let’s tell it like it is: Obama has been there for Israel when it comes to security cooperation and vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, but he’s been terrible at defending and protecting the reputation of America's most trusted ally in the Middle East.  

By obsessing over the Palestinian conflict and unfairly singling out Israel as the main obstacle to peace, by failing to talk about Israel’s unique value as a great example for the rest of the Middle East, and by failing to put equal pressure on the Palestinians to make peace, Obama has put Israel on the defensive and made it open season for global condemnation and isolation of the Jewish state.

No amount of love for an old and mythical Israel will undo the damage to the new and real Israel.

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