In the Arena

Our Israeli Allies

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….are upset with Barack Obama, according to Aluf Benn, the editor of Haaretz, which is a major moderate-liberal Israeli newspaper. In a New York Times op-ed today, Benn complains that Obama has been talking to everybody else, but not the Israelis–and he has a point. 

Actually, Benn makes several important points. Here’s another:

[A]s far as most Israelis are concerned, Mr. Obama has made a mistake in focusing on a settlement freeze. For starters, mainstream Israelis rarely have anything to do with the settlements; many have no idea where they are, even when they’re a half-hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.

It’s taken me decades to realize this. Most Israelis–especially those who live in Tel Aviv and environs–not only don’t see settler types, they also don’t see many Arabs. They live their lives, do their work, have fun at the beach. By contrast, when journos like me parachute in, we usually go to Jerusalem, where the government and a significant Arab population lives, and usually (in my case, at least,) combine it with a visit to the West Bank or Gaza. Most journalists based in Israel live in Jerusalem and spend lots of time in both communities. They are aware of the proliferation of settlements and they have experienced the outrageous conditions in the Palestinian territories.

If you believe Obama’s policy is the right one, as I do, the latest public opinion surveys from Israel are disappointing–but not insurmountable. Obama needs to explain his policy to the Israeli public. He also needs some front-end concessions from the Arab states who will benefit from a Middle East peace deal, starting with Saudi Arabia. Given the recent events in Iran, the election results in Lebanon, Syria’s renewed cooperation and a softer tone from Hamas (and the cessation of missiles fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians), this is a promising moment. But progress will only be made if Israelis understand that a settlement freeze (and, ultimately, a retrenchment) and the peace process that follows are in their long-term best interests. The President needs to address that, especially since Benjamin Netanyahu won’t.

Update: I’m told that Obama is already planning to make this sort of effort–Israeli television interviews etc.–in the coming weeks.