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Obama, don't forget Jerusalem

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; A15

These have been busy days for Jewish bloggers when it comes to Israel. One of them, the formidable Ed Koch, has virtually incinerated President Obama for his Israeli policy. The Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has taken out full-page ads in major newspapers to tell Obama, in effect, to lay off Jerusalem, and Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote the president to say how concerned he was about the administration's Israel policy. In short, it stinks.

As for myself, I receive e-mails saying that Obama, that klutz, asked Binyamin Netanyahu whether Jews could alter the age-old prayer about returning to Jerusalem and substitute the word Israel. And I am told -- and told and told -- that Obama snubbed Netanyahu by interrupting a meeting so he could have dinner with his family. It would have been nice, not to mention diplomatic, to ask the leader of Israel to join him at the table. Netanyahu cooled his heels.

Never mind that none of this happened. There was no snub, say the most informed of informed sources, and the business about the prayer and Jerusalem is a sheer fabrication. (If I am wrong, may my right hand lose its cunning.) As for U.S.-Israel policy, it has not significantly changed. In fact, Israelis and others say that when it comes to military aid and intelligence operations, the two countries have never been closer. As an example, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz tell us that three American-made Hercules transport aircraft are in the pipeline to Israel.

So why all this angst? One explanation is that Obama has found Netanyahu as slippery and untrustworthy as Bill Clinton once did -- and Clinton's affection for Israel was manifest. It's not for nothing that Middle East observers are once again drawing attention to a cover story on Netanyahu that ran in the Economist back in 1997: "Israel's Serial Bungler," it proclaimed. Except for the date, no one in Washington would change a thing.

But it takes two to tango, and in this case, Obama does not dance like a star. He gives every appearance of not "getting" Israel; not appreciating its fears or its history. Israel is not half of the equation, as if both sides are right. It is a democracy with American values that has tried, over and over again, to make peace with a recalcitrant and unforgiving enemy. It is this, the music and not the words, that explains Koch and Wiesel and Lauder, not to mention the e-mailers, anonymous and otherwise, who seem to believe anything bad about Obama. It is downright disturbing that in a recent poll published in Haaretz, about 27 percent of Israelis said they think Obama is an anti-Semite.

For the moment, though, most Israelis still like Obama and approve his approach; they, too, want a two-state solution. Most American Jews feel the same, although Obama's support is clearly slipping. Still, it is unlikely that American Jewish liberals, some of whom have high school crushes on Obama, will ever desert the man.

But the political middle, particularly the Israeli middle, is scared. It would give up East Jerusalem and the West Bank for peace -- only it is skeptical that even those concessions would work. None of this is theoretical. It is about life and death. It is about rockets coming in from Gaza yet again. It is about Hezbollah's Scud missiles and the reasonable apprehension that Hamas would oust the moderate (and hapless) Palestinian Authority from the West Bank and turn the area into the functional equivalent of Gaza, an Islamic republic whose charter is a stew of crackpot anti-Semitism laced with death threats.

What then? Would Obama stick by Israel? Many Israelis wonder. Obama "needs to address Israelis' fears," the Israeli philosopher Carlo Strenger wrote recently in Haaretz. So far, Obama has done just the opposite, even going to Cairo to assure the Palestinians and the greater Arab world that he appreciates their plight without assuring Israelis that he appreciates theirs. His coolness toward Netanyahu, earned or not, has chilled the Israeli public and encouraged Palestinian defiance. He is on the cusp of an enormous diplomatic blunder.

Obama has the right policy -- the only policy that makes sense -- and Netanyahu is a weak prime minister who heads a shaky coalition. What's missing on Obama's part is not necessarily good intentions but the perception of them. He ought to do what Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did in 1977 to assure Israelis of his sincerity. Go to Jerusalem.

cohenr@washpost.com

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