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Are Israelis Buying Obama’s Latest Charm Offensive?

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).

After such a long period of arms-length relations, and now a sudden and massive affection offensive, can Israelis be blamed for thinking that this may have nothing to do with a true change of heart and much to do with midterm elections?

As The Hill reports, Israel could prove a key issue in several important November midterm battles. A chilly and hostile Obama-Netanyahu relationship could potentially do damage and be exploited by campaigns:

Jewish leaders from both parties are watching Senate campaigns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Florida, and a pair of House races in President Barack Obama’s home state where they say Israel policy could loom large. … Republicans have tried to exploit the rift to make inroads among Jewish voters, long a reliably Democratic constituency that goes to the polls in midterm elections more often than voters at large.

According to a Yediot Aharonot article based on leaked communication between Israeli diplomats in the U.S. and Jerusalem, this is what Israeli leaders believe as well:

Information that was received by Israeli sources would seem to indicate that the principal reason for the change in approach to Israel is pressure from Democrat lawmakers who are running for election and are finding themselves hard put to enlist Jewish donors to their campaigns. There is a great deal of anger at Obama within the Jewish community and disappointment over his policy toward Israel. Officials in the Democratic Party are afraid that the Jews will take revenge in the midterm elections, which is the reason for the vigorous courting of Israel. In other words, the fear is that the Jewish vote will gravitate away from Democratic candidates to Republicans.

Could cold electoral considerations be the reason behind the warm and fuzzy gestures? Perhaps, but let’s not forget there are other factors at work as well. Foremost is the attempt by the U.S. to restrain Israel from taking action against Iran independently.

Also, there is the eternal quest to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Holy Grail of many a presidential administration. The so-called “proximity” talks — where the U.S. negotiates separately with Israelis and Palestinians — are reportedly going nowhere fast. In order for them to stand a chance, the proximity talks have to move into direct talks between the parties — and that is what George Mitchell is focusing on now.

The Palestinians have publicly continued to maintain that they would go into direct talks only after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared a complete freeze in the settlements and east Jerusalem, and agreed to pick up negotiations from the point where they broke off in 2008 between then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, in recent days PA officials have sent out various signals that — because of U.S. pressure — they would be willing to restart the negotiations before all their conditions were met.

If indeed the hoped-for direct negotiations begin, the Obama administration will point to them as an accomplishment. Unfortunately, if history is any indication, the direct talks will end with Palestinian rejection of Israel’s best offer. Or alternatively, if they show any real signs of succeeding, likelihood is high that the rejectionist groups will do their best to sabotage the atmosphere with acts of terror or war.

The true test of this newly warmed-up friendship will be the way in which the U.S. reacts to such a scenario.

Only after direct talks play out and after November’s midterm elections will Israelis — or anyone else — be able to tell whether or not the newly-minted Obama-Netanyahu love affair is one that can last.