From the Forward: Though Israel is a famously fractious society, Israelis tend to agree on one thing: Their strongest supporters are an inherently dupable people.
“Most Israelis think Americans are pro-Israel and we can sell them anything, especially mud from the Dead Sea,” said David Lifshitz, the lead writer for the Israeli comedy show “Eretz Nehederet,” or “Wonderful Land.”
“Or — just regular mud with a ‘Dead Sea’ sticker on it.”
But it’s not just American tourists whom many Israelis see as guileless. American foreign policy is held up to similar scrutiny here, even as Israel receives billions of dollars in foreign aid from the United States each year.
“Americans are perceived to be naive, especially when it comes to the Middle East,” said Uri Dromi, who served as a spokesman for the Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres governments. “It is a bad neighborhood and it seems like they just don’t realize it.”
The naivete Israelis perceive in Americans is not just something they believe only Israel’s adversaries exploit; Israelis believe they can do so, too — and do. In a secretly recorded video of a 2001 discussion with a group of terror victims in the Ofra settlement in the Israeli occupied West Bank, now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out this widely held perception.
“I know what America is,” Netanyahu, told the settlers. “America is a thing that can be easily moved, moved in the right direction.”
On political hiatus at the time after an election defeat, the once and future Israeli leader was responding to a skeptical settler who asked how he would respond to the global condemnation that could be anticipated if he were, as he proposed, to launch a “large scale” attack on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza to counter the second intifada.
“They will not bother us,” he said of the Americans. “Let’s suppose they [the Bush administration] will say something. So they say it — so what? Eighty per cent of the Americans support us. It’s absurd! We have such [great] support there! And we say… what shall we do with this [support]?”
The paradox that Israelis rely on — and expect — American support and yet don’t trust American judgment on Middle Eastern affairs helps explain the recent U.S.-Israel dustup in Washington. On March 3, that clash reached its climax when Netanyahu appeared before a joint meeting of Congress to warn the assembled lawmakers against their own president’s negotiations, together with other countries, with Iran ahead of a possible deal on that country’s nuclear program.
Israelis were split on the value of Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, which was widely seen as a play to the prime minister’s right-wing base before the March 17 election. But most Israelis were in agreement about their premier’s message. About three-quarters of Israelis “don’t trust Obama to be a reliable ally and to deal effectively with the Iranian nuclear threat” said Eytan Gilboa, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
That opinion was evident on the Israeli street the day of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, despite all the administration’s measures on behalf of Israel’s security that Netanyahu took pains to laud.
“Obama is very hostile against Israel,” said Effi Hasut, a 50-year-old hairdresser who was smoking on the patio outside his salon in downtown Jerusalem. “He tried to please the Arab world at our expense. He doesn’t understand them.”
Part of the reason Israelis think Americans just don’t get the Middle East, said Alex Mintz, a political psychologist at IDC Herzliya, is that they consider themselves close front-row observers of American foreign policy in the region. And they have watched the Middle East grow more violent and unstable in recent years, he said.
Of course, Israelis themselves have been much more than just spectators in the region, with a massive impact of their own. But according to Mintz, whose new book, “The Polythink Syndrome,” deals with recent U.S. policy in the Middle East, Israelis are skeptical of American intentions — except when it comes to supporting them. “[Israelis] are appreciative of the strong and solid relationship, with the U.S. But they also caution against subsequent moves of the U.S. in the region because they don’t think those are successful or led to good outcomes,” he said.
Yet there’s another reason that Israelis don’t trust Americans, and that has to do with a wider, powerful strain of mistrust in Israeli society.
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