By Bishara Zaher, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bishara Zaher recently graduated from the Law and Government course at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. This is the first in a new series looking at how the world sees the U.S. election and what the Obama presidency has meant for ties with other countries. The views expressed are the author's own.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush left many problems for Barack Obama, including a traumatized economy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he also left behind a sense of uncertainty over the future of the Middle East and what might be in store for one of the United States’ key allies – Israel.
As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visits Israel, it’s fair to say that he does so during a period when the U.S.-Israel relationship has been swinging between ups and downs.
Soon after President Obama was elected, he started to exert pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promote and endorse the two states for two people solution with the Palestinians, pressing the Israeli leadership to enter serious negotiations. Obama’s tenacity surprised the Israeli government – and many Israelis generally – as it ran contrary to President Bush’s policy of seemingly unlimited and largely unquestioning support for Israel’s policies with regards to the Palestinians and the peace process.
Yet, despite Israeli frustration, Obama persisted in the view that Israel should halt settlement activity in the West Bank in order to facilitate the negotiation process. Such demands were in line with President Obama’s stated belief that settlement building is an impediment to the creation of much needed trust needed between Israel and the Palestinians, the kind of trust necessary to lay the groundwork for peace between the two peoples. Unfortunately, the Netanyahu government only agreed to freeze construction for 10 months, creating further strains in the Israel-U.S. relationship – and between the two leaders.
The discord was compounded last year, when Obama made a foreign policy speech during which he called for peace based on a return to the pre-1967 Israeli borders with mutually agreed land swaps. The reaction of the Israeli government was to build more settlements, suggesting Netanyahu rejected this call.
There have been some ups as well as downs in the eyes of the Israeli public. A notable example was in 2009, when, according to a Newsweek investigation, the Obama administration armed Israel with bunker buster bombs, giving this country the capability to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in the future. In addition, the Obama administration has regularly backed Israel at the United Nations, as well as helping fund the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
So, on balance, how have Israelis viewed ties between the two countries during Obama’s first few years in office?
Israeli public opinion has been split over the Obama presidency. Many argue that President Obama’s foreign policy generally, and his unrealistic vision and lack of understanding of the political dynamics of the Middle East specifically, mean ties have suffered significantly. Others, though, believe that despite the differences over the peace process, that the United States remains firmly in Israel’s corner.
Regardless, Obama clearly hasn’t achieved his big goals of securing peace in the Middle East while getting closer to the Muslim world, mainly because his policy goals and dreams weren’t in step with the desires and motivations of Israelis and Palestinians.
In my opinion, the hallmark of Obama’s first term as president and his relations with Israel has been his incessant efforts to bring about the message that to achieve peace, both parties need to make scarifies.
It’s unclear whether a Romney presidency would be any different for U.S.-Israel ties, and he will undoubtedly be distracted by daunting domestic economic considerations, including high unemployment and a soaring deficit. The question is whether the former Massachusetts governor has the charisma to transcend these challenges and shape an effective foreign policy.
To me, the Romney rhetoric and focus on tax cuts has echoes of the Bush era, and it’s hard not to worry that a Romney presidency would see the United States getting sucked into more of the sorts of dramas that Obama’s predecessor got drawn into.
Put simply, I don't think Romney is what Americans really need right now. Yes, from a purely Israeli point of view, Romney-Netanyahu relations might very well be warmer. But that does not and should not affect the way Americans cast their votes.
As U.S. voters head to the polls in November, their main focus will undoubtedly be on the economy. But for those interested in foreign policy, Barack Obama also has a genuine vision of peace for the Middle East. He should be given one more term to try to realize it.