Obama and Jewish Leadership
The “closed” meeting between President Barack Obama and 50 representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week was hailed by the chairman Alan Solow and executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein as an “extraordinary session,” providing “open lines of communication with President Obama and his administration” and an “opportunity to articulate the views of American Jews on issues that face the country.”
In a similar vein, the White House said the meeting reaffirmed “America’s unshakable support for Israel’s security, opposition to any effort to delegitimize or single it out for criticism, and a commitment to achieve a peace that will secure the future for Arabs and Israelis alike.”
In contrast to the 2009 meeting, J Street was not invited.
From all reports, Obama went out of his way to persuade participants that he was committed to Israel. More importantly, he unequivocally reaffirmed his commitment to maintain US military aid at the current record levels.
However, despite his positive remarks, it would appear that he remains committed to a policy of applying one-sided pressure to make further unilateral concessions.
Participants thanked the president for having exercised the US veto at the UN Security Council. But in response to expressions of regret at the harsh anti-Israeli statements made by US representatives before and after the vote, Obama stated that White House officials consider it imperative for the US “to do something to show balance” in view of the delicacy of Arab public opinion during these “sensitive” times.
It was also disconcerting to learn that despite the recent tsunamis in the Arab world, Obama still sees a linkage between the turmoil – including the threat from Iran – and the need for concessions to the Palestinians.
This distortion of reality is accentuated when viewed in conjunction with recent US statements downplaying radical Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which the State Department now describes as “moderate,” despite its clear objectives of creating a Shari’a state and destroying Israel.
EVEN MORE alarming was a JTA report quoting Obama making a patronizing call to the Jewish leaders to speak to their friends and colleagues in Israel, and to “search your souls” as to whether its government is serious about making peace.
Steven Warnick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, observed that Obama “did talk about the fact that Israel is the stronger party here, militarily, culturally and politically. And Israel needs to create the context for it to happen.”
The president was obviously implying that it bears primary responsibility for advancing the peace process.
Obama also reaffirmed his long-standing view that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is a moderate peace partner, but said “the Palestinians don’t feel confident that the Netanyahu government is serious about territorial concessions.”
In stark contrast to his efforts to understand what motivated Abbas, Obama failed to credit the unprecedented concessions offered by our democratically elected prime minister, whose policies are supported by the vast majority of the people.
Indeed, if the opposition held the reins of government, its approach would barely differ.
Binyamin Netanyahu was the first prime minister to introduce a 10-month freeze on settlement construction, in response to US pressure. Nevertheless, throughout this period, Abbas refused to negotiate with him.
Thus, when Obama urged further concessions, insisting that “both sides” make a “greater effort,” it would have been appropriate for a Jewish representative to ask him whether he saw parallels between the corrupt and duplicitous leadership of Abbas and Hosni Mubarak, whom he recently disowned.
What further concessions can be made to appease the Palestinians, who still refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, reject demilitarization and doggedly insist on the ‘right’ of all refugees and their descendants to reside in Israel? Should Netanyahu agree to return to the indefensible 1948 armistice lines? These lines (although erroneously referred to as 1967 borders) were described by Abba Eban as the “Auschwitz borders” and were never intended to be permanent.
Should Netanyahu disregard UN Security Council Resolution 242, which understood that those borders would need to be adjusted? Does Obama expect Israel to unilaterally withdraw? We have seen the results of Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza – the empowerment of Hamas and the intensification of rockets and terrorism, culminating in the Gaza war.
ISRAEL’S LONG-TERM viability remains highly dependent on US support – more so today than at any period since the creation of the state. It is highly gratifying that the American public and Congress are strongly supportive. But in the White House, we have a president whose priority is to appease the Islamic states, and even engage with radical Islamists, which inevitably conflicts with support for the Jewish state. Thus the burden of responsibility for Israel advocacy and resistance to sacrificing it on the altar of expediency now rests with our American Jewish supporters.
Obama seeks to be reelected, and has displayed a willingness to forgo ideology in pursuit of this objective.
Jews represent a small but important strategic group in US politics. They have considerable leverage, but if in a meeting with the president representative leaders fail to respond to bizarre and patronizing remarks, they will cease to have any impact.
Strategizing a policy under such circumstances is no easy task.
Jewish community leaders must carefully weigh responses to government policies they consider to be contrary to Jewish interests. Speaking up may jeopardize future access, but responsible leaders must never refrain from respectfully doing so.
The awful legacy of Rabbi Stephen Wise, whose blind adulation of Franklin Roosevelt during the Holocaust resulted in one of the darkest pages in American Jewish history, has been internalized by a postwar generation of proud American Jewish leaders prepared to stand up and be counted. Yet given American Jewry’s long association with the Democratic Party, standing up to a president like Obama represents a formidable challenge.
However, their response will undoubtedly have an historic impact on the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post