Obama’s tarnished Israel tour

What makes Europeans love Obama is exactly what makes Israelis wary of him


Barack Obama swept into Israel this week to a fanfare of delight and a frenzy of excitement. He hugged Shimon Peres, embraced Tzipi Livni and joshed with Binyamin Netanyahu, bringing with him the sexy sparkle of a new era of American politics.

Except he didn't, quite.

Unlike the breathless welcome awaiting Obama on the European leg of his world tour, the excitement that greeted him in Israel was far more fuelled by anxiety.

What makes him the darling of Europe is just what makes Israel suspicious.

Jerusalem is wary of this ingénue, in favour of bizarre experiments like negotiating with Iran, and Israelis are unsophisticated enough to be befuddled by anyone with the middle name of Hussein.

Dubya's "war on terror" and "axis of evil" may seem terribly gauche in London and Paris these days. But to Israelis, for whom terror is real, it is very reassuring to believe someone feels their pain. Bush is comfortingly gung-ho about the danger of Tehran and Damascus. And however misconceived and mismanaged the Iraq war might have been, it also removed one of Israel's few remaining strategic military threats.

Of course, looked at dispassionately, Bush made a dismal contribution to Israeli-Palestinian peace. He has shown almost no interest, paid no more than lip service to the Road Map, and has generally been bogged down in his own troubles. But this has been useful for Israel. Apart from the odd Meretz-voting North Tel Aviv cappuccino-sipper, the average Israeli thinks of Bush as having been a great friend.

Jerusalem wants a president who won't interfere too much in the Palestinian track, or whose interference comes in the form of policy shifts such as the 2004 Bush memorandum recognising that "realities on the ground" made a return to the 1967 lines unlikely. That's because within Israel, the conflict with the Palestinians is increasingly becoming a non-issue. It's also increasingly becoming a non-conflict. Israel reckons that, apart from the odd high-profile attack, like the Merkaz Harav yeshivah shooting, terror is more or less under control. Hamas is safely isolated in Gaza, for the moment; West Bank Palestinians tucked away behind the separation barrier. The assessment is that no meaningful progress can be achieved in the near future. The situation has been safely stowed in the political "formaldehyde" Ariel Sharon's closest adviser, Dov Weisglass, once memorably referred to.

What really concerns Israel now are the strategic threats from Iran, Hizbollah and Syria.

As much as John McCain's foreign policy thus far appears to be an almost comically aggressive continuation of the Bush doctrine, Israel sees nice, snowy-haired, hawkish McCain as the natural candidate.

Obama has his own interests, of course. What he wants out of this world tour is to establish some measure of foreign-policy credibility, something which has been notably lacking from his otherwise impressive shtick. His trip to Iraq went down a treat, and a few grip'n'grins with the leaders of Israel and Palestine will put him conveniently at the nexus of world politics without having to go too far out on a limb. Unlike McCain, who only managed to phone Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on his visit here in March, Obama actually made a detour to Ramallah, if only for 45 minutes. And Obama also had a real attack to condemn, which took place only metres from his Jerusalem hotel.

For his wavering Jewish constituency at home, he had lots of lovely photo ops, including a delightful press conference in Sderot, framed by a stack of spent Kassam missiles. But even the Jewish vote, significant in some states, is not enough to carry the US election. As ever, it is Middle America who will decide this, and they want to feel reassured and safe with a leader they can trust on the world stage.

The Europeans think Israel needs some tough love, but Jerusalem does not agree, thanks very much. In any case, it's not the Israelis or the Europeans who are going to vote Obama into power. Or not.

America might be ready for change, and Europe might yearn to love America again. But Israel never stopped loving it.

    Last updated: 1:48pm, July 24 2008