Lawyerly, loyal - but far less loving

Does US President Barack Obama have an image problem when it comes to Israel?

Barack Obama  (photo credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Barack Obama
(photo credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
THREE MONTHS AFTER Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu plunged headlong into the muddy US political waters, raising waves of invective, ovations and elucidation, Democrats and Republicans are still spinning their versions of who won and who lost and are still arguing about just what “pro-Israel” is supposed to mean.
Deftly, Netanyahu maneuvered and misrepresented US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech, which he gave just before Netanyahu arrived for his much-touted visit to the US at the end of May, to suggest that the president wants Israel to return to the 1967 lines. And with this move, Netanyahu not only propped up his right-wing coalition back home, he also skillfully handed the Republicans a valuable gift by making it clear that Israelis – or at least those whom Netanyahu represents – don’t feel that the US president is behind them.
The Republicans were quick on the uptake. The president, they have been gleefully charging, quoting a line first coined by Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, is “throwing Israel under the bus.”
And, apparently, the assault on the president’s support for Israel has hit its mark.
After unsuccessfully attempting to convince the Jewish public that his policies are pro- Israel, Obama appears to be doing a backstroke away from any pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians and has fervently reiterated his pledge to veto the expected September UN resolution recognizing a Palestinian state.
Furthermore, The Jerusalem Report has learned, Obama has put together an informal team of influential Jewish leaders to defend and protect his reputation, particularly with the Jewish community, headed by David Axelrod, senior strategist for the Obama campaign.
And so it would appear that once again, as the US gears up for what will likely be yet another contentious primary and election season – exacerbated by the recent battle over raising the country’s debt ceiling – support for Israel will be a partisan issue.
WHEN THEY INVITED NETANyahu to speak before the Republican-led Congress, Republican leaders knew that they could count on Netanyahu to provide them with points in the “who supports Israel more” political game. Even a month after Netanyahu moderated his words to commend Obama for his strong support of Israel, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty accused Obama of being anti-Israel and treating Israel “as a problem rather than an ally.”
And John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN, and currently a Fox News commentator and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, tells The Report that Obama is “the most anti-Israel president in the history of the state, without any question.”
When asked by The Report if he agrees with Bolton’s evaluation, Congressman Tom Price (R-Georgia) thinks for a minute as he reviews previous presidents, and says, “Given the wonderful level of support Israel has enjoyed [from the US] since becoming a state, I think this president does not reach the level of support of other presidents and administrations.”
As in previous years, the contention has already quickly spilled over into local elections, turning these contests into a form of referendum on Obama’s Middle East policies.
In the heavily Jewish ninth congressional district, former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, an avowed Democrat, endorsed Bob Turner, the Republican candidate, over Democratic contender David Weprin, an observant Jew who is known to be a hawk on Israel and has visited the country several times. At a widely televised press conference, Koch acknowledged that he gave the Republicans his endorsement as a “rebuke” to Obama “for saying that Israel’s pre-1967 border should be the basis of a peace agreement.”
Netanyahu encouraged his American supporters to repeat his ire over any mention of the “indefensible” 1967 lines. Yet in early August, perhaps in a last-ditch effort to convince the Palestinians not to ask for state recognition at the UN this September, or perhaps to distract the tens of thousands of tentdwellers demonstrating over domestic issues, Netanyahu is widely reported to be now agreeable to begin negotiations precisely at the 1967 borders.
Even this possible change in Netanyahu’s current position, however, will probably not stop the controversy over Obama’s pro-Israel credentials. In late May, Kaylene Rudy, a Christian woman from Atlanta, formed Americans United for Israel to “organize peaceful expressions of support for Israel by the people of the United States;” the organization has scheduled what is being billed as a “huge event” at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center for mid-August. Rudy has raised nearly all the money for the event that had an initial budget of $38,000 and has brought the Israeli Consulate, the Jewish National Fund and several synagogues and churches on board as sponsors. Other organizations, such as the Jewish Republican Coalition and the American Jewish Committee are expected to be represented at the event as well, she tells The Report. More than a local event, according to Ruby, busloads of church congregants from South Carolina and Florida are expected to participate as well, and the event has made news nationwide.
Rudy denies that her rally and purpose are part of partisan politics, but says that it’s only been the last couple of years during which the relationship between Israel and the US has been questioned – and pointedly notes that Obama has been president for those years.
The main speaker scheduled for the rally is Congressman Tom Price, a Republican from a heavily conservative district in the Atlanta area, whose pro-Israel credentials are noted by Rudy.
“I just want the people of Israel to know we love them,” Rudy says. “And we will support whatever decisions Netanyahu makes.”
Congressman Price tells The Report that it would be “wonderful” if Rudy’s efforts do expand beyond Georgia. “There are few things America could do to assist the stability of the Middle East other than to continue to educate Americans about the steadfast relationship” between Israel and the US, he says.
DECRYING HOW “BOTH NETANyahu and the Republicans are taking advantage of the controversy,” former Congressman Robert Wexler tells The Report that the accusations against Obama’s policies are little more than a “manufactured confrontation designed for political purposes.”
“When Netanyahu said the 67 lines were indefensible, what did that have to do with Obama’s speech? These were entirely different equations. For many people, the 67 lines is a confusing topic, but one man who understands is Netanyahu,” says Wexler, who is now president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Furthermore, Wexler notes, just days before the prime minister flew to Washington, he spoke before the Knesset and “acknowledged that Israel would have to give up a substantial amount of the West Bank which is, in effect, what Obama said.”
Wexler calls Pawlenty’s speech “patently incorrect,” and states that “for those of us who cherish the State of Israel, we would never dare to introduce a sense of partisanship in terms of Israel.” His voice hardening into anger, he continues, “For an individual to stoke partisanship means that for that individual, Israel is a political issue rather than a deeply- felt attachment. True friends of Israel would never want one party or another to get the upper hand on Israel; support for Israel should be shared by Republicans and Democrats.
“When an otherwise responsible man… makes a declaration riddled with misstatements and is patently false about the president’s policies, then you have to ask, ‘Does he care about Israel or have some political motive?’ Israel is not a political ploy. The longevity of the Jewish State is not a political football between Democrats and Republicans,” he says.
David A. Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, initially tells The Report that he was caught by surprise at the immediate “ferocity of the misinformation campaign from the right,” but then quickly corrects himself and says, “I’m actually not surprised…What does surprise me is the willingness to engage in it knowing how much damage it can do to Israeli policy.
There’s a danger that they could damage bipartisan support for Israel. In contrast, we’d never question the pro-Israel bona fides of Republicans.”
Republicans reject the idea that they are trying to make Israel a political issue. Says Price, “Israel has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support.”
Still, immediately following Netanyahu’s May visit to the US, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who had just been appointed chair of the Democratic National Committee, asked Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, to agree to not make support for Israel an issue in the already bubbling 2012 election.
Brooks refused and accused Wasserman Schultz of proposing “a gag order.”
DESPITE THE HIGH-TONED rhetoric, there is little indication that there has been any significant drop in support for Obama among US Jews. A Gallup Poll surveying the attitudes of Jewish Americans taken in early July shows that support for Obama had fallen slightly to a 60 percent approval rating, with 32 percent disapproving; in May, following the assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the approval rating had peaked at 68 percent, but most experts considered this to be a temporary response to the assassination. After the high of 78 percent among Jewish Americans when he was elected in November 2008, Obama has consistently received approval ratings in the 60s.
Furthermore, the Gallup poll reveals that American Jews still strongly support Obama in greater numbers than US adults overall and that there was no significant change in Obama’s Jewish support following Obama’s Middle East policy speech and the subsequent flare-ups between Netanyahu and Obama. A recent Pew Research Center poll finds that Americans in general perceive the Obama Administration to have a fundamentally positive approach to Israel, but there was no breakdown for Jewish voters. Moreover, an early July survey of American Jews initiated by the progressive J Street lobbying group shows Obama the clear favorite against every possible Republican presidential contender.
But Obama seems to be taking no chances, remembering that even in his successful campaign in 2008, American Jews had to be persuaded that he was pro-Israel – both because his middle name is Hussein and because he had been a member of a church whose pastor was perceived as anti-Semitic.
Wexler, along with Alan Solow, former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Marc R.
Stanley, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, former Congressman Mel Levine and Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, are part of the new team, headed by Axelrod, which has been charged with warding off Republican criticism of the president’s Israel policy and “imparting information” about how Obama has supported Israel.
In an extended interview, Axelrod tells The Report that he anticipates a “very robust surrogate speaking program from this working group,” which is expected to grow in numbers. “In campaigns generally, you must be agile to respond to attacks, especially in social media where information can travel virally,” he says, but adds that the team will not merely respond. Team members are expected to be proactive, “getting out the story of Obama’s positive relationship with Israel over the last two and one-half years.”
Axelrod cites the military and strategic cooperation between the two countries, as well as the Administration’s efforts to deal with incitement and delegitimization. “In politics, there are always those who want to inflame and divide,” he says. “We had to fight that off in 2008 and we did. This is not new or unexpected.”
Clearly wearing his new team hat, Wexler contends that the “notion that Obama doesn’t have the requisite pro-Israel credentials is patently false and defies dozens of examples where the president acted in the truest of pro- Israel ways. Obama has single-handedly raised American-Israel security ties to unprecedented levels.”
He checks off the list, noting that when Turkey disinvited the Israeli military from participating in a military exercise, the US pulled out its participation. After that, the US sent the largest American-uniformed contingent to the port of Haifa for a military exercise with Israel. Also on Wexler’s list are the $250 million in US support for the Iron Dome missile defense program and the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called every European foreign minister to encourage them to accept Israel as a member in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
But Price counters that the Obama Administration has let Israel down by not doing enough to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. “It’s a very dangerous world and the Middle East is more dangerous than two and one-half years ago and we must lay the responsibility at the feet of this president.”
The Republicans say they believe that they can swing a significant proportion of the Jewish vote over to their side. “If Jews base their votes on [the issue of] Israel, then the numbers should at least break 50-50,” suggests Price. “Republicans have always been champions of the State of Israel.” He has been energized, he says, by the speech Netanyahu gave before Congress in May.
“The Prime Minister has such a wonderful perspective on Israel and the Middle East… I’m frustrated with this president’s lack of appreciation for history.”
But Jim Gerstein, founding partner of Gerstein/Bocian/Agne Strategic Communications, tells The Report that “Netanyahu’s actions are a replay of what he did when Bill Clinton was president, and he attempted to play a Republican Congress off a Democratic president. Back then, Netanyahu vastly underestimated the strength of President Clinton and his connection with Jewish voters.
Once again, Netanyahu is making the same mistake.”
Furthermore, an official who met a group of Congressmen in Israel this summer tells The Report that many congressmen were purposely absent from the chambers during the prime minister’s address, with their seats occupied with staffers and other visitors, implying that Congressmen who do not support Netanyahu just stayed away from a speech they knew would be bombastic – and music to right-wingers’ ears.
DEMOCRATS REGULARLY POINT to the fact that the current administration has given stronger support for Israel’s security than previous administrations – even agreeing to provide the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the Bush administration had refused. And Obama has supported Israel in the UN as well, including its veto against the UN resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy, even though that resolution was consistent with US policy since the 1967 War.
Yet Obama seems to have an image problem when it comes to Israel. Whatever the substance of his policies, their tone seems to come across as too cool and uninvested, and not warm or emotional enough towards Israel. Obama may not be vulnerable on his actual policies, but he is certainly vulnerable on the “loving Israel” measure that is so important to so many Jewish voters. “Maybe it’s a matter of Obama’s personal style,” says Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ). “Other presidents have been more gregarious about everything. This president is more measured, more lawyerly.”
Ari Fleischer, press secretary for George W. Bush during his first term and currently a member of the board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, tells The Report that he doesn’t believe that Obama is anti-Israel or pro-Israel. “He’s striving to find some sort of neutral, in-between, position to have more credibility with the Palestinians and Arab critics of the US. In a battle between an American ally – a democracy – and the bad neighborhood of terrorists around it – neutral is not good enough.”
In this context, one factor that might clinch the Jewish vote for Obama is a visit to Israel and a direct approach to the Israeli people. Axelrod tells The Report, however, that “American Jews want him to go to Israel with purpose and not simply as a gesture” as part of the campaign.“Obama will visit Israel and it won’t take until his last year of being in office,” he says.
Yet, even to suggest that such a trip is a requirement for Obama to prove his pro-Israel credentials is an indication of how uncertain his position seems to be among American Jews. After all, notes Wexler, “President Reagan didn’t visit Israel once in eight years and President Bush didn’t visit until his eighth year.
Moreover, presidents Kennedy and Johnson never visited Israel.”
BUT JEWS ARE NOT SINGLE-issue voters. Despite the attention paid to Jews’ attitudes towards Obama’s policies on Israel, the recent Pew study shows that only 23 percent of the American public considers finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority. Republicans (28 percent) and Democrats (26 percent) are about equally likely to say it should be a top priority, while only 17 percent of Independents agree. This ranking is replicated in the last few years of American Jewish Committee surveys, which show Israel as no more than the fifth priority for American Jewish voters.
Like other Americans, Jewish voters say they are most concerned with the country’s economy. The recent crisis in Washington over the decision to raise the debt ceiling while cutting the deficit only heightened the anxieties Americans are feeling about the present and future state of the economy.
With unemployment still high, a housing industry still in crisis and the uncertainty of the stock market, the economy remains the top concern of Americans far and wide – with only a small percentage of Jewish Americans, namely the Orthodox, expected to vote according to their perception of the administration’s support of Israel.
Surprisingly, despite these economic worries, the latest survey of Jewish voters conducted by Gerstein/Bocian/Agne Strategies for J Street indicates that a large percentage may actually support Obama with their pocketbook as well as their ballot.
More than 80 percent said they will definitely or probably make a contribution to Obama’s re-election. “In the face of a turbulent political and financial environment across America, Jewish support for President Obama is remarkable for its strength and consistency,” pollster Gerstein is quoted in a J Street memo provided to The Report. “The survey results provide a solid reminder of the difference between the views expressed by high profile critics of the president and the views of most American Jews.”
With the election more than a year away, and no sign – and no confidence – that the economy will improve, it’s impossible to predict with any certainty what kind of support, financial or electoral, Obama will receive from voters, Jewish or others.
Moreover, Americans who call themselves pro-Israel – Jews and non-Jews – are closely monitoring the administration’s maneuverings on the expected UN Security Council vote on Palestinian statehood in September, which the president has emphatically promised that the US will veto.
In addition, the Republican candidate for president won’t be known until next summer.
Although preliminary polls indicate Obama would achieve re-election against the current contenders, once the candidate is finally determined, and Republican support is built for that candidate, voters, including Jewish voters, could easily change their minds.
Fleischer believes that there is a good chance to bring more Jewish votes to the Republican camp. “Any small shift can make a major difference in Florida, Ohio and possibly Pennsylvania. If the next Republican candidate gets 26-27 percent of the Jewish vote,” he says, that candidate could win. “If the Republicans get only 20 percent of the Jewish vote, it’s hard to win the White House, but if there’s a 3 to 1 margin, chances are they can take the White House.”
Rothman, however, thinks it’s unlikely that the majority of Jewish voters will vote for the Republican Party that, he says, has made a “hard right turn with guns blazing.
That is not something that will be missed by American Jewish voters. I believe American Jews tend to vote for the Democratic Party not simply because of the party’s strong support for Israel, beginning with [former president Harry] Truman, but because its values and policies are in line with those of the American Jewish community.” •