Analysis: Why Obama suddenly loves Netanyahu

By Nathan Guttman, April 29, 2010
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Pro-Israel demonstrators protest against Obama in New York last week

Pro-Israel demonstrators protest against Obama in New York last week

Last month, the Obama administration chose to go to an extreme when criticising Israel over its settlement activity. Now it is going to the opposite extreme in showing its love for the Jewish state.

Signs of the orchestrated pro-Israel public relations campaign launched by the administration are abundant. These include hearty public wishes for Israel's Independence Day issued by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; appearances at pro-Israel forums by top Obama advisers David Axelrod and James Jones; and a warm letter from the president to the Jewish community's representative umbrella group.

Only weeks after Prime Minister Netanyahu was brought to the White House with no press coverage and without even an official photograph of his meeting with Mr Obama, the situation has changed. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who visited Washington this week, was greeted with a military honour cordon at the Pentagon and was joined in front of the cameras by Secretary of State Clinton. Mr Barak also got a surprise audience with Mr Obama, who dropped into his meeting with the White House national security adviser.

The concerted attempt to debunk the perception of a crisis in US–Israel relations was described by the American press as a "PR offensive". The main theme of this campaign, which has been repeated almost verbatim by every administration official speaking on the issue, is that despite differences between the governments, the long lasting strategic relations between the two countries are as strong as ever.

"Let me be very clear," wrote President Obama in his April 20 letter to Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organisations. "We have a special relationship with Israel and that will not change."

Those following US-Israel relations could hear the exact same message more than a dozen times in recent weeks, on TV talk shows, from podiums at Jewish communal events and in private meetings with administration officials.

The change has been credited to increased pressure from the US Jewish community and Jewish Democratic lawmakers. The Jewish community, which was initially reluctant to enter the dispute between Washington and Jerusalem, became much more vocal as tensions increased.

The most visible demonstrations of public criticism were two separate public letters blasting Mr Obama's policy, one from Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and the other from Nobel prize laureate Elie Weisel. Both called on Mr Obama to ease the pressure on Israel and to take the issue of Jerusalem off the table.

"The good news is that they are listening to us," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti Defamation League and a leading critic of Obama's administration's approach to Israel. "The question is whether this is a cosmetic change or a substantial one."

That question still remains unanswered.

While the tone used toward Israel has dramatically changed and the atmosphere has seen a significant improvement, fundamental disagreements persist. The US would still like to see an Israeli building freeze in east Jerusalem but seems inclined to accept an informal slowdown in works, to which Mr Netanyahu has reportedly agreed.

With the administration's efforts now being focused on launching proximity talks between Israelis and Palestinians and with a hope that these talks will lead to renewal of direct peace talks, the Jerusalem issue is less of a problem.

The Palestinians can expect to get their reward for demonstrating some flexibility on this issue, by another act of American public diplomacy: an invitation, already in the works, for a formal visit of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas at the White House, within a few weeks.

    Last updated: 3:18pm, April 29 2010