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May 18th, 2009
11:57 AM ET

When Barack meets Bibi

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/POLITICS/05/18/mideast.obama.netanyahu/art.netanyahu.ho.gi.jpg caption="Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, arrive in Washington, D.C., on Sunday."]

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Will President Barack Obama “throw Israel under the bus?”

Outlandish as that sounds, that’s the fear expressed by some ardent supporters of Israel in advance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit Monday to the White House.

While the leaders converse behind closed doors, there could be quite a show outside the White House if large numbers of people demonstrate on behalf of Israel or the Palestinians or on other Middle East issues.

Despite 60 years of support (to varying degrees) from the White House and Capitol Hill, despite tens of billions of dollars of economic and military aid (particularly since the 1967 and 1973 wars), despite the out-sized role of the Jewish community in American politics (especially in support of Democrats) and despite the feverish backing of Christian evangelicals, there are those who believe that the President Obama is prepared to sacrifice Israel to achieve other goals in the region.

To be sure, President Obama has supporters in the Jewish community for his Middle East policies. But a vocal segment that opposes the administration has been filling e-mail inboxes in recent days.

What’s going on here?

“Obama is changing the rules of Mideast pressure” was the headline atop an article by veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar in the Israeli newspaper Ha’Aretz. “President George W. Bush enjoyed the title "friend of Israel" because he made do with paying lip service to pressure on Israel and passed around documents that lacked teeth. He taught the Israelis that it is possible to behave contemptuously and make a laughingstock of the road map, all the while preserving a most important strategic asset – special ties with the United States. Obama has already managed to alter the rules of the game of the U.S. in the Middle East; everyone, with no exception, is welcome to choose between understandings and sanctions, between carrots and sticks,” Eldar wrote.

What constitutes being thrown under the bus, anyway?

Suggestions of U.S. leniency or accommodation toward Iran or Syria qualify, as does pressure on Israel to curtail settlement activity in the West Bank and ease restrictions on movement by Palestinians. And this recent statement by a State Dept. official: "Universal adherence to the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Tready) itself – including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea – also remains a fundamental objective of the United States” (in effect removing the curtain from in front of Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear weapons program) set off alarm bells.

Among the widely circulated items is a column by Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post. “Arctic winds are blowing into Jerusalem from Washington these days,” Glick forecast. “As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's May 18 visit to Washington fast approaches, the Obama administration is ratcheting up its anti-Israel rhetoric and working feverishly to force Israel into a corner.”

Glick was referring, at least in part, to Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks this month’s AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference in Washington. Ironically, the theme of the AIPAC meeting was “Relationships Matter.”

Biden first offered the carrot: “But in the midst of change, with all the change you will hear about, there is one enduring, essential principle that will not change; and that is our commitment to the peace and security of the state of Israel. That is not negotiable. That is not a matter of change. That is something to be reinforced and made clear. It seems almost unnecessary to state it, but I want the word to go forth in here that no one should mistake it.”

Later came a stick, of sorts: "But Israel has to work towards a two-state solution. You're not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts, and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement based on their first actions - its access to economic opportunity and increased security responsibility. This is a "show me" deal - not based on faith - show me.”

The Obama White House is hardly the first to seek a halt to expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Over the years officials representing previous administrations termed the settlements “a complicating factor,” “obstacles to peace” and “illegal.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the AIPAC meeting by satellite. He did not use the magic phrase “two-state solution” in discussing the future of the Palestinians, but did say, "We are prepared to resume negotiations without any preconditions." Israeli President Shimon Peres, who did speak in person, said that Netanyahu would abide by the decisions of previous Israeli governments, which included the two-state solution, though to what extent is not clear.

President Obama supports Palestinian aspirations. So did his predecessor. George W. Bush was the first President to call publicly for creation of a Palestinian state and he followed Bill Clinton, who as President said that ”there can be no genuine resolution to the conflict without a sovereign, viable, Palestinian state that accommodates Israeli's security requirements and the demographic realities.”

Another piece e-mailed in volume is a column by Melanie Phillips in the British newspaper The Spectator. To be accurate, what Phillips wrote was that “ . . . Obama is attempting to throw Israel under the Islamist bus, . . .”

“It is not the aggressor here but the victim of aggression that American is now choosing to beat up,” Phillips said. After referring to controversies about candidate Obama’s associations she then referred to “the cabal of Israel-bashers, appeasers and Jew-haters he appointed to his administration, with a few useful idiots thrown in for plausible deniability.” I’m not sure in which of those categories she places Vice President Biden.

Author Joel C. Rosenberg (“The Last Jihad” his best-known work) also was wary. “The mutually warm words of appreciation for 61 years of U.S.-Israel relations notwithstanding, a train wreck is coming between the Netanyahu administration and the Obama administration over Iran and the "peace process." I pray it can be avoided, but at this point Netanyahu and his team understand the apocalyptic death cult they are facing in Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and President Obama and his team do not. Netanyahu is preparing to take action to defend Israel and the world from the nightmare of a nuclear armed Iran, and Obama is not,” Rosenberg wrote on his blog after the AIPAC meeting.

Americans for Peace Now took a different tack in an open letter to the President: “As you face the opposition, please keep in mind that our support for your Mideast agenda represents a majority view both in Israel and among Israel's friends in the United States. American Jews voted for you overwhelmingly last November. Most American Jews and most Israeli citizens support the two-state solution that your administration is diligently pursuing. We are confident that Americans – Jews and non-Jews alike – increasingly recognize that Mideast peace is a key U.S. national security interest.”

J Street, a relatively new player in Washington, describes itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.” Its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, wrote in The Forward, a newspaper focusing on Jewish affairs, that, “American Jewish organizations and leaders can choose to act as if it’s still the 1960s, with Israel fighting for physical survival and struggling to make the desert bloom. Or we can appreciate that it’s now the 21st century and that Israel boasts the dominant military in the region and a European standard of living. In 2009, we don’t risk Israel’s survival when we question whether the decisions Israelis are making run counter to their own interests, or to America’s, or if we engage in debate here that is at least as open and broad as in Israel itself.”

Elliott Abrams, whose portfolio as a national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration included the Middle East, offered advice about how to read signals from the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. “It's unlikely that we'll know quickly whether they hit it off,” Abrams wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “The Israelis will almost certainly make this claim within seconds after the meeting ends, and will adduce every possible piece of evidence. Mr. Obama smiled; he put his arm on Mr. Netanyahu's shoulder; his body language was friendly; his tie had positive colors.”

Abrams also offered this guidance: “The White House leaks will be more interesting, for the staff may want to keep Mr. Netanyahu nervous; we'll have to watch what favored journalists are told about the chemistry in the days after the visit. We should not expect to hear the kind of crack that French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently made to journalists after meeting the president (that Mr. Obama was "not always at his best when it comes to decisions and efficiency"), as that does not appear to be the Obama style. If he makes an exception for Mr. Netanyahu and has the staff trash the prime minister to the media, we'll know the two men decided to loathe each other.”

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    The US should not "throw" its alliance with Israel under the bus, but should encourage Israel in the strongest possible terms to actively pursue an agreement with the Palestinians for the good of not only their nation but the rest of the world as well.

    May 18, 2009 at 9:16 pm |
  2. victor

    If and when the time comes...Obama will not support Israel. Especially if it means going to war against Iran. The world has a poor track record when it comes to defending our Jewish State. The hate that the Palestinians have for the Israelis runs to deep and for to long. One side is going to have to cancel out the other. That will be the only way to have peace. The Palestinians see peace as a surrender. Even the Arab world have done very little to help the Palestinians. The Arab answer to helping the Palestinians is to destroy Israel. The Jewish State is here to stay!

    May 18, 2009 at 6:07 pm |
  3. Noam Shelef

    The letter by Americans for Peace Now is right on. Americans want to see progress towards peace for Israel and they trust Obama to make this happen.

    May 18, 2009 at 5:49 pm |
  4. Mari

    @ Scott Stodden.......... Well said.

    I hope that President Obama will ask "Bibi" what's up with the treatment of Palestinians!

    May 18, 2009 at 3:54 pm |
  5. Mike in NYC

    Easy now, Israel Firsters. Don't forget that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, scion of a Zionist Israeli family, is there to look after your interests.

    The whining and screaming from the wingnuts in this article would be hilarious, were it not for the most unfunny reality just beneath - namely, the hijacking of much of US foreign policy by the acolytes of another state.

    May 18, 2009 at 3:11 pm |
  6. Scott Stodden

    I sincerly hope that President Obama in his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahou can come up with some kind of solution to the Middle East peace process. It is far past time for the Middle East to stop fighting and come up with a solution such as a two state solution, good luck to my President Barack Obama

    May 18, 2009 at 12:59 pm |
  7. Cindy

    Honestly...there is no telling what Obama may do. He says one thing in public then often times does the opposite. I mean just look at his campaign so called promises! Hopefully he won't bow to much to the pressure from Iran and the Palestine's. With him you can never tell.

    Cindy..Ga.

    May 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm |