Obama, While Friendly to Israel, Is Maintaining His Distance

Article Summary
President Obama recently awarded Israeli President Shimon Peres the US Medal of Freedom. But, Eitan Haber writes, his rejection of Israel's attempts to secure the release of Jonathan Pollard was timely reminder that Israel does not always get what it wants from the US.

Before us lies a question, and whoever answers it correctly deserves a million-dollar prize: when exactly was the fabulous friendship, ceremoniously displayed last week, forged between Barack Obama and Shimon Peres? Did they study together as boys in Ben Shemen (the village in the center of Israel where President Peres grew up)? Steal chickens together while in the Palmach (the elite fighting force)? Play the same flute when they herded sheep in the fields of Kibbutz Alumot?

Almost 40 years separate Obama from Peres. When Obama left his mother’s womb, Peres was already a government minister. Since becoming the president of the United States, Obama has met with Peres just once or twice, maybe three times at most. So where does this outpouring of love and respect heaped on the president of the State of Israel come from?

Make no mistake, Peres deserves this huge sign of respect. His political and security achievements make him worthy like no other of such impressive moments in the White House. But Peres is experienced, knowledgeable and used to the customs of the world. He shouldn’t let the smiles and pretty words blind him. With all due respect — and we have plenty of respect for him — he wasn’t the focus of last week’s event in the White House ballroom.

When Obama planned outeach and every word in his speech, he was directing them thousands of miles away from his home on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. The address he had in mind was the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. The impressive event was a show for Benjamin Netanyahu. America demonstrated to Netanyahu whom it favors. And it’s not him.

Netanyahu was wrong to have thought all these years that, as a result of his American background, he knows the United States as well as any American, including the US president. He is wrong — terribly wrong — to think that he can work with congressional representatives over the president’s head, that he can bypass him. That he can declare an open war against him.

Remember the applause during Netanyahu’s speech in Congress? How many times did they get up out of their seats to clap? And the applause at the AIPAC conference? Netanyahu likes to be reminded of those moments. Obama did not forget them. The US president showed us last week that he also knows how to bypass: he spoke directly to Jewish Americans, going over Netanyahu’s head, over the heads of AIPAC leaders and even over the heads of members of Congress. Obama embraced the residents of the State of Israel, waiving the need to embrace Netanyahu.

Congress can place obstacles before the president, any president, and once every four years, on the eve of elections, the president tends to yield and even ingratiate himself. But make no mistake — Netanyahu is sorely mistaken. The president, with all of his limitations, calls the shots.

Last example: they drove the American government, its leaders and members of Congress crazy with efforts on behalf of Jonathan Pollard, creating the impression that he is about to pack up his belongings in prison and come to us in Israel. They waved around important names demanding he be freed. The president said one word: “No.” End of story. Pressure, schmessure. You can’t force the president or his government to do something they don’t want to do. Does anyone in Israel really think that after everything, Obama will bestow such a gift on Netanyahu? This is politics, not a charity box.

It seems that these days, everything is dependent on a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, before or after the presidential election this November. If Netanyahu and Barak try to attack Iran before the election, it will amount to a declaration of war on Obama. The White House will interpret the timing as an Israeli attempt to influence the vote. Such an attack is liable to drag the US military into places it doesn’t want to go, and will prompt a rise in the cost of oil in a manner that will damage Obama’s chances for reelection. If Obama is indeed elected, he is likely to disengage from the Israeli prime minister.

Whoever wants to know what things will look like should the United States be less indulgent of Israel is invited to ask the ministers of finance, defense and foreign affairs. Pollard’s story, which from the US perspective is a minor one, proves that the United States does not forgive and does not forget.

Found in: us, peres, obama, netanyahu, medal of freedom, israel, congress, benjamin netanyahu, aipac

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