Anxiety about Barack Obama has afflicted Israelis since his meteoric rise to the White House. Here was an untested president, one whose agenda in the Middle East could only be imagined. Would Obama's America be Israel's lifeline in a dangerous and often hostile world? Or would this American president experiment with mistaken or even unfriendly ideas that could wreak havoc for Israeli security?
Israeli anxiety was particularly visible in the circle around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took office two months after Obama in March 2009. The new prime minister and his aides were hearing a stream of worrying reports from Republican friends in the United States, some of whom who painted Obama as a closet Marxist or a confirmed radical with Muslim roots pursuing a Third World leftist agenda. Would Obama waste precious time chasing illusory "openings" for engagement with Iran while the Islamic Republic completed its final sprint to nuclear weapons? Would Obama be open to the dangerous advice of the pressure-on-Israel crowd and try to impose unacceptable terms for a Palestinian state, terms that the Israeli public and national security leadership believe would lead Israel to war and insecurity, not peace? Would he cluelessly undermine the broader strategic balance on which Israeli and regional security depends?
Israel's anxieties deepened in May 2009. Barely eight weeks after Netanyahu took office, Obama turned global attention to the most divisive issue in the U.S.-Israel relationship: Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell announced loudly that Obama wanted a total freeze on construction of Jewish homes, even in Jerusalem, and that Obama did not consider himself bound by earlier compromises about settlement issues.
Many Israelis, even some who despise the settlements, saw this heavy-handed approach as artless at best, if not downright antagonistic. The episode reinforced the perception that Obama was naïve about the Middle East and easily swayed by the left -- a decision-maker who could be erratic, unpredictable, and dangerous. A theory emerged that placed much of the blame on White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisor David Axelrod, two American Jews from Chicago. Some of Netanyahu's people painted them as devotees of the strain of Middle East diplomacy that views Israel as the obstacle to peace.
Various acolytes of the American Democratic left, occasionally presenting themselves as representing the true Obama worldview only intensified the impression that Obama's team was unsympathetic to Israel. One after another argued that if only Obama acted to coerce Israel into accepting some perfectly reasonable agreements such as replacing Israeli security personnel in the West Bank with international peacekeepers, peace would be possible.