The amnesia of its friends is a real problem for Israel
President Barack Obama insulted Israelis by saying they might distrust him because his middle name is Hussein. It’s a small detail but one that shows far more than even critical observers understand.
One reason why all of this is so important is that what a leader or politician says today is only for today. To explain behavior, to understand what’s likely to happen in future, you have to go beyond the words and posturing. (By the way, here’s a serious analysis of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.)
First, let’s remember that Obama’s first name is Barack, which is as much of Semitic language derivation as Hussein. Of course, that first name is found in Hebrew as well as Arabic. After all, Israel’s defense minister is Ehud Barak and my Hebrew name sound the same though there are two different roots involved, while Hussein is more distinctively Arabic. But still, Obama’s lack of awareness about the implications of his own name doesn’t indicate a great depth of knowledge about the Middle East.
Second, Obama was initially–when he had the same name as he does now–quite popular in Israel as polls show. Only when he evinced hostility did the attitude of Israelis change sharply.
Third, that same name belies the impliction that Israelis are biased against him because of his middle name. Israelis, after all, have dealt with two famous Husseins: King Hussein of Jordan and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The former was a good friend, the most popular Arab leader in Israeli history. (Note 1)
So one can be a good Hussein or a bad Hussein. Of course the issue with this third Hussein is his policies. And that’s why I find his saying this thing far more upsetting.
I’d respect Obama more, and perhaps trust him a little more, if he had said something like this:
We’ve had our differences and we don’t see everything the same way. But we are so fundamentally on the same side that our friendship and alliance will overcome these smaller issues. And, of course, we know that our mutual enemies are out to destroy us and favor totalitarian dictatorship rather than democracy.
By denying there were ever some problems and underplaying the reality of what I’ll call for brevity’s sake the “bad guys”, Obama shows an ability to rewrite history in his own mind and forget what has happened. This may signal that in six months he will forget all of Israel’s cooperation and concessions, which is precisely what happened last time, between October 2009 and March 2010.
(The amnesia of its friends is a real problem for Israel which, for example, made huge concessions and took big risks for the 1990s’ peace process only to find that forgotten, withdrew from southern Lebanon and from the Gaza Strip only to have that forgotten, etc., etc. Makes me think of Charles Chaplin’s film, “City Lights,” for those who know that epic work of cinema.)
Equally, the problem is not that he’s reached out to Muslims but both the way he has done it and the fact that he has done a lot of reaching out to radical Muslims. A number of U.S. presidents have maintained strong relationships with post-Camp David Egypt, with Jordan, with Saudi Arabia and other countries (take Bill Clinton as an example) yet never stirred hostility or distrust from Israel.