In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg and in a presentation at my former synagogue here in Washington, D.C., Adas Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama held forth in an effort to mend fences, repair damage, and above all to explain his love for Israel and his relationship to American Jews, even referring to himself as an honorary Member of the Tribe (MOT).
Whether the president succeeded in convincing anyone of his solidarity with the Jewish state is not clear. More curious is why the president (or his advisors) felt the need to reach out — and why now.
Most Jews vote Democrat. Indeed a recent Gallup poll had the president’s approval rating among U.S. Jews at 54 percent. And that’s eight points higher than his approval rating with the general public. Obama’s done running for anything anyway. The president has been holding Passover Seders, Hanukkah candle lightings, and various other sundry meetings to demonstrate how much he cares. And this certainly wasn’t for the Democrats or Hillary’s benefit. She’s a Clinton. She’ll do just fine in relating to American Jews, thank you very much.
So what’s going on? Why do the Jewish thing? And will any of it make a difference? In the case of what’s more recently been the not-so-special relationship between the United States and Israel, the president’s MOT outreach is more about walking back what was clearly an unsustainable row with Israel that was creating gratuitous problems he didn’t need either with Republicans or American Jews. And here’s why.
First, Houston, we have a problem.
Regardless of who’s to blame, there’s no way a U.S. president and an Israeli prime minister can engage in six years of off-and-on tensions and bickering without some impact on America’s Jewish community, certainly on those Jewish organizations that set the tone and provide the talking points for defining who’s pro-Israel and who’s not. And let’s be clear, Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton, who was an effective emoter-in-chief when it came to feeling your pain on Israel or on many other issues. And while Netanyahu is hardly the darling of America’s Jews, in a tough Middle East where various Arab regimes and Islamist non-state actors are behaving far, far worse, Obama’s not going to make many friends outside of the liberal and progressive wing of the Democratic party for beating up on Bibi.
The fact is, rational or not, many Jews worry for a living on matters concerning Israel and anti-Semitism. And that means there’s a need for constant reassurance. And with the Republicans now being the party of Israel’s best friend, beating the pro-Israeli drum, the Obama administration has been even more vulnerable to the perception that the president didn’t really have Israel’s back. And no matter how many times the president repeats the talking points about the strength of the U.S.-Israeli security and military relationship, it doesn’t seem to get through on the emotional level.
I remember briefing a Jewish group in Detroit during the George H.W. Bush/James Baker years about all the pro-Israeli things the administration was doing on behalf of Israel like destroying Iraqi Scuds and facilitating Jewish emigration from the former Soviet Union. In the Q&A session that followed, an elderly guy simply wanted to know if things were really so good, why did he feel so bad? And that’s a big part of Obama’s problem. If Obama says he’s pro-Israel and points out how the U.S.-Israeli security relationship has improved, it still fails to convey the intuitive and emotional pro-Israeli sensibilities of his two predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It’s that standard of commitment that the pro-Israeli community in America has come to expect. Add to that Obama’s non-emotive nature; his outreach to the Muslim world in 2009; his bickering with Bibi; and the Iran outreach and what you have is the perception that the president — regardless of the Passover Seders — doesn’t connect. That Israel, to use one of grandmother’s favorite terms , isn’t in his kishkes.
Second, anger and frustration isn’t a policy.
There are times when demonstrating both of these emotions openly in negotiations can actually be productive. Henry Kissinger with Yitzhak Rabin; Baker with Yitzhak Shamir. But this administration has mastered the art of picking unproductive fights with Israel. Those are the ones in which the administration identifies unattainable goals (see a comprehensive settlements freeze; a peace agreement on all the big issues) and then fails to achieve them even though it is clear they are unachievable. This in turn makes the Israelis mad and many American Jews suspicious, and ultimately undermines U.S. credibility with Israel, many American Jews, and the Arabs too. And for what? Not much in return.
In short, sure Netanyahu can be infuriating; and yes his blatant intervention in U.S. politics on the Iran deal and his flip flop on Palestinian statehood during the heat of an election campaign (there’s a shocker for you) is maddening. But what’s the point of a white hot response that calls for a reassessment of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and threatens — even implicitly — that the United States won’t continue to oppose efforts to isolate Israel when there’s almost a zero chance the administration will follow through? What would such a policy actually produce anyway? Two states? A new Israeli government? You couldn’t create a dumber and less sustainable approach had you fabricated it in a laboratory.
Third, it’s the Iran deal, stupid.
And finally, the president is entering a critically important phase of securing what I suspect he believes is his primary Middle East achievement — an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue. That’s one of the reasons the administration has put the Bibi wars on hold. In case you hadn’t noticed, the White House didn’t make a big deal out of the recent announcement of more housing units in Ramat Shlomo the neighborhood that sparked the big brouhaha back in 2010, or the recent announcement that Silvan Shalom, who is no dove on the Palestinian issue, will be serving as Netanyahu’s point person on the non-existent peace process.
Looking at this strategically from Washington, as the Iran deal enters what could be its final phase, the Obama administration doesn’t need to stir things up with American Jews by continuing to fight with Bibi now. What good would that do? Indeed, why make things worse? On the contrary, now is the time to reassure, to calm things down, to explain why the president loves Israel, and given how much time the president spent on Iran during his synagogue address, to make clear that he’d never do anything to jeopardize Israel’s security. Maybe then the Iran deal medicine will be easier to swallow because the patient has a more trusting bond with the doctor.
Finally without straining my credibility to the breaking point, it may well be that the president genuinely believed that he’s been misunderstood on the Israel issue. Reading the Goldberg interview you get the feeling that Obama is kind of surprised that his love for Israel, and the way in which the values the Jewish state embodies are ones that he, too, has valued throughout his life, isn’t obvious to everyone. And that given these strong feelings that he links to the civil rights issue, how could anyone question or have doubts about his commitment to Israel?
Jimmy Carter had a similar problem with the Jewish community over his Middle East policies when he was president. He could never understand how his moral and religious commitment to Israel could lead American Jews to any conclusion other than he was a strong supporter of a Jewish state. When I interviewed the former president in 2007, some 25 years after his presidency, he still seemed at a loss to explain why his Middle East policies were so unpopular and cost him so much Jewish support during his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan. Both Carter and Obama seem to think of themselves as “smartest guys in the room” types. That means having convinced themselves of their own arguments and deeply held convictions, they don’t feel the pressing need or they lose sight of the fact that in politics you also need to convince and persuade other people too.
This latest campaign Obama seems to be on to assuage the Jews of America that he’s really one of them likely won’t have much of an impact. We’re pretty late in the game for transformative changes in how the public sees the president on any issue. Those Jews and non-Jews who don’t trust the president on Israel won’t be moved by his words; and those who do, will.
And what’s more, late in the game or not, we still have 20 months to go in the Obama presidency. Look at this as an interlude, if you will, a period between rounds in the Obama-Bibi wars. It’s likely only a matter of time before the two are back in the ring, on Iran implementation, settlements, or the Palestinian issue. Indeed, before the final bell, there’s plenty of time not only for more fights with Republicans, Israel, and American Jews, but ample time for more presidential speeches to try and patch things up.
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