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Are Israelis Buying Obama’s Latest Charm Offensive?

Or do they think it might have something to do with midterm elections?

by
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Bio

July 19, 2010 - 12:00 am
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After a year and a half of keeping Israel at arm’s length, the Obama administration has radically changed its behavior, now not only reaching out to the Jewish state but grasping it in a big bear hug. As with all sudden romance, the party being courted, Israel, is naturally suspicious of the intentions of its new suitor and is asking questions. What has changed? Why now? And how long will it last? Is this true love, or a fling that will leave Israel vulnerable, bruised, and heartbroken?

The U.S. president, during his campaign and during his presidency, has always paid lip service to his commitment to Israel and its security. But while his words have been supportive, his actions have consistently told a different story.

During his presidential campaign, he always sent intermediaries to address the worried American Jewish community on the subject of Israel and the concerns over his affiliation with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, rarely taking on the matter personally.

After he entered the White House, early decisions — such as giving his first media interview to al-Arabiya, and his outreach tour of the Arab world culminating in his Cairo speech — kept Israelis wary for much of the first year of his presidency. His policy of wooing the Arab world together with keeping the “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. on the down-low seemed to send a clear message. All the while, in the background were worries as to exactly where the efforts of Middle East envoy George Mitchell — appointed nearly immediately after Obama took office — were heading.

Both Israel and the U.S. denied and downplayed their differences until March, when the underlying tensions between the two countries bubbled to the surface after the mini-crisis sparked during the visit of Vice President Joe Biden. This occurred when the announcement of plans to build 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem was viewed as an insulting slap in the face by the White House. Bad turned to worse during the subsequent pre-scheduled visit by Netanyahu to Washington, which the Israeli and foreign press described as an exercise in punishment and humiliation: the delayed and reluctant White House invitation, no photo opportunities, no press briefings, and no private meal between the two leaders. Netanyahu was reportedly “dumped” for dinner by Obama, who preferred to dine with his family.

Then, with little warning, the advent of warm weather brought on this sudden deliberate defrosting of the relationship. It began when Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, visited Israel to celebrate his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Though ostensibly a purely private visit, there were signals that the visit was playing double duty as a diplomatic mission. Emanuel not only held an unexpectedly friendly visit with Netanyahu, he made a major show of delivering a personal invitation to Netanyahu to come to the White House.

The “kiss and make up” meeting was scheduled for early June. Even before Netanyahu’s plane took off, accounts detailed how this was being planned to be a fence-mending success which would erase memories of the March fiasco. But the reconciliation rendezvous was interrupted by the flotilla crisis, and both Jerusalem and the White House decided it was best to let the furor over the Mavi Marmara pass before the visit.

And, indeed, it happened precisely as planned, flotilla or no flotilla — the warm words, the photo op, the cozy lunch, the sudden access to the president by the Israeli press, whose requests for interviews had until then been ignored or rejected.

Now, like Netanyahu, Israeli journalists suddenly became welcome guests. During his extended interview with Israel’s Channel 2 news anchor, Obama was asked why Israelis didn’t trust him. He replied:

Some of it may just be the fact that my middle name is Hussein, and that creates suspicion.

Nevertheless, the tone of the interview was stroking and reassuring. Obama was in full charm mode, giving a hard sell regarding his friendship and loyalty towards Israel, and deftly fielding the softball questions from the Israeli anchorwoman (so soft that one can only presume that they were carefully worked out ahead of time).

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