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Israel: Barack Obama is no friend of ours…

Throughout the political campaign Barack Obama argued that he was a staunch friend of Israel. In Cairo, in his ground-breaking speech to the Islamic world, he asserted America was committed to the security of Israel. Wherever he goes he says he is committed to upholding America's long history of supporting the Jewish state.

So how come a Jerusalem Post poll conducted late last month says only six percent of Israelis think the Obama administration is pro-Israel, down from almost five times that in the early weeks of the administration? This is such a low number that it clearly cuts across all parties, demographic and social groups within Israel. It effectively says that something that Obama has done in his first six months in office has convinced virtually all the Israeli people (at least to the extent the poll is truly representative of the people of Israel) that he's not what he said he was.

Could it be that they believe the Obama Administration is likely to take a harder line with Israel on freezing settlements than it is with Iran to stop its nuclear program?

Yes.

What's more, they're right.

Not coincidentally, the shift in Israeli public opinion corresponds with a shift in U.S. public opinion. A mid-June Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll indicated that only 46 percent of Americans think Israel is committed to peace, down 20 percent from the level just before Obama took office. The poll also found that only 44 percent of those questioned thought the U.S. should support Israel, down from 71 percent a year ago. Less than half those polled called themselves supporters of Israel down from over two-thirds before the election. (For more on how some in Washington's policy community are becoming emboldened in this respect, see Jeffrey Goldberg's piece on the outrageous behavior of Human Rights Watch in Saudi Arabia. It'll give you a sharp sense of where the left is on this.)

A related problem for the Israelis is that some senior American military officials seem to discount the idea of the "existential" threat Prime Minister Netanyahu and others assert would be created by the continued development of Iran's nuclear program. They feel that America offers sufficient deterrent to keep Iran in check. Further, U.S. political and military leaders argue that it would take months of bombing to eliminate the Iranian program, an option not available to Israel. This view neglects to take into account the fact that Israel might not act to eliminate Iran's efforts, just to deter them. In fact, it seems to be forgotten that when Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in Iraq, the objective was simply to set back Iraqi efforts by a year (although the real effective turned out to be many times greater). Setting the Iranians back a year could be done with actions well within the capabilities of Israel.

Clearly this is a relationship in flux at a time when the stakes are high all around. And while there are no doubt many in the U.S. (and in the FP audience) who welcome the apparent changes, be careful what you wish for. One does not achieve "balance" in the U.S.-Israel relationship by off-setting the perceived "pro-Israel" slant of the past with a broadly "anti-Israel" stance today. Indeed, as any realist will tell you, we don't need balance for balance's sake. We need what will work to advance U.S. national interests.

Despite the endless and baseless propaganda to the contrary, getting tough with the Israelis on settlements or on other elements of the Israel-Palestine agenda will actually do precious little to address our greater concerns in the region while accepting a nuclear-capable Iran because we don't have the will to stop them from getting will damage U.S. interests in great and lasting ways.That's not to say we shouldn't seek to actively advance a two-state solution for the Israelis and the Palestinians. It doesn't say we should agree with Israel on everything and we shouldn't pressure for change where we disagree. But as a potentially unprecedented rift looms and as a shift in the politics of the relationship seems to be taking place, it's probably worth taking a deep breath and asking ourselves if we have fully thought through the consequences of what might come next.

David Rothkopf

Heeeeere's Barack!: On sidekicks, new stars, and Tony Blair in a plaid sports coat...

Last night, Conan O'Brien offered a tribute to Ed McMahon, longtime sidekick to his predecessor Johnny Carson. McMahon died yesterday and was eulogized in today's New York Times as the "top second banana." O'Brien commented on how, as a great number two guy, Ed always knew just when to step in and when to step back and leave the spotlight to the headliner. He was completely in tune with Carson and together they formed a seamless whole. Naturally, mulling this, my thoughts turned to England and the current situation in Iran.

Sidekicks have, of course, long played a central role in the history of international affairs. Adolf had Benito. Nikita had Fidel. Cheney had Bush. Today, Hugo has Evo.

Such sidekicks are employed in multiple ways. Sometimes they simply stand by the star for support, sending the message that the views the big guy expresses are more than the ideas of one nation, that they drive a movement, an alliance or an axis. Sometimes they play bad cop to the good cop. Sometimes they are the fall guys when the star can't afford to take the hit. Sometimes, they offer comic relief. Sometimes, they handle the secondary chores, like invading British Somaliland when you just don't have the time to do it yourself. And on certain occasions, sidekicks even offer benefits to one's enemies or rivals, giving them a secondary target at which to direct everything from invective to troops, depending on the circumstances.

Of course, in the international affairs business, there have been few modern stars that have shined quite so brightly for so long as the United States. As a consequence, we have over the years been joined on stage by a panoply of Ed McMahons. Sometimes they played with us only on regional stages, like Vietnam or Israel. Some have played the role well in countless circumstances, like Canada. 

But there have been no sidekicks as enduring or as useful in modern international affairs as the U.K. has been to the United States. You can almost see British prime ministers sitting on the couch laughing while their respective U.S. presidents cracked wise behind the big desk. Put a plaid sports coat on Tony Blair and it's clear: He was the Ed McMahon of the Iraq War.

The trick is that as the headliner changes, so too does the role of the sidekick. Affable Ronald Reagan needed edgy Margaret Thatcher, the Joan Rivers of British politics. Bland George H.W. Bush required even blander John Major. Blair managed to adjust his role as the submissive sophisticate to suit the two bubbas with whom he worked.

The most recent twist in this enduring relationship has been playing out in Iran these past few weeks. There, with Barack Obama's United States no longer quite so hate-able as Bush's (or Carter's for that matter), and with Obama inclined to pursue a more aloof strategy, the U.K. has started playing a different part. On the one hand, it has been more out in front in its criticism of the Iranians. And on the other, the British have assumed the role of preferred Western target for the Tehran leadership. They are the substitute villain, the Rather Good Satan standing in while the Great One tries a different approach for a change.

Of course, for sidekicks as for the rest of the world, the transition from Bush to Obama has been seismic and deeply challenging. The host has somehow gone from being a somewhat less sophisticated version of Jeff Foxworthy ("you know your president is a redneck when he can be compared to a Blue Collar Comedy tour star") to being the love child of Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley. 

Britain has ably stepped up, perhaps recognizing that it is in their interest and the planet's to have a headliner of the western world who neither delivers nor takes all the punch lines. So too, at least in terms of their stance on the Iran issue, have Germany and France. In fact, throughout the Obama term, the roles played by Angela Merkel (acerbic, more independent, critical of the United States on financial markets reform) and Nicolas Sarkozy (pushing for greater market reform too, but also both more visible and more visibly supportive of the U.S. than any recent French leader), have also evolved into something new. This is clearly due in large part to who they are...but it is also due to a changed dynamic on the international stage thanks to the very different nature of the role sought and played by Obama and the United States.

This effect extends further, of course. Enemies and those with competing offerings find they have to play a different role as well thanks to the arrival of Obama on the scene. Those whose shtick has been anti-American bluster find it doesn't play as well as it did back when George Bush made anti-Americanism easy. The case in point here may well be Ahmadinejad...although Hugo Chavez and others ought to pay close attention here. As in late night comedy...as in everything that happens on any stage...the play is about the relationships between the players. Change one and you fundamentally change the chemistry among all of them.    

In fact, this chemistry factor may be the single greatest foreign policy change of the first half year of the Obama era. (After all, many of his policies are actually not that different from what Bush would have or did employ.) Later, of course, the president will be judged by how he manages the complex processes of global policy. But for now, for allies and enemies alike, having a new star with a very different vibe has changed the roles of all the supporting players, second bananas and rivals alike, all of whom must to some extent play off of the new guy and who have thus been changed by his arrival whether they like it or realize it or not.

It's sad to see a trusty old sideman like Ed McMahon go. But as for having a new guy with top billing on the world stage, the early results seem to suggest that may play very well indeed.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images