It was with mixed feelings that I returned from New York after extensive discussions with a wide range of American Jewish leaders.
The outcome of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's forthcoming meeting with President Barack Obama will indicate the probable direction of the relationship with our most crucial ally and arms supplier. Optimists predict that a conflict is unlikely to materialize now. They argue that Obama has sufficient on his plate with the economic crisis, Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran without seeking a confrontation with Israel which could also lead to domestic friction. Besides, public opinion is still overwhelmingly pro-Israel and Congress remains strongly supportive.
Yet the accumulation of negative signals over the past weeks is highly disconcerting. Whatever Obama's genuine personal views may be, clearly he is strongly pressured by left-wing Democrats and Europeans to adopt a tougher, even anti-Israel approach. Some of his key aides blame Israel for the region's problems and believe that the only way for the US to build bridges with Islam is to distance itself from the Jewish state. Obama's new policies of "engaging" with rogue states and striving to modify the behavior of tyrants by persuasion have ominous parallels with the appeasement policies of Europe in the 1930s. It is probably not coincidental that the Czech Republic is the European country most supportive of Israel.
To date, Netanyahu has not put a foot wrong. But his real test will be Washington where he will face the awesome challenge of trying to achieve an understanding with Obama over Iran and the Palestinians while simultaneously resisting pressures for concessions which could further erode our security.
IN THIS CONTEXT, the support of American Jewry is enormously important. Obama would presumably seek to avoid alienating his Jewish constituency, 80 percent of whom voted for him and also contributed more than 50% of Democrat campaign funding. However should Jews be perceived as being ambivalent, or worse, hostile towards the Israeli government, there is little doubt that this would dramatically influence his approach.
Regrettably, in addition to a decline in enthusiasm for Israel from a new generation for whom the Holocaust and struggle to create a Jewish state are dim memories, the Israeli relationship with American Jews over the past decades, has also undergone considerable erosion. Successive leaders have neglected to nurture the American Jewish lay leadership, concentrating instead primarily on wooing rich Jews as donors for their political or personal projects. Jewish lay leaders are largely unknown and, aside from AIPAC, national Jewish political activism is concentrated primarily in the hands of three highly capable professionals - Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Presidents Conference.
In addition, aside from the negative impact of the general financial meltdown, American Jews have been traumatized by an escalation of virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic outbursts, reflected even in the purportedly reputable media. Anti-Israeli hysteria on the campuses has mushroomed and campaigns to boycott Israel have intensified. Ominously, American Jews, especially after the Freeman and AIPAC "espionage" imbroglios, are now also being accused of harboring dual loyalties.
JEWISH LEADERS are loath to openly express their concerns. But off record, many despairingly predict a Jewish head-on clash over Israel with the most popular US president since Franklin Roosevelt. Their concerns are exacerbated by the behavior of key Jewish officials in the administration who privately proclaim that they would not flinch from a major confrontation with the Jewish state and predict that most American Jews continue to venerate Obama and will support him.
AIPAC leaders were bluntly told by Jewish White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel that failure to advance with the Palestinians would impact on progress with the Iranians. Similar messages were conveyed by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones assured a European foreign minister that unlike Bush, Obama would be "forceful" with Israel. More chilling was the bland announcement without notice, from an assistant secretary of state calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Jewish leaders are also appalled with the favorable media exposure provided to fringe groups like J Street, whose prime objective is to "balance" AIPAC activities by lobbying the Obama administration to force Israel to make further unilateral concessions. At recent State Department briefings, Jewish leaders were also shocked to be accompanied by organizations masquerading as Zionists, who were urging the US government to extend the same "tough love" to Israel as parents apply to "drug addicts."
J Street and its "pro-peace" allies allege that the Jewish establishment is practicing "McCarthyism" and denying them freedom of expression. Most Jews would indeed concur that it is unconscionable for American Jews to be pressuring their government to intervene in matters affecting the life and death of Israelis. But the issue is not freedom of expression. What is required is that like the Jewish communists who engaged in bogus Soviet-style "peace" campaigns and defended Soviet anti-Semitism, these fake "Zionists," should be exposed and isolated from the Jewish mainstream before they undermine Israel's position, particularly in Congress.
NETANYAHU APPRECIATES the crucial importance of our need to restore relations with Diaspora Jews and reinforce our role in the war of ideas. His nomination of Natan Sharansky to head the Jewish Agency and his upgrading of Yuli Edelstein's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs are positive signals. But his most creative decision may prove to be the appointment of Michael Oren as ambassador in Washington. Oren is charismatic, eloquent and scholarly and has the capacity of reaching out to Americans of all persuasions as well as encouraging greater Jewish involvement in support of Israel. Some predict that he may emerge as one of Israel's most effective diplomats since Abba Eban.
Our prayers are that Netanyahu will succeed in convincing Obama of the existential threat a nuclear Iran poses for the Jewish state. He will surely reiterate his willingness to renew negotiations with the Palestinians on the basis of reciprocity and will probably assure the Americans that undertakings to dismantle unauthorized outposts will be honored. But he will also resist efforts to deny "natural growth" within existing settlement blocs that will not be relinquished. Without necessarily explicitly saying so, he will endorse the "two-state solution" subject to the caveats that Israel's security interests are not compromised, that terrorism is outlawed and that the Palestinians display a genuine willingness to coexist peacefully with a neighboring Jewish state.
However Obama should have no illusions. We are still light years away from reaching an accommodation with our Palestinian neighbors. Paradoxically, a greater proportion of Israelis favor a genuine two-state solution than the Palestinians for whom the destruction of Jewish sovereignty enjoys a far greater priority than creating a state of their own.
These are challenging times for American Jewry. Its support is vital to resist those deluding themselves that problems with the Islamic world can be overcome by sacrificing Israel and transforming us into a new Czechoslovakia. American Jewish leaders failed to speak up in defense of their brethren during the dark days of World War II because they were intimidated by a popular American president. We have every reason to believe that the vast majority of strong and confident American Jews of our time will not be intimidated or remain silent if the Jewish state is endangered.