Well, it took about 30 seconds for the first panelist, Elliott Abrams, to inform us that the answer is “no.” The next hour included echoing sentiments from the four other panelists, Martin Indyk, Itamar Rabinovich, Rob Wexler and Ruth Yaron.
Apparently the USA loves Israel. The US government loves Israel, the US military loves Israel, US Christians love Israel and even some American Jews do. That is a short synopsis of the panel’s views. That’s not to say that this wasn’t an interesting hour, it was, but there were no dissenting voices.
On the question of the challenges facing the relationship, there were some concerns. Indyk, true to form over the past couple of years, did a little Israel government bashing, though not as much as previously. Maybe he was gunning for a position with Obama and since one hasn’t come about, he has cooled the rhetoric somewhat. Two points that Indyk made that resonated with me was that Obama is of a younger generation and it does not bode well for Israel that some of the younger American leaders coming up in the USA right now have grown up on campuses where anti-Israel vitriol is a staple. Also, that Israel should not have been forced into or accepted the settlement freeze.
Wexler spent his entire talk letting us know that Obama was actually a greater friend to Israel than Ben Gurion himself. He is a very talented speaker and he gave a passionate and smart speech detailing how the positives in the US-Israel relationship that have occurred under Obama’s watch have been unfairly ignored and therefore Obama’s positive involvement with Israel has been misrepresented. No, the audience wasn’t rolling on the floor in stitches, and that’s a tribute to Wexler.
Wexler gave a number of current security-partnership examples and asked the audience whether they believed the US military or Pentagon would act this way without the sponsorship of the White House. It was a legitimate set of examples but he conveniently ignored all the examples that damaged his case. The most important part of his talk, IMO, was his anecdote about his 18 year old son who was spending some months in Israel. His son was shocked when he heard what he considered prejudiced anti-Arab comments in a household he was visiting for a shabbat dinner. Wexler made the point that today’s youths are “progressives” in their outlook and this is a key reason that Israel is having a tough time making its case to this demographic. Smart observation.
The two Israelis on the panel, the brilliant Itamar Rabinovich and the intelligent, passionate and lovely Ruth Yaron spoke about love between the two countries but weren’t afraid to point out the warts. Rabinovich commented that the expected train-wreck between a right-wing Israeli PM and a left-leaning US President simply became a reality. He added that it appears that Obama believes in the Linkage theory whereby what happens in Israel and the Israel-Arab conflict affects US interests in the Mid-East. Ruth Yaron suggested that Israel believes in its own military but relies psychologically on the knowledge that the US is a strong supporter. Since Obama has not shown this support to the rest of the world openly, by going to Cairo for example and then not coming to Israel, he has weakened Israelis’ confidence in him. This has led to a “malaise” in the relationship between the two countries, and might lead to Israel relying more on itself in actions it may take (I assume she’s talking about Iran).
Overall, an interesting and encouraging panel but one that despite the serious claims about strong US-Israel ties, perhaps failed to quell concerns about what Obama really thinks about Israel and the conflict and whether a second term would enable him to force Israel into challenging situations.