Diaspora Affairs: The charm offensive

Will the Obama administration’s recent campaign to tamp down concerns among American Jews over US policy towards Israel help get the peace process moving?

April 30, 2010 16:05
An American Jew.

American Jewry 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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By noon last Sunday, the rain had not let up. But in biting cold and wearing slickers, some 1,500 people made their way to a very damp rally in New York City anyway, to protest the Obama administration’s “increasing hostility” toward Israel.

Standing in front of the Israeli Consulate, many hoisted signs insisting their voices be heard. “We are outraged that President [Barack] Obama is scapegoating Israel and wants to expel Jews from their homes in Jerusalem,” said Beth Gilinsky, of the Jewish Action Alliance, the main sponsor of the event. “Vast segments of the Jewish community will not tolerate the president’s continuing attacks on Israel.”

The latest public outcry over US-Israel relations drew a decidedly right of center coalition of groups, including representatives from Americans for a Safe Israel, the Zionist Organization of America and Stand With Us. That they did so, despite recent warm overtures from American officials, indicated their resistance to a so-called “charm offensive” launched at the Israeli administration and American Jewry. Still, for others the message has been received, and observers say the much-needed repair work could lay the foundation for successful proximity talks in the near future.

Tensions first flared in early March, during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, over what’s now known as the embarrassing announcement of new housing units in east Jerusalem. The announcement prompted Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to place a tense, 43-minute call to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Ten days later, White House photographers were absent when Netanyahu met with Obama in Washington.

Whispers of discontent grew full-bodied within weeks. In early April, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, penned an open letter to Obama in which he criticized the administration for coming down hard on Israel. “We are concerned about the dramatic deterioration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Israel,” he wrote. “Why does the thrust of this administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks? After all, it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to negotiate.”

Still, officials at Jewish organizations describe a precarious position. Many are concerned about tension between the US and Israel. But when is the right time to cry foul? Could it be more prudent to take a diplomatic approach, particularly toward an American president who could very well be in office for six and a half more years? If you do cry foul, can you be an effective partner moving forward?

Against that backdrop, the Jewish Federations of North America will hold a “fly-in” of its leaders in late May, an opportunity to meet administration officials face-to-face and engage with them. “It is, in large part, a fact-finding mission, but also a mission where we intend to express our views about how best to move forward,” said William Daroff, vice president for public policy and the director of the Washington office of JFNA.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has pursued an aggressive campaign to tamp down concerns among American Jews.

The president’s chief political adviser, David Axelrod, spoke at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day celebration and to the National Jewish Democratic Council. Clinton addressed Jewish leaders on Thursday at the American Jewish Committee, after talking at the Center for Middle East Peace last week. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel recently met with 20 rabbis. National Security Adviser Jim Jones, his much-criticized joke notwithstanding, headlined an event last week at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he clarified recent “distortion and misrepresentation” of US policy: “Like any two nations, we will have disagreements, but we will always resolve them as allies,” he said.

Obama himself later dropped in on a meeting between Jones and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Washington. And earlier this month, the president sent a letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization in which he emphasized the “shared values and interwoven connections” shared by the US and Israel. “Let me be very clear,” he wrote. “We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed.”

Robert Wexler, a former congressman from Florida who is president of the Center for Middle East Peace, said on matters of security, intelligence and military cooperation, the Obama administration has been an “excellent” ally of Israel. The US pulled out of a military exercise with Turkey last fall after Turkey uninvited Israel from participating. The US and Israel later performed a joint military exercise in Israel that was the largest ever between the countries. “That’s real, that is noticed in Teheran,” Wexler said.

The warmth shown to the Israeli administration in the past week is a reminder of the American commitment, he said, one that American Jews will surely appreciate. “The president’s objective has remained constant,” Wexler said. “To ensure Israeli security and to end, once and for all, the Israeli-Arab conflict. That hasn’t changed. I think that’s part of the tactical approach toward creating an environment of trust, which is essential to help end the conflict.”

A look at the numbers shows that most American Jews approve of the Obama administration. A recent survey by the American Jewish Committee gave the president a 57 percent approval rating among American Jews, with 55% saying they approve of his handling of the US-Israel relationship.

Still, the numbers were down from a 79% approval rating last year, and the survey – taken in March – coincided with Biden’s visit to Israel.

Observers said the administration’s goodwill is laying the groundwork for an upcoming visit to Washington by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If all goes according to plan, proximity talks will be announced and when they are, the hope is to shift diplomatic relations back to where they were before Biden’s visit.

“If, in fact, this works according to plan, these last two months of stress or tzurus will be ancient history and we’ll be able to look forward rather than looking past at the rocky road we’ve been through,” said Daroff. “Then this ‘charm offensive’ is even more meaningful because the talk and tenor and spirit of US-Israel relations, in the context of the peace process, will be one of cooperation and moving forward.”

Daroff called it a positive development that the administration recognizes the need to engage with the Jewish community. But he said the real key indicator for these efforts will be on the “substance side of the equation.” Beyond that, he said, it is difficult to forecast the future, he said, noting, “If everybody agreed on every issue, we wouldn’t need talks.”

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