Top US Jews seek positives in Obama-Netanyahu ties

Jewish leaders highlight the statesmen’s commonalities rather than driving home the differences in their policy statements.

May 26, 2011 20:31
3 minute read.

Hoenlein 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

NEW YORK – After US President Barack Obama’s speech on Middle East policy last week, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US, American Jewish leaders are still attempting to parse out their reactions to the statements by the statesmen, with most leaders preferring to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.

Obama’s calls for a peace deal with the Palestinians to be based on pre-1967 lines, plus “mutually agreed swaps” of territory, have triggered much speculation as to the president’s vision for the Middle East.

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“I think everybody would like to move beyond the tensions and controversy of the past week,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told The Jerusalem Post.

While there was clearly friction between the two leaders, Hoenlein was quick to say that there have “always been times of tension in the relationship between prime ministers and presidents,” and that members of Congress have made it clear that the US-Israel relationship is “very solid.”

“The truth is that we tend to overlook the strength of the special relationship,” Hoenlein said. “It’s a remarkable thing that we shouldn’t take for granted.”

Watching Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Tuesday, Hoenlein said, he was pleasantly surprised by the cross-the-aisle applause for the prime minister: “It was a spontaneous expression of affinity and support for Israel.”

“Everybody harps on any differences” that can be discerned between Obama and Netanyahu, Hoenlein said, but Netanyahu’s reception in Congress “was a really amazing day and something that can only happen in the United States.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote an op-ed in The Boston Globe in which he said that the speeches of the two statesmen revealed “convergent thinking” on key points.

Both the US and Israel, Harris contended, clearly see an imminent threat in Iran’s nuclear capability. Additionally, both see the Hamas-Fatah alliance as a “major new problem,” and believe that peace can only come between Israel and Palestinians as a result of direct talks rather than unilateralism, which, Harris wrote, “would be a path to conflict, not coexistence.”

The US and Israel “are in full accord that the outcome of any peace process should be two states for two peoples — Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people, and a “non-militarized,” to use Obama’s language, “Palestine as the homeland of the Palestinian people,” Harris wrote. “The Palestinians must understand, therefore, that the solution to their refugee question lies in the new state of Palestine, not Israel.” Borders for these two states would take “realities on the ground” into account.

Harris wrote that “in recent days in Washington, we have witnessed a reaffirmation of the enduring strength of the American-Israeli partnership.

Those who focus on the inevitable disagreements miss the larger picture.” He also cited bipartisan support in Congress as indicative of a greater whole.

Immediately after Obama’s Middle East address last week, the Anti-Defamation League’s National Director Abraham Foxman and National Chairman Robert Sugarman issued a statement extolling the president for a “compelling speech on the priorities for American policy in the Middle East.”

“The administration has come a long way in two years in terms of understanding of the nuances involved in bringing about Israeli-Palestinian peace and a better understanding of the realities and challenges confronting Israel,” they said in their statement.

After Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, Sugarman and Foxman issued a response that, like other Jewish leaders’, highlighted the statesmen’s commonalities rather than driving home the differences in their policies.

“The prime minister and the president shared many principles in common in their speeches of recent days,” the ADL statement read. “Each of them expressed the need to accept Israel as a Jewish state, hold negotiations without preconditions, and abandon the effort to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

“In addition, both declared that the presence of Hamas in a Palestinian government would be a major obstacle to peace and that any solution would not involve a return to the 1967 lines.

“It is now time for the Palestinians to begin to address these various concerns in order to give peace a chance,” the ADL statement concluded.

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