The big news around Israel, grabbing more headlines than the Iranians and their unimpeded march toward the bomb, bigger than the coalition talks (both stories have dominated the front page seemingly forever), is the news that President Obama is planning his first trip to Israel next month, in March. Meshenichnas Adar, marbim b’simchah.
In a previous column we discussed whether a brachah is made when we see the president, the leader of the free world. Since the U.S. is a democracy, and not a monarchy, no brachah is made, despite President Obama being considered the most powerful leader in the world. So from a mitzvah standpoint, a visit from President Obama would not be as significant as a visit from a third-rate potentate according to the majority opinion, but it is still VERY big news.
I am not quite sure how to deal with the impending arrival of the leader of the free world. I am happy that he is choosing to come to Israel as the first foreign visit of his second term. This is perceived as an honor to Jerusalem and the Israeli government. But is this merely an empty gesture, or a harbinger of better relations with the White House?
At best President Obama has shown ambivalence toward Israel and her leadership. In the recent war with Hamas, Operation Pillar of Defense, Obama came out in great vocal support of Israel’s right to defend herself. Immediately thereafter, however, it is reputed that not only did he did not actively discourage European allies from voting for the United Nations resolution to raise the status of the Palestinian Authority to observer status at the U.N., according to many sources he in fact tacitly encouraged their votes for the Palestinian Authority.
Other actions demand at least a cursory look, specifically his nominations for two of the most important cabinet positions, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. There is an argument that can be made for the president nominating the new Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry, who also will be visiting Israel in March. Kerry was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is considered well-versed on international issues, often serving as a liaison between the White House and foreign governments, like an Ambassador-at-Large. Also, following a recent tradition, almost a requirement of the job, it seems the Secretary of State MUST have some Jewish connection. Like Madeleine Albright before him, Kerry has Jewish roots that he became aware of as an adult. I find this dubious in the case of Albright, a professor of history, but in the case of Kerry, he has shown a genuine surprise and positive regard for this revelation. His brother Cameron, with whom he is close, underwent an Orthodox conversion. Secretary of State Clinton, not to be left out of even tangential connection to the Chosen People, was close to her maternal grandmother’s second husband, a Russian-born Jew. Is this “good for the Jews”? I would argue to the contrary. Each has displayed a liberal inclination within accepted central positions toward a Palestinian State, playing the Jewish card in front of Jewish audiences.
Obama nominating former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to be the new Secretary of Defense is a far more problematic issue, well-discussed in previous editorials in Hamodia. Known more for what he stands against (Israel; attacking Iran) than what he is known for (?), Hagel’s nomination can best be viewed as Obama stretching his hand across the political aisle to bring a Republican into his cabinet. To take this as an attempt to build political bridges is naïve. Within the Republican Party, Hagel was an outlier, a pariah to many within his party and far more a donkey-in-elephant’s-clothing than a Republican. And despite his public epiphany on positions regarding Israel and Iran, Hagel’s appointment will not bode well for Israel, even if he is merely a cover for Obama’s policies.
This past Monday, addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu enumerated “three external challenges”: Iran’s ongoing nuclear weapons program; Syria’s domestic instability and the fear that its massive stockpile of chemical weapons could be turned toward Israel; and the ongoing pursuit of peace with the Palestinians as the main themes to be discussed during his upcoming meeting with the president.
Discussed to this point are players peripheral to the meeting and topics to be addressed in it. The outcome of the meeting may well be a function of a rapprochement between the president and the prime minister. Though neither campaigned publicly for the competitor in either of the recent elections in the United States and Israel, it is clear that both Obama and Netanyahu were hoping for a different partner. Netanyahu would have preferred Romney; President Obama preferred ANYONE to Netanyahu. Politics as they are make for strange partnerships, and this forced marriage continues. It is hoped that Obama will dust off the famous “restart” button that former Secretary of State Clinton brought to her first meeting with her Russian counterpart. If the button, originally misnamed and mismanaged, is fixed and working, perhaps great things will ensue, though I doubt it. Obama is beyond the clutches of democracy and can act in his second term with political impunity. Netanyahu, though universally regarded as Israel’s most worthy leader, and given the mandate to form the government, was somewhat chastened by the results of the recent election which saw his party garnering far fewer seats than anticipated.
My great concern is Obama taking a hubristic approach toward the visit, trying to justify his winning of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize before doing anything of record other than winning the White House on a platform of as-yet-unfulfilled “hope.” Certainly there exists the hope among Palestinians that they will achieve their national ambitions. Obama will seek to fulfill this dream, but at what cost to the Palestinians? What compromise will he exact from them? What evidence of a connection to reality will they display? It is likely the president, in concert with the European choir, will pressure Israel to give the Palestinians upfront concessions as proof of Israel’s good intentions: building freezes, relaxing of checkpoints in Yehudah and Shomron and into Gaza, and more.
Obama’s visit to Jerusalem will be considered a gift to the Jewish nation. Hopefully this gift will neither in history nor legend be compared to another gift left at a walled city — the gift left by the Greeks at the walls of Troy. The legend of this gift, a giant (Trojan) horse, the symbol of Troy was the subterfuge by which the Greeks, previously unable to breach the great walls of Troy, gained entrance when the offering was brought within the city walls. The Greeks then ravaged Troy from within. It is the origin of the expression “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” Unless the “restart” button is new and improved, considering the last five years of Israel’s relationship with this White House, it behooves us to consider the “gift” of this visit and its impact within the security wall and the walls of Jerusalem.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com