The mainstream American media are grading President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel as a win, after just a few hours of events and meetings. And it is a success thus far--even without the grade inflation from the “incestuous” American press (in the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu).
Yet the media are missing the real story: Obama’s apparent “reset” on Israel is a win for Netanyahu, who stood up to him--and prevailed.
The most important sign of that shift was the public green light Obama gave Israel Wednesday to attack Iran preemptively, if necessary, to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons:
And there is not a lot of light, a lot of daylight between our countries assessments in terms of where Iran is right now. I think that what Bibi alluded to which is absolutely correct is each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action....But we do have to test the proposition that this can be resolved diplomatically. And if it can’t, then I’ve repeated to Bibi what I’ve said publicly, and that is is that we will leave all options on the table in resolving it.
It is too early to draw conclusions about the overall effect of Obama’s trip--he has yet to meet with Palestinian leaders--but not too soon to recognize Netanyahu’s achievement.
Netanyahu has convinced Obama to back away from pressuring Israel to offer deep concessions to the Palestinians; to accept the efficacy of missile defense, at least in Israel and the U.S. homeland; and, above all, to accept the possibility of an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran.
What is more impressive is that Netanyahu achieved all of this without the help of the so-called "Israel lobby" in the U.S., which was silent and sycophantic.
In 2009, when Netanyahu led his Likud Party to victory, he promised to hold firm against pressure from Obama. The pressure was not long in coming, either.
From the beginning of his first term Obama pushed Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, including a freeze on construction in the settlements--and by “settlements” Obama included parts of Jerusalem inhabited by Jews, condemning a housing project announced in 2010.
That condemnation came with a 45-minute tirade by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, once thought to be the most pro-Israel member of Obama’s Cabinet. Later, Clinton also attacked Israel for religious separation of men and women in some communities. Her State Department led the U.S. into membership in the UN Human Rights Council, which is little more than an anti-Israel propaganda organization controlled by Islamic states.
While Obama reached out to the Muslim world, he publicly shunned Israel, hoping that the fear of international isolation would shift the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu did oblige Obama with a temporary construction freeze but pushed back in every other way, famously lecturing Obama in the White House, before the assembled press, about why the1967 borders could not be the basis for a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.
That episode brought Netanyahu a huge boost in opinion polls back home--and kudos from American conservatives, who saw in the Israeli leader a courage that Republicans seemed to lack in confronting Obama.
Even Democrats envied Netanyahu’s panache. When Netanyahu addressed Congress and congratulated President Obama on the death of Osama bin Laden, it was the first unabashed public celebration of the mission.
Palestinian leaders made Netanyahu’s task easier by refusing to return to the table. The tough stand Obama had taken against Israel emboldened Palestinians to hope that he would be able to wrest even greater concessions from Israel on their behalf. When that did not happen, Palestinians turned to the UN, defying the Obama administration and the Oslo peace process by pushing for a vote of statehood in the General Assembly.
The Iranian regime, too, failed to help Obama. Netanyahu--and most other leaders--have long been convinced that diplomacy was near a dead end. Obama refused to give up hope for a grand bargain on nuclear weapons, and even gave the regime time to regroup during the Green Revolution of 2009. Yet over time, Netanyahu’s criticism of Obama’s strategy was proven correct, most recently in Iran’s rejection of bilateral talks.
Obama’s re-election might have emboldened him to be even more aggressive with the Netanyahu government. Yet he has taken the opposite tack. The reason lies primarily with the success of the Iron Dome missile defense system, which destroyed over 80% of the incoming Hamas rockets during November’s Operation Pillar of Defense.
Once, Obama was a skeptic of missile defense. But Iron Dome changed Obama’s calculation.
For much of his first term, funding Iron Dome enabled Obama to claim that he had been responsible for “unprecedented” security cooperation with Israel--even if he was merely continuing the commitments begun by his predecessor.
But in November 2012, with the system deployed throughout Israel, Iron Dome proved its worth--and suggested Israel might have a freer hand to attack Iran without fear of Hezbollah or Hamas retaliation.
Suddenly, to borrow from Sun Tzu, Obama had a golden bridge across which to retreat. His role in supporting Iron Dome gave him leverage with Netanyahu, but also allowed Obama to back down from his aggressive approach to Israeli-Palestinian talks, and from his refusal to allow Israel to take pre-emptive action against Iran, without losing face.
Small wonder that Israelis brought an Iron Dome battery to greet Obama at the airport.
Other circumstances also contributed to Obama’s about-face. The withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan means that Iran has fewer U.S. targets to retaliate against if Israel does strike.
In addition, so much of Obama’s policy in the Middle East has failed that he is desperate for a victory, and Israelis are eager to give him one.
Yet the firm opposition of Benjamin Netanyahu, and Iron Dome, are the primary factors in his shift.
Obama’s public recognition of the Biblical and historic ties between the Jewish people and “The Land”; his visit Thursday to the grave of Theodor Herzl; his decision to place Israel at the front of the itinerary--all of these are symbolic gestures, but even symbolic moves can be real.
They are proof that Netanyahu has delivered on his 2009 promise, and a lesson in courage to Obama’s weak American opposition, which should take note.