Jewish establishment sounds alarm as White House rhetoric intensifies

Leading figures in Washington's pro-Israel community are calling on the Obama administration to turn down the temperature.

By
March 24, 2015 20:24
Barack Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama. (photo credit: REUTERS)

ZÜRICH, Switzerland -- ​​Criticism of Israel from the Obama administration has intensified to such a degree that Washington's Jewish leaders are sounding the alarm.

​For years defensive of their support for US President Barack Obama and his White House, Washington's pro-Israel establishment now fears that the train of US-Israel relations is "running off the tracks." Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, their reactions ranged from deep concern to "bewilderment."

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"The fact that the outcome of a Democratic election in Israel seems to be of great concern" to the Obama administration, said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, "is cause for deep anxiety and puzzlement."

"Whatever the failings of the prime minister, the way this is unfolding runs completely contrary to the spirit of US-Israel relations," Harris said. "The US appears to have a reasoned interest in prolonging the crisis."

Since Benjamin Netanyahu secured re-election as prime minister last week, Obama administration officials have fiercely criticized his pre-election campaign rhetoric, including his warning to right-wing Israelis that Arab citizens were being bussed to the polls "in droves" and his declaration that the two-state solution would not come to fruition under his premiership.

Netanyahu has since apologized to Israel's Arabs for his remarks, and says that his commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state remains the same as it was when he first announced his support in 2009: The security environment governing Israel and Palestine, above all, must be sufficient for Israel to cede land, he told American press.

But the White House will not accept his apology, and has gone so far as to publicly question the fundamental sincerity of the prime minister. US officials have also suggested a willingness to remove their shield of support for Israel at the United Nations Security Council.

"As someone who was critical of several steps by [Netanyahu] during the campaign leading up to his re-election," said Abe Foxman, longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League, "I am even more troubled by statements now coming out of the White House."

"What we are hearing from the Obama Administration raises deeper questions about their intentions and perspectives," Foxman said. "From the beginning of the Obama years, there was a disturbing indifference to the mindset of the Israeli public."

Puzzled by the developments, some pro-Israel leaders are resurfacing an old mantra from Obama's first term: Never waste a crisis. After Netanyahu's dramatic speech to Congress spared no criticism of the president's policy on Iran and its nuclear program, pro-Israel community leaders see an effort to marginalize the premier as negotiations come to a head.

They also suspect the White House seeks to pressure Netanyahu into a renewed peace process with the Palestinians, after US Secretary of State John Kerry failed to secure an agreement of any kind between the parties last year.

But that tactic, Foxman says, will serve to delegitimize Israel's policy stance on the Palestinian matter long understood, and bolstered, by the United States.

The tactic "will encourage Palestinians in their belief that they can have their cake and eat it, achieving a state without accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish state," Foxman continued. "And it will reinforce Israeli fears of being under siege."

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday that the US wants to see "actions" from Israel after navigating Netanyahu's "confused" rhetoric over the course of several years.

"What we’re looking for now are actions and policies that demonstrate genuine commitment to a two-state solution, not more words," Harf said. "He said diametrically opposing things in the matter of a week, so which is his actual policy?"

Sharing his concerns, Rabbi William Gershon, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said that the "action" he would like to see from the administration is "active public expression of the kind of strong US support for Israel which has often been spoken about by the administration.”

"The prime minister has quickly made significant steps to repair the tensions that developed in the heat of Israel’s election," Gershon said. "The time is due, if not overdue, for the US administration to do the same."

And Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Orthodox Union, accused the president of "clearly [preferring] ongoing political confrontation over trying to work with a democratically elected Israeli leader on the critical issues facing our two nations."

Diament said that "long-term" repercussions of a reassessment could include a shift in policy at the UN on the use of Washington's veto, or the issuance of a "unilateral proposal" from the US on Palestinian statehood.

The White House would not comment for this report, referring instead to recent comments from the president, his press secretary and chief of staff on the administration's commitment to Israel's security.

"Today, our security, military, and intelligence cooperation is stronger than it’s ever been, and that’s not going to change," White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told a crowd of supporters of J Street, an organization which primarily lobbies for a two-state solution, on Monday. "As the president has said so many times, we have Israel’s back."

Over the weekend, the president himself made clear that Washington's commitment to Israel's long-term security and prosperity would remain ironclad. But that security guarantee, he believes, requires a dramatic shift in Israeli attitudes on the creation of a Palestinian state.

"We are going to continue to insist that, from our point of view, the status quo is unsustainable," Obama told The Huffington Post. "And that while taking into complete account Israel's security, we can't just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements. That's not a recipe for stability in the region."

In a rare public statement issued last week, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee criticized the president for continuing the public fight.

"Unfortunately, administration spokespersons rebuffed the prime minister’s efforts to improve the understandings between Israel and the US," the AIPAC statement reads. "In contrast to their comments, we urge the administration to further strengthen ties with America’s most reliable and only truly democratic ally in the Middle East."

All of these organizations— AIPAC, AJC, ADL and the Rabbinical Assembly— together represent the voice of the American Jewish community to its representatives in Washington, whether it be on Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill.

And as they begin to publicly acknowledge that relations between the US and Israel have reached an historic nadir, their rhetoric, too, has sharpened, to a point not before heard by the Obama administration.

Several leaders say privately that, at a minimum, they will lobby the administration to turn down the temperature on its public "attacks" against Netanyahu.

That's if they can get the White House on the phone.

Asked whether his concerns have been relayed to the administration, AJC's Harris said, "We would wish for more communication from the White House at this particular time."

In the meantime, speaking through the Post, Harris said that bad blood with Israel "hurts the United States."

"I don't want to give up on the next 22 months," he added.


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