President Barack Obama has repeatedly declared himself a close friend of Israel. But many Israelis in and outside the government are expressing concern about Obama’s ostensible neglect of Israelis.
What effects might this perceived slight have on Obama’s ability to succeed in his goal of securing a final Israeli-Palestinian peace in a timely manner?
This question assumes more importance as many in Washington are predicting that Obama may well announce the terms of a far-reaching new peace push sometime before late September, the scheduled opening of the U.N. General Assembly’s next session.
Prominent Israeli journalist Aluf Benn recently rang the alarm bells regarding Obama’s alleged lack of attention to Israelis. Writing in the New York Times on July 28, Benn complained that Obama “hasn’t bothered to speak directly to Israelis.”
One key effect, he wrote, is that “Six months into his presidency, Israelis find themselves increasingly suspicious of Mr. Obama. All they see is American pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements.”
Benn wrote that as a result, “Mr. Netanyahu enjoys a virtual domestic consensus over his rejection of the settlement freeze. Moreover, he has succeeded in portraying Mr. Obama as a shaky ally.”
As so often occurs in the ever-shifting dynamic between Jewish Israelis and Jewish Americans, each side sees matters very differently.
Prominent Jewish American writer Jeffrey Goldberg—who is also an Israeli citizen—noted that in Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo, he made a point of stressing the strength of the United States’ long and unshakeable support for Israel.
True, Obama himself has not visited Israel since his inauguration. But several high-level members of his team have. During the week of July 26 alone, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell all visited Israel, holding substantive meetings with their counterparts there.
So it is hard to conclude that the Obama administration has not given “enough attention” to Israel, a country of just 7.1 million citizens. But for many Israelis, perhaps the most glaring contrast has been with the extraordinary amounts of attention and close political collaboration Israel enjoyed from both of Obama’s predecessors.
This was one sub-theme of the meeting Obama held July 13 with the leaders of 16 leading American Jewish organizations. In the meeting, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, reportedly urged Obama to return to President George W. Bush’s practice of ensuring there was “no daylight” publicly visible between the positions of Israel and Washington.
Obama’s reported reply was to note that during that period of very close U.S.-Israeli alignment, Bush failed to make any meaningful progress in the peacemaking.
Several commentators also noted about the July 13 meeting that simply by hosting it, Obama was already privileging Jewish Americans over other ethnic/religious segments of the U.S. population, many of which are considerably larger.
In his article, Benn cited a recent Jerusalem Post poll that found that only six percent of Jewish Israelis considered the Obama administration pro-Israel, while 50 percent judged it as tilting to the Palestinians.
Others worried about Obama’s stance on Israel have noted that in a Pew Global Attitudes Poll conducted in May and June, Israel was the only one of 25 countries surveyed where perceptions of the U.S. had deteriorated since Obama took office.
However, some parts of the Pew poll are much less alarming for Obama. Pew reported that in mid-2008, 57 percent of Israelis said they thought the U.S. would “do the right thing in world affairs”—while in mid-2009 that figure was 56 percent.
Also, although Obama’s June 4 Cairo speech caused some decline in Israeli support for Obama, Pew reported that even after his address, 63 percent of Israelis said they had “favorable” views of the U.S. and 49 percent expressed confidence in Obama’s leadership. The corresponding post-speech figures among Palestinians were 19 percent and 26 percent.
Benn’s article drew attention to possible new problems between Israel and Obama, but another significant rift has been widening in recent years: between Israeli Jews and American Jews.
While Jewish Israelis have been shifting ever further rightward—as shown most dramatically in last February’s elections—Jewish Americans have stayed more or less constant for many years now, with over two-thirds of them supporting the Democratic Party.
During last year’s Democratic primary, many Jewish Americans supported Hillary Clinton rather than Obama; but once he won the nomination, nearly all the party’s traditional Jewish voters stood behind Obama.
Since Obama’s inauguration, American Jews have given strong support to all the main items on his domestic agenda. And thus far he seems to have kept their strong support for his foreign policy agenda—including his positions on key parts of the administration’s Israeli-Arab peace agenda.
Thus, on both the need to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and the push for a freeze on additional construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including occupied east Jerusalem, Jewish Americans have stayed strongly behind Obama.
On the Palestinian state question, many weeks into his term as prime minister, Netanyahu finally expressed some notably lukewarm support for the concept. But on the settlement freeze, Netanyahu has refused to accede to the Obama administration’s insistence on this issue.
According to the latest findings of Tel Aviv University’s “Peace Index” poll, conducted in June, 61 percent of Jewish Israelis expressed support for Netanyahu’s rejection of the freeze. But Jewish Americans have been far less supportive of his position on this issue.
It is notable that the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose leaders have long avoided taking on campaigns which might cause them to lose face, has thus far chosen not to speak out on the settlements issue.
Meanwhile, other more reliably pro-peace organizations in the Jewish-American community—like Americans for Peace Now and J-Street—have made support of Obama’s stand on the settlements a centerpiece of their increasingly successful nationwide organizing.
There are, of course, many connections between pro-peace political action in the U.S. and the attitudes of Jewish Israelis. The Peace Index poll, for example, found that, “when one mentions to the [Jewish Israeli] interviewees the possibility that implementing Netanyahu’s position [on the freeze] could cause a worsening of relations with the U.S. government… only 40 percent still support Netanyahu’s position while a slightly higher rate (48 percent) oppose it.”
(It is also worth noting that the roughly 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are ethnic Palestinians give nearly total support to Obama’s call for a settlement freeze. But the Peace Index poll, like many Israeli opinion polls, does not count the views of this significant Israeli minority.)
Meanwhile, there is a strong sense in Washington that the showdown between Obama and Netanyahu over settlements is only a prelude of future problems.
One Arab-American analyst recently noted that despite the firmness of his rhetoric, Obama has still done nothing to operationalize his insistence on the freeze—for example, by linking it to Washington’s continued generosity to Israel.
But this analyst and several others hope that instead of keeping his focus solely on the settlement freeze question, Obama also will very soon launch a broad and authoritative international push for a final-status peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
“Once Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians start looking at the final status borders, there will be context for the settlement discussion. The two should go hand-in-hand,” this analyst said.
He added that Washington “should put its own final-status plan on the table, too. And yes, all this should happen soon. Then let’s see how everyone reacts. That will be the start of real peacemaking.”
And in the context of a real peace push like the one this Arab-American is hoping for, Obama would surely have a lot to say to Israelis and everyone else who is directly concerned.
Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She writes for the Inter Press Service and blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org