Dividing Lines

Confrontations between Israeli and US leaders leave American Jews feeling uncomfortable.

Netanyahu on the screen at AIPAC_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Netanyahu on the screen at AIPAC_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
IT IS A SIGN OF THE DEEP RIFTS within the American Jewish community that the pundits cannot even agree on what to make of the high profile speeches and confrontations between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in late May.
In his long-awaited policy speech, did Obama present an impassioned defense of Israel’s security and a dramatic assertion of Israel’s right to exist – or did the President, in the words of potential GOP candidate Mitt Romney, “throw Israel under the bus”? Was Netanyahu courageously speaking truth to power when he stood up for Israel’s point of view – or was he deliberately creating a confrontation in a ploy for votes back home? Whatever their take, it would appear that all observers agree that by declaring (or merely reiterating) that Israel’s pre-1967 borders should serve as the starting point for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, albeit with mutual agreed upon adjustments, Obama drew a line in the sand – and American Jews are now feeling the pressure to line up accordingly.
Indeed, the high-profile confrontation and battling speeches in the US State Department, at the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) annual conference, and in Congress have left the American Jewish community even more split, angry and confused than they were before Netanyahu’s muchawaited visit to Washington.
The 1967 borders have frequently been mentioned, at various levels of specificity, by all US administrations since the Six Day War. But some observers contend that in his policy speech about the changes in the Middle East, in which he discussed, only briefly and only at the end, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the president endorsed those borders in a new way.
“This is the first clear statement by an American president that the Israeli- Palestinian conflict will be resolved based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed territorial swaps,” former Rep. Robert Wexler, of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, was quoted as saying on the “Politico” website on May 19.
In contrast, Shai Feldman, professor of politics at Brandeis University and one of the many panelists at the AIPAC conference, believes that Netanyahu made an enormous, “unnecessary and manufactured” mistake in his reaction to Obama’s statements. Obama, Feldman contends, said nothing new. “If you are really obsessed with text analysis, then you can find differences between the president’s words and the Clinton parameters or the letter from President (George W.) Bush. But you must be a Talmudic scholar to find them,” Feldman tells The Report.
ONE WAY OR THE OTHER, THE biggest concern is that the confrontation may have turned Israel into a partisan issue in American politics. And indeed, even before the speech at the State Department, and even more forcefully since, Republicans have been describing Obama’s policies as anti-Israel. “Israel is becoming a wedge issue and this is a reduction of Israel.
Israel has been bigger than American politics,” Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for “The Atlantic Monthly,” tells The Jerusalem Report.
These concerns that Israel could become a partisan part of American politics prompted Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who was recently appointed chair of the Democratic Party, to ask Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, to agree to not make support for Israel an election issue. Brooks refused and accused Wasserman Schultz of proposing “a gag order.”
Netanyahu, says Peter Beinart, senior political writer for “The Daily Beast” and associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York, has exacerbated the situation.
“Netanyahu has always been seen by liberals as a partisan Republican. He’s been playing this game for a long time,” he tells The Report.
And these plays to the Republican field, along with the highlyapplauded speech before the Republicanled Congress, Feldman warns, are “not something the White House will see lightly.”
It’s not that the Republicans believe that they can pry significant proportions of Jews away from the Democratic Party, explains Beinart. “In 2008, 78 percent of the Jewish vote went to Obama and most analysts don’t see that percentage changing much in 2012,” he tells The Report. “American Jews don’t vote based on Israel; they vote on abortion” and other domestic issues. The Republicans could possibly gain more Jewish votes, Beinart contends, only if they choose a prochoice candidate.
But Republicans are hopeful, Goldberg explains, that they will be able to chip away at the millions of dollars and political activism that American Jews bring to the Democratic Party.
And that is making some Jews distinctly uncomfortable.
Marta Wallant, 53, a lawyer from New York City, describes herself as a “liberal Jew” who has “recently had serious doubts about President Obama’s policies towards Israel.”
She explains it this way: “I was not happy with his speech, either. But when I read a headline in ‘the Wall Street Journal’ [on May 19], ‘Jewish donors warn Obama on Israel,’ I became very anxious. When Jews are talked about in terms of their financial control, when influential newspapers are openly making connections between Jews and money – no matter in what context – I fear that anti- Semitism cannot be far behind.”
The specter of accusations of dual loyalty, which arises when American Jews see their leader at odds with an Israeli leader, may not be far behind, either. American Jews therefore try, at almost all costs, to avoid even the appearance of such differences. At the AIPAC conference, says Goldberg, participants went out of their way to show that loyalty to Israel and loyalty to the US are inherently the same, because of their joint interests. “American Jews want their views to be in harmony,” he explains. “They love being American and they have sympathies for Israel.”
Yet, in contrast to Wallant, Goldberg doesn’t see the question of dual loyalty arising in this situation. “Dual loyalty is a narrative of hatred by those who don’t like Jews or Israel.” Beinart agrees, saying that the narrative of dual loyalty appears only in the “crazy blogs. It’s not in the mainstream.”
Wallant is not persuaded. “This is an issue of emotional tone as much as it is an issue of substance,” she explains. “And as we all know, emotions have an important role in both partisan politics and in racism.
Feldman agrees that the tone and tenor of Netanyahu’s response to Obama were out of line. “To say that he ‘expects’ the president to do something or to say ‘peace based on illusion’ while he stands next to the president – that’s not language to use with the president or the way to conduct these matters,” Feldman warns. He notes that previous right-wing prime ministers, including Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, had disagreed with the president, but “they were more careful in conducting relations with the president.”
Noting the extensive applause at the AIPAC conference, Feldman observes, “Nine thousand of the 10,000 [participants] don’t understand what is meant by the 1967 lines. The applause reflects the fact that the AIPAC audience is usually more sensitive to possible disagreements between Israel and the US and this [applause] tells you the audience doesn’t want to see this kind of tension,” he says.
Nathan Aranowitz, 43, a businessman from Miami, says that he wants the relationships between the two leaders to be “nice.” Nice, he explains, “is not a naïve word. As an American Jew and a Zionist, I try to balance many different, sometimes competing, parts of my identity. I am loyal to Israel and I am loyal to my country. I believe that Israel faces serious threats, but I also believe that Israel has been intransigent. I know that Israel and the US share many values and interests, but I also know that there are times where these interests could conflict. And so ‘nice,’ that is, civil discussion, mutual respect, even if it is a veneer, go a long way to helping me resolve these issues.”
“If this isn’t handled properly, there could be a crisis between Israel and the US,” Feldman warns. Yet, despite his critique, he is optimistic that this crisis, too, shall pass. Some of the concerns are based, he says, on “confusion between Israel-America relations and personal relations” between the leaders.
He adds: “This doesn’t take into account other issues, such as the fact that the military cooperation under Obama is stronger than ever. Everyone focuses on the tension between the leaders, but at least the US knows how to differentiate between relations between individuals and interests among countries.”
Furthermore, he concludes, efforts will be made to tame the flames. “Don’t underestimate AIPAC and other people concerned with US-Israel relations. They will quietly play a role,” Feldman predicts. “My assessment is that a lot of people publicly defend Netanyahu but since they don’t want to be in the crossfire [between Obama and Netanyahu], they will prevail upon him” to soften his message and smooth over differences with the president.