Does Obama Have the “Special Feeling”

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, stands by President Barack Obama as he waves to the crowd during campaign stop at Bowie State University in Bowie, Md., on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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People say strange things. They think strange things. They do strange things. Accepting this fact is the first step to getting along in the world and not being constantly surprised and discomfited. I just read this article/interview with Leon Wieseltier in the Times of Israel, an English language Israeli paper catering to anglophone Israelis and American Jews. The gist of the article is that Leon continues to really, really dislike Benjamin Netanyahu but thinks he’s for once right on the Iran nuclear deal. As you’d expect, I entirely agree with him on Netanyahu and almost as resoundingly disagree with him on the Iran deal. His arguments are ones you’ve heard before on both sides and aren’t really what concern me in this case.

It’s this line down at the bottom about Obama being “the first US president who doesn’t really have a special feeling for Israel.”

Here’s the passage in question.

Although the relationship between the prime minister and the president is permanently “poisoned,” Obama doesn’t hate Israel, Wieseltier said. But he is “the first US president who doesn’t really have a special feeling for Israel,” he mused, as the fans in the Nationals Park cheered their team’s 5-4 victory over the Diamondbacks.

These are hard points to argue with since they have no really concrete meaning. So there’s no claim to interrogate or vindicate or invalidate. But Leon’s no Obama hater. So, why? Just what is this about?

I would say that on the immediate merits this is wrong – I think Obama has a genuine concern for Israel and has a personal and emotional engagement in its future. I haven’t hypnotized him and gotten his uncensored views on it. So I can’t be sure, even though I have had the chance to ask him a few questions about it over the years. But this point or my opinion is beside the point.

Did the elder George Bush really have a deeper sense of vicarious kinship or “special feeling” about Israel than Obama does? This is the clearest case since the elder Bush was palpably not a big Zionist or someone who “got” Israel in any way. Nor were his policies terribly friendly with Israel. At the time, there were even claims from some in the Jewish community that he and his administration were tainted by a sort of soft anti-Semitism or at least anti-Israel sentiment. I do not think this was true at all. But if the standard was the “special feeling”, dude, George H. W. Bush did not have the special feeling. And really anyone who was politically aware 25 years ago knows this. Zero question.

What about Ronald Reagan? Since Reagan has now been canonized as Republican incarnate in GOP dogma and since attachment to rightwing Israeli policy is now core to Republican self-identification and partisanship, it seems obvious that of course Reagan was the ultimate Republican Israel dude.

But not really.

While he was certainly friendly with many American Jews, especially in Hollywood, his administration tangled with the Israelis on a number of occasions – over the sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, over the Lebanon War and a number of other things. There were a number of people in his administration who were very pro-Israeli right wing and many went on to serve in the second Bush administration. But it’s really not at all clear Reagan had the special feeling.

Carter? Hard to say. He was highly critical in some ways, but also shepherded the Camp David Peace Accords. As a Southern Baptist he had a biblically based affinity with Jews and Israel but he has also become increasingly anti- over the years. So let’s but Carter down as ‘who knows’.

Nixon? Good lord! Nixon provided critical assistance to the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. But that is probably best seen in a Cold War context rather than a matter of being pro-Israel. Because my God, Nixon was pretty clearly an anti-Semite, though you can make a limited ‘product of his times’ argument backed up by Nixon hating all sorts of people. So Jews had good company among the many ethnic and religious groups Nixon hated and thought were plotting against him.

I trust I’ve made my point.

There are so many US Presidents since 1948 who – whatever the “special feeling” is – didn’t have it that the whole claim kind of becomes laughable.

But where we start to get a bit more sense of what this is about is that George W. Bush really, really had a special feeling. I’m not sure it was a helpful feeling. But it was special and he had it. Both because of his religious beliefs and his foreign policy attitudes, Israel was clearly a big deal to him. And a lot of Israelis really, really appreciated that. In my mind the concern was largely destructive since it helped remove any pressure to move forward on resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict – and that at a time when there were two Prime Ministers who each in different ways were at least interested in advancing the ball if not solving it. (Basically the difference between Sharon and the post-conversion Olmert I’m referring to here.) You could also argue it was destructive since by essentially destroying the Iraqi state he dramatically increased the power of Iran and set the stage for Iran much more assertive role in the region today.

Then there’s Clinton. Let’s remember that the same folks who are going nuts about the Iran deal now and the folks who identify with the Israeli right really, really, really did not like Clinton or his Israel policy. But in a very different way, Clinton did get invested at a personal level. He developed an almost paternal relationship with Yitzhak Rabin and was clearly deeply shaken by his assassination. (Netanyahu ended up being the perverse electoral benificiary of the campaign of incitement which he helped lead and which led to Rabin’s murder. Lucky Bibi.) So Clinton in some ways strikes me as the best “special feeling” candidate.

In any case, what that all ends up giving us is that Obama’s two immediate predecessors were arguably more invested in Israel than he is. I do not believe that is actually true. But let’s say it’s arguable. Saying he’s the first President who doesn’t have this “special feeling” is, as I think I’ve shown pretty clearly above, just preposterous. And Eisenhower? Who stopped the Sinai campaign in its tracks and humiliated the British, French and Israelis in their Suez Canal gambit? Definitely no special feeling.

When it’s from haters, it’s no big surprise to me. As it says in the Book of Proverbs, haters gonna hate. But when it’s not, it’s so demonstrably false I just do not get it.

The one thing I have been personally disappointed in is this. President Clinton really did get invested, as I said. He really wanted to broker a piece. Really bad. Some of that is legacy. Some of that is feeling he needed to redeem what had been lost with Rabin’s assassination. But at some basic level he felt it, in a way that transcended the obvious foreign policy interests the United States has in brokering a settlement.

I had the opportunity to ask President Obama a question about this in an off the record briefing early in his first term. This was with a group of editorial page types and a few pundits, all generally middle of the road. You could ask whatever you wanted and I asked the first question. It was about Israel. This was shortly after the first dust-up over settlements in which Netanyahu had basically refused Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze and gotten away with it.

I don’t remember the precise wording of my question but it was something to the effect of, is that it? Can you really say this has to happen and then let it not happen? It’s bad for the peace process and (I found some slightly but not very diplomatic way of saying this) it makes you look weak.

It wasn’t a great answer.

The gist of his answer was this would be good for peace and it would be good for Israel. It’s very important. We’ve made our position clear. And now the Israelis have to decide whether they are going to do what is in fact in their self-interest. I remember sitting back in my chair, letting someone else ask a question and thinking, wow, I really didn’t like that answer.

But there was something in that answer that has informed everything that has come after. I think Obama really does care about Israel and believes strongly that it is on a bad course that it will have to reverse. But it’s a big world with a lot of problems out there to solve. Israel’s just one and it’s not the only one. So we’ll try to lead the way and do what we can. But we’re not going to shortchange everything else we need to get done trying to beg or force the Israelis to do what is in their own self-interest. This was not the answer I wanted to hear. But I have personal motivations that go beyond the US interest in a settlement. Should a President? I’m not sure about that. Ironically, it was the limits of his concern that has actually benefited the Israeli right. He did not end up pushing things as hard as Clinton did. And of course he had to deal with the more fertile ground Netanyahu had for meddling in US politics.

This is also I think at the root of the current stand off over Iran. Netanyahu thought he had the measure of Obama because he’d stood him down on settlements. But he misjudged the situation. Settlements and a peace deal just wasn’t something Obama saw as critical to US security interests. Important, yes. Good. Something really worth trying for. But not critical. For Obama, the Iran deal was entirely different. He believed and believes it is critical. This was an element of the relationship that Netanyahu and his inner circle entirely misjudged.

It’s a big world. And Obama is simply not obsessed with Israel. I kind of wish he were more obsessed. But he’s not. And in that sense he’s pretty much the same as almost all US presidents going back to 1948.

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