Analysis: Why Obama lightened his tone

DC says differences are more about form than content.

Obama Huh? 311 (photo credit: AP)
Obama Huh? 311
(photo credit: AP)
Henry Kissinger, as pundits often love to point out, once said of Israel that it “has no foreign policy, only a domestic political system,” meaning – of course – that Israel’s foreign policy is dictated by its domestic politics.
Well, duh. The same could be said of most other countries in the world, including the US. Just take a look at the recent dramatic change in the tenor of Washington’s policy toward Israel.
On March 9, US Vice President Joe Biden came to Israel and was greeted, ignominiously, by the announcement of plans to build 1,600 new homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. The US pounced on the announcement to twist Israel’s arm, and get it to enter into the indirect proximity talks on terms the US preferred.
This was followed rapidly by a dressing down of Netanyahu by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; State Department spokesman PJ Crowley’s seeming linkage of the US-Israeli relationship to the pace of the peace process; more tough talk on one of America’s Sunday morning television news shows by US President Barack Obama’s top aid David Axelrod; and the sudden introduction of the idea that Israel’s actions were endangering US soldiers abroad.
A couple of weeks later, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, following a speech at the AIPAC conference, met Obama and – as Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl pointed out – was treated like an unsavory Third World dictator. He was also reportedly given a list of demands by the administration, to which he was expected to respond immediately.
Those were the lean days.
But then the tone abruptly changed, and the Obama administration unleashed an unprecedented charm offensive that culminated Tuesday with a presidential meeting with Jewish congressmen, during which Obama reportedly admitted  that he made some missteps in the Israel-US relations, and got “some toes blown off.”
Sitting in on that meeting was New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, a close Obama ally and strong Israel supporter, whose interview on a conservative talk show in April is attributed in large part to getting the Obama administration to shift gears.
Schumer, called out for his silence up until that point in a The Jerusalem Post op-ed by former New York mayor Ed Koch, said, “I told the president, I told Rahm Emanuel and others in the administration, that I thought the policy they took to try to bring about negotiations is counterproductive, because when you give the Palestinians hope that the United States will do its negotiation for them, they are not going to sit down and talk.”
Schumer, who is a very influential senator, said he called Emanuel and told him that if the White House did not retract Crowley’s equation, “You are going to hear me publicly blast you on this.”
Since Schumer’s interview, Emanuel, along with Dennis Ross and other top Jewish White House officials, met a second time with a group of 15 rabbis; Ross and NSC top Middle East hand Dan Shapiro addressed the ADL National Leadership Conference; Clinton addressed an American Jewish Committee dinner in New York; Obama had lunch with Elie Wiesel and then a couple of weeks later met with the Jewish congressmen.
The tone of these meetings and speeches was markedly different than the tenor of the US-Israeli relationship over the previous few months, with Emanuel telling the rabbis that the US had “screwed up” the messaging about its support for Israel over the last 14 months.
So what happened? Why the sudden change of heart and tone?
Which brings us back to Kissinger’s observation about domestic policies being the engine behind Israeli foreign policy. What’s true in Israel is also true in the US.As one source that was on the receiving end of the Obama administration’s outreach put it, the administration has changed its tone because it is “worried about losing the Jews.”
Recent polls show why. Despite J Street surveys which, if the Obama administration relied exclusively on them, would conclude that the majority of US Jews were just fine with Obama’s polices on Israel, two polls released a few days after each other last month demonstrated the opposite.
A national Quinnipiac University survey released on April 22 found that 67 percent of American Jews (and 44% of the general public) disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with only 28% approving (35% of the general public).
And a McLaughlin & Associates poll from April 14 found that only 42% of Jewish voters said they would re-elect Obama, while 46% said they would consider voting for someone else. This is significant considering that, according to exit polls from the November 2008 election, 78% of Jewish voters voted for Obama.
But beyond voting, Jews are also huge contributors to the Democratic Party. The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper that covers Congress and political campaigns, quotes sources as saying that Jews make up 25%-50 percent of those who give $25,000 or more to the party each election cycle. While obviously Israel is not the prime issue for all or even most of these heavy contributors, if it is a determining factor for even five or 10 percent, that is a significant amount of money.
An interesting theme that has emerged through Obama’s luncheon with Wiesel to his meeting with Jewish congressmen, and well as in Emanuel and Ross’s meeting with the rabbis, is that from the administration’s perspective the problem is more one of form than of content, of message rather than substance.
The administration’s message is that Obama’s true feelings toward Israel, his true commitment, is being hidden by poor public diplomacy. Sure he is tough on Israel, Ross said to the rabbis, but he is also tough on the Palestinians, although that is not picked up in the news.
While there might be disagreements on the Palestinian issue, Emanuel said in one of the meetings, as far as strategic cooperation is concerned, no president has been stronger.
The truth, however, is that beyond the “message problem” there are indeed fundamental conceptual differences between how the Israel and the US view regional reality.
While the Americans genuinely seem to believe that if you solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, you will take a club out of the Iranians’ hand which they use to instigate the Arab world; Israel feels that you cannot solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue without first neutralizing Iran.
In Israel’s view, Iran – through proxies like Hamas and Hizbullah – won’t let anyone solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, since it is not exactly interested in the stability in the region that such an agreement could engender.
And the second main conceptual difference has to do with how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, with the US still very much locked into the land-for-peace paradigm, and Israelis – bitten by the reality that leaving Lebanon and “disengaging” from Gaza did not bring peace – very wary of walking down that same path again.
The differences are there, and they are real. What has changed now is that the administration has decided, in large part because of electoral considerations, that rather than playing these differences up, as it has done up until now, they will now keep them in the background … at least until the midterm congressional elections in November.
After that, it will be time again for the Netanyahu government to duck and look for cover, until the US presidential primary season heats up in the fall of 2011. Then electoral considerations will again become paramount in Washington, and Israel will again catch an American reprieve.