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Obama and Netanyahu

Aaron David Miller discusses the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, and describes Obama’s attitude towards Israel:

Unlike his two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn’t in love with the idea of Israel. Intellectually he understands and supports the pro-Israeli trope — small democratic nation with dark past confronts huge existential threats — but it’s really a head thing.

I’m not sure this is true, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference in terms of Obama’s policy decisions. Where it might make a difference is in the Israeli government’s perception of those decisions. While it seems absurd that Obama can be viewed as being anything other than reliably “pro-Israel,” maybe this supposed lack of emotional attachment can be used to put Obama’s decisions in a more negative light. That said, I find it hard to reconcile Miller’s description with the Obama in this interview, in which Obama said:

I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what’s been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they’re asking themselves moral questions.

Granted, that was in an election-year interview in which Obama was trying to put doubts to rest about his “pro-Israel” attitudes, but these don’t seem to be the answers of someone with a detached, intellectual view of the matter.

On a somewhat related subject, Miller’s piece reminded me of something Steve Clemons wrote the other day in which he made a curious argument that Obama could have somehow collapsed Netanyahu’s coalition:

But at the same time, Obama has repeatedly let Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly embarrass him and show his weaknesses. When Obama did flex US muscles on one occasion, it was over inane posturing about Futenma Air Station in Okinawa, Japan which eventually knocked out Japan’s then prime minister Yukio Hatoyama and undermined Japan’s first real test of genuine democracy and transition between political parties. Obama took out the wrong prime minister.

As it happens, I agree with Clemons that the handling of the basing dispute was a mistake, but Clemons’ conclusion here is wrong in a couple of ways. First, Hatoyama was undone by his own overconfidence in pledging to get the U.S. to re-negotiate the basing deal. It was a mistake to force Hatoyama into that position, but Hatoyama’s fall did not end the DPJ’s control of government. Obama didn’t “take out” Hatoyama so much as he didn’t give any ground, which revealed a misguided and inflexible view of the alliance with Japan, but it didn’t cause the DPJ to lose power. There is no comparable issue in U.S.-Israel relations where a more unyielding Obama would have forced Netanyahu from office, and Likud and its partners would probably benefit politically from a confrontation in which the U.S. managed to force out the prime minister. Besides, Clemons must understand that there is no realistic way that Obama could “take out” Netanyahu and his government without suffering significant political backlash here at home. Playing hardball with the Japanese over basing in Okinawa not only had no political cost here at home, but Obama had strong domestic incentives to oppose Hatoyama on that issue. The incentives have always been reversed in Obama’s dealings with Netanyahu.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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