President Obama’s recent open mic comments to President Medvedev of Russia are troubling, which explains why Obama and the White House have decided to make light of them. It seems that every time a microphone captures the President in unscripted remarks, he’s saying something that goes against his own public pronouncements.
There was the famous incident in November, 2011, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy, not knowing his microphone was hot, expressed his contempt for Prime Minister Netanyahu, calling him a liar, with President Obama jumping in to commiserate, lamenting the fact that he has to deal with Netanyahu even more than the French.
And now comes Obama’s comments about a missile defense treaty with Russia where the President tells Medvedev that he and Putin have to give him “space” until his reelection when he’ll have far greater “flexibility,” presumably because he no longer has to answer to the American people.
A great debate has been waged this year as to whether President Obama is reliably pro-Israel and deserves the support of the pro-Israel community. The president made his case to AIPAC by listing a long record of promoting military and intelligence cooperation with the Jewish State, arguing that “I have Israel’s back.” While I have personally praised the President for that cooperation and other support shown Israel, there is more to the story, and he knows it.
For the first three years of his presidency, Obama largely declared Israel’s settlements to be illegitimate, put near-unilateral pressure on Israel to make peace without any expectations from the Palestinian side, declared at a speech that was supposed to be about the Arab Spring that Israel should return to its indefensible 1967 borders–albeit with land swaps, treated Prime Minister Netanyahu shamefully at a March 2010 meeting where he refused even a photo op with the elected leader of the Middle East’s only democracy, and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dress down the Prime Minister before that meeting, leaking the harsh tone of the conversation to the media.
Ever since his self-confessed ‘shellacking’ during the mid-term elections, part of which was due to his perceived unfriendliness to the Jewish state, the President decided to make nice with Bibi and treat him with the same respect he accords other world leaders, albeit without the warmth of the two-armed embrace he reserved for Hugo Chavez or the bow he accorded the King of Saudi Arabia.
At the UN in September, 2011 the President strongly supported Israel against a Palestinian attempt at unilateral statehood. The President deserves credit for the effort. Then, he talked tough to Iran and imposed even greater sanctions, although he has yet to define any red lines that would invoke a military strike. The President has gotten much better in his posture vis-à-vis Israel and he is winning back Jewish support as a result.
But here is the all-important question. Why? Why has he suddenly changed in showing Israel unalloyed support?
I am not one who believes in ascribing insincere motivation to others. I judge people on their actions. But based on his actions, rather than his rhetoric, I believe the answer to the President’s new posture toward Israel lies in his words to President Medvedev. He has no ‘flexibility’ before an election in which Jewish votes and financial support are critical to what will be a very close race. And he therefore cannot be trusted to refrain from exerting undue pressure on Israel after the election to push through a peace deal that will likely not lead to peace but will simply compromise Israel’s security.
And herein lies my mystification at the bizarre story of fifteen presidents of orthodox Synagogues in Passaic encouraging their congregants to switch registration to Democrat in order to vote for Steve Rothman over Bill Pascrell in the upcoming Democratic primary in New Jersey’s ninth district. This is because Pascrell is perceived to be less friendly to Israel since, among other considerations, he was one of 54 Congressman who signed the J-Street letter criticizing Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Now leaving aside the questionable ethics of the advice, are they seriously suggesting that any Democratic supporter of President Obama is going to be as sound on Israel as, say, Republican Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor who both invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress?
The Daily Beast quoted me last week as saying that President Obama is a strong friend of the Jewish people and that anyone who speaks of him as anti-Semitic is guilty of character assassination. I stand by that quote. President Obama has elevated committed Jews like Dan Shapiro to be our Ambassador to Israel, and orthodox Jews like Jack Lew to be his Chief of Staff. But being a great friend of the Jewish people does not automatically make you a great friend of Israel. After all, President Obama has yet to even visit Israel as President. And yet, the principal problem with President Obama is his belief that Israeli intransigence, rather than, say, Islamist terror or Palestinian rejection of Israel as a Jewish state, is the principal obstacle to peace in the Middle East. In this sense President Obama follows in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Israeli toughness, rather than Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist, is the principal cause for the continuation of the conflict.
It was for this reason that I was also perplexed at my friend Dr. Ben Chouake’s comments in the Jewish Week when he said that he and powerful NORPAC, which he heads, would be supporting Rothman over my candidacy. “I’m a registered Republican,” Dr. Ben said. “I like Shmuley. I’ve been to his house. He’s been to my house. I’ve done some projects with him. He’s a tremendously talented person. He’s a gifted orator, no question about it.” However when it comes to getting the job done, “I don’t know that he can’t do it, but I don’t know that he can. He’s never held public office.”
Firstly, recent polls about congressional job approval have shown a collective approval rating at about nine percent, and Dr. Ben is well aware of the fact that most Americans see incumbency as a liability. Secondly, Rothman is the same Congressman who declared in May, 2010, while Obama’s policies toward Israel were still abysmal, that Obama was, ”the best president on U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation in American history.” I quickly responded with a column in the Huffington Post criticizing Rothman’s statement as absurd. Remember, Rothman made this claim before Obama even shifted course on his lopsided pressure on Israel.
Doesn’t the pro-Israel community have a right to expect that a Congressman who claims to be staunchly pro-Israel will break with the President when he mistreats Israel, even if they are the same party?
Witness the difference between Congressman Rothman and Senator Charles Schumer, both Democrats. When the Obama Administration publicly upbraided Israel over its policies of building in Jerusalem, Senator Schumer, as reported in Politico, went public in April, 2010, calling the Obama’s stance “counter-productive.” He threatened to “blast” the Administration if the State Department did not back down from its “terrible” rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“This has to stop,” he said of the administration’s policy of publicly condemning Israel’s construction of housing in Jerusalem.
“I told the President, I told Rahm Emanuel and others in the administration that I thought the policy they took to try to bring about negotiations is counter-productive, because when you give the Palestinians hope that the United States will do its negotiating for them, they are not going to sit down and talk… Palestinians don’t really believe in a state of Israel. They, unlike a majority of Israelis, who have come to the conclusion that they can live with a two-state solution to be determined by the parties, the majority of Palestinians are still very reluctant, and they need to be pushed to get there… If the U.S. says certain things and takes certain stands the Palestinians say, ‘Why should we negotiate?’” Schumer said.
But Rothman’s reaction to the President’s pressure was silence. Rothman has never broken with President Obama on anything.
One would think that, given the considerable leverage that NORPAC has right now with Rothman, in choosing to support him over Bill Pascrell, his democratic challenger, Chouake would at least extract a guarantee that if Obama goes back to his old ways of putting undue pressure on Israel, Rothman will break with the President and publicly criticize Administration policies. But to simply give Rothman a blank check and unconditional endorsement as being so strongly pro-Israel when Rothman never once criticized the President even as Obama treated Israel abysmally is to invite a repeat of Rothman’s inaction.
Say what you want about Jimmy Carter but at least his disdain for Israel and its leadership was out in the open and consistent. Here is a man who outrageously compared Israel in his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid to apartheid South Africa. Likewise Clinton, who, as President, treated Netanyahu mostly with contempt, attacked him yet again in September of last year as an obstacle to peace.
But Obama’s doublespeak when microphones are off and on is troubling. If the President dislikes Bibi, let him not play games with the American Jewish community and feign friendship for votes. After all, Obama came to the White House as the anti-politician, a man who was going to change the ways of Washington. A leader who was going to say what he means and mean what he says.
How disappointing to discover he is guilty of the same beltway double-speak he once condemned. How disappointing to discover that our president is simply yet another politician. And how worrisome to ponder what his policies on Israel will be once he has greater ‘flexibility.’
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the international bestselling author of 27 books including his the acclaimed new bestseller “Kosher Jesus,” is a candidate for the United States House of Representatives in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. His website is www.shmuleyforcongress.com. Follow him Twitter @RabbiShmuley.