No, Mr. President, you don’t fully understand our fears

Op-Ed: Don’t just blame Israelis for seeing danger where you see possibility, as you did in your latest TV interview. Work to give us a tangible basis upon which to rebuild our hopes for a peaceful future

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

US President Barack Obama, interviewed on Channel 2, June 2, 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)
US President Barack Obama, interviewed on Channel 2, June 2, 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)

Discussing Israeli reservations about the Iran nuclear deal you are so energetically pushing, Mr. President, you asserted in your striking, heartfelt Israel Channel 2 interview broadcast Tuesday that “I can say to the Israeli people: I understand your concerns and I understand your fears.”

But here’s the thing, Mr. President: You don’t. And your interview made that so unfortunately plain. You don’t fully understand our concerns and our fears — not as regards the ideologically and territorially rapacious regime in Tehran, driven by a perverted sense of religious imperative, and not as regards the Palestinian conflict.

This is not to dismiss those passionate, fervent entreaties you delivered to us in the interview, about the obligation for Israel to live up to our “core values,” our foundational values — the necessity for us to protect the “essential values” enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, to protect our democracy, and insist upon our morality, and ensure hope of a better future for ourselves and our neighbors, especially our Palestinian neighbors.

Please hear me out. This is not some closed-minded Obama-bashing critique from an Israeli for whom you can do nothing right. Those of us in the complicated middle ground of Israeli politics, which is most of us, endorse every word you had to say about the necessity to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians in order to maintain Israel as a Jewish democracy. We share your worries about what becomes of that “Palestinian youth in Ramallah” who you referenced, embittered and frustrated by the status quo. We share your desire to bolster the hope that you so poignantly recalled seeing, when you visited two years ago, “in the faces of Israeli children… in the faces of Palestinian children.”

Please hear me out. This is not some closed-minded Obama-bashing critique from an Israeli for whom you can do nothing right

But if you think about it, Mr. President, you know full well where our hearts are.

You know full well that the Jewish state and its people want nothing more than to live in peace and tranquility alongside their neighbors. After all, as you yourself highlighted in the interview, the biggest applause you got when you spoke to Israeli students in Jerusalem came when you declared, “I know that the people of Israel care about those Palestinian children.”

What you so evidently haven’t fully internalized, however, is the extent to which we Israelis in the middle ground — the non-zealots, the ones who don’t want to annex the West Bank and subvert our democracy, and who don’t want a single binational entity between the river and the sea that puts an end to Jewish statehood — have been battered by recent history, and continue to be battered by the events unfolding all around us.

You seek to assure us that this deal with Iran is in our own best interests when we know that Iran — which almost daily calls for our destruction — will paint any agreement as a victory and a vindication, and will utilize that ostensible victory to step up its efforts to harm us, via terrorism and via its proxy armies in Lebanon and Gaza, while also continuing to do its utmost to cheat and bully its way to the bomb. We know that the deal will cement this bleakest of regimes in power in Tehran, and that it was your negotiators who blinked, who never forced the regime to choose between survival and its nuclear program, when the financial leverage was available to impose that choice.

You implore us, again and again, to give more thought to the plight of the Palestinians, to turn away from leadership — in the seemingly ever-present shape of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — that peddles the politics of fear, and instead to choose the path of optimism and opportunity. But Israel just elected Netanyahu again, ignoring your entreaties, because the evidence of danger outweighed the evidence upon which to build hope. And here’s the irony, Mr. President: Your policies and your rhetoric haven’t helped.

You complained in the interview that there are lots of “filters” between you and the Israeli people, who therefore are not getting your message directly. (This, amusingly, in an interview conveyed verbatim into the living rooms of the people of Israel, in prime time, on our most-watched television channel; the full interview is also online here.) Believe me, Mr. President, the problem is not with the messenger. The problem is with the message, and the actions.

Israel just elected Netanyahu again, ignoring your entreaties, because the evidence of danger outweighed the evidence upon which to build hope

You claimed that you are “always trying to balance a politics of hope and a politics of fear.” You acknowledged that the Arab Spring has turned into the disaster of Syria; you lamented the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the Arab world; you mentioned the threats from Gaza and from south Lebanon. And you said that you have “never suggested” it was inappropriate for Israel “to insist that any two-state solution take into account the risk that what appears to be a peaceful Palestinian Authority today could turn hostile.”

You said all that, but have you truly advised and chivied and acted on that basis?

Have you truly internalized the fact that five years ago, Israel was contemplating relinquishing the Golan Heights, the high strategic ground, for a peace deal with Bashar Assad. Where would that have left us now? Utterly vulnerable to the brutal spillover of anarchic violence across that border.

Have you really, truly internalized that Israel left southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005, to the applause and reassurance of the international community, only to see the vicious terrorist armies of Hezbollah and Hamas fill the respective vacuums? Have you really, honestly, utterly internalized that Hamas booted out the forces of the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas from Gaza in a matter of hours in 2007, and that there is every reason to believe that Hamas would seek to do the same in the West Bank were Israel to do as you wish, and pull out? And Hamas in the West Bank would entirely paralyze this country. A single Hamas rocket that landed a mile from the airport last summer prompted two-thirds of foreign airlines to stop flying to Israel for a day and a half — including all the major US airlines. A single rocket. Hamas rule in the West Bank would close down our entire country.

The Palestinian Authority is carefully fostering a climate of profound hostility to Israel, not one of reconciliation

In all candor, Mr. President, I don’t know which of the security arrangements that your “top military advisers” were formulating could credibly have defended us against the all-too plausible scenario of a West Bank takeover by Hamas. You insisted that you were not expecting Israel to “be naive and assume the best.” But barely a decade ago, we were murdered in our hundreds by a strategic onslaught of suicide bombers dispatched from the cities of the West Bank where we had relinquished day-to-day control. To this day, that relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas uses his television stations to incite relentlessly against Israel, deriding our millennia of history in this land; his Fatah loyalists use their Facebook pages to encourage terrorism against us. Make no mistake, Mr. President: the PA is carefully fostering a climate of profound hostility to Israel, not one of reconciliation.

When Netanyahu last froze settlement expansion, in 2009-2010, Abbas still stayed away from the peace table for nine months of the 10-month freeze. As his price for joining Secretary Kerry’s peace efforts in 2013, Abbas demanded that Israel release dozens of the most dangerous orchestrators of terrorism — and Netanyahu complied. At the negotiating table, Abbas insisted that millions of the third- and fourth-generation descendants of Palestinians who used to live in today’s Israel be given the “right of return” as part of any deal establishing Palestine — seeking, that is, a very different two-state solution than the one we want: His stance spells a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza alongside an Israel turned demographically into Palestine as well. The relatively moderate Abbas remains locked into a despicable “reconciliation” government with Hamas, the terrorist government of Gaza that avowedly seeks our elimination.

Most Israelis will endorse the most far-reaching territorial compromises in return for a credible guarantee of sustainable tranquility

It is these bleak realities that, to our own great sorrow Mr. President, overwhelm the hopes we have for peace, a better future and the opportunity we desperately seek to guarantee that our country ensure its Jewish-democratic essence. Believe me, Mr. President, no Israeli family that sends its children off to fight in Gaza, no Israeli family that watches Hamas expand its rocket range and fire ever deeper into Israel — in short, no Israeli family — wants anything other than peace and tranquility here. And most Israelis will endorse the most far-reaching territorial compromises in return for a credible guarantee of sustainable tranquility. And we’ll throw out any government that fails to seize a realistic opportunity to pursue these goals.

But here’s where, with the greatest respect, you’ve failed us thus far, Mr. President. You got the settlement freeze six years ago, you got the prisoner releases in 2013, but what did you wrest from Abbas? Did he stop the incitement against Israel? Did he moderate his positions on the “right of return”? You fault Netanyahu for his bleak wordview, but did you castigate Abbas for entering a governing partnership which gives Hamas veto power over his ministers? Did you tell him, sorry, that’s not going to work for us? No. You said you’d keep right on dealing with him.

You berate Netanyahu for ruling out Palestinian statehood on election eve, dismiss his subsequent re-endorsement of a two-state solution as full of “so many caveats” as to be unrealistic, and warn that Israel is consequently losing international credibility, and that this makes it harder for you to defend us internationally. But love or loathe Netanyahu, his concerns, Mr. President, are compelling. Hamas did anticipate reducing Israel to rubble last summer, and only the extraordinary performance of Iron Dome prevented this. Hamas would try to take over the West Bank if we pulled out — and then to tunnel under and fire rockets over our borders.

Abbas has not encouraged his people to internalize Jewish sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world. And along with that hope you espied for a better future there is hatred, too, in so many young Palestinian faces. Think of the toxin that must have been absorbed by the 16-year-old Palestinian who stabbed to death an 18-year-old Israeli soldier, Eden Atias, asleep next to him on a bus in Afula, northern Israel, in November 2013. Think of your daughters, of around that age, as I think of my children, and recognize how remote from their most basic, decent, humane instincts is an act such as that, and how systematic and relentless the climate of anti-Israel hostility must be in the Abbas-controlled West Bank to have produced that killer and others like him. The expansion of settlements discredits moderates, and makes it easier for terrorist groups to recruit, but that’s not the root of the hatred, the root of the conflict. At its heart, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict marches bloodily on because the Palestinian leadership refuses to acknowledge that the Jewish nation has any legitimacy here.

If our enemies were to lay down their weapons right now, Mr. President, there would be peace. If we were to lay down our weapons, our country would be destroyed

And you, Mr. President, so ready to fault us for failures, ready even in your interview to cite American failures and mistakes and lost values, have failed to insist on a similar self-reflection, and morality, and assertion of humane values from the Palestinians and their leadership.

Yes, we are mighty Israel, a military force to be reckoned with, an economic powerhouse, and they are the poor Palestinians, ostensibly only seeking statehood. But take a step back and we are a tiny sliver of land, nine miles wide at our narrowest point, on the western edge of a vast landmass filled with hundreds of millions of people largely hostile to the very fact of our existence. If our enemies were to lay down their weapons right now, Mr. President, there would be peace. If we were to lay down our weapons, our country would be destroyed. And therefore, Mr. President, we will need a great deal more reassurance before we dare to hope.

You can still help with that. Really, you can. Start by demanding an end to incitement against Israel in Palestinian schools, in Palestinian media and by Palestinian spiritual leaders. Incidentally, demand similar efforts on the Israeli side, by all means. Tell Abbas that a governing partnership with Hamas is unacceptable. Tell him to stop battering Israel in every international forum, denouncing us for “genocide” at the UN, seeking our isolation and economic devastation. Again, make demands of Israel too, by all means. Urge Netanyahu to stop building at settlements in areas even he does not envisage retaining under a permanent accord. Ensure we do ease movement for Palestinians in the West Bank, when it’s safe to do so. Encourage the prime minister in his recent minor shift toward a more positive take on the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for a regional peace effort.

Press the Palestinians toward compromise; don’t indulge and endorse their obduracy

Chivy, mediate, encourage. But don’t embolden our enemies by publicly placing so disproportionate a level of blame on us for the failure of your peace efforts. Don’t indicate that you might reduce your support for us at the UN. Don’t further bolster the growing Palestinian confidence that the international community will impose Palestinian statehood upon us without the necessity to negotiate modalities that ensure our long-term well-being. Press the Palestinians toward compromise; don’t indulge and endorse their obduracy. Work toward a Palestinian state truly at peace with Israel. Help give us more reasons to do what you want us to do, what you believe it is in our interests to do, which is to favor hope over fear.

“We can’t just be driven by this sense that there’s only danger; there’s also possibility,” you said in your interview. Well then, act to reduce our sense of danger, Mr. President, and you will find us determined to advance every possibility for a better future.

You want us to be the very best Israel that we can be? So do we, Mr. President. So do we.

You said you see your job as “to feed hope” and “not just feed fear.” Well, I implore you Mr. President, don’t settle for blaming us for giving in to our concerns and our fears. Help reduce them. Help alleviate them. Give us the evidence upon which to rebuild our hope.

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