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Did Obama Learn the Lesson of Buchenwald?

Watching President Obama visit Buchenwald on TV from my hotel room in Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help wondering whether he really understood what that place means to the Jewish people in general and the Israelis in particular. Talking to Israelis, and listening and reading their comments after his speech in Cairo, and the policy he’s adopted toward Israel, gives me the sense that Obama has no idea how strong the impact of Buchenwald is on the Israeli psyche and what that means for his ideas about Middle East peace.

To Israelis, Buchenwald is evidence of what happened when Jews were powerless and homeless. They are not prepared to rely on the good will or guarantees of even a good friend like the United States, and that is why they have always fought their own battles. “Never again” is not a slogan here, it is a daily exercise in which Jews work, play, and go to school in their homeland without regard to the wishes of their enemies that they find somewhere else to live. Israelis know there is nowhere else where Jews can control their fate.

Israel’s detractors believe that if the United States puts sufficient pressure on the government, it will capitulate and divide its capital Jerusalem, dismantle all settlements and withdraw to the pre-1967 frontier. Israel’s critics in the U.S., and Arabs in the region, hope Obama’s hard line on settlements augers a new policy with this aim. U.S. officials and others may also believe that telling Israelis not to strike Iran will prevent Israel from taking action to stop Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.

It is true that Israel’s dependence on the United States for economic, military and political support makes it vulnerable to pressure, but when Israel’s security is put at risk the lesson of Buchenwald gives Israelis the strength to say no. If Israel’s leaders determine that Iran is an existential threat to the nation’s security, for example, American opinion will not prevent them from acting.

Obama appears unwilling to endorse President Bush’s policies allowing natural growth within Israel’s “consensus” settlements and recognition that the final borders in any peace agreement must take into account the changed demographic reality since the Six-Day War. Obama’s current attitude suggests that he expects Israel to dismantle even these large Israeli settlement blocs where the majority of Israeli settlers live.

If he believes he can force Israel back to the 1967 borders, however, he has not learned the lesson of the Holocaust because Israeli statesman Abba Eban tellingly referred to the 1967 lines as the “Auschwitz borders” because they were insecure and left Israel at its narrowest point with a waist of just 9 miles.

Buchenwald also taught Israelis that they should not rely on an American president for their security. Franklin Roosevelt’s inaction beginning in 1938 sent Hitler the message that America would not protect the Jews and Roosevelt’s unwillingness to rescue Jews during the war allowed the Nazis to kill thousands who could have been saved.

Now the United States has another popular president who won 78 percent of the Jewish vote (FDR got 90 percent during the war). A small percentage are cheering Obama for criticizing Israeli settlements, but others feel anxious about the direction of his policy despite his assurances about America’s commitment to Israeli security. If Obama decides to place greater pressure on Israel and to push it to accept a Palestinian state along the “Auschwitz borders,” will the Jewish organizations speak out or will they be afraid to challenge a popular president who tells the public Israel must concede because it is good for America? Israelis are not going to wait for an answer; they will act according to their own best interests.

Israelis sometimes speak undiplomatically, but Obama has said that it is important to speak honestly, so in that spirt Israelis should let the president know that they can only be pushed so far before the lesson of Buchenwald tells them they can go no further no matter what the U.S. interest may be. If Obama came away from his visit with this understanding, then he did indeed learn one of the most important lessons for developing a Mideast peace strategy.