President Barack Obama heads to Israel today to fulfill a campaign promise from 2012, as Israelis prepare for Monday’s Passover holiday. Though the White House is lowering expectations of the visit, there are signs it may help to repair a relationship that has suffered over the past four years. In the spirit of the Exodus story, here are the “Ten Plagues” that Obama brought to U.S.-Israel relations, in rough chronological order.
1. A weak U.S. approach to the Iranian regime and its nuclear program. When he took office in 2009, Obama had committed to meeting with Iranian leaders “without preconditions”--even though the regime’s genocidal aims toward Israel were clear. The Obama administration dragged its feet on sanctions, failed to support Iran’s democratic uprising, and frustrated both Israel and U.S. allies in Europe with its timid approach.
2. Initial enthusiasm for anti-Israel initiatives at the UN. Though the administration eventually vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements, and opposed a General Assembly resolution declaring Palestinian statehood, Obama began by attempting to participate in the discredited Durban II “racism” conference, and was soft in its opposition to the Goldstone Report that accused Israel of war crimes.
3. Legitimizing the UN Human Rights Council. By the time the Obama administration decided to join the Human Rights Council in 2009, it had already established itself as an obsessively anti-Israel body. While ignoring major human rights abuses within its own member states, the Council heaped unjustified condemnation on Israel. The U.S. has not been able to change the Council’s approach; it has merely given it undue legitimacy.
4. Public perception of pressure on Israel. Whether it was abandoning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during dinner, singling out Israel's democratic flaws, or blaming Israel for danger to U.S. troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has often created the impression--at times deliberately--that it is at odds with Israel. Obama’s failure to visit Israel on numerous earlier trips to the region helped reinforce that impression.
5. A failure by the U.S. to prioritize the war on radical Islam. The most important thing the George W. Bush administration shared with Israel was a common fight against Islamist extremism. Though Obama has targeted terrorists abroad, and kept up Bush’s commitments to Israel on supporting weapons systems like Iron Dome, it has also backed away from Bush’s broader struggle, even refusing to speak of radical Islam.
6. U.S. condemnation of construction in Jewish areas of Jerusalem. In 2010, Vice President Joe Biden escalated a disagreement over housing construction in Jerusalem by condemning it. Though previous administrations have also been ambivalent about Israel’s claim to the city, rarely had they adopted such strident language--which was followed up by a 45-minute lecture by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Netanyahu.
7. Undermining secret Israeli defense plans against Iran. In 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Obama administration expected Israel to launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear installations that spring--completely removing the element of surprise necessary for such an attack to succeed. It was not the only time the Obama administration had deliberately undermined Israel’s pre-emptive option.
8. Anti-Israel drift of the Democratic Party. President Obama’s party has become a safe space for anti-Israel hostility. Last summer’s floor fight at the Democratic National Convention over the platform endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was only the most dramatic sign of chance. The advent of J Street, an radical, Obama-aligned group that lobbies for pressure on the Israeli government, has helped accelerate the shift.
9. No U.S. “red lines” on Iranian nuclear enrichment. Netanyahu famously told the UN last fall that Iran would have to be stopped before it reached 90% enrichment of the uranium necessary to create an atomic bomb. The Obama administration has not only declined to endorse that line, but has also refused to endorse any red line short of full weaponization of an Iranian nuclear device, leading to divergent U.S.-Israel strategies.
10. The nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Hagel backed direct U.S. negotiations with Hamas terrorists, opposed Israel’s war against Hezbollah terror in 2006, and suggested that the U.S. should not defend Israel from attack by Iran, among other problematic positions. Hagel also favors a more humble U.S. security posture on the global stage, which could leave Israel feeling abandoned in the face of its enemies.
These “Ten Plagues” mean that Obama has much to do to win back Israelis’ trust. One recent poll put his approval rating among Israelis at 10%. His strategy will be to avoid speaking to Israel’s government--he is skipping Israel’s parliament, the Knesset--and to communicate directly to Israelis, using gestures such as a wreath at the tomb of Zionist hero Theodor Herzl. Unlike Pharaoh, Obama may have had a lasting change of heart.