The morning after President Obama’s re-election, Israelis still wake up in a very tough neighborhood. And while the president said as recently as the last debate with Mitt Romney—that he has Jerusalem’s back, citizens of America’s only reliable democratic ally in the Middle East are worried.
Here are three reasons why:
1. Iran. The Mullah’s all-out rush to nuclearization is matched by their genocidal loathing for the Jewish State. This is a regime that labels Israel a cancer that must be removed, that denies the Holocaust and that dispatches its terrorist cronies to attack Jewish targets as far away as Argentina. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who himself will face voters in January 2013, is committed to stop the Iranian bomb.
President Obama’s approach is to combine the carrot of direct talks with Tehran, already underway, with the stick—severe economic sanctions. But Tehran is a master of running out the clock through discussions. Many observers see such an approach as doomed, unless the Iranians believe that a much bigger stick— a believable threat of US takeout of the Iranian nuclear capacity by military means. The Israeli street is not (yet) convinced that if push comes to shove, President Obama would order such a strike or permit Israel to go it alone.
2. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Israelis have two deep fears about the new Egypt. First- whether President Morsi will continue to honor the letter of the Arab world’s largest nation with the Jewish state. And secondly, the long-standing, deep-seated hatred of the Jewish people by the fanatically anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood, which for now controls Egypt’s destiny and profoundly influences its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas and millions of Muslims in Europe and around the world.
President Obama is committed to making the new Egyptian government abide by the treaty but has so far refused to publicly condemn the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-Semitic rants. How high does the hate go? In the past few weeks, The Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide published an anti-Semitic call for Jihad in the official Al Ahram newspaper and Egyptian TV showed President Morsi responding amen to an Imam’s prayer calling for destruction of Jews.
President Obama and his new secretary of state could go a long way to winning over Israelis, if they loudly and directly denounce not only those who deny that 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis 70 years ago, but also protest against those who demean, demonize, and call for violence against living Jews.
The natural venue for the president to proclaim these views would be in Israel itself, a country he chose not to include on Middle East itineraries during his first term, but where he could denounce Islamist anti-Semitism and point to the Jewish people's 3,500 year relationship to the land of Israel.
3. Palestinians. Even before his first presidential visit to Jerusalem, Israelis expect to hear renewed criticism about “settlements” from President Obama and more robust support for a Palestinian State. But the president should tread carefully. There are significant changes on the ground that pre-empt any quick fix.
First, right now the Holy Land faces the specter of a three state solution. Hamas is firmly entrenched in Gaza, with support and sympathy from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and plenty of support from Iran. It continues to pummel one million Israelis with rockets. It has no intention of bowing to Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. Hamas is likely to continue to pursue its own stated goal of destroying the Jewish State. As for Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, the president’s advisors would do well to tell him the truth. Support is hemorrhaging among its core West Bank constituency because of profound corruption and lack of accountability. Sheikh Jabari, a respected elder in Hebron has repeatedly declared that the PA today represents no more than 5% of the Palestinian people. That should give the president pause before the PA is showered with millions more of American tax dollars, and even greater international legitimacy.
This Election Day, the American people decided to give President Obama a second chance to address the multifaceted challenges that beset us, starting with fixing the economy at home.
Israelis wish him well in leading Americans to a robust economic future. But if the president decides to secure his foreign policy legacy in the Middle East, Israelis will need to see real progress in removing Iran’s existential threat and in America’s leadership in blunting the virulent anti-Semitism of the Muslim Brotherhood, before considering further risk-taking with a shaky Palestinian partner. That's an assessment shared by many in Congress and millions of Americans, Democratic and Republicans alike.
Like previous US presidents, Barack Obama may feel he should use the freedom of a second term to try solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. However, beyond Israeli concerns, vying Palestinian factions, the continuous horrors on the ground in Syria, and the unsettled reality of the post-Arab Spring across the region, suggest that the president's leverage to bring about any peaceful change to this neighborhood is profoundly limited.