When Barack Obama was first elected President, it was easy to understand why hardline supporters of Israel felt apprehensive. Here was a liberal cosmopolitan, the son of a Muslim father no less, who was suddenly responsible for the security of the Jewish state. Conservatives were predictably skeptical. They suspected Obama’s sympathies for the Palestinian cause ran deeper than he was willing to admit. Many liberals, myself included, found it hard to disagree.
Obama’s Cairo speech did little to allay these concerns. By linking Israel’s legitimacy to the Holocaust (rather than Jewish self-determination) and by associating Palestinians with blacks in apartheid South Africa, Obama lent credence to critics who claimed that his perspective on the conflict was rooted in anti-Zionist narratives. And that was not his only mistake. Obama’s initial focus on settlement construction backfired when the PA adopted the issue as a precondition for negotiations and Netanyahu refused to abide. Then there was Obama and Netanyahu’s public spat in Washington last May and the now infamous “hot mic” incident in Cannes earlier this month. add the fact that Obama has still yet to set foot in Israel as President, and you can see why critics have had such an easy time painting the President as an opponent of the Jewish state.
But for those who prefer to base their views on matters of actual substance, the notion that Obama has been an opponent of Israel could not be more absurd. On nearly every major issue, Obama’s policies have been both consistent with past administrations and well within the American mainstream. Take settlements for example. Although it may have been a strategic mistake to put so much early emphasis on extending the construction freeze, Obama’s criticism of settlement expansion is hardly evidence of an anti-Israeli agenda. Every American President since Jimmy Carter has criticized Israeli construction over the Green Line and many, including George W. Bush, have explicitly requested that the practice come to an end.
Or consider Obama’s oft-criticized stance on the 1967 borders. Despite al l the hoopla, the idea that Israel’s 1949 armistice lines should serve as the basis for a Palestinian State has been the guiding directive in peace talks since Camp David. Ariel Sharon adopted this position, as did Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. The fact that Netanyahu now opposes such a framework says more about the Prime Minister’s own zealotry than it does the American President’s.
And this is to say nothing about all the tangible ways in which Obama has strengthened Israel’s security. From standing-up to Iran, to financing Israel’s missile defense system, to opposing the PA’s UN statehood bid, Obama’s commitment to protecting Israel’s safety has been steadfast. So why then does the anti-Israel myth persist? It could be that people are simply unaccustomed to hearing a U.S. President criticize Israel as directly as Obama has. In this regard, a certain level of criticism is warranted. But the anti-Israel myth goes beyond that. It claims that Obama questions the very legitimacy of Israel itself. And in this sense, the myth is more than just ignorant – it is downright untruthful.
Ben Steinberg is a law student at the University of Minnesota and President of the university’s Middle Eastern Affairs Legal Society