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May 19, 2011 9:57 am

The Battle for America’s Jews: Bibi vs. Obama

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Candidate Obama affectionately greets AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg, at the 2008 policy conference.

Currently there does not seem to be any indication that Netanyahu and Obama will cross swords during the upcoming Middle East policy fiesta in Washington D.C. beginning at the end of this week. The flurry of activity will include an Obama speech at the State Department, meetings between regional leaders and a Netanyahu address to congress and also an appearance by both leaders at the annual AIPAC conference.

As yet, White House officials have indicated that Obama’s speech on Thursday will focus on the president’s willingness to fight terror, and the American commitment to assist embryonic democracies in the Middle East.  An aggressive push towards peacemaking is unlikely at this point, as evidenced by the recent resignation of the administration’s chief regional diplomat George Mitchell. For his part Netanyahu presented to the Knesset on Monday a taste of what would be on his agenda in Washington, but, as expressed by Israeli Minister Gilad Erdan at a recent private meeting of Jewish leaders in New York, “there will be little said that hasn’t been said before.”

Initially, many saw the climate of incessant political maneuvering and storied one-upmanship as an indication that Bibi and Obama were competing to set the tone of the future Middle East agenda. Unless we are in for a surprise, it now looks likely that there will be more back slapping than gritting of teeth. So what exactly was Obama’s purpose here, why the insistence on preempting each of Bibi’s major appearances with one of his own? There are many that would have doubted not so long ago that a White House incumbent who had yet to visit Israel would become the third sitting president in history to address AIPAC.

It seems however that this is by no means a Foreign policy matter as many have assumed, but rather the issue at hand is domestic. What is unfolding before our eyes is nothing less than a battle for the allegiance and loyalty of America’s Jews. Triumphantly brandishing the Bin Laden trophy, Obama is moving to sweep Netanyahu’s thunder from right under his feet.

The solid support of America’s Zionist Jews is a treasured feather in the hat for any politician, and Obama is fully aware of its value. Whilst initially the administration sought the assistance of JStreet in securing the Jewish audience, even bringing them to the table at its first meeting with Jewish leaders in 2009, they have quickly realized how discredited and marginal JStreet is, and that the road to the bulk of American Jewish hearts is AIPAC.

As expressed by his initial willingness to engage Iran in dialogue, the President is quite comfortable with grabbing the bull by its horns or stepping into the lion’s den. At AIPAC he will speak in swoon worthy terms of the unique relationship that he has cultivated between America and Israel. He will affectionately greet his old buddy AIPAC’s president Lee Rosenberg, will list his anti-terrorism credentials, and he may even announce plans to visit Israel within the next year. What could Bibi do or say that would top that?

Of course this war is also being waged over congressional influence, where the bulk of AIPAC’s work is focused. Netanyahu knows that he can rely on congress to hold the president to task in pivotal moments, maintain focus on Iran and fight for the cessation of illegal aid to the Hamas-Fatah partnership. Obama’s aim is to show congress that he is also engaged in mutual dialogue with the Jewish community, and to soften the inseparable bond between American Jews and their friends in congress, by positioning himself as a reliable alternative.

The Administration however, has by no means changed its tune, and we can duly expect to see the exertion of relentless pressure on the Israelis sometime in the future. As Steve Rosen director of the Middle East Forum’s Washington Project confirmed to the JTA, pressure to advance peace is likely to emerge around August, on the eve of the U.N. General Assembly.

The main and ongoing point of contention will be how proceed on Israeli affairs. While the White House may want to push for reconciliation with Hamas, and further significant Israeli concessions, Netanyahu is fully aware that the Peace Process as a viable and safe path for his country’s future is a downright fallacy.

Netanyahu’s recourse in a clear and uncompromising fashion is to continuously speak truth to power, pointing out these three essential points. 1. The disparity between the way the world dealt with Osama Bin Laden, and the way Israel is expected to deal with its terrorists. 2. As pointed out by Brett Stephens in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, the Palestinian Arabs want nothing less than the destruction of the entire state of Israel and thus any territorial concession is mortally dangerous. (Mahmoud Abbas confirmed this on Tuesday in a NYTimes editorial where he wrote that the establishment of a Palestinian State through the UN would be a starting point for negotiations with Israel.) 3. As Iranian regional influence grows along with its nuclear program, and it capitalizes on Middle East instability; Israel faces an ongoing existential struggle.

As for AIPAC leadership and the rank and file that gather in Washington, they must not be fooled by the White House bluster, and insist that the administration will be judged based on its actions and not its words. With Israel facing increased international isolation, American Jewry must work to hold the country to the path of truth and justice. They must always keep in mind, that AIPAC was established to bring Americans closer to Israel, and not the other way round.

The author is the director of the Algemeiner Journal and the GJCF and can be e-mailed at

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