Says Mr. Benn:
This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price. Though Mr. Obama has succeeded in prodding Mr. Netanyahu to accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he has failed to induce Israel to impose a freeze on settlements. In fact, he has failed even to stir debate about the merits of one: no Israeli political figure has stood up to Mr. Netanyahu and begged him to support Mr. Obama; not even the Israeli left, desperate for a new agenda, has adopted Mr. Obama as its icon.It's Obama's fault that Israelis aren't debating the virtues of a freeze? This from a man whose own newspaper has been the leader in arguing that the entire settlement enterprise has pulled Israel down? I'd suggest that it's Benn and other enlightened Israelis who ought to shoulder the blame here, not Mr. Obama. Don't blame Obama for Israelis' willful blindness.
In Mr. Netanyahu’s narrative, the president has fallen under the influence of top aides — in this case Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod — whom the prime minister has called “self-hating Jews.”Rahm Emanuel, a self-hating Jew? The Rahm Emanuel who once served with the Israeli army? Whose father fought in the Zionist underground?
What went wrong? Several explanations come to mind.Benn seems to forget Bill Clinton's complete for disdain for Netanyahu during his first stint as prime minister. Hardly a "rosy" era in US-Israel relations. And perhaps, as Mr. Obama said in his Cairo speech, it's high time that Israel and everyone else recognize the injustice done to the Palestinian Arabs in 1947-48 and the years following - something that the Israeli Left (including Benn's own newspaper) seems to have become aware of as well. And when you've been dealt a lousy hand - as Mr. Bush did for Mr. Obama - the options are to bluff, big-time (Obama's not that stupid) or to fold and get some new cards (which to some extent is what Obama's trying to do).
First, in the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention. Memories of State Department “Arabists” leading American policy in the Middle East were erased. The White House coordinated its policy with Jerusalem, and stayed out of the way when Israel embarked on controversial military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza. This approach infuriated America’s Arab and European allies, which blamed Washington for one-sidedness — something they were willing to forgive of Bill Clinton but not of George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama came to office determined to repair America’s broken alliances in Europe and the Middle East. One way to do this — to prove that he was the opposite of his predecessor — was to place some distance between Israel and himself.
Second, Mr. Obama’s quest for diplomacy has appeared to Israelis as dangerous American naïveté. The president offered a hand to the Iranians, and got nothing, merely giving them more time to advance their nuclear program. In Israeli eyes, he was humiliated by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. And he failed to move Arab governments to take steps to normalize relations with Israel. Conclusion: Mr. Obama is a softie, eager to please his listeners and avoid confrontation with anyone who is not Mr. Netanyahu.Obama got nothing from the Iranians? Given the upheaval after the June elections fiasco, the Iranian government is hanging on by its fingernails. They're hardly in a position to be creative in foreign policy, and the nuclear program is a matter of national pride for almost all Iranians, not just the government. Or should Obama just buddy up with Netanyahu and bomb Iran (and, what the hell, North Korea, too) to smithereens?
Third, Mr. Obama seems to have confused American Jews with Israelis. We are close emotionally and politically, but we are different. We speak Hebrew and not English, we live in the Middle East and have separate historical narratives. Mr. Obama’s stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial, immediately after his Cairo speech, appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel. Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle — not guilt over the Holocaust — brought Jews a homeland. Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.As offensive and outlandish as Ahmadinejad's pronouncements can be, the idea that Holocaust-inspired guilt greased the skids for the world's acquiescence in (and Harry Truman's huge boost of) Israel's creation is hardly news, nor is it invalid - and Netanyahu has been playing the "new Holocaust" card shamelessly for years. And again, there's that little matter of massive Zionist ethnic cleansing that pushed the Palestinians out. Am I equating that with the Holocaust? Absolutely not. But it can't simply be dismissed because of the enormity of the Holocaust's horrors. I once heard Hanan Ashrawi comment on this issue: You cannot use your pain to invalidate my own. I'm with her.
Fourth, as far as most Israelis are concerned, Mr. Obama has made a mistake in focusing on a settlement freeze. For starters, mainstream Israelis rarely have anything to do with the settlements; many have no idea where they are, even when they’re a half-hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.And whose fault is that, Mr. Benn, if Israelis are oblivious to the settlements? Two of your finest and most respected columnists - Gideon Levy and Amira Hass (the child of Holocaust survivors) - have persisted, and suffered, in reporting on the evils of Israeli occupation and West Bank settlements (and until 2005, Gaza settlements). Mr. Obama is now supposed to pay the price for your countrymen's racist ignoring of what their government is perpetrating?
More important: in the past decade, repeated peace negotiations and diplomatic statements have indicated that larger, closer-to-home settlements (the “settlement blocs”) will remain in Israeli hands under any two-state solution. Why, then, insist on a total freeze everywhere? And why deny with such force — as the administration did — the existence of previous understandings between the United States and Israel over limited settlement construction? There is simply too much evidence proving that such an understanding existed. To Israelis, the claim undermined Mr. Obama’s credibility — and strengthened Mr. Netanyahu’s position.Why not insist? The settlements are illegal, and have always been illegal according to the dictates of international law and UN resolutions. (Perhaps Mr. Netanyahu hasn't seen the marvelous essay to that effect by Tony Judt? Ooops, never mind - self-hating Jew. Sorry.) Until George Bush's blunder with Sharon, it had been official US policy not to recognize them as legal. If anything, Obama is trying to bring the situation into line with what US policy had always been, and should have remained. Again, just because Bush dealt him some lousy cards doesn't mean Obama now has to play them out. There were no documents signed. Obama is breaking no treaties by insisting on a settlement freeze. But from the first settler's building a house in the first settlement in 1967, Israel has been in violation of the law.
But until the president talks to us, we won’t know. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, Mr. President, speak to us directly. We will surely listen.I believe he has indeed been talking to Israelis, Mr. Benn. You just don't seem to care for what he's been saying.
UPDATE: Nice essay in the 29 July NYT by Celestine Bohlen touches on some of these points.