Monday, May 23, 2011

Obama and Israel

In his speech last week on the Middle-East President Obama called for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians based on the pre-1967 war boundaries with land-swaps. There was an immediate outcry. Over the weekend the President tried to convince people that this did not represent a change in US policy. Technically the President was correct but there is more to it than that.

President Bush (43) stated it slightly differently but he also called for the pre-1967 boarders plus land-swaps and there was no outcry. The reason is that no one doubted that Bush wanted a strong Israel. Presumably what he meant was that each side would get around the same number of square miles as before the war but they would be in different places.

No one is quite sure if this is President Obama's intention or not. He also called for the new Palestinian state to be contiguous. Since it will almost certainly include the Gaza Strip, there is no way to create a continuous Palestine without dividing Israel in half. This may have been an oversight. He could have been referring to the current patchwork of settlements which requires Palestinians to cross multiple checkpoints. He needs to clarify this position. In fact, he needs to clarify every part of his position.

It doesn't help that the Palestinians are also offended by other parts of his speech. I saw one headline over the weekend that indicated that outrage on both sides over Obama's speech guarantees that no new peace talks will begin.

All of this highlights the main difference between Obama's current Middle-East policies and those of President Bush. Bush was a strong supporter of Israel, possibly the strongest supporter to grace the White House. In contrast, Obama is the weakest and the contrast with Bush makes him seem almost hostile to Israel.

Obama faces problems because of who he is. Even putting aside the rumor that he is a secret Muslim (and, once again, I think that he is a secret atheist) he has a Muslim name and grew up in a Muslim country with a Muslim step-father. Supporters of Israel expect him to favor Arabs over the Israelis because of his background.

Obama brought some of this on himself. He made a point of reaching out to the world's Muslims early in his administration. At the same time he has been deeply critical if Israeli policies. His current speech was given the day before a meeting with the Israeli prime minister and did not include a heads-up of the content of the speech. The whole thing could have been smoothed over by the two country's respective state departments if some advance planning had happened. It didn't and Obama now has to face the fall-out.

A final reason to suspect Obama's motives comes from his political affiliations. He comes from the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party. This group tends to equate modern Israel and Nazi Germany and is often anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic. My wife asked me last week why the political left is so anti-Israel. I did a little poking around over the weekend and realized that they inherited this attitude from the USSR. During the 1967 war, the US and Britain backed Israel and the USSR backed Egypt. Israel is a capitalistic democracy. Egypt in the 1960s was leaning heavily socialist under Nasser. The entire "Israel is as bad as the Nazis" meme came from the USSR ambassador to the UN during the 1967 war. Coming from the Left, Obama is tainted by these attitudes even if he does not share them.

All of this means that Obama may say approximately the same thing as President Bush but people are justified in wondering if he means it the same way.

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