Natan B. Sachs is a research fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is currently writing a book on the domestic politics behind Israel’s foreign policy.
President Obama was right to dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Middle East this past week to help broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. But as the president enters his second term, he faces the prospect of bigger challenges in the Middle East, most notably on Iran’s nuclear program. To make sure the Israeli government does not act on its own on Iran, Obama needs to gain the trust of the Israeli public.
And to do that, Obama should look to the example of another Clinton — Bill. Although the former president had his own fraught relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he managed to gain leverage over Netanyahu because he had the trust — and even the love — of the Israeli public. The lack of such deep trust is Obama’s biggest deficit in dealing with Israel.
Ordinary Israelis, who are keenly aware of politics, care deeply about the U.S. president’s policies and attitudes toward their country. Clinton understood this and mastered it. He knew how to make the Israeli people believe that he had their interests at heart. Obama has yet to inspire such trust. While Israelis respect Obama for his office and his intelligence, he has yet to inspire their trust.
To Clinton, who dealt with Netanyahu when he was prime minister from 1996 to 1999, charm comes easily, and the Israeli public fell for it willingly. The public’s love was no accident; Clinton carefully cultivated it. Even when he strongly disagreed with Netanyahu’s policy, he framed the disagreements judiciously, using Israeli public opinion — more moderate on some issues than Netanyahu’s policies — to his advantage. Sen. John McCain’s recent suggestion that Obama appoint Bill Clinton as his Mideast envoy shows Clinton’s lingering relevance. But no envoy can replace the role and power of the sitting U.S. president.
Clinton understood a fundamental truth about Israelis: Although they are a tough and battle-tested people, they are eager for recognition and assurance. Although Israel possesses considerable military power, Israelis are acutely aware of the multiple threats that surround their country — from the chaos in Syria to Israel’s north, to the breakdown of authority in the Sinai Peninsula and the flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip, to Iran’s ominous rhetoric and nuclear ambitions.
Moreover, Israelis are well-aware of the anti-Israeli sentiment around the world. Although most Israelis view their country’s actions as fundamentally just, they sense how poorly they are perceived abroad. Israelis feel more vulnerable than one might expect from a powerful, seemingly self-assured country — making the public highly receptive to simple sympathy. Clinton understood this; he knew how to win over Israelis by recognizing their concerns.
For example, when Clinton appeared at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to mark the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in 1994, he sounded genuine to his audience when saying, “So long as Jews are murdered just because they are Jews or just because they are citizens of Israel, the plague of anti-Semitism lives and we must stand against it.”