I suspect that Barack Obama is gritting his teeth ahead of his upcoming first visit to Israel as US President. There is certainly no love lost between the American president and the Israeli leader, which may go a long way to explain why Israel has been absent from his travel itinerary until now. Nevertheless, if he wants the support of the pro-Israel lobby and Congress, he will just have to hold his nose and get on with what is little more than a prolonged photo-op.
Ari Shavit writing in Ha’aretz admits that “over the past four years, Israel has done its best to become the object of Obama’s loathing”. That is true, but no American president can afford to respond in kind at least in public when as a new Gallup poll has revealed that 64 per cent of Americans sympathise with Israelis as opposed to just 12 per cent who side with Palestinians. There is anecdotal evidence indicating that had Obama been a mere private citizen, he would be among the 12 per cent.
For instance, in May 1998, Obama was pictured with the late Edward Said and his wife at an Arab community event held in Chicago. Moreover, Ali Abu Nimah of the Electronic Intifada says that prior to becoming president, Obama attended various Palestinian and Arab community events. He recalls meeting with him at one.
“As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly and volunteered: “Hey, I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down, I can be more up front.” He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the Chicago Tribune, critical of Israel and US policy: “Keep up the good work!” If that was, indeed, Obama’s hope, it has not manifested through no fault of his own when immutable US foreign policy keeps him hidebound from speaking his mind. However, even his consummate diplomatic approach cannot hide his antipathy for the bumptious hard line Israeli leader.
A conversation between Obama and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, caught on an open microphone in 2011, suggested Obama found the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, irritating. When Sarkozy blasted Netanyahu as “a liar”, Obama responded saying: “You’re tired of him; what about me? I have to deal with him every day.” Then, according to Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, on another occasion, Obama was heard saying: “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are”, while characterising Netanyahu as “a political coward”.
Obama is also bound to be the tiniest bit miffed that Netanyahu backed the wrong candidate by lavishing praise on his former rival Mitt Romney, who received the red carpet treatment when he visited Israel with one of Netanyahu’s staunchest friends — the billionaire Sheldon Adelson last year.
Then again, Obama has done his fair share of snubbing his Israeli counterpart. In 2010, the American president left Netanyahu in a White House meeting room for more than an hour while he took off for supper with his family, allegedly after they had quarrelled over the expansion of Jewish colonies. When his Israeli guest made it clear that he was not amenable to halting construction, Obama got up from his chair and announced: “I’m going to the residential wing to have dinner with Michelle and the girls,” adding, “I’m still around. Let me know if there is anything new.”
Last year, Netanyahu wore his intransigence as a badge of honour during a visit to a military base. “In the past four years, we have contended with tremendous pressures,” he said alluding to Obama’s tenure. “They demanded we curb our pressure on Iran; that we withdraw to the ‘67 lines, that we divide [occupied] Jerusalem and refrain from building settlements [colonies] in [occupied] Jerusalem. We rebuffed the pressure.” His continual rebuffs met with another from Obama in the run-up to his reelection. An Israeli official disclosed that the White House had refused Netanyahu’s request to meet one-to-one with Obama during the latter’s visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly on the grounds that “the President’s schedule will not permit that”.
Now it appears that Obama has dropped the Palestinian case. Those who were hoping that he would become more forthright in his second term, unhampered by the need to people-please for votes, are likely to be disappointed.
Israel will not only continue to join-up the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem with Jewish colonies under construction on land in the hitherto undeveloped E1 zone, spelling the death of a two-state solution, but the new Netanyahu-led coalition government also plans to pass a bill that will put Israel’s democratic credentials second to its Jewish character. The nitty-gritty of this bill is that the state will continue constructing Jewish colony homes, but will not be obliged to invest in constructions slated for non-Jews.
The White House has confirmed that Obama is going to Israel without any new initiative. This meaningless tourist trip, this dutiful facade, this exercise in hypocrisy, begins tomorrow. And, naturally, the president will do his best to show AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and Capitol Hill that he is enjoying the ride.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org