● The president of the United States, in the midst of a policy dispute with the Israeli prime minister, glared into the television cameras and angrily declared, “It is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.”
Barack Obama? No, Ronald Reagan – who in 1981 was pushing hard for Congressional approval of the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia, and who that same year reacted to the Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor by suspending planned shipments of F-16 fighter jets to Israel and instructing his United Nations ambassador to condemn Israel at the UN.
● The president of the United States, in the course of what was billed as a major address on the Middle East, warned that “the Israeli people also must understand that… the settlement enterprise and building bypass roads in the heart of what they already know will one day be part of a Palestinian state is inconsistent with the Oslo commitment that both sides negotiate a compromise.”
Barack Obama? No, Bill Clinton – who during his presidency dispatched political operatives to Israel in 1996 (unsuccessfully) and 1999 (successfully) to work for a Labor Party victory, and came disconcertingly close to pushing a sitting Israeli prime minister into making serious concessions to a Yasir Arafat who had long since served notice that he had no interest in peaceful coexistence.
● The president of the United States, while meeting at the White House with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, announced that “Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes road map obligations or prejudice final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. Therefore, Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion.”
Barack Obama? No, George W. Bush – who, in addition to making that statement in 2005, revealed in his post-presidency memoir, Decision Points, that he had approved a plan formulated by his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert that “would have returned the vast majority of the territory in the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians, accepted the construction of a tunnel connecting the two Palestinian territories, allowed a limited number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel, established Jerusalem as a joint capital of both Israel and Palestine, and entrusted control of the holy cities to a panel of nonpolitical elders.”
The point of these historical tidbits (and they just begin to scratch the surface) is that policy differences between the United States and Israel have always existed – even during the administrations of presidents widely acknowledged as being very pro-Israel – particularly over settlements and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
And yet many in the Orthodox community act as though history started four years ago with Obama’s inauguration, and that his opposition to some Israeli policies and his sometimes rocky relationship with Netanyahu are unprecedented and frightening developments.
As a non-partisan observer who works and enjoys professional relationships with politicians on both sides of the aisle, I have watched our community’s shrill and even childish approach to the Obama presidency with not a little consternation. Let me make one thing perfectly clear: The relationship between the United States and Israel is as American as baseball and apple pie, transcending policy differences and personality clashes.
Perhaps support for Israel was once primarily a Jewish issue. Not anymore. Today, the vast majority of Americans identify with the Jewish state, especially evangelical Christians whose fervent love for Israel often puts American Jews to shame. This little country has undeniably emerged as a powerful presence, and its relationship with the United States is indestructible. We are, so to speak, joined at the hip.
Yes, Israel is surrounded by hundreds of millions of hostile neighbors who seek its destruction. And yes, when an American president tries to make U.S. foreign policy more inclusive of Arab aspirations and sensitivities, it can seem to many of us that his sympathies lie with the other side.
But international relations are not simple and the stakes are high. Our country’s policies need to be grounded in reality, and even the most instinctively pro-Israel American presidents engage in a constant balancing act in the Middle East.
Had Mitt Romney won last week, I seriously doubt there would have been any significant differences over the next four years in terms of U.S. Mideast policy, particularly on the key issues of Iran, settlements, and Jerusalem. Romney made it clear during the campaign that he supported a two-state solution (which by definition would mean Israeli concessions on settlements and territory) and that he agreed with Obama’s approach to preventing Tehran from becoming a nuclear threat.
And my guess is that the U.S. Embassy will not be moved to Jerusalem no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. In 1995, Congress affirmed Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and that the process of relocating the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem should begin. But an amendment to that bill cites a security waiver that allows a president the authority to suspend that process if he feels it is necessary to protect America’s national security interests. Every president since then has chosen to exercise that waiver.
It’s noteworthy that a bill introduced in 2011 that sought to override the president’s waiver authority garnered just a handful of sponsors. Congress understands the waiver is crucial for national security purposes. After all is said and done, foreign policy is conducted in the White House, not on the campaign trail.
That is why I find it so unbecoming when many in our community demonize our president in a manner that ultimately may undermine our effectiveness in advocating for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Don’t get me wrong. Criticizing a president is also as American as apple pie and we have a right to disagree with some (or all) of his policies. But let’s not allow the relationship between the U.S. and Israel to be muddied by personal attacks on the president.
Presidents and prime ministers come and go but the U.S.-Israel relationship is here to stay. We need to be vigilant but also to recognize that support for that relationship is solid and widespread, and not subject to partisan politics.
About the Author: Ezra Friedlander is CEO of the Friedlander Group (www.TheFriedlanderGroup.com), a public policy consulting company based in New York and Washington.
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