Go East, Mr. President

by Maddie Ulanow

We’ve passed the first two weeks of November, and the 2012 presidential elections are now just a year away. It seems the campaign is already in full swing, and Israel is already an issue on the table; Republicans are scrambling to defend it and place President Obama’s Middle East policies in a bad light, and Obama is similarly grasping at straws to defend himself.

In response to Republican claims that he “threw Israel under the bus” (from Mitt Romney) and that his policies are “naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous” (courtesy of Rick Perry), the President’s supporters have claimed he doesn’t get enough credit for what he’s done for Israel, and the President himself gave a highly political, heavily worded speech at the United Nations seemingly designed to pull the Jewish vote back in his favor. Because that’s what a lot of this is about, isn’t it? The Jewish vote.

Obama won 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, but that support is now slipping steadily (along with his support from other groups). A May survey revealed that only 12 percent of Jews surveyed viewed his policies as pro-Israel, while after his UN speech 54 percent–a significant jump, but still low. Republicans would love to sway pro-Israel Jewish voters wary of Obama’s policies, particularly in swing states such as Florida.

Amidst all this political back and forth, accusations left and right and a president struggling to maintain his simultaneous image as a light for the Arab world and also an ally of the Israeli democracy, Obama has yet to visit Israel during his presidency.

Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter each visited during their first terms, setting a Democratic precedent. But Obama hasn’t been since he was a candidate in 2008, leading some to wonder if he sees Israel as a mere political tool. According to Politico, the White House says they want to reserve a trip for when “the president can advance the peace process,” but current efforts have fallen to pieces and a 2012 trip risks being seen as a political maneuver–which it is, essentially. In theory, an Israel trip would build confidence amongst the Jewish base and reaffirm his stance as their ally.

In light of the recent news buzz surrounding French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s and Obama’s private conversation, in which Sarkozy called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” and Obama responded with unenthusiastic remarks about Netanyahu, Obama needs to go to Israel not just to score political points, but to re-solidify his commitment to a long-time ally. Republicans will no doubt jump on his failure to defend Netanyahu, and the comments cast doubt on unity between Israel and its Western allies. But Obama needs to visit Israel not just to score political points, but to see just what Netanyahu may or may not be lying about. He needs to see the settlements, revisit the rocket-battered villages in the south, meet with members of Knesset and see the situation from the ground before he decides who’s a liar, who’s telling the truth, and who else is just as desperate for political points as he is.

At this point, if Obama doesn’t go before 2012 –which doesn’t seem likely, after his trip to Europe and upcoming tour of Hawaii, Indonesia and Australia–it will seem like a political move. And it will be. But if he wants to protect the Jewish vote, and to truly understand facts on the ground, it is a necessary one.

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