It would have been hard to imagine that Islamic State’s brutal execution of American freelance photojournalist James Foley would worsen the Israeli public’s assessment of the U.S.’s role in the Gaza conflict. But listen to the chatter in cafes and on the checkout line in the market, and it seems that it may have done just that.
When the war died down and the cease-fires began, the reservists started to return home. One of them, a student of ours at Shalem College in Jerusalem, had been in the thick of it. When he finally got out for good and came back to campus, I found him in the student lounge, shook his hand and asked, “How are you?”
He looked at me for a moment, exhausted, and replied, “Tell me, what happened to America?”
The question of “What happened to America?” is very much on the minds of Israelis these days. Taxi drivers, commonly cited barometers of public opinion in these parts, have a simple explanation: “Obama hates Bibi.”
It’s not only the drivers. YNet, Israel’s popular news website, ran an article with the headline, “It May Not Be Possible to Repair the Netanyahu-Obama Relationship.”
In reality, matters are less simple. U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers have often been at odds. John F. Kennedy harbored no love for David Ben-Gurion. George H.W. Bush detested Yitzhak Shamir. During the peace negotiations with Egypt, Jimmy Carter apparently told his wife that Menachem Begin was a psycho, while toward the end of his life Begin refused to even see Carter.
So why all the hand-wringing about the U.S.-Israel relationship now? Many Israelis sense that something deeper than usual is at play. America, they say, has lost the ability to see this particular conflict with any moral clarity.
It is for that very reason that Israelis have taken great interest in Obama calling Islamic State a “cancer” after the gruesome beheading of Foley. Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning daily and “paper of record,” gave the “Islamic State is a cancer” story top play in both its Hebrew and English editions. So, too, did the Web-based Times of Israel. When Islamic State executes an innocent American — befuddled Israelis noticed — Obama has the capacity for outrage and moral clarity. But in Israel’s conflict, even though Hamas is sworn on Israel’s destruction and has been killing innocent Israelis for years, the best that Obama has been able to utter is the standard “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
Is this moral obtuseness, many Israelis wonder, or is there something more pernicious at play? Israelis still remember the days when then-senator and presidential candidate Obama sounded different. In 2008, Obama said in Sderot, Israel: “The first job of any nation state is to protect its citizens. And so I can assure you that if … somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
That is exactly what Israelis have been doing, for weeks now, with questionable success. But U.S. diplomats and politicians have tried, for the most part, to calm the waters by treating Israel and Hamas as two morally equivalent opponents. Why is Islamic State a “cancer” while Hamas is a legitimate partner in a Palestinian unity-government, about which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “We will work with it as we need to”?
At first, many Israelis assumed that Obama just didn’t get it, or that he simply lacked the capacity to say anything negative about an Islamic terror organization. Now that they know otherwise, Obama’s rhetoric about this region feels much less benign.
Until a few days ago, rumor had it that Kerry would soon be back in this region as part of a charm offensive with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in tow, to prove to Israelis that the U.S. has their backs. The trip may or may not happen anytime soon, given the resumption of hostilities. But even if it does, given the stark difference between Obama’s language about Islamic State’s beheading of Foley and Hamas’s relentless attacks on Israeli cities, few Israelis seem in the mood to be charmed. To use the language of the Talmud, they’re essentially asking, “Why was James Foley’s blood any redder than ours?”
Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jersualem. He is the author of Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul and The Promise of Israel.