A pause for serious self-reflection

Democrats need to put the Obama administration on notice.

Obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
When US President Barack Obama met with 15 representatives of American Jewish organizations on July 13, Haaretz reported that he told them that he wanted to help Israel achieve peace but that if they were to benefit from his well-intentioned counsel, Israelis must "engage in serious self-reflection." The breathtaking condescension toward the Jewish state that this remark betrays, as well as the implicit dismissal of the last 16 years of Middle East history, says a lot about Obama and the direction in which American foreign policy is heading. The fact that Israel has already gone through several periods of serious self-reflection and made costly sacrifices in terms not only of territory but in blood has no significance for the president. Here a just a few items that the president seems to think don't matter in assessing the situation: The failure of a generation of peacemaking including the Oslo Accords and the successor agreements associated with that process, the 2000 Camp David summit, the second intifada, the withdrawal from Gaza, the subsequent use of that territory as a terror base and the failed attempt just last year to get the Palestinian Authority to take yes for an answer on statehood for its people. All have apparently been swept down the White House memory hole. In the age of Obama, like a fundamentalist religion that dates all events as being either before or after a divine revelation, that which occurred prior to his election is meaningless by definition. Rather than play down his penchant for quarreling with Israel, Obama is proud of it. Indeed, he asserts that such conduct is actually a virtue, since his hammering of Israel is merely "honest talk" that should be interpreted as the highest form of friendship. Obama's obsession with picking a fight about growth in Jewish settlements in the territories is a classic misdirection play. The US had already agreed that calls for settlement freezes couldn't apply to those communities that it had acknowledged Israel would keep in any peace agreement, let alone in Jerusalem. But Obama has repudiated that pledge partly out of his determination that he must invalidate everything his predecessor did, and partly because settlements are a useful cudgel with which beat Binyamin Netanyahu and the rest of the government Israelis elected only a few months after Obama's own victory. EVEN MORE important, the entire premise upon which his demand for Israeli reflection is based is false. So long as both the supposedly more moderate Palestinian Authority and the extremist Hamas movement that governs Gaza have no interest in peace on even the most generous terms that Jerusalem can offer - a detail upon which the PA's leaders have been quite explicit - Obama's pressure ploy is pointless. Though Obama speaks to Jewish groups of equal pressure on the Arabs, everything that the administration has done and said in its short time in office makes it clear that the president's sole target is the government in Jerusalem, not the terrorists running Gaza or the corrupt Fatah functionaries in Ramallah. Taken together with his appeasement of the Arab and Muslim world as reflected in his Cairo speech and a feckless policy of engagement on Iran that continues to extend legitimacy to a regime that has already forfeited its credibility with its own people, one would think that Obama would be in trouble with his Jewish supporters. Though there have been rumblings from some Jewish leaders that expressed worries about Obama's attitude to Israel, the passive response to the downgrading of the alliance with Israel cannot be denied. There are those who believe that the continued support for Obama can be traced to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of most American Jews for Israel's current government and settlements, though others go so far as to say that it also shows a general lack of interest in, let alone support for Israel, among liberal Jews. It is true that unlike the Israeli Left which has been completely marginalized by the Palestinians' rejection of peace, the Jewish Left in the US is currently riding high. The spectacle of the small J Street lobby - a group that exposed its extreme nature last December when it opposed Israeli military efforts to stop missile attacks on its southern towns from Gaza - strutting into the White House alongside representatives of large mainstream groups illustrates the new political reality of Washington in 2009. But the overwhelming majority of American Jews who voted for Obama last year did not back him because they anticipated that he would pick pointless fights with Israel to advance a peace process that Palestinians scorn. Most did so because they are partisan Democrats and share his views on domestic issues. But there is no way that he would have won as much as three-quarters of the Jewish vote had not most believed him when he claimed he was a supporter of Israel. Contrary to the boasts of the left and the fears of the right, most Jewish Democrats still care deeply about Israel. IN RESPONSE to writers like myself who have called for Democrats to speak truth to power and hold Obama accountable for his policies, some of those who vouched for Obama during last year's campaign have said that the president's offenses are not yet egregious enough to warrant a rebuke. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a man whose long and honorable record of support for Israel is beyond question, attempted to defend Obama's positions in a recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal and then later in responses to critiques of it. He continues to believe that having a popular liberal Democratic president who claims to be a supporter of Israel is good for the Jews even if some of his policies are open to question. But Dershowitz's half-hearted apologias betray a worry that perhaps he was fooled by the president's campaign promises. Jewish Democrats don't have to jump to the Republicans. If, as Dershowitz avows, pro-Israel Democrats have influence on the administration, then let them use it before things get even worse. It is worth recalling that in 2002, when statements by secretary of state Colin Powell made it appear as if a Republican administration was taking a similarly "evenhanded" approach to Israel's attempts to defend itself against a Palestinian campaign of suicide attacks, conservative evangelicals were not slow to act. This group, as integral to George W. Bush's coalition as Jews are to Obama's, deluged the White House with calls for strong support for Israel and got results. Had a Republican done and said the same things that Obama has in the last six months who can doubt that he and other Democrats would be demanding that Jewish Republicans repudiate their party's leader? The question remains what will be the tipping point for Jewish Democrats at which it will be impossible for them to go on pretending that they did not elect the most hostile president to Israel since the first George Bush? If the current trend continues without a strong negative reaction from Jewish Democrats who raised money for Obama and voted for him, then we are entitled to ask why they are either silent or rationalizing a policy that they know is wrong. The writer is executive editor of Commentary magazine and a contributor to its blog Contentions at www.commentarymagazine.com. jtobin@commentarymagazine.com