In Israel, Actions Speak Louder than Gestures

U.S. President Barack Obama's meeting with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, Israel

Barack Obama is in Israel this week, doing his best to convince a skeptical public and a more skeptical government that he has their best interests in mind as he crafts America’s policy in the Middle East.

He’s got a lot of work to do. One recent Jerusalem Post/Smith Poll found that only 12% of Israelis consider Obama to be pro-Israel.

The President is trying to mend fences with a series of gestures: he will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodore Herzln, the founder of modern Zionism, and visit the Israel Museum’s exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls, honoring Israel’s ancient roots.

The gestures are nice, but Obama’s Israel problem goes deeper than misunderstandings over history.

Obama’s softening stance on Israel started causing the President political problems when, in September 2011, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch – a Democrat – endorsed Republican Bob Turner in the special election to replace Congressman Anthony Weiner. Mayor Koch made it clear that his support of a Republican was meant to send a message to the White House, and characterized that election as a referendum on President Obama’s “throwing Israel under the bus.”

Mayor Koch’s endorsement was a major reason why, for the first time since 1923, a Republican won that seat.

Indeed, Obama has crafted the most anti-Israel foreign policy of any President in decades. Even MSNBC stalwart Andrea Mitchell admitted this week that Obama’s relationship with the Israeli Prime Minister is “one of the worst” in recent memory.

And this at a time when Israel faces its biggest threats since 1973: the growing strength of Hamas and Hezbollah; potential radical Islamist governments following the “Arab Spring,” especially in Egypt; a potentially nuclear armed Iran; and an alienated Turkey with an increasingly Islamist government looking for influence in the Arab world.

Obama has pursued his stated goal of putting “daylight” between the United States and Israel by proposing that Israel use the indefensible pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiation, suggesting that a united Jerusalem is not a part of Israel, and urging Israel “to engage in serious self-reflection,” while making no such demands on the PLO or Hamas, a terrorist organization that denies Israel’s right to exist.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House last year to repair relations after being chastised by Secretary Clinton over the phone, Obama snubbed him during a negotiating session, declaring, “I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls.” Netanyahu was denied the customary joint statement and photo op with the President and was summarily ushered out through a side door.

Even so, Obama sailed to reelection with the overwhelming support of Jewish Americans. So why bother trying to spruce up his pro-Israel bona fides?

It’s a puzzling question, and no one, least of all the Israelis, seems quite sure what the President is trying to accomplish this week. But with Obama’s record of open hostility to Israel, it’ll take more than a wreath laying and a museum visit to convince our closest ally in the Middle East that we’re still on their side.