By Barry Rubin
By now it’s clear that President Barack Obama isn’t going to visit Israel in his term of office. And yet that’s pretty curious, isn’t it? After all, American politicians who seek Jewish support usually find a trip to Israel a pretty good way to claim pro-Israel credentials. And Obama has been desperate to do so, especially this year.
Why, then, isn’t Obama going to visit Israel? Of course, we cannot definitively answer that question, but here are some thoughts:
1. His personal distaste for Israel is so great that he doesn’t want to come here. Of course, he did do so once as a senator but now Obama may feel he can give freer rein to his feelings. While it is silly to say that Obama hates Israel and wants to destroy it, if you believe that he has a single warm feeling toward the Jewish state I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might want to buy. Certainly, Obama has an extreme personal dislike for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he revealed to a microphone he didn’t know was on when meeting with French President Sarkozy. And while some of Obama’s best friends were Jewish, they were also anti-Israel or, at best, in the we-know-better-than-those-dumb-Israelis camp.
2. He fears being booed and rejected by Israelis. Let’s be clear, Israelis can behave like star-struck provincials ogling celebrities. There would be a certain amount of drooling worship of that type. Still, Obama is very unpopular here, too. There could be some nasty scenes of booing and anti-Obama signs that might persuade American Jews that all is not well.
3. A visit counters Obama’s efforts to distance himself from Israel and act as if he’s the buddy of Muslims, especially those who hate the Jewish state. Of course he could go to Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq again since he’s been to all of those places.
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For the last 40 years American presidents have stood with Israel and urged Arab states to make peace with that country. Think of President Bill Clinton. Their policies relied on the principle that the United States can nurture excellent relations with both sides. And guess what? That policy worked as well as was possible. The radical Arabs would have opposed America under any conditions and the moderates worked closely with Washington. But no matter how much lip service Obama gives such a strategy — most of the time in front of Jewish groups — this is not the president’s approach.
Of course, on such a trip Obama could drop in on the Palestinian Authority (PA) to show his passionate desire for a Palestinian state and love of that people. Yet this might not be enough in his mind to counter the cooties picked up in Israel that would supposedly horrify Muslims and Arabs. Moreover, it would be embarrassing to go and hang out with a PA leadership that is now in partnership with Hamas.
4. The failure of his “peace process” policy to make any progress at all might make him want to stay away from reminding people of that fact. If anything, Obama set back Israeli-Palestinian dealings. Obama cannot come and take credit for some breakthrough.
I suspect that all of the above reasons are factors in his staying away. As with so many other subjects, it’s amazing that this issue is not being discussed and analyzed at all.
Note: It has been pointed out that other presidents have not visited Israel in their first term. The point here is that Obama has been aware that he has faced an unusually high level of criticism on the Israel issue and that he has lost some Jewish support. He has been eager to consolidate it in the face of a tough reelection race. Thus, from his own standpoint he has certain motives that might make him view a trip to Israel as beneficial. In addition, unlike other presidents who didn’t visit Israel in their first term, he has been next door three times in Egypt or Turkey yet chose not to include Israel. Incidentally, when Vice President Joe Biden did visit Israel he used the occasion to engage in a very sharp and unjustified attack that violated a previous U.S. commitment (throwing a tantrum over a zoning board decision to move construction of some buildings one step down the line, though the administration had secretly agreed not to complain about Israeli construction in east Jerusalem in exchange for a nine-month Israeli construction freeze on the entire West Bank).
Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.