Peter Beinart: Obama Needs to Scare Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama, 2011. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

It’s a cliché that every newly elected president takes office determined to rectify his predecessor’s mistakes. It’s less common for a newly reelected president to take office determined to rectify his own. But that’s exactly what Barack Obama will be doing next week when he visits Israel.

In his first term, Obama spoke frequently about Israel. What he didn’t do was speak frequently to Israelis. It’s not just that in his first year in office Obama visited Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt while never visiting the Jewish state. In his eagerness to improve America’s reputation in the Muslim world, he also gave his first formal presidential interview to the Arabic-language channel Al Arabiya. He didn’t sit down for an interview with an Israeli journalist, by contrast, until July 2010. For many Israelis, who in the words of veteran Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas had “become junkies of presidential sympathy and presidential love” during the Clinton and Bush years, Obama’s inattention confirmed the right’s warnings that Obama secretly disdained the Jewish state. Thus, when Obama greeted newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by demanding a settlement freeze, even some progressive-minded Israelis reacted with alarm. By August 2009, according to a Jerusalem Post poll, only 4 percent of Israeli Jews viewed Obama as more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian whereas 51 percent believed the reverse.

beinart-NB10-obama-israel-second An ultra-Orthodox Jewish youth walks past a campaign banner depicting Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem, 2013. Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/Corbis

Which is why next week’s trip will involve, if nothing else, a lot of talking to the Israeli people. In addition to visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, and the graves of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, Obama will give a public speech in Jerusalem at which the White House has requested the presence of at least 1,000 Israelis. The idea is that by wooing ordinary Israelis first, Obama will find a more receptive audience when he unveils another initiative for Mideast peace. Administration aides are well aware that Netanyahu surrendered his first prime ministership after resisting demands for territorial withdrawal by Bill Clinton, a president widely admired in Israel. And they know that Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s chief political rival, has criticized him for mismanaging the Obama relationship. A charm offensive, in other words, may do more to push Israel’s government in the direction of two states than a hard line.

It’s all reasonable, as far as it goes. The problem is that even if ordinary Israelis soften on Obama, most still don’t feel an urgent need to help birth a Palestinian state. With terrorism from the West Bank way down, and the militant group Hamas in power in Gaza, Israeli Jews have turned inward. In January’s election, the relationship between secular and religious Jews dwarfed discussion of the relations between Jews and Palestinians. Given this relative apathy, there’s little political incentive for an Israeli prime minister to risk his career, and perhaps his life, trying to hand over the West Bank. It’s like asking an American president to slash Medicare when the deficit barely registers as a public concern.

beinart-NB10-obama-israel-third A Palestinian woman walks past posters showing US President Barack Obama in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 12, 2013. Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

In this environment, charm isn’t enough. Obama also needs to scare Israelis. He needs to tell them that by subsidizing settlement growth, and thus pounding nails into the coffin of the two-state solution, their leaders are imperiling Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state. He need not threaten to withdraw America’s support. But he should say, very clearly, that if Israel tries to permanently control millions of Palestinians who lack citizenship and the right to vote, the Zionist dream will die, regardless of what happens in Washington. Obama should do what he long ago promised: hold up a mirror to Israel. And more important than whether Israelis like him, he must hope they don’t like what they see.