After Iran Deal, Obama Struggles To Regain Israel’s Trust
Seeking to sell his nuclear deal with Iran to a skeptical Israeli public, President Barack Obama has repeatedly declared his deep affection for the Jewish state. But the feelings do not appear to be mutual.
Wide swaths of the Israeli public, particularly supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have little trust in the American leader, considering him naive and even hostile. One recent poll showed less than a tenth considered him “pro-Israel.”
Such misgivings bode poorly for Obama as he tries to repair ties with Israel in the final year of his presidency, and they would certainly complicate any renewed effort at brokering peace between Israel and its neighbors — once a major Obama ambition.
The tense personal relationship between Netanyahu and Obama are certainly a factor in the poor state of affairs, and Netanyahu has made a number of missteps that have contributed to the tensions.
On a trip to the White House in 2011, the Israeli leader appeared to lecture Obama on the pitfalls of Mideast peacemaking. Netanyahu has close ties to the billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, and during the 2012 presidential race, Netanyahu appeared to favor Obama’s challenger, Mitt Romney.
Netanyahu’s U.S.-born ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, is a former Republican activist, and earlier this year, Netanyahu angered the White House by delivering a speech to Congress against the emerging Iran deal at the invitation of Republican leaders. Netanyahu has continued to lobby American lawmakers to oppose the Iran deal since it was finalized in July.
But Obama also bears responsibility for a number of policy decisions that have jolted Israelis’ faith in him.
“The average Israeli probably thinks that he is a nice guy, but he is naive,” said Alexander Yakobson, a historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In Israeli eyes, “he doesn’t get the Middle East, doesn’t understand how the Mideast functions, and he doesn’t therefore understand what dangers Israel has to face,” he added.
Yakobson said the president’s missteps went back to his earliest days in office, when he chose to deliver a landmark speech in Cairo seeking to repair American relations with the Arab world. “That was never going to make him popular in Israel,” he said.
Yakobson, who himself agrees with Obama’s opposition to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, said the president had nonetheless mishandled disagreements with Netanyahu over the issue and peace efforts with the Palestinians that collapsed last year. Many Israelis, he said, believe the Palestinians also deserve some of the blame.
But the biggest issue has been the U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran. Politicians across the spectrum have come out against deal, agreeing with Netanyahu’s assessment that it does not have sufficient safeguards to prevent Iran from gaining the ability to make a bomb and that it will boost Iran’s influence across the region. Iran is a key backer of Israel’s toughest enemies, and Netanyahu has warned that the ending of sanctions against Iran will result in more money and arms flowing to groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Recent opinion polls reflect these sentiments. In one survey published Sunday in the Maariv daily, 77 percent of respondents said the deal endangers Israel, compared to 15 percent who said it didn’t. The poll interviewed 500 people and had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.
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