© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Obama's Israel Relationship Unique Among Presidents


The Romney visit to Israel comes at a time when some Republicans say the U.S.-Israeli relationship is at an all-time low. Well, Aaron David Miller, who's spent decades working on the Middle East peace process and knows that relationship as well as anyone, puts that judgment in some historical context. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan and the first President Bush all went through periods of crisis in their dealings with Israel.

But Miller says there's something to the observation that under President Obama the relationship with Israel is different. Aaron David Miller, who has written about this for Foreign Policy magazine, joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

AARON DAVID MILLER: Appreciate the opportunity to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, on a day when President Barack Obama signed into law a military aid bill for Israel, and the administration always says it's working very closely with the Israelis, are these really bad times for the relationship?

MILLER: I mean, I think there are - there have been worse crises, but the crises have come and gone, and Democratic and Republican presidents have found a way to work out close relations with labor and Likud prime ministers and actually achieved something. Here, you have a first-term president about to complete his first term and you have a bad personal relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and the president and not much to show for it on the substantive side. So I think that's problematic for two close allies.

SIEGEL: Well, it takes two to tango, so let's talk about the two national leaders. First, how is President Obama unusual in his approach to Israel?

MILLER: I think he's much more detached, much more analytical, much more deliberate. He doesn't relate well to the trope that Israel is a tiny country living on the knife's edge, with a very dark past, the way President Clinton, for example, related to the Israelis or Clinton's successor, George W. Bush. Both men had their view of Israel rooted in a kind of an emotional reverence.

And with Obama, you get something different. He relates to Israel, it seems to me, much more along a continuum of national security interests rather than through the values continuum.

SIEGEL: And on the other side of that relationship, Bibi Netanyahu, what's unusual about the Israeli prime minister?

MILLER: Tough-minded Israeli prime minister pursuing a set of policies, particularly on settlements that undermine American interests, yet one who is fundamentally more suspicious. And he lacks the kind of confidence of a Begin or a Sharon or even a Shamir, who was able, because they were authentic right-wingers, not just to upset the Americans but to also cooperate with them and make decisions.

SIEGEL: Does Barack Obama pose to the Israelis, as they think about this relationship, a generational challenge, which is to say Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were young men in or almost at the end of college in 1967 when Israel was - had not occupied the West Bank and not taken Gaza and did so only after the Six-Day war and was perceived by everyone to be greatly threatened? That hasn't been the case for decades. And there may not be American presidents who've had that experience anymore.

MILLER: No, that's true, but at the same time, the generational divide hasn't stopped this particular president from being incredibly tough on national security issues. I mean, he's a wartime president with a Nobel Peace Prize, without military services. And none of that, frankly, has gotten into the way of his capacity to protect traditional American interests in a way George Bush 41 would have protected them.

So I think there is a generational aspect, but I think it's more than that. I really do believe that Barack Obama does not subscribe to the no-daylight school of U.S.-Israeli relations. That is to say the best way to get Israel to move is to make sure that U.S.-Israeli policies coincide across the board. I think, in fact, he ascribes to the daylight school, that unless the Israelis understand that there are consequences for their behavior and their policies, such as settlement activity, that they won't move.

And this, I think, is going to be the greatest challenge in the Obama administration's second term should he be fortunate enough to have one. He's going to end up with an Israeli prime minister, most likely Bibi Netanyahu, still nervous, still suspicious, with a lot of critical challenges to face and with very little sense of self-confidence on the part of either man.

SIEGEL: Aaron Miller, thanks for talking with us once again.

MILLER: Pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.