Obama Pressured At Home To Do More For Israel

Sep 19, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 12:35 pm

Israel's most vocal supporters in the U.S. have long complained that the United Nations is a bastion of anti-Israeli sentiment, and this year's General Assembly debate could be worse than ever.

Palestinians are seeking U.N. membership as a state even though there's no peace deal with Israel. Israel is also under diplomatic pressure from regional powers Turkey and Egypt.

Gabriela Shalev was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations until last year, and as world leaders start gathering for this high-level General Assembly debate, she's sounding quite nervous.

"This is not the best of times for Israel in the global arena, namely at the U.N. and in the world in general," Shalev says. "We don't have in the world a stronger and more important ally than the United States of America, and what happened in Cairo showed and indicated once again how important are our relationship connections with the American leadership and people."

She's referring to the U.S. help in saving Israeli diplomats as protesters converged on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

Despite that dramatic rescue, and U.S. attempts to talk Palestinians out of their U.N. bid, the Obama administration has been criticized for not doing enough.

A former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton describes U.S. diplomacy as utterly ineffective.

Elliott Abrams, another former Bush administration official, testified before a recent house hearing: "I think this does stem in part from a gigantic mistake the administration made at the very beginning. It believed that by distancing us from Israel, it would increase our influence on the Palestinians and the Israelis. In fact, it has diminished our influence with the Palestinians and the Israelis."

Former Israeli ambassador Shalev, now president of Ono Academic College in Israel, says she has been hearing those complaints at home as well.

"This criticism is wrong," she says. "There may be some kind of lack of chemistry between the leaders. As far as I know, it does not reflect on the diplomatic and the shared intelligence cooperation and military cooperation."

The New America Foundation's Daniel Levy thinks the Obama administration has actually gone out of its way to support Israel despite the president's tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The current administration, as others have done, has gone out on a limb to be protective of Israel in difficult circumstances to the detriment quite often of American interests, and I would argue that this particular administration has done so under even more problematic circumstances for America," Levy says.

Now he says the U.S. finds itself promoting freedom and democracy throughout the Arab world, while threatening to veto Palestinian aspirations at the U.N. Security Council. And Levy, a former Israeli negotiator, says the U.S. remained Israel's loyal ally even after Netanyahu gave President Obama a public dressing down about the U.S. suggestions for reviving peace talks.

"You had, I think it's fair to say, the most pugnaciously nationalist, least accommodating Israeli government in history that really refused to give anyone anything to work with at all," Levy adds.

Netanyahu blames Palestinians for not wanting to talk without preconditions. He's expected to meet with Obama in New York this week before he and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas address the U.N.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, host: This week, Palestinians will ask the United Nations to grant them statehood. Their bid for full recognition comes over the objections of both Israel and the United States. Israel's most vocal supporters in the U.S. have long complained that the United Nations is a bastion of anti-Israeli sentiment. And NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that President Obama will be under increasing pressure to show his support for Israel.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Gabriela Shalev was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations until last year. And as world leaders start gathering for this high-level General Assembly debate, she's sounding quite nervous. She says Israel is more isolated in the region and in the world.

GABRIELA SHALEV: This is not the best of times for Israel in the global arena, namely at the U.N. and in the world in general.

KELEMEN: And so how much does Israel, then, rely on the U.S.?

SHALEV: We don't have in the world a stronger and more important ally than the United States of America. And what happened in Cairo showed, and indicated once again, how important our relationship, connections with the American leadership and people.

KELEMEN: She was referring to the U.S. help in saving Israeli diplomats as protesters converged on the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Despite that dramatic rescue and U.S. attempts to talk Palestinians out of their U.N. bid, the Obama administration has been criticized for not doing enough. A former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, describes U.S. diplomacy as utterly ineffective. Another former Bush administration official, Elliott Abrams, told a recent House hearing that the U.S. has acted too little, too late.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I think this does stem, in part, from a gigantic mistake the administration made at the very beginning. It believed that by distancing us from Israel, it would increase our influence on the Palestinians and the Israelis. In fact, it has diminished our influence with the Palestinians and the Israelis.

KELEMEN: Former Israeli ambassador Shalev, now president of the Ono Academic College in Israel, says she's been hearing those complaints at home as well.

SHALEV: And I think that this criticism is wrong. There may be, you know, some kind of lack of chemistry between the leaders. As far as I know, it does not reflect on the diplomatic and the shared intelligence cooperation and military cooperation.

KELEMEN: The New America Foundation's Daniel Levy thinks the Obama administration has actually gone out of its way to support Israel, despite the president's tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

DANIEL LEVY: The current administration, as others have done, have gone out on a limb to be protective of Israel in difficult circumstances - to the detriment, quite often, of American interests. And I would argue that this particular administration has done so under even more problematic circumstances for America.

KELEMEN: Now, he says, the U.S. finds itself promoting freedom and democracy throughout the Arab world, while threatening to veto Palestinian aspirations at the U.N. Security Council. And Levy, a former Israeli negotiator, says the U.S. remained Israel's loyal ally even after Netanyahu gave President Obama a public dressing down about the U.S. suggestions for reviving peace talks.

LEVY: You had - I think it's fair to say - the most pugnaciously nationalist, least accommodating Israeli government in history, that really refused to give anyone anything to work with at all.

KELEMEN: Netanyahu blames Palestinians for not wanting to talk without preconditions. He's expected to meet with President Obama in New York this week before he and the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, address the U.N.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.