Rift between Israel and the United States: Flotilla incident didn't help

A closer look at Jewish anger over President Obama’s policies after the flotilla raid incident.

It is difficult to recall a time when relations between a sitting US president and the Jewish state of Israel have been uglier.

The embarrassing and deadly raid by not-so-crack Israeli commandos on Gaza-bound relief ships May 31 only further demonstrates how badly the American president is constrained because of his earlier jagged ties with the government of Israel and with angry, right-wing American Jews.

The Obama administration was painfully aware of just how abysmal relations with Israel had become even before the confrontation at sea.

Amid Washington’s fears of an even deeper breach with Jewish voters as well as earlier disagreements over Jewish settlement building in Jerusalem, the

Obama administration’s response to the flotilla raid was muted. Much of the rest of the world viewed the incident as another public relations torpedo below the waterline of Israel’s international reputation.

But Washington’s reluctance to condemn the Israeli fiasco is not likely to help President Obama’s reputation with Jews.

One Israeli friend – who can’t be named because he works for a major US media organization – told me he was livid about a previous perceived Obama slap at the Jewish state. “We will never forgive the Obama White House for saying America pays with blood and treasure for the continuing conflicts in the Middle East,” he said. “Obama was implicitly blaming Israel for Arab hatred of the United States and terrorism. This is classic anti-Semitism, blaming Jews for all wars.”

Earlier, more than a few Jews were infuriated with the Obama administration’s flirtation with the idea of a “nuclear-free Middle East.” Marcia Wagner, an American Zionist and Boston attorney went meshugeneh (crazy), alleging, “Obama’s trying to take away Israel’s nuclear arsenal! He’s trying to leave Israel defenseless!”

Other Jewish attacks on this American president have been less subtle. Hagai Ben Artzi, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, recently called Mr.

Obama an anti-Semite on an Israeli talk show.

Implicit in this criticism is the assumption that US foreign policy is supposed to mirror Israeli doctrine by following the Israeli prime minister’s lead in the Middle East. From Israel’s viewpoint, this is not an unreasonable expectation. The Bush-Cheney administration gave the government of Ariel Sharon carte blanche in the Middle East.

Yet Obama’s vision differs radically from that of both right-wing Israelis and George W. Bush. He is at least to be credited with tackling the Middle East from Day 1. His message to all parties, including Israel, is that the status quo is unsustainable.

“There are three trends working very much against Israel: demography [i.e., high Arab birthrates], ideology [militant Islam], and technology,” a close aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told me recently. “With the distances rockets can travel, the old kind of thought is proving untenable.”

Veteran Israeli journalist Jerrold Kessel defends Obama’s record. “It’s Israel that is at fault,” not Obama, he told me. “Netanyahu needs to propose and support an equitable solution of the Palestinian issue, absent ‘right of return’ for the Palestinian diaspora. At the same time, Obama must convince Israel and the Jews that America will work to neutralize the Iranian threat.”

Prior to the botched interdiction by Israeli forces at sea, it looked as though Obama might be gaining an upper hand in his dealings with “Bibi” Netanyahu. But Obama’s dilemma now is that as the rest of the world condemns Israel, his margin for diplomatic maneuvering is narrower.

And Obama would be foolish to expect gratitude from Netanyahu or his supporters in the US. After months of this personal vilification, one can only wonder how much the anti-Obama vitriol is coordinated from within Netanyahu’s office.

I have firsthand experience with such campaigns. During Bibi’s first administration, his press secretary, the late David Bar Ilan, organized a campaign to get me fired from my post as CNN Jerusalem bureau chief because, as one Netanyahu staffer told me, I “could not be made to heel.”

Then-CNN president Tom Johnson told me: “Walt, we’ve been getting 500 e-mails, letters, and calls for six months demanding we get rid of you.” Ehud Barak, who defeated Bibi in the next Israeli election, later called the Netanyahu government’s attacks on me shameless. They stopped when Bibi left office.

The problem for the Israelis is that Netanyahu could seriously overplay his hand, as he has done in times past.

Another veteran Israeli journalist who cannot be named told me that senior Obama officials, such as Secretary Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are taking a no-nonsense approach toward Netanyahu’s bravado. “Today, Israel is a liability,” he said. “The best thing Israel can do is be quiet and stay out of America’s hair.”

That seems unlikely to happen.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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