Obama in Israel: Pretty speeches won’t do it

Upon arriving in Israel on Wednesday, President Obama immediately corrected his 2009 Cairo gaffe, in which he skipped over a few thousand years of Jewish history and tied Israel’s existence to the Holocaust.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

That was on Arab soil; on Israeli soil, he now declares:

 I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people. More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history. Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be “masters of their own fate” in “their own sovereign state.”

It took four years, but his speechwriters finally got it right. Too bad he does not repeat that affirmation in front of Arab audiences.

Obama also gave a nod to the region’s tumult, confirming that there is one steady, stable friend: “Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip [of his second term]. This is no accident. Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril. So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors.”

There were the usual platitudes about shared values and common interests: “The United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel. It makes us both stronger. It makes us both more prosperous. And it makes the world a better place.”

The words now are better; the speechwriters are more adept. But the problems remain because the president’s actions over the past few years have conveyed another message, one that does not respect the elected government of Israel and assumes it is the barrier to “peace.” He will need, by words and deeds, to change course if he is to repair the relationship between the two governments.

Moreover, he will need to convey that the United States and Israel share the same concern and have the same approach to both Iran and its junior partner, Syria.

In Syria, rumors swirl that chemical weapons have been used. The Obama administration denies that is the case. It may be correct in this instance, but one suspects that, whatever the provocation, Obama will delay, consult, investigate and do everything but act. Do we have a plan to secure those chemical weapons? That is in the joint interest of the United States and Israel, but it is far from clear that we have such a capability. A former U.S. national security official tells me, “I wouldn’t want to vouch for the safety of Syrian chemical weapons storage.” So does the United States have Israel’s back, or does it just parrot that phrase?

Meanwhile, U.S. paralysis has its costs as the Syrian war drags on. Now, just as in Iraq, jihadists have swooped in to fill the vacuum. The Post reports on “the extent to which the Syrian revolution has strayed from its roots as a largely spontaneous uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.” Now we see an Islamic revolution:

After mutating last year into a full-scale war, it is moving toward what appears to be an organized effort to institute Islamic law in areas that have fallen under rebel control.

Building on the reputation they have earned in recent months as the rebellion’s most accomplished fighters, Islamist units are seeking to assert their authority over civilian life, imposing Islamic codes and punishments and administering day-to-day matters such as divorce, marriage and vehicle licensing.

So now there really are no good options for the Obama administration. Delay and leading from behind, as with Iran’s Green Revolution, meant we missed an opportunity to short-circuit a brutal regime. In the case of Syria, we not only left Bashar al-Assad fully ensconced in control but created the opportunity for a jihadist onslaught.

And the humanitarian crisis which threatens to overwhelm Syria’s neighbors will have consequences for years to come. The United Nations, which refused to take early and swift action against Syria, now says that the humanitarian crisis it allowed to fester is “dramatic beyond description.” But we have a hint: “In addition to 3.6 million people internally displaced by Syria’s civil war, registered refugees in the four neighboring countries now total 1.1 million, compared with just 33,000 last April.”

The message all this sends to Syria’s patron, Iran, is simple: The United States won’t act. What the Israelis see is that if the United States is so unwilling to take on Syria and would allow such regional instability and humanitarian suffering, what chance is there that Obama would act to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons capability? You see why Israelis don’t really feel like Obama has their back.

In short, Obama’s rhetoric has gotten better, but his behavior is at the root of the region’s difficulties and the strain between the United States and Israel. The region, and most especially Israel, requires an effective, vibrant American presence, a well-thought out U.S. approach to the spread of jihadism and an America that engenders respect and, from its foes, fear. Right now, none of that exists. Hence, Israel’s dilemma remains and the region edges closer to total chaos, humanitarian upheaval and a nuclear arms race. But still, it was a very nice speech Obama gave.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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Jennifer Rubin | March 20, 2013