Considering the opinions spouted by Republican press releases, conservative talk radio, and certain news networks, you might be excused for thinking that President Obama’s policy towards Israel is slightly better than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s. This is the president who has “thrown…Israel under the bus,” right?
But the reality of the Obama administration’s relationship with Israel just might surprise you. In fact, when compared to his predecessors, Obama might just be one of the most uncompromisingly pro-Israel presidents we’ve had yet.
In line with his general approach to foreign policy, much of Obama’s support to Israel has been of a low-key, behind the scenes nature. He’s allocated $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel for 2013, a number which has grown every year of his presidency. He’s funded the Iron Dome defense system and David’s Sling interceptor missile, as well as doubled emergency weapons stockpiles in Israel. In 2009, Obama secretly transferred bunker-busting bombs to Israel for the first time.
The Obama administration has demonstrated resounding support for Israel in the United Nations, strongly opposing Palestinian statehood last year. The U.S. was one of only 9 countries to vote nay. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu personally thanked Obama for his "unwavering support for Israel's right to defend itself" during Operation Pillar of Defense, and Obama received extensive praise for his efforts in protecting the Israeli embassy in Egypt in 2011. The United States has greatly intensified diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran, Israel’s public enemy #1.
In the words of Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid, "if funding Iron Dome is Obama's way of throwing Israel under the bus, I am praying he will throw us under a train." Even Mitt Romney found it difficult to outflank the president on the topic.
Of course, there have been rough spots over the past four years. Obama and Netanyahu have had something of a strained relationship, particularly regarding Israeli settlement construction. When Obama stated his support for a return to the 1967 borders with land swaps, Netanyahu initially took offense, although the pair worked out their differences in the end.
But when you place Obama’s approach towards Israel in context with that of his predecessors, the differences are quite stark. Although Nixon authorized a major airlift to Israel in 1973, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger opposed immediate action and strongly pressured the Israelis not to destroy the entire Egyptian army, calling it "an option that doesn’t exist."
Under Reagan, U.S.-Israeli relations solidified despite actions that would have prompted calls for impeachment today. The Reagan Administration declined to veto a number of resolutions criticizing Israel for killing Palestinian students, condemning the assassination the founder of Fatah, calling out Israel for defying the UN, and deploring the denial of Palestinian human rights.
His administration sold Saudi Arabia cutting edge military technology in spite of Israeli protests, with Reagan himself declaring that "it is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy." After Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the U.S. not only failed to veto but actively supported a UN resolution condemning Israel and entitling Iraq to reparations. Reagan then suspended the sale of F-16s, declaring that Israel had "violated its commitment to use the planes only in self-defense."
In 2003, George W. Bush "strong-armed" the Israeli government into accepting the road map for peace, despite staunch opposition by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. A few years later, the United States pressured both Israel and Fatah into allowing Hamas to compete in Palestinian elections, a decision whose consequences we’ve seen already.
Could you imagine the outrage should Obama approach Israel with "all the subtlety of Tony Soprano holding a sledgehammer in his hand?" Any of these actions, all originally under Republican presidents, would set off a feeding frenzy today, with pundits racing to lambast Obama for his failure to appropriately support our friend and ally and suggest impeachment.
President Obama doesn’t have a perfect record with Israel by any means, but his commitment to Israel’s security has been significant. Whether or not such support is a good thing, of course, is a different question entirely. But placing Obama’s approach into historical context leads to two interesting conclusions:
First, partisan politics has superseded objective analysis on the topic. No surprise there.
Second, as politicians have fought each other over who is Israel’s bestest friend, the bar has been pushed higher and higher.
Each successive president has found his administration that much closer to Israel. But the cost of such unwavering loyalty has been a loss of balance and flexibility. Perhaps, in geopolitical as well as personal relationships, your best friend isn’t just the guy who always has your back, but the one who you trust to tell you what you need to hear.