Commentary on Obama & Israel

Posted on June 1, 2010 In Blog

The just-published June, 2010 issue of Commentary Magazine features a symposium on “Obama, Israel & American Jews” in which I was privileged to participate.

You can access all of the essays via Commentary’s website (if you are not a subscriber, you can receive a free sample issue), Nathan Diament’s essay is as follows:

A clear majority of American Orthodox Jews, the group that I am privileged to represent in Washington, do not have the political schizophrenia described by the questions framing this symposium. A majority of Orthodox Jews did not vote to elect Mr. Obama in 2008 precisely because of their concerns over what his policies would be toward Israel. Currently, most Orthodox Jews oppose President Obama’s activist pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking because our segment of the pro-Israel community, like most Israelis, do not believe that the Palestinians are either interested in or capable of concluding a peace deal any time soon.

Nonetheless, those who assert that there is an “‘unmistakable” anti-Israel “direction emanating from the White House” are incorrect. In fact, the White House is schizophrenic.

Mr. Obama explicitly insists that he subscribes to the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, is unshakably committed to Israel’s security, and is actively pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal for the sake of, among other things, Israel’s best long-term interests. Indeed, under the Obama administration, every aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship—other than the Israeli-Arab peace process—has not only remained on track from previous administrations but also has flourished. Military cooperation, intelligence-sharing, trade relations, opposing the scurrilous Goldstone Report at the UN, even working to avert Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons are all areas where the Obama and Netanyahu governments are working well together. The disagreements over peace-process issues—even the feud over housing in Jerusalem—have not resulted in the Obama team’s scaling back these other tracks of support, much less yielded any threats to cut off American aid to Israel, as Israel’s enemies would wish.

In terms of the atmospherics of the relationship, we are indeed experiencing tensions between the American and Israeli leaderships “of a kind not seen since the days of the first President Bush,” and President Obama is responsible for this atmosphere. While the most recent and most disturbing catalyst for these tensions was the administration’s escalated reaction to the Ramat Shlomo Jerusalem-housing announcement issued during Vice President Biden’s March visit to Israel, it spans a longer arc.

In the space of Mr. Obama’s presidency, one can anchor the beginning of that arc in the president’s Cairo speech, which contained phrases jarring to Jewish sensibilities. It continues with his administration’s condemning as “settlements” “harmful to peacemaking” any Israeli construction across the Green Line—from an isolated hilltop to East Jerusalem—and supporting Arab demands for a total construction freeze as a precondition for peace negotiations.

It currently culminates in an administration spokesman reporting that, in reprimanding Prime Minister Netanyahu for the Ramat Shlomo housing announcement, Secretary of State Clinton said that the Israeli move harmed not the peace process but rather the “bilateral relationship” between America and Israel; and administration officials telling the New York Times that there has been a shift in the approach to relations with Israel precisely because of a belief that American “blood and treasure” are imperiled by a lack of resolution regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.

As I am writing these words (in late April), the Obama administration is in the midst of a full-court press of Jewish-community outreach because of the outcry over these accumulated events.

The president’s national security adviser, General Jones; his senior adviser, David Axelrod; and Secretary of State Clinton each addressed Jewish audiences in the space of a fortnight. Most notably, the president himself sent a public letter to the Jewish community, via the Conference of Presidents, in which he repudiated the view that “Israel bears some responsibility for the loss of American blood and treasure” (saying America’s “alliance with Israel serves our national security interests”) and rejected the calls for him to propose and force an “American peace plan” to resolve the conflict.
But the president also, in that letter, derided the “noise and distortion about my views” as opposed to “the actual approach of my Administration toward the Middle East”—as if the president and his team had contributed nothing to the negative narrative.

Thus, the outreach effort is sure to fail and will not preempt the next crisis unless two things occur.

First, the president must seize control of the message he wants to convey. If he wants there to be no mistaking his position that there is “no space” between the U.S. and Israel on matters of the Jewish state’s security—whether that be in dealing with the existential threat of a nuclear Iran or the contours of a peace deal with the Palestinians he will press for—he not only has to say so clearly and repeatedly; he must also shut down those within his administration who deviate from that message.

Second, the president must align his peacemaking efforts to practically serve that policy purpose and not an ideological predisposition.

The president has ignored the history of past Israeli-Arab peacemaking, which demonstrates that Israel will “take risks for peace” when two conditions are present: an Arab leader who is obviously a real partner for peace (think Sadat), and the Jewish state’s clear belief that the United States “has Israel’s back.” Neither of these conditions is present, and Mr. Obama’s approach to date has only made them further out of reach. The president must change course and press the Arabs not only to stop incitement against Israel but also to take steps toward normalization with Israel; and he must show Israelis that they can still count on America.

“How” should “American Jews handle this challenge?” Not by asserting the Barack Obama is anti–Israel, not to mention worse. American Jews should hold President Obama to the standard of his own words. American Jews, including Orthodox Jews, share his goal—ensuring Israel’s long-term security and Jewish character—and we must insist that his administration intelligently pursue that goal.

Nathan J. Diament is director of public policy for the Orthodox Union