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December 6, 2011 3:08 pm

Questions Surround Obama’s Position on Israel

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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President Barack Obama welcomes Israeli President Shimon Peres in the Oval Office in 2009.

The relationship between President Obama, the Obama Administration and the State of Israel, as Alice might say, gets “curiouser and curiouser.”

As the President runs hard to keep in place and maintain the support and approval of one of his most reliable constituencies, the American Jewish voters, he is faced with not only a coalition of Republican would-be-nominees, each of whom claims to be a better Zionist than any other contender, and certainly a better friend of Israel than the incumbent. This opposition is compounded by members of his own team, whose policy statements appear quite different from the words uttered by the President. Their statements diverge from the strong alliance the President is promoting lately, leaving the President’s real direction unclear.

The White House had to do significant “damage control” in many areas of the Jewish community upset by the call for a return to Israel’s 1967 borders – albeit with land swaps – as a basis for resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the ’67 borders “indefensible.”

Jewish voters are important because they do, in fact, vote. Their support is especially important in states where the Democrats must win to succeed in 2012 (Think Florida, Pennsylvania).  Further, the two percent of the electorate which is Jewish contributes significantly more than its numbers would suggest. Further still, if Jewish backing does, as predicted by some, slide to around 60 percent of the Jewish vote in 2012 instead of the 80 plus of 2008, the results in key states could be decisively affected.

Republicans challenge Obama’s assertion that “this administration has done more in terms of the security of the state of Israel than any previous administration.” Republicans across the political spectrum have been “up-playing” their overtly positive positions vis a vis Israel, seeking to portray the sitting President as pro Arab and unrelentingly tough on Israel. However, the depth of the support of some Republicans has also been questioned: three of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination have suggested reassessing foreign aid for all countries, and starting that assessment at zero. Israel was included. Jewish leadership was alarmed, saying that such a policy would threaten funding for Israel.

The Republicans counter, reminding of President Obama’s demand that Israel return to 1967 borders, and of his criticism of Israel for building in the disputed areas. They note that the President’s failure to negate the recent “off mike” comments of French President Nicolas Sarkozy add to his negative perception of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Contender Mitt Romney said Obama has “repeatedly thrown Israel under the bus” — an opinion repeated by the Republican National Committee.

On December 7, the GOP presidential candidates will face a Washington forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. The following day, December 8, a policy speech to Jewish leaders is followed by a Hanukkah Party at the White House. During the weekend, the President will address more than 6000 delegates to the Conference of the Union for Reform Judaism. Quite a collation!

From within his own party, the words of the President’s own appointees have placed Israel in the diplomatic docks, even as Obama seeks to heal rifts created during the first years of his administration. Ambassador Howard Gutman, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have each, within the last week, presented highly critical statements about the Jewish State. The recently appointed United States Ambassador to Belgium presented as virtual fact, the canard that growing anti-Semitism is a result of the continuing political tension between Israel and the Palestinians, placing the blame for a lack of negotiations – and thus increased anti-Semitism – in Israel’s court.  His remarks have created a firestorm.

Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin calls his remarks “ludicrous assertions on anti-Semitism” and notes that reaction “has been swift and harsh, except from the administration, which bizarrely embraced Gutman.” The White House issued statement made no specific reference to Gutman’s remarks: “We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms, and that there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.”

Responses have ranged from “disappointing” (Josh Block, former AIPAC spokesman)  who continued, “The Ambassador’s comments were reprehensible, and so is the State Department’s refusal to condemn them directly, and to recall this representative of the American people.” The Anti-Defamation League called the remarks “wrongheaded” and “provides an unacceptable rationale for inaction against anti-Semitism.”  The Republican contingent lost little time reacting to Gutman’s remarks: Romney, Gingrich and Perry have said that Gutman should be fired.

Ambassador Gutman responded, saying “I strongly condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms.” Gutman, who is Jewish, is the son of a Holocaust survivor, and posted a press release posted on the embassy’s website. Saying “I deeply regret if my comments were taken the wrong way. My own personal history and that of my family is testimony to the salience of this issue and my continued commitment to combating anti-Semitism.”

What really are the president’s policies? Are statements by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in a recent speech at the Brookings Institute, coupled with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s questioning of Israel’s democracy at the Saban Institute indicative of the administration’s real position or are the President’s statements and overtures to Jewish leaders the administration’s real policy?

Panetta, despite acknowledging turmoil of the Middle East, placed responsibility for negotiations (or lack thereof) in Israeli’s hands saying  said “I understand the view that this is not the time to pursue peace, and that the Arab awakening further imperils the dream of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. But I disagree with that view.” Nevertheless, Israel needs to take risks and particularly, “The problem right now is we can’t get them to the damn table, to at least sit down and begin to discuss their differences.” (Emphasis: The Algemeiner)

The comments of the ADL are stark: “We are deeply troubled by the message sent by Secretary Panetta at precisely a moment when the region is so volatile and uncertain. The Defense Secretary…undermined the sense of assurance that this could have projected by using a prestigious public platform to focus disproportionate responsibility on Israel for the campaign of hostility against her.”

The remarks, supposedly off the record, made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Saban Forum, a Mideast policy seminar sponsored by the Brookings Institute, indicate that she has “concerns over Israel’s democracy.” The Secretary of State criticized recent legislative attempts in Israel to restrict left-wing organizations and expressed shock over growing discrimination against Israeli women. She mentioned cases of IDF soldiers leaving during performances of female singers and the fact that females sit in the back of buses in certain places in Israel. Clinton said that some of these phenomena reminded her of Iran.

Anonymous confirmation by a senior U.S. official, said “she expressed concerns about developments in Israel, including the NGO law and recent comments from ultraconservative politicians.” The Israeli press reports that Clinton “criticized a recent wave of legislation in Israel that critics say are aimed at stifling dissent.” No quotes or further details were available.

Comment on Clinton’s remarks came from Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz who said they were “absolutely exaggerated, Israeli democracy is alive, breathing, kicking and liberal.”

Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach director, said “This campaign takes the Jewish vote very, very seriously.” Yet a recent Gallup Poll shows Obama’s approval rating among Jews down almost 30 points.  (83 – January, 2009; 54 – early fall, 2011).

“The reality is that the Jewish community understands that on a number of critical issues this administration has undermined not only the U.S.-Israel relationship, but has made Israel more vulnerable,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Brooks points to the recent upset in New York’s special election to replace Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, in which Republican Bob Turner won in the heavily Jewish district. Brooks says this was a warning sign to Obama on his stance on Israel. Obama supporters say other factors were at play, including the heavily Orthodox and more conservative makeup of the district.

Is the administration friend or foe to Israel? As recently as December 2, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called the United States “our best friend,” saying the strong relationship between America and Israel is a “friendship based on ethics, ethos and interests.” Recent meetings in Washington, DC had “again proven how close we are and how much we are in unison.”

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