Obama Digs In

By MJ Rosenberg

Washington Director of Policy Analysis, Israel Policy Forum
POSTED JULY 17, 2009 - 2:10PM

[Rosenberg, a vigorous labor Zionist for the last 45 years and author of a famed denunciation of anti-Zionists of the 1960s, directs IPF -- an independent US organization expressing what were the views of the left wing of the Israeli Labor Party for most of its history]

It had to happen. Once the right wing of the pro-Israel community in the United States--- and their Israeli allies--- realized that President Barack Obama was serious about pursuing peace, they would go on the attack.

Fortunately, the most virulent attacks have been limited to the extreme right in both countries. These are the same people who attacked Obama with vitriol during the campaign. For them, it was enough to know that he had a Muslim father and had said that the United States should be an "honest broker" in its dealings with Israelis and Palestinians.

The extremists hated him before he was elected and they hate him even more now. The Cairo speech received universal acclaim except from those who clamor for a war of civilizations with Islam.

Add to that President Obama's demand that Israel lives up to its commitments regarding the settlements and you have all the ingredients necessary to drive the right mad with rage.

And others too. Some "mainstream" leaders have expressed "concern" that the anti-Obama view has spilled over to more normal pro-Israel types. They say that they are hearing anti-Obama rumblings from their friends.

Those who believe that Israel's behavior should never be publicly questioned by a president are unhappy (especially because under the last two administrations it never happened). Fortunately, this is a tiny minority of the Jewish community.

We know how small a minority from the election results last year. No doubt there were some Jewish voters who actually believed that Barack Obama would be as slavishly supportive of the hawkish position on Israel as George W. Bush, but no more than a few.

The overwhelming majority understood that the candidate, who won the Democratic Party nomination, in large part, by opposing the Iraq war and supporting dialogue with Iran, was unlikely to be utterly uncritical of the Israeli government. Nonetheless, 78 percent of Jews voted for Obama.

Most of the Jews who voted against Obama did so not because they are single-issue Israel voters, but rather because they are Republicans. In fact, historically, the usual Republican Jewish vote was higher than in 2008, indicating that Israel was not a factor in the 22 percent McCain vote.

Nonetheless, some establishment voices are complaining and acting surprised that President Obama is acting like candidate Obama. The head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations confronted President Obama at a White House meeting this week and charged him with allowing the impression that there was "daylight" between the U.S. and Israeli position on settlements. He did not say that he opposed Obama's stance, he just wanted President Obama to keep his differences with Israel private.

The president rebuked him. "For eight years, there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished," he said.

This was a moment for the history books. A president actually had the audacity to call in the pro-Israel leadership and say what he actually believes. Not only that, it wasn't just the usual crowd that was in the room. Also in attendance were representatives of groups that do not support the Netanyahu government's hard line.

Not surprisingly, the status quo crowd is upset. The publisher of the New Republic, Martin Peretz, who opposes negotiations with the Palestinians, wrote that it is "haughty" of President Obama to criticize Israeli policies. It is an odd word to use, and probably one that wasn't used about any of Obama's 43 predecessors. Obama is, after all, the President of the United States. Presidents criticize policies of other countries without normally being called out for being "haughty." But then, for some, Obama is no normal president.

William Kristol, former aide to Vice President Dan Quayle and now editor of the Weekly Standard, accused Obama (and his top aides) of "chutzpah" in daring to challenge the Israeli government's views. He accused President Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and David Axelrod of having never "had to grapple with life and death decisions." They only know "talk and spin and positioning."

For Kristol, of course, this contrasts with President George W. Bush who, he wrote, will go down in history as one of our greatest presidents. Kristol, who was one of the most most influential cheerleaders for the Iraq war, has grappled with "life and death decisions" and made only wrong ones.

These people know no shame. Or humility. After leaving as their legacy the worst foreign policy debacle in American history-and 4,231 American dead-one would think they would hesitate before advising Israel to resist the possibility of peace.

But being a neoconservative means never having to say you're sorry. It just means planning the next war (Good Morning, Tehran).

I think it is particularly galling for the president's critics that this administration stands as one in support of his policies. Gone are the days when President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell would enunciate policies only to have White House aide Elliot Abrams get on the phone and tell the Israelis to ignore them. A few of these guys had hoped that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would support them against her chief. That hasn't happen, and won't-which drives them to distraction.

And why?

What is it that Obama has done to Israel that is so terrible? He has simply re-stated policies that have been in place for years. The United States has always opposed settlements and it has always demanded that illegal outposts be dismantled. The only difference between Obama and his predecessors is that he is not backing down. He may even succeed in achieving his goals.

And how, pray tell, would that be bad for Israel? The settlement enterprise is a disaster and everyone knows it. I have no doubt that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, if he could, would love to make the settlers just go away. They have been the bane of the lives of every prime minister since the first settlement was tragically approved forty years ago.

Imagine an Israel without settlements. It would be an Israel that could focus on its own problems at home. It could focus on improving public health, education, scientific research and not squander its energy on defending a doomed enterprise.

Its armed forces could focus on defending the state itself, not on figuring out how to rescue settlers (some of whom physically abuse Israeli soldiers) who choose to live in the midst of an Arab population that hates them. It would not be dispatching its eighteen-year olds to police West Bank cities or blocking needed supplies from getting into Gaza.

There is not one Israeli-or one friend of Israel in the diaspora-who would deny Israel the right, the obligation, to defend itself by whatever means necessary. That right does not apply to defending the conquests that have cost Israel lost so much of its support in recent years (including within the American Jewish community).

To put it simply, President Obama will be doing Israel a huge favor if he can lead it to ending the occupation. The settlers, and their supporters, would preserve their colonies at the cost of losing a Jewish state. Thank God, neither Barack Obama-nor Rahm Emanuel nor David Axelrod-share that view.

And neither, we learned this week, do mainstream (right, left, and center) American Jewish organizations. When it comes to preserving the occupation, Israel stands alone.