Is Obama Ignoring Israel?

Not at all. In fact, he's engaged with the Middle Eastern country in a way no president has for 40 years.

Some Israelis have been shocked to discover that Barack Obama might be serious about ending further construction of settlements in the West Bank. Among them is Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of Haaretz. In a New York Times op-ed, he complains that while the U.S. president has traveled the globe delivering major addresses, he hasn't directly spoken to Israelis.

"The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence," Benn writes. Somehow he must have missed this passage from Obama's address:

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful.

Is Benn miffed because Obama made these remarks in Cairo instead of Tel Aviv? Because they were aimed at Muslims instead of Israeli Jews?

Nope. It's just that acknowledging the "unbreakable bond" between the United States and Israel (in a speech aimed at Muslims!) was not enough.

"Mr. Obama's stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial...appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel," Benn writes. "Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle -- not guilt over the Holocaust -- brought Jews a homeland." He then says Obama's comments "infuriated" Israelis who felt the comments were redolent of those of "enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad."

Talk about gratitude for 60 years of uninterrupted, unwavering and limitless U.S. support for the Zionist project. And talk about history being written by the victors.

Benn does some additional creative construction of history when discussing the politics of the settlement freeze. He says that Obama has not just failed to bring about a freeze, but has failed "even to stir debate about the merits of one" in Israel. What of the fact that no U.S. president has ever induced Israel to stop settlement expansion? Does Benn really believe that Obama should have done in six months what his predecessors could not achieve in 40 years?

The Times op-ed also ignores the veritable parade of U.S. officials in Israel. Benn apparently counts the recent visit of Defense Secretary Robert Gates as "ignoring Israel." Middle East envoy George Mitchell's shuttle diplomacy must also mean "ignoring Israel." Famous friend of Israel Dennis Ross of the National Security Council recently landed in the country to discuss Iran policy, which must also count as "ignoring Israel."

The "price" paid by Obama, Benn says, is that Israelis don't like him. The article cites a Jerusalem Post survey showing that 50 percent of Israeli Jews consider Obama pro-Palestine, while just 6 percent consider him pro-Israel. And, he notes, Israeli "rightists" have taken to calling Obama "Hussein," as "proof of his pro-Arab tendencies."

Benn is on a slippery slope here, as he of course knows -- even if his American readers do not pick up on the nuance. For an Israeli rightist to refer to Obama as an Arab or pro-Arab is to associate him with "bugs" and "insects" -- the terms used by Israeli rightists to describe Palestinians.

He then longs for the good old days of the Clinton and George W. Bush White Houses. In those years, "memories of State Department 'Arabists' leading American policy in the Middle East were erased."

The statement is plainly nonsense. Where were those Arabists when President Harry Truman recognized the State of Israel within hours of its birth? Or when the Johnson administration overlooked the deliberate attack on the U.S.S. Liberty and the death of 34 sailors in 1967? Or when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former President Richard Nixon saved Israel in 1973 by shipping U.S. tanks from Germany -- risking nuclear war with the Soviet Union? Or when the Reagan administration smiled upon the 1982 invasion of Lebanon? They lost the internal debate.

It's not enough for Benn to moan, whine, and threaten. He must also insult: "In Israeli eyes, he [Obama] was humiliated by North Korea's nuclear and missile tests." If only Obama took a cue from Israel's destruction of the French-built Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981. If only Obama would give the green light -- apparently not yet forthcoming -- for Israel to do it again in Iran. As if nuclear non-proliferation policy can be advanced by F-16s (he might consider looking to the examples of India, Pakistan, and Israel itself).  

Benn feigns puzzlement as to why the Obama administration might have qualms about what would have been an illegal deal (in both U.S. and international law) between George W. Bush and former conservative Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon regarding continued expansion in the West Bank. Benn writes, "[Why] deny... previous understandings between the United States and Israel over limited settlement construction?" The argument here is that an alleged oral understanding should trump actual official signed agreements, like the so-called road map (which banned settlement expansion, and which current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not endorse).

Benn tries to end his essay on an upbeat note: "Perhaps there are good reasons behind Mr. Obama's Middle East policy... But until the president talks to us, we won't know. Next time you're in the neighborhood, Mr. President, speak to us directly. We will surely listen."

Israelis have been "listening" to American presidents about the occupied territories for decades. What do Americans have to show for these exchanges? The settlements have grown enormously in size and number under every Israeli government since 1967 contrary to international law, U.N. Security Council resolutions, and declared U.S. policy.  Netanyahu has said in no uncertain terms that settlement construction will proceed. It's become infinitesimally more difficult for the Israeli tail to wag the American dog under Obama. Just wait for the reaction should Obama actually show some real spine in the relationship.



America's National Embarrassment

Why is the rest of the world so much better at signing up the vote?

One of the biggest takeaways from last year's U.S. presidential election had little to do with campaigning: Winning votes, it seems, requires signing them up first. Last November's election saw turnout rise among Hispanic, Black, and young voters, new census data shows -- gains made possible by huge increases in registration rates. And those newbie voters played a key role in the outcome. 

What's more surprising, however, is that nearly 30 percent of all eligible Americans still aren't registered. Nine million U.S. citizens couldn't get on the voting rolls because of registration deadlines, and another two to three million couldn't cast ballots that counted toward the outcome because of registration problems, according to a recent Harvard-MIT study. And our recent research for the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute at New York University School of Law, offers a clue as to why: an outdated voter registration system. Compared with other democracies, the United States' system for signing up to vote is a national embarrassment.

Just compare the U.S. registration rate to that of other democracies: In Argentina, 100 percent of eligible voters are registered. Britain boasts a 97 percent registration rate. Canada registers more than 93 percent of eligible citizens, and other major democracies -- Australia, France, Germany, and Indonesia -- manage to sign up more than 90 percent of all potential voters.

What is America doing wrong?

The first clue is who is in charge of ensuring that voters get on the list. The United States is one of the few democracies that place the entire burden of voter registration on individual citizens. In our recent study, we found that the opposite was true in nearly all of the democracies in our 16-country survey. Britain, for example, conducts an "annual canvass" to add new voters to the rolls and update existing records. Local election officials mail canvass forms to each household and go door-to-door to collect them.

Technology has much to do with the U.S. backwardness as well. In Argentina, for example, local election officials add eligible voters to the rolls from a national list of all citizens maintained by a federal agency. Voters don't need to register because they are already permanently included on a constantly updated civil registry.

If the United States wants to catch up, its northern neighbor might offer the best model. Federal election officials in Canada routinely gather information on eligible voters from 40 different government agencies, including the federal tax and citizenship authorities and provincial departments of motor vehicles. If information is missing, election officials contact individuals directly. Interagency data-sharing accounts for 90 percent of all additions and updates to Canada's voter list, and the country's 93 percent registration rate is a testament to its success. Voters inadvertently left off the list can remedy the problem before -- and on -- Election Day.

Canada's move to a data-sharing system was relatively inexpensive. The total cost of developing its federal voter database and its data-sharing system -- one that includes more than 23 million voters -- cost 19.2 million Canadian dollars (about U.S. $17.65 million). In the United States, every state already has a voter registration database with data-sharing capabilities, so setting up secure partnerships with other agen­cies would be the only big cost.

If the United States were to emulate Canada, it could mean an additional 50 to 65 million voters on the rolls. Of course, getting them to turn out on Election Day would be another story. But at least then one could know who's missing.

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