No one in Israel was surprised by the quotes from US President Barack Obama that appeared in Bloomberg News this week (Jan. 15). Jeffrey Goldberg, whose credibility is impeccable, gave us the goods that were given to him, but those goods were too little, too late. If this is how Obama gets back at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for pouring his heart and soul into the Romney campaign, he would have been better off saying nothing. Netanyahu did what no Israeli prime minister before him ever dared, and now he can pat himself on the back. He gambled and lost, but it cost him little.
I’m not trying to create a crisis between Israel and the United States. First of all, one already exists, in terms of the personal relationship between the two countries’ leaders. Second of all, I don’t have the privilege to do that. Israel without the United States is like a fish without water. It will flop around frantically for a while until it finally gives up.
I am a fervent Zionist who believes that patriotism isn’t a word to avoid in polite company. At the same time, I also believe that Israel sometimes needs an assertive, determined US president to protect Israel from itself. When the top ten candidates for the Likud party include four hawkish backbenchers like Zeev Elkin, or when Naftali Bennett’s right-wing party, which is influenced by the most extreme rabbis, threatens to become the second-largest faction in the Knesset, it behooves such Knesset members to realize that they might wind up alone against the world. I deem Israel’s far left no less odious than the far right, for encouraging the “goyim” to impose sanctions and boycotts, and for calling on bands and artists to cancel their shows in Tel Aviv. But every so often America must impose reasonable boundaries so that Israel doesn’t run amok — just like responsible parents remind their hyperactive child what is allowed and what isn’t.
Obama isn’t really doing this. That represents a missed opportunity of historic proportions. Over the past few decades, many American presidents have been forced to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with all of our filth. The filth sometimes reached all the way up to their elbows. Former President George H.W. Bush did this with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Former President George W. Bush almost did this with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — but Sharon beat him to the punch and straightened himself out on his own accord. Former President Bill Clinton did it with Benjamin Netanyahu in Netanyahu's first term.
Now that we are in the middle of Netanyahu's second term, there is nobody on the watch. It began with the fact that Obama never dropped by, and barely even picked up the phone. On one hand, his “Cairo Speech” failed to yield its anticipated results in the Arab world. On the other hand, it caused considerable harm in the Israeli street. What Obama didn’t understand was that he must establish a warm, personal, even intimate relationship with the Israeli public. Had he asked, he would have been told how much Israel's public craves attention, recognition and love. If Obama had visited and looked the average Israeli straight in the eye, just like Clinton did, he would have been more effective now, when it is so essential. But instead of becoming buddies with the average Israeli, Obama made himself into a stranger — perhaps even an enemy. And so as long as he gives Netanyahu the cold shoulder, Netanyahu comes out ahead, at least for a portion of the Israeli electorate. This is a pity.
The President of the United States must realize that he doesn't have the luxury of shrugging off issues that appall him or ignoring them so that he can move on. Obama has actually used the phrase “leading from behind,” a strategy that can work when the task is of limited scope — like overthrowing Gaddafi. It can, however, be a dismal failure when it comes to fundamental problems like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Mr. President, it is impossible to lead from behind. This world needs a leader who will lead from up front, who will set an example and who will roll up his sleeves. Any attempt to ignore the Middle East and its accumulated powder kegs could come at a steep price. It’s a strange thing about the Middle East: if you don’t come to it, then it will come to you.
If you want to make Netanyahu understand his place in the balance of power between you and him, and if you want there to be a chance for even a little success in this region over the next few years, then you need to roll up your sleeves. You have to be on center stage, and not hidden behind the curtains. The Europeans are nice, the Russians are ambitious and the Turks are genuine — but only you, Barack Obama, are the leader of the free world. The free world is crying out for a leader — so lead.
Ben Caspit is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers, and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.