Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

Obama or not

Obama’s re-election has set Israel’s political elite scrambling to express support for the US president, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Al-Ahram Weekly

US Ambassador to Tel Aviv Danny Shapiro was clear and definitive in his reassuring messages to the Israeli public about the priorities of President Barack Obama after his election to a second term.
Shapiro was trying to erase the impression in Israel before the elections that Obama will seek revenge on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu because of the latter’s flagrant interference in the US presidential campaign to boost the chances of Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
Shapiro knows which buttons to push for decision-makers in Tel Aviv and therefore made it clear that Obama said his administration is committed to do everything to guarantee that Iran would not become a nuclear power.
The ambassador also noted the overt and covert efforts by Obama’s administration to block Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, most prominently unprecedented economic sanctions on Iran.
Obama went even further than messages of reassurance via his ambassador to Tel Aviv, reassuring Netanyahu himself that he asked the State Department and US National Security Council to do everything possible to prevent the Palestinian Authority (PA) from acquiring “observer status” in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), in compliance with Israel’s wishes.
The next day after Obama’s victory, his administration launched a campaign to convince the largest number of UN members to oppose Palestinian moves to acquire non-member status at the UN. According to communications with Tel Aviv, Washington threatened the UNGA and member states that it will suspend its annual financial contributions to UN organisations that “Palestine” would join after becoming an observer state.
Nonetheless, these strong messages of reassurance by Obama were not enough for many Israelis. The political elite was busy making a long list of demands on Obama. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yalon demanded that Obama address the negative repercussions of the Arab Spring on Israel, and not hesitate to punish Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi if he insists on freezing relations with Israel.
Yalon also declared that a key test for Obama is to force the new regime in Cairo to restore the strategic partnership with Israel that flourished under the rule of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
Some politicians even went as far as reminding Obama that Israel still has many cards it can use to pressure him if he does not fully cooperate with Netanyahu. Minister of Regional Cooperation Silvan Shalom noted that both the US Senate and House of Representatives would not allow Obama to hesitate in defending Israel’s interests.
Shalom said that Democrats and Republicans in Congress would never allow Obama to overlook Israel’s interests, and that — unlike the president in his second term who is free from the shackles of re-election — members of Congress could never aggravate American-Jewish groups because they are interested in being re-elected themselves.
There are those in Israel who argue that an Obama victory is better for Israel than if Romney had won. President Shimon Peres warmly welcomed Obama’s re-election, describing him as “the most committed [US] president to Israel’s security”. “No one can belittle Obama’s contribution to protecting Israel’s interests, even when he disagreed with the political leadership,” Peres told Israeli television’s Channel 2.
“He is a true and valuable friend of the Jewish state,” Peres added.
Peres was not the only Israeli politician singing Obama’s praises; there was a surge to prove that Obama was indeed the president who is most supportive of Israel.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak revealed that Obama agreed without hesitation to Israel’s request to acquire military systems to enable Israel’s air force to bomb targets in the heart of Iran.
Former US President George W Bush had refused to give this equipment to Israel.
Barak added that Obama ordered unprecedented closer intelligence cooperation between the two sides, and was behind funding development projects for Israel’s anti-missile systems produced by Israel’s aerospace industry, specifically the Iron Dome system that enables the Israeli army to shoot down missiles and rockets launched from the Gaza Strip at Israel.
Barak also highlighted that Obama is responsible for the more effective sanctions against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, after creating a broad international alliance against Tehran. He also underlined that Obama is the one who stood by Israel after the Goldstein Report was issued accusing Israel of war crimes during its war on the Gaza Strip at the end of 2008. He also sought to prevent Israel’s stature from declining on the world stage.
Former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin recounted that Obama adopted Israel’s position regarding reaching a settlement with the Palestinians, when he held the PA responsible for stalled negotiations, although it is Israel that has continued settlement building and Judaisation policies, while the PA continues security cooperation with Israel. Beilin suggested that Obama should be thanked for risking Washington’s friendship with Arab capitals to defend Israeli interests.
Even a Likud cabinet member, Gideon Saer, attested that Obama played a role in preventing reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, which would have diminished Israel’s margins of manoeuvrability.
But despite the above arguments, many Israelis believe the outcome of the US presidential elections is a warning sign that requires Israel and its political elite to reconsider their approach to US domestic affairs, in order to guarantee its interests are not harmed.
The biggest surprise for the Israeli elite was the voting power of minorities in the US, especially African Americas, Latinos, the youth and others.
Yaakov Ahimeir, an Israeli journalist specialised in US affairs, said that Israel did not pay attention to the demographic shifts that occurred in the US, which resulted in Obama’s victory despite failures in his first term. Ahimeir said that minorities traditionally vote for Democrats, and their rising voting power means that the chances of a Republican president winning in the future are slim.
The writer urged Israeli decision-makers to coordinate their efforts with Jewish groups in the US to influence minorities, especially Latinos, to guarantee their support for Israel.
There is concern inside Israel that the challenges facing the country after Obama’s re-election do not stem from Obama’s intentions towards Israel, but more likely a retreat in the US role and weak standing in the Middle East.
Eli Avidar, a former diplomat and Israeli intelligence officer, argues that this has nothing to do with who is in the White House. Arab Spring revolutions, Avidar reasoned, have greatly weakened the US’s status in the region and diminished its role, which caused the US to rely on other parties hostile to Israel to secure its interests, such as Turkey.
He added that Israel must help Obama restore the US’s standing, or at least prevent further deterioration of this status. Avidar believes that Netanyahu can support Obama by reviving negotiations with the PA and repairing the relationship with Turkey.
Efraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat (BESA) Centre for Strategic Studies, warned that a weakening US standing would negatively affect Israel’s deterrence. Inbar stated that many states are cooperating with the US because they believe it would ingratiate them with Washington.
It is unlikely that Obama will change his policies towards the region after he was elected to a second term in office, which means that Arab states should develop their own strategies based on their national interests, just as Israel is doing. They must also recognise the sources of power they possess, including that of popular opinion.

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