March 4, 2014

“We will never let the West Bank turn into another Gaza,” Secretary of State John Kerry told AIPAC attendees yesterday. Strong words, miserable timing. Slated to speak at AIPAC's annual policy conference before the Ukrainian crisis overshadowed all other things, Kerry yesterday was a man with a mission impossible – to convince a crowd of pro-Israel activists that they can count on the Obama administration to have good judgment on Israel, Iran, Palestine and all the other issues with which they are rightly concerned. But as the activists were listening to Kerry, Russian troops were still making a mockery of any attempt by the Obama administration to pretend to have the ability to contain and prevent chaos. Could Kerry prevent the Crimea from becoming “another Gaza”?

Of course, the Crimea is not going to turn into “Gaza”, but it is testimony to the limited ability of the US to control unwanted developments in the world. Time and again, the administration has made hollow threats and reaped storm on the world stage. Time and again, its focus has been questionable.

Do you still think this is the most urgent endeavor to which a US Secretary of State should devote his precious time? I wrote about Kerry last week: “Dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a noble enterprise, it really is. But strategically, from an American viewpoint, it is wasting time on a relatively minor issue. More civilians were killed in the Ukraine in the last seven days than in Israel-Palestine (the West Bank) in the last seven years. More civilians are killed in Syria every month than in Israel-Palestine in the last ten years. So saving lives can’t be the motivation for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And neither can strategic considerations be the reason”. Had I needed to rewrite this paragraph today, it seems that even stronger language would be appropriate.

Kerry warned Russia on Sunday. “Unless immediate and concrete steps are taken by Russia to deescalate tensions, the effect on U.S.-Russian relations and on Russia's international standing will be profound”. But here's an easy question to answer: if you are a world leader and two telephones ring. On the one you have Kerry warning you and on the other it is Vladimir Putin, which call would you answer first, and which threat would you consider more profoundly dangerous to your and your country's health?

Israelis seem to have their answer to such questions. Last week, Israeli pollster Menachem Lazar of Panels Politics, sent me at my request a batch of recent questions about US-Israel relations. Here is one from January 16: President Obama said that the US is committed to a lasting peace and security for Israel – do you trust the commitment of the US to Israel's security? An American commitment to Israel's security is a cornerstone of the two countries' relations. Still, only 40% of Israelis said they are trustful of Obama, while a majority of 53% said they aren't. In a different question, from February 27, Lazar asked Israelis if the Obama administration (defined in the question as “the current US administration”) it “a true friend of Israel's”. The response, again, is disturbing. Israel's greatest ally, its beacon, got a 43% on this question – 43% say “true friend”, 43% say “not a true friend”. Add to those the Israelis who “don't know”, namely, Israelis who also aren't certain whether the US is a “true friend”, and you have a majority of 57% who do not currently view the administration as a friend.

This is no less than a very upsetting result. It is upsetting to anyone who believes in US-Israel relations and surely to the many activists that are spending their time and money attending the conference of the body in charge of encouraging these relations. 

Of course, Israelis are wrong. The Obama administration, generally speaking, is friendlier than they think. And considering the extent to which other countries can be trusted with Israel's security – they can't – the US is still the most trustworthy of all others combined. These poll numbers that I got from Lazar – there are more but I guess the idea is clear by now – aren't an accurate description of this state of affairs. But they do give us a fairly accurate sense of the current state of Israeli pulic opinion – which is also, as far as I can judge, an opinion shared by many AIPAC activists: The Obama administration can't expect trust, while looking uncommitted and weak.

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