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President Obama has been criticized for being wrong for Israel. Even in the third debate of the Presidential campaign, a lovefest toward Israel, which was mentioned 31 times by the candidates, Governor Romney managed to get in a couple jibes against Obama’s Israel policy. “I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate.” He went on to complain that Obama had not visited Israel, inferred that Obama had a poor relationship with the Jewish State, and accused Obama of wanting “to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.” Others opposed to the president have even been known to claim that Obama is the worst president for Israel in American history.
But history emphatically tells us otherwise. Many presidents saw Israel as a burden and acted accordingly. Truman recognized Israel’s existence six minutes after its birth, but also embargoed arms before and during Israel’s War of Liberation. Eisenhower, who doubted whether Israel should have even been created, forced Israel to return its gains in the Sinai and Gaza in 1956 by making a variety of threats, including ending tax-deductible gifts to Israel.
Ford set up a reassessment of America’s Middle East policy in 1975 because he was angry at the Israelis for refusing a proposed disengagement agreement with Egypt. Carter brokered the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, but otherwise endlessly clashed with Israel. George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state told Israeli Prime Minister Shamir publicly to phone the White House when he was ready to talk peace, and later denied Israel critical loan guarantees when refugees from the Soviet Union were arriving.
There are no similar episodes in Obama’s record. Instead, he established the closest working military and intelligence relationship with Israel in the country’s history: joint exercises and training, increased security assistance every year, unprecedented advanced technology transfers, doubling of funding for Israel’s missile defense system, and assistance in funding for the Iron Dome system that today intercepts rockets headed for Israel. Indeed, in the debate he was emphatic that Israel “is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region,” and went on to say later, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. And this is the reason why, working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history.”
More facts. The Obama administration has opposed efforts to boycott or divest from Israel. It backed Israel on the infamous Goldstone Report, the anti-Israel Durban Conference, the Gaza flotilla incident, Palestinian effort to gain recognition as a state, and others. And the U.S. voted with Israel at the UN 100 percent of the time under this administration, a first in modern history.
So what’s the problem? Certainly, the poor personal relationship between the Israeli and American leaders does not help. But this is not the first time that an American president found an Israeli leader frustrating, yet managed to enhance U.S.-Israeli relations. Ronald Reagan had a number of diplomatic conflicts with Israel — the peace process, the U.S. sale of AWACS jets to Saudi Arabia, Israel’s attacks against Iraq’s nuclear reactor and the Lebanon War — yet strengthened security ties with Israel. Like Reagan, Obama has exponentially enhanced U.S.-Israel security cooperation. But unlike Reagan, Obama did not suspend arms transfers to Israel because of a disagreement with its leaders.
Recently, the Israeli-American discord has centered on Iran. The president and prime minister disagreed over setting a red line delineating when military action would be taken. But few noticed when the U.S. and Israel quietly resolved the issue, with Netanyahu agreeing to delay action until next year at the earliest and praising the president at the UN for his efforts.
In fact, Obama has supported the toughest sanctions on Iran in history, in pursuit of the goal of preventing Teheran for gaining nuclear weapons. In the foreign policy debate, he stated categorically that “…as long as I’m president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. I made that clear when I came into office.”
His statements and actions are far tougher than anything provided by President George W. Bush. Standing with Prime Minister Olmert in Jerusalem in January 2008, Bush could only offer, “I believe it’s incumbent upon the American Presidents to solve problems diplomatically. And that’s exactly what we’re in the process of doing. I believe that pressure — economic pressure, financial sanctions — will cause the people inside of Iran to have to make a considered judgment about whether or not it makes sense for them to continue to enrich.”
For Obama, opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons is part of his longstanding opposition to nuclear proliferation. In 2004, even as he opposed the war in Iraq, Obama told The Chicago Tribune editorial board: “The big question is going to be, if Iran is resistant to these pressures, including economic sanctions, which I hope will be imposed if they do not cooperate, at what point are we going to, if any, are we going to take military action?” Admitting that attacking Iran might hurt America’s image in the Arab world, he concluded, “On the other hand, having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.”
Obama’s Iran policies have been working, with intensifying sanctions helping to cause accelerating economic chaos, and protests, in Iran, which is today weaker than four years ago. Tehran may have made advances toward a nuclear force, but the costs of that movement are clearer than ever, and the worldwide opposition more determined and tougher. Iran is paying a heavy price for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that price will grow higher. There is no argument between Israel and the U.S. on that score.
The critics are simply wrong. Obama has been an exceptional supporter of Israel where it counts — on the hard-core security and diplomatic issues that provide assistance and protection in a very dangerous region.
Steven L. Spiegel is Professor of Political Science at UCLA.