Last week, the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel put out a new ad:
The ad criticizes President Obama for not going to Israel. Many pro-Obama pundits are arguing that other presidents didn’t go to Israel either, so the ad is unfair. Well, “unfair” is in the eye of the beholder, and that isn’t to say the ad is inaccurate or even undeserved.
Obama says he has had the most supportive relationship of any U.S. president with Israel, often citing his military aid. Obama has put himself, as he often does on other issues, on an elevated level (the “best” president for Hispanics, inherited the “worst” economy, etc.), so it is more than “fair” to hold to him to a tough standard. Other presidents have visited Israel, so the fact that he hasn’t shows that in this (and I would argue many other respects), Obama has a less warm and robust relationship with Israel.
The ad’s criticism is also appropriate for another reason. At the time Obama made his June 2009 trip to Egypt and did not go to Israel, he was roundly criticized publicly and in private meetings by members of the Jewish community. Because the speech he gave in Egypt was perceived as very pro-Arab and slighted Israel in a number of respects (e.g., ignoring the pre-Holocaust Jewish history in the Holy Land), the failure to visit Israel on the same trip and in subsequent trips abroad stung.
Jewish leaders, many of whom were struggling to defend Obama in their communities, pleaded subsequently for him to go. They were put off over the next three years, with the White House telling them that a trip was still possible. It is not as if the failure to visit Israel was not a sore point and wasn’t expressed as a grievance to the White House. Obama was entitled, of course, to rebuff the pleas, but then he can’t complain when he gets dinged for it.
Moreover, the Obama administration knows it is a problem. That is why in a conference call before Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel, Obama’s supporters belatedly coughed up the promise that the president would visit Israel in the second term. If this is no big deal, why jump to assure Jewish voters that, honest, in the second term he really will go to Israel?
Obama’s defenders on Israel want to have it both ways. Either visiting the Jewish state is a big deal (so keep stringing along Jewish leaders in the first term and promise to go in the second) or it’s not (and the ad is — gasp! — unfair). But it does seem that the onus should be on Obama to explain why he didn’t go. After all, he kept telling a lot of Jewish leaders he might.
Perhaps everyone should stop playing coy. Obama couldn’t go to Israel because he’s wildly unpopular there (at one time, his approval rating was under 10 percent in Israel) and the last thing the U.S.-Israel relationship needed was for there to be protests, booing, etc. (Israelis, I say with great warmth, aren’t about to follow directions to be polite to speakers, as American attendees at AIPAC gatherings do.) But that very obvious explanation dare not be offered by Obama or his media defenders because that would concede the extraordinary hostility that has characterized this president’s personal relationship with the Israeli government.