The official punditry has spent the past week explaining that Israelis don’t understand Obama. Liberal Jews like Jeffrey Goldberg have discoursed at length about how Israelis have been taken in by Republican “myths” about Obama as a Jew-hating Muslim and their own racism.
But there are a number of problems with that narrative.
1. No one in the Middle East likes Obama very much. He polls poorly even in most Muslim countries. Obama is very unpopular in neighboring Egypt, despite his Cairo speech and his attempts to associate himself with the Arab Spring. He is wildly unpopular in Pakistan despite having grown up in an Asian Muslim country.
2. Israelis don’t exactly spend their time hanging out at GOP meetings. The Israeli media is as bad as its American counterparts.
3. Israel is a country where Arabs have won reality shows contests voted on by the public. Having Hussein as your middle name is not a deal killer. Not in a country where there are men named Hussein on most soccer teams and in politics.
The problem with all these arguments is that liberal Jews don’t understand Israelis. Neither does Obama whose view of Jews has been largely shaped by hanging out with Chicago lefties.
It’s not surprising that Obama doesn’t get Israel. He grew up in Indonesia and he still misreads the Muslim world more often that not. He spent most of his life in the United States and doesn’t really get it either. There is no reason why he would be expected to “get” Israelis, when he hasn’t been around many of them, not counting a few expat donors and Rahm Emanuel, who mostly grew up in Chicago.
The problem is that Obama thinks he understands Israelis because he understands liberal Jews. And that is a fatal error.
Like most liberals, Obama is a bubble guy. He’s comfortable only with people who share his mindset and point of view. And his trip to Israel sees him taking along his bubble by speaking to an audience of leftist students carefully selected to pre-approve of what he has to say.
It’s not a completely dead end strategy. Obama did just win an election by selectively talking only to the people who might be expected to agree with him. But it turns his Israeli trip into another pointless campaign rally, speaking to an audience even more radical than him.
Israelis might have respected Obama if he had engaged with them by going to the Knesset or even pulling off an open space speech, the way that he did in Berlin. Instead of engaging them, Obama is disengaging from them, moving through some carefully selected interviews followed by a speech to a carefully selected audience along with all the usual trimmings of a state visit.
Demographically, the average Israeli is a closer match to a rust belt Democrat. And Obama has never really known how to talk to those people the way that Bill Clinton could. It is why Bill Clinton, despite repeatedly screwing Israel, remains popular there, and why Obama can’t even place.
Obama, like Blair, represents the Yuppie Class, and Israel is still a country where much of the population is more working class than brilliant tech entrepreneurs. The last election was a big victory for the yuppie, the sight of Yair Lapid and Bennett smirking together is a big reminder of that, but that doesn’t mean the country is ready for Obama.
Israelis instinctively understand that Obama is a post-any number of things kind of guy and they are not all that comfortable with that. They don’t much like his foreign policy and they zero in on his lack of sincerity. But mostly they sense that he represents a break in continuity. A transition away from known verities to intangibles. They understand that nothing he says really matters and that is even truer in a country with a limited patience for oratory.
Israelis are by nature an impatient and bottom line people. Unlike Obama’s liberal Jewish audience, they don’t like to listen to extended speeches. Instead they would rather skip to having the argument.
While the liberal Jew is looking for FDR and JFK, the Israeli Jew is looking for the point. Obama’s Israeli approach was recommended to him by liberal Jews who have never understood Israel, but want Israelis to have a chance to be as impressed by Obama as they are. And that just isn’t going to happen.
To Israelis, Obama is a celebrity. Not a leader they can seriously. They will gawk at his motorcade and snap some pictures, but his visit will be no different than a concert by Madonna or the Rolling Stones. A media event with no substance.