US Affairs: Getting ready to bury the hatchet

Netanyahu's upcoming US visit represents a vindication.

Obama talking to bibi on phone 311 (photo credit: Pete Souza)
Obama talking to bibi on phone 311
(photo credit: Pete Souza)
WASHINGTON – The date for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s return to Washington was set this past week for July 6, a month after the navy’s deadly raid on a ship bound for Gaza caused him to cancel.
Though the headlines have changed since the visit was originally arranged, the reception is expected to be the same: warm and public. In other words, a direct contrast to the last meeting, in March, when Netanyahu was ushered in and out of the White House at night without so much as an official photo.
Partly the anticipated feting is understood to be an equalizer for the welcome President Barack Obama extended to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this month, which included an Oval Office press conference.
But just as importantly, the predicted overture to Netanyahu is viewed as the administration officially burying the hatchet that ruptured relations between the two countries for much of the spring.
It’s a move that happens to coincide with the wishes of those American Jewish groups who argued that the public bad blood was bad for everybody, including America’s efforts to move the peace process forward. And indeed, while the meeting will focus on bilateral issues, the lead-up has been telling for what it reveals about the state of the American Jewish community.
The tensions first erupted during a trip Vice President Joe Biden took to Israel in early March to patch up an already rocky relationship, during which the Interior Ministry approved new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem. Biden ended up strongly condemning the move, whose timing Netanyahu apologized for. Biden appeared to accept the apology, but after his return Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior White House aide David Axelrod publicly upbraided Israel again and made demands for policy changes.
That struck Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman, first out of the box after the fracas broke out, as excessive.
“We are shocked and stunned at the administration’s tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem,” he said.
Soon after came the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which issued an unusually sharp statement criticizing the government.
“The Obama administration’s recent statements regarding the US relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern. AIPAC calls on the administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish state,” it said. “We strongly urge the administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel, in a manner befitting strategic allies, to address any issues between the two governments.”
Capping a month of similar statements by other major Jewish organizations, in April the Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel weighed in with an ad in The New York Times pushing back against the US approach to Jerusalem, declaring, “pressure will not produce a solution.”
Jewish groups on the left, however, tended to send a different message, notably J Street, the new progressive lobby energetically pressing for a two-state solution.
J Street took out its own ad responding to Wiesel’s statements on Jerusalem, this one a letter by former Meretz MK Yossi Sarid saying, “Barack Obama appears well aware of his obligations to try to resolve the world’s ills, particularly ours here. Why then undercut him and tie his hands?” And at the first signs of the US-Israel flare-up, the group sent out a statement that “the Obama administration’s reaction to the treatment of the vice president last week and to the timing and substance of the Israeli government’s announcement was both understandable and appropriate... As Vice President Biden said, ‘Sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth.’ That is what he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod have done in recent days – and J Street, along with many friends of Israel, stands solidly behind them.”
YET HOWEVER many friends of Israel stood alongside J Street, it didn’t seem to be enough to reassure the White House that it didn’t need to change its tone on Israel.
It was Wiesel who ended up being the one to get an invitation to a private White House lunch with Obama after his letter appeared.
And he wasn’t the only one to get showered with attention.
The annual conferences of the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and other events with largely Jewish audiences got high-profile administration speakers, including Clinton and Axelrod, who focused more on Arab than Israeli infractions all while proclaiming the importance of the US-Israel relationship.
White House meetings with Jewish leaders and rabbis were held, conference calls were made.
The effort was widely dubbed a “charm offensive,” and the groups that the White House felt the need to charm were the establishment organizations. J Street has been trying to make the case that it speaks for large numbers of American Jews not represented by the mainstream groups, presenting a new political dynamic in Washington. But even for an administration self-proclaimed to be seeking change, it was the old power structures that appeared dominant in this episode.
“They realized that to secure support from the Jews who matter, it’s not enough to have the support of Jews who are not affiliated with the mainstream organizations,” said one Jewish activist of White House officials. “They’ve come to the conclusion that they really do need the AIPACs, the ADL supporters... It’s a statement on where the real power still is.”
“The lesson here is that the administration needs to always keep in mind the need to communicate with the Jewish community and the pro-Israel community,” said William Daroff, director of the Jewish Federations of North America’s Washington office. “Despite what some people say, the most representative and most efficient vehicle for communicating with the Jewish community is through the national mainstream Jewish organizations.”
But Hadar Susskind, J Street’s director of policy and strategy, saw the situation differently. He challenged the notion that the administration had taken a different tack after the tensions over east Jerusalem, saying the outreach was in keeping with ongoing efforts to talk to Jewish groups, J Street among them.
“I think the administration was reaching out broadly all along,” he said. “It has strong, continual relations where it’s engaging with these people all the time.” And he added that the most significant issue wasn’t the atmospherics but the policy, and that the administration took a position which was in line with J Street’s stance.
“The US government stated pretty clearly that it did not approve of the Israeli announcement,” he noted. “The US stood its ground on the policy, which is right.”
Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, also said that policy was a key issue when assessing what had unfolded over the spring – and that the administration’s response showed that the policy articulated by establishment groups such as his was the right one.
“I think they respect that we represent the great center of American Jewry,” he said, but stressed, “If the ideas we expressed had not been valid or persuasive, it would have had less effect.”