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Obama’s Ghosts

An accounting of the Democrats’ legacy in the Middle East, and where they can go from here

Martin Peretz
April 13, 2017
Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians smoke waterpipes as they listen to US President Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University, at a shop in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 4, 2009. Obama reitererated US support for a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, calling on Palestinians to renounce violence and on Israel to put an end to settlements.Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinians smoke waterpipes as they listen to US President Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University, at a shop in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 4, 2009. Obama reitererated US support for a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, calling on Palestinians to renounce violence and on Israel to put an end to settlements.Photo: Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images


Michael Oren is an eminent American historian and Zionist who became the Israeli emissary to the United States during Barack Obama’s presidency. An undergraduate at Columbia and a graduate student at Princeton, where he received his doctorate, he later held three distinguished visiting professorships, at Georgetown, Yale, and Harvard. He knows America well— very well. Oren is now a member of the centrist party Kulanu in the Knesset: He has been designated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as deputy premier for diplomacy in a pointed effort to stem the flow of right-wing megadrama from the most disgusting big-mouthed, small-minded members of the cabinet, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett.

Oren is a diplomat, both politically and psychologically. He veers away from hysteria, Jewish hysteria especially, about anti-Semitism in America or about Israel. But since the publication of his memoir in 2014, and a little before, he has come out as a fierce critic of the record of the most recent Democratic presidential administration on Israel, and, by extension, on the strongest single guarantor of the safety of the world’s Jews. What is most upsetting is that he is not wrong. Alas, I, who am a registered but not sworn Democrat and have been that for more than half a century, certainly cannot vouch that the party will long stand up for one of the few vigorous democracies on Earth.


More than 16 years ago, Ehud Barak, an authentic hero including at Entebbe, crafted a peace plan that won the approval of Bill Clinton and should have won, with the usual habits of give-and-take diplomacy, at least the assent of the Palestinians to further talks. Barak ultimately agreed to give up all of Gaza, which Ariel Sharon later did, as well as 95 percent of the rest of the disputed territory, with special geographical, political, and religious arrangements for Jerusalem. Eight years later, Ehud Olmert—now in jail—added another 3 percent to the Israeli offer and allowed for what would now be Arab Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine. No takers. Those facts, if you want to look, tell you plenty.

Those facts didn’t tell President Obama much, or he didn’t look. I supported Obama in his first campaign for president … against Hillary Clinton and against George Bush. I even went south to Florida to campaign for him and stayed there a crowded week. My contact with the bigger effort was Dan Shapiro (later to become the candidate’s ambassador to Israel), who first asked me to go. I’d also met with Obama: once before he entered the race and once—this time in a group—at the beginning of the primaries.

Obama seemed at the time, and turned out to be, a reasonable, well-intentioned man. But he was a catastrophe on international affairs. His one triumph was something he didn’t have anything to do with: He won the Nobel Peace Prize, and, actually, maybe this ended up mattering more than anything else. The Peace Prize came less than a year into his first term: In desperate explanation for the choice, the prize committee’s PR fingered Obama’s opening to the Muslim world for special recognition. And so Obama was operating with what he thought was a promise to live up to—a promise no one could live up to against the fractured history of the Middle East. This added to what he’d felt he’d promised before, during that campaign, that he would make amends to the Muslim world. Between the recent history and the Prize, he had to be peacemaker, and damn whatever realities came up in the meantime.

He’d told us this in his speech in Cairo in June 2009, before the Prize was announced. For this speech, his speechwriters scavenged for Islamic allusions in American history and found two or three. Morocco was the first country to recognize the independence of America during the Revolutionary War. And, of course, that Jefferson had a Quran in his library. It was nice rhetoric—we all want peace, we all want good will with our Muslim brothers and sisters—but what about the realities of the region: a place where vicious, cynical dictators encourage the worst anti-Western, anti-liberal sentiments and impose unequal social customs on their people to maintain their own power; a place where Sunni and Shia are bitterly opposed?

One hundred years ago this year, James Balfour issued the famous declaration that re-inscribed the Jewish nation again into its ancient political history, but then the big powers went on to literally invent, really out of whole cloth, other states—Lebanon, Syria, Iraq—splitting up tribes and sects and communities and placing the people who lived in them in crazy arrangements under alien, authoritarian governments. Today, reaching out to these states in practice often means not helping their people but rewarding their leaders, and these are not people we want to reward. We heard nothing about that in the Cairo speech. Nor would we. And by December, when Obama went to Oslo, the signs were there that realities were getting ignored when it came to policy, too.

Obama’s first outreach had been to the Sunnis. He had made tight pals with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a bad sign even then, before Erdogan completely abandoned the pretense of secular liberalism. Obama was close to the Saudis—to King Abdullah. He had also delivered his address at Cairo’s Al Azhar, both a Sunni university and a mosque. Over time, he turned away from the Sunnis and toward the Shia, to Iran—the counterweight to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, to Turkey, in the region—a state most of its neighbors saw as an immediate threat. Then there was Syria, where, out of the same mind-changing dynamic, he countenanced a human disaster, grim beyond calculation.

And the victims of the president’s good intentions were not just these populations and the liberal secularists within them, which was bad enough. The victim was also the one state that the Great Powers created right, the fortunate state, but the state that’s lived up to its fortune by staying democratic, sometimes imperfectly democratic but democratic nonetheless, against constant external threat of annihilation: Israel.


Maybe we should have known this would happen. One’s spiritual counselors have meaning, and Obama chose over nearly a decade and a half perhaps the most anti-American, anti-Jewish, and viciously anti-Israel minister in Chicago. Being under the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s guidance doesn’t mean Obama shared his views, but this was not a spiritual counselor who would show much sympathetic understanding, or even unsympathetic understanding, toward Israel.

Then in 2009, there was Obama’s selection of Chas Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Maybe you remember him: He’d been ambassador to Saudi Arabia and exquisitely faithful to Riyadh, one of the old monarchy’s servants, Riyadh before its tentative but meaningful liberalizing steps. He’d worked with China, and been sympathetic to its autocratic ruling party. He, his son, and the authors of The Israel Lobby, which he first published before the commercial edition was conceived, attacked me and others who’d taken him on. But he was Obama’s choice—again, not someone with much sympathy for Israel’s struggle, or understanding of it. In fact, hostile.

Occasionally, rhetorically, Obama made himself a tough Zionist: aligning himself with Justice Brandeis, who thought “both sides of the Jordan are ours,” and Dayan and Golda. But I’ve always wondered whether at the annual Obama Seder the presidential party actually pronounced the sacred benediction “next year in Jerusalem.” Its sanctity, however, can be measured by a postscript to this ancient prayer, written in Yiddish and mimeographed in occupied France in 1941: Die hagaodeh zol zayn die letzte in Goles. “Let this Haggadah be the last one in Exile.”

To be sure, Obama knew about the Holocaust: In his Cairo address, the president mustered it as the essential—no, the only—rationale for a Jewish state. But the Jewish state is more than that! What about the nearly 1 million ardent and repatriating Jewish exiles who’d lived for two millennia—and some for almost three—in the lands of Islam? And what of the implications to his audience: the implications of assigning Israel’s rationale for existing solely to the Holocaust? Upon hearing this, that the Holocaust is the single reason for the Jewish state, is it any wonder Sunni and Shia say they are the other victims of Naziism?

It isn’t that the president hated Israel. It’s that, to those of us who feel for Israel in our bones and feel its closeness to America as a fellow beacon of liberalism, and who look for that feeling in our presidents, his words never said that he did, too. He had some nice words, sure, but he never gave evidence that he had a sense of the intense struggle it took Israel to become what it is and to maintain its ideals in face of immediate threat. By the end it seemed like Israel to him was Bibi Netanyahu, and it’s not fair to make Bibi or the right wing everything that Israel is, because it’s much, much more. Zionism includes and has always included people of every race, from every corner of the globe, with every belief about God.

The president never gave this its due. And in the pursuit of outreach, to Palestinians and to Iranians especially, he did worse: He created an impossible situation, a situation that would have been untenable on its face for anybody who truly understood Israel’s history and the dynamics of its neighbors.

In 2015 came the Iran nuclear deal, a holding action for which the president ignored piece after piece of evidence of Iran’s meddling in the region—against secular liberals in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria, in Iran itself where secularists had been murdered by the regime in 2009 while we stood idly by. Even Democrats who were loyal to the president in all else opposed the deal—Nita Lowey, Chuck Schumer! (Do you want a liberal Democratic weasel? Take Rep. Jerry Nadler, the New York congressman from the most Jewish district in the country, who voted for it. Then again, only four Democratic senators voted against it.)

In 2016, John Kerry indulged his obsessive fantasies of 30 years (I’ve known him 40) with a push for peace that ignored every Israeli reality. The secretary’s speech more than implied that Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish Quarter should be up for negotiations… and so maybe up for grabs. That’s because, like everything else in Jerusalem (save the indisputably Israeli “new city”), it was since 1948 in the possession of the king of Jordan who, with Egypt, Syria and, yes, the monarchy of Iraq started the 1967 war which he, they then lost. Tiens! According to Kerry’s agenda, the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives (itself mentioned a half dozen times in the Hebrew Bible), parts of Mount Scopus, Ammunition Hill, even the Western Wall and myriad other sites are open to negotiations.

When Israel resisted their moves, Kerry and his president, and the portentously sweet Samantha Power, lashed out, rhetorically and then in action, at the United Nations at the tail end of Obama’s term: The Security Council resolution passed because the United States did not veto. (On the morrow, more or less, the Brits apologized; and everyone grasped that the French socialist regime’s excuse was that it could not possibly win the next election without the Muslim vote … but will certainly not win even with it.) Of course, this move would find resonance in all the despot-led Muslim states at the United Nations… even those that were doing security business with Israel and, deeper yet, forming sotto voce alliances with the Jewish state that were operative on a day-to-day basis: Egypt; even Saudi Arabia; and Turkey, by now deep, deep under Erdogan.

Israel received aid from Obama, yes, but aid is worth only so much if legitimacy diminishes, and Israel ended his tenure with its international reputation pulled down by administration rhetoric, and by its inaction when members of the left attacked Israel. Never did we hear a word from our president condemning BDS. I wonder if the president (or Ben Rhodes, who was rewarded for his Jewish animus to Jewish concerns by a White House “midnight” appointment to the Holocaust Museum board), understand the deep betrayal experienced by those of us who don’t like the current Israeli government or its bunker mentality but who see Israel’s existence in the face of states whose leaders have stated their intention to put it in the ground, as the fact, the one that ends all the others.


Maybe this concern seems unnecessary, or overblown, or just myopic. After all, we see before all of our eyes anti-black sentiment; it is ugly, despite enormous social progress. We see anti-Arab, anti-Hispanic, anti-Asian sentiment. Next to the immediacy of these, it might seem like carping to talk about a group so well situated in America, and in the Democratic Party, as the Jews. But when you talk about the Jews you can’t forget Israel—at least those of us whose families had, and whose friends and families have, a stake in its existence can’t.

Liberal democratic states were supposed to save the Jews—many people of learning and seriousness saw a cosmopolitan universalist Enlightenment culture as a dream attainable in reality. But those dreams came up against the real realities of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, which were repeats on a bigger, more horrific scale of the persecution, the alienation, that have followed us for two millennia. How can we be safe without a state of our own? Now we have a state, and it’s a state that possesses many precepts of virtue, precepts that it has been able to mostly maintain through a long and bitter history and under fire of missiles and under menace of the ultimate menace. It has always welcomed people of all races. It is Jewish but tolerant, and self-critical when it isn’t. It remains the one state in the region that holds the flame of those normative ideals high and strong. And it is surrounded by states that don’t want it to exist. Sometimes a fact, a reality, is as basic and hard as that.

For those of us who care for Israel, we are in an old, sad, difficult dilemma. Our principles, our people’s experience of the diaspora, our belief in transcending difference, our dismay at Republican tribal politics leads us to the Democrats. But there comes a point at which the urge to transcend difference comes at the expense of hard realities. Michael Oren was right—the last president passed that point with Israel. How much will his successors in the party leadership follow his lead?


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Martin Peretz was Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic for 36 years and taught social theory at Harvard University for nearly half a century.

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