Obama Cares Too Much About Israel

The Palestinians could use some tough love from the U.S. as well.

Too friendly?

Photographer: Heidi Levine-Pool/Getty Images

After President Barack Obama delivered a pre-Sabbath address Friday about his deep admiration for Israel and the Jewish people, I had many questions. But the biggest one was whether Obama knew anything about Israel's first female prime minister, Golda Meir.

She came up in a passage of Obama's speech devoted to the shared values of Israel and America. "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 said. "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." 

He continued: "And those values in many ways came to be my own values. They believed the story of their people gave them a unique perspective among the nations of the world, a unique moral authority and responsibility that comes from having once been a stranger yourself."

I understand why Obama likes the collective Israeli farms, or kibbutzim, but Golda? She makes current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu look like Desmond Tutu when it comes to the Palestinians.

One of Meir's most famous statements was her assertion that there was never any such thing as a Palestinian. And while she also said many eloquent things about the horrors of war, at the end of the day she saw the Arabs as implacable enemies of the Jews. This is summed up in her most famous quote: "Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us."

Perhaps Obama admired Meir because she authorized covert missions to kill terrorists. Following the murders of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Meir told the Mossad to hunt down and kill the Palestinians living in Europe responsible for the atrocity. Thirty-nine years later, Obama would authorize the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA to raid Osama bin Laden's compound at Abbotobad, Pakistan.

But somehow I get the sense that these were not the shared "values" Obama had in mind. Obama says he believes that Israel's founders created a state that would live up to the high ideals of the Jewish tradition. As he told the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview before his big speech: "I think it is true to Israel’s traditions and its values -- its founding principles -- that it has to care about those Palestinian kids."

Now it should be said that there is nothing particularly Jewish in the universal desire to care about children or strangers. Nor does criticism of the occupation of the West Bank make you an opponent of Jewish nationalism. Indeed, many of the most committed Zionists these days believe the lack of a Palestinian state is the gravest threat to Israel's long-term security. Obama, who is definitely a Zionist, would count himself among them.

But the way Obama frames this matter is a whitewash of history. In his telling, Israel's founders understood the importance of treating all Palestinians with decency, but over time these nasty right-wingers came into power and Israel is now careening toward a kind of apartheid. Obama does not use that word, though in private his secretary of state, John Kerry, does. 

The truth is that Israel's founders didn't think much of the Palestinians. Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Arabs in British Mandate Palestine conducted a series of massacres of Jewish civilians. During the 1948 war, Jewish forces killed unarmed civilians at Deir Yassin and elsewhere. The Arab side also committed atrocities. It took until 1966 for Palestinians living inside pre-1967 Israel to gain full equal rights. Before that, they lived under a kind of martial law. And while Israel offered to exchange the territory it won in 1967 for peace, Labor and Likud governments alike since then have built settlements on the West Bank.

The national character of Israel is not shaped by a desire to be a light unto nations, as Obama says, but by the ordinary desire to survive. Zionism, at its core, is the recognition that Jews and only Jews can be counted on to save themselves from the people who will inevitably try to destroy them.  

All of this brings us to Obama's relationship with Netanyahu. In Obama's telling, he has an obligation -- as a great friend of Israel -- to criticize Israeli policies that he sees as undermining the nation's long-term security. This is why Obama treated construction of buildings in East Jerusalem as settlements. It's why he said he was re-evaluating the U.S. relationship with Israel after Netanyahu said, in a last-minute campaign message, that he wouldn't see a Palestinian state during his government. Friends don't let friends drive drunk.

Obama doesn't muster this kind of tough love for the Palestinians. When Kerry tried to restart peace talks in 2013, the Palestinians demanded the release of prisoners as a precondition for their participation. Israel and Kerry went along with it. These were not political prisoners. These were not men jailed for advancing the national aspirations of Palestinians. Many of them committed heinous crimes, such as Atiyeh Salem Abu Musa, who was arrested in 1994 for murdering a holocaust survivor, Isaac Rosenberg, with an axe. When Musa returned to the West Bank, he was given a hero's welcome.

Obama also professes to be a good friend to the Palestinian people. This might have been a good time for him to use his rhetorical skill to remind them that in their struggle for statehood, there is no place for the celebration of axe murderers. He could have told them how counter-productive the celebration of anti-Semitic violence is to their national cause, or how it makes his job defending them in the international community difficult when they provide official stipends to the families of suicide bombers. But Obama chose not to say anything about the prisoner release and the celebrations that followed.

In his interview with Goldberg, Obama said he rejected the idea that if you publicly criticize Israeli settlements or express empathy with Palestinians, you are automatically considered "anti-Israel." But this logic goes both ways. What does it make you if you indulge the Palestinian celebration of violence against Jews as a short-term proposal to restart peace negotiations? At the very least, it doesn't make you a very good friend of the Palestinians. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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