Beyond efforts to build Israel's military capabilities, Obama has attempted to shape a regional and international environment that enhances Israel's security over the long haul. This accounts for his commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace. At times, the process has been frustrating, and for the moment it appears stalled. But Obama has stuck with it out of a passionate conviction that both Israeli security and the Palestinian quest for dignity depend on it.
When Romney visited Israel in July, many commentators hammered him for what he said, including his comments declaring Jerusalem to be Israel's capital -- a statement at odds with the longstanding tradition of reserving judgment on the city's official status until it is resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Even more contentiously, Romney's suggestion at a Jerusalem fundraiser that Israeli culture explains economic disparities between Israel and the Palestinian territories drew fire from Palestinians for his apparent insensitivity, from social scientists for his misunderstanding of culture, and from others who pointed out that Romney's explanation ignored the economically debilitating effects of Israeli occupation.
But what is more interesting than what Romney said on his trip is what he didn't say. Although Romney claims to support a two-state solution, he said nothing about the issue while in Israel, and he has never outlined his vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. (On the contrary, when Obama outlined parameters for a final peace accord in 2011 that were consistent with the general formula discussed by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators for years, including secure and recognized borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps and a nonmilitarized Palestinian state, Romney accused him of "throw[ing] Israel under the bus.") Romney's silence persists even though the majority of Israelis support two states for two peoples, and there is wide and deep bipartisan agreement in the United States that peace is both in the U.S. national interest and in the interest of the two parties. Given demographic realities, many Israelis understand that it will be difficult to maintain Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state in the decades ahead if the Palestinians do not achieve statehood. And, given the volcanic eruption of populism across the region associated with the Arab Spring, a peace deal with the Palestinians is absolutely essential to avoid Israel's growing isolation in the years ahead. So, how can a candidate running on the claim that he will support Israel's security completely ignore the issue?
Even as Obama has pressed all sides to make peace, he has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish state in the face of mounting international challenges. As uprisings swept over the Arab world, the administration made clear to Egypt's new leaders that U.S. aid was conditioned on Egypt continuing to abide by its peace treaty with Israel. And when an angry mob stormed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last September, Obama personally and directly intervened with Egypt's military to ensure the safety of Israeli diplomats.
I remember sitting in my Pentagon office that night when the phones started ringing off the hook from the White House. "You have to get Secretary [of Defense Leon] Panetta on the phone with [Egyptian Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi, now," a senior National Security Council staffer urged. "We may only have 20 to 30 minutes before it is too late." The call was part of a five-alarm fire drill orchestrated by the president to ensure that every possible avenue of communication and influence was directed at the Egyptian military. And it worked. Afterward, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "I requested his [Obama's] assistance at a decisive -- I would even say fateful -- moment. He said he would do everything possible, and this is what he did. He activated all of the United States' means and influence -- which are certainly considerable. I believe we owe him a special debt of gratitude. This testifies to the powerful alliance between Israel and the United States."
These are not isolated examples. Time and again, Obama has mobilized the diplomatic might of the United States to protect Israel, even when doing so generated substantial criticism abroad. Obama has consistently defended Israel at the United Nations, rejecting the unbalanced Goldstone report, defending Israel over the Gaza flotilla incident with Turkey, and blocking Palestinian attempts to circumvent direct negotiations with Israel and impose an outcome through early recognition of statehood. In doing so, Obama has repeatedly shown his willingness to shield Israelis from international efforts aimed at isolating and delegitimizing the Jewish state.
Obama has also taken aggressive action to counter the threat Israeli leaders describe as their No. 1 national security concern: Iran's nuclear ambitions. Obama has repeatedly stated that an Iranian nuclear weapon is "unacceptable," and he has committed to using all instruments of U.S. power -- economic, diplomatic, intelligence, and military -- to prevent, not contain, this outcome. In a deft example of international jujitsu, Obama leveraged his administration's initial engagement efforts with Iran -- which the regime in Tehran rejected -- to build international consensus for historic multilateral sanctions, gaining the support of European powers, Russia, China, and other key countries for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929. The administration then methodically worked with Congress and like-minded states in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East to put in place even more crippling measures aimed at Iran's financial, transportation, and energy sectors. (Romney charges that the administration acted behind the scenes to water down oil sanctions, but the administration's deliberate approach was actually designed to avoid a spike in oil prices that might have otherwise harmed the U.S. economy and inadvertently provided windfall profits to Tehran.) These sanctions -- which have cut Iranian oil exports in half, have cost the Iranians billions of dollars in revenue every month, have increased inflation, and have caused the value of Iran's currency to plummet -- have finally pushed the regime back to the negotiating table. No breakthrough has yet occurred, but as time passes, the pressure continues to build.