Latest update: November 21st, 2011
Last week at the UN, President Obama did something he had never done before. He discussed Israel and the Palestinians without once attacking Israel. He didn’t blame Israel for the absence of peace.
True, Obama did not blame the Palestinians for refusing to negotiate with Israel. He did not attack Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for making a unity deal with Hamas. He did not condemn the Palestinians as anti-Semites in light of their demand that a Palestinian state be ethnically cleansed of Jews, or for their refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
But for the first time in his presidency, last week at the UN Obama spoke to a world audience and drew a moral equivalence between an Israel that seeks peace and the Palestinians who seek Israel’s destruction. Given his record, this is a step forward.
What caused the change?
Quite simply, the Republican victory in New York’s 9th Congressional District’s special election earlier this month caused the change. Obama’s UN speech reflected his concern that he is losing American Jewish support.
Cong. Bob Turner’s election, like that of other Republican politicians since 2009 in traditionally Democratic constituencies, owes in large part to Obama’s poor economic record. But what made the NY-9 election unique was the major role Obama’s hostile policies toward Israel played in the race. With its high percentage of Jewish voters, the district served as a bellwether for Obama’s reelection prospects among Jews as well as a litmus test for the Democratic Party’s ability to continue to view Jews as automatic Democratic voters and generous Democratic campaign donors.
Obama’s UN speech, like the administration’s leaked report that it has sold Israel bunker buster bombs, signal that the White House views the Jewish vote as in play for 2012. And it is trying to woo Jewish voters and donors back into the Democratic fold.
The deterioration of Jewish support for the Democrats has been a long time in coming. Traditional Democratic support for Israel began eroding with the nomination of George McGovern as the party’s presidential candidate in 1972. Before Obama, Jimmy Carter was the most hostile president Israel ever experienced.
In the 1990s, Bill Clinton was widely regarded as pro-Israel. Yet during Clinton’s eight years in office, Yasir Arafat was the most frequent foreign guest at the White House. Clinton’s legacy was the Palestinian terror war that broke out in his last months in office.
By the end of Clinton’s second term, Republicans had clearly surpassed Democrats in their support for Israel. In the face of this shift, Democratic leaders insisted that Republicans must not make Israel a “wedge issue.” Since Israel enjoys support from both parties, the Democrats argued, it would harm Israel if Republicans made their outspoken and nearly unanimous support for Israel an electoral issue.
American Jewish leaders were happy to oblige the Democrats. Since most of them and most of their organizations’ members are Democrats, American Jewish groups from AIPAC to the New York Jewish Federation willingly pretended the Democratic Party’s growing support for the Palestinians against Israel meant nothing. And the few voices pointing out the increasingly obvious partisan divide were attacked for “politicizing” Israel.
In the two and a half years since Obama entered office, as the president’s hostility toward Israel became increasingly obvious, demands by Democratic leaders that the Republicans keep mum on the subject of Israel and the Democrats became more and more shrill. They reached their climax during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s dramatic visit to Washington in May.
While Netanyahu was en route to the U.S., Obama blindsided him by endorsing the Palestinian demand that all future peace talks be based on Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. Since those lines would render Israel indefensible, Netanyahu was compelled to confront Obama on the issue during a photo opportunity at the White House the following day.
In the face of Obama’s unprecedentedly harsh treatment of Israel, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz used the opportunity of a joint meeting with Netanyahu for leaders of the National Democratic Jewish Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition to make the case for silence concerning her party’s weak support for Israel.
Her statement reportedly made Netanyahu so uncomfortable that he asked, “Do you guys want me to leave the room and give you guys some privacy?
While requests to block debate on Israel were respected in the past, the current divide between Democrats and Republicans on Israel is so wide that avoidance of the issue no longer makes sense for Republicans. And so, days after the meeting with Netanyahu, Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks wrote a letter to Wasserman Schultz officially rejecting her request.
As he put it, “The Jewish community has a right to be informed about people’s records and people should be answerable for the positions they take. This is the essence of democracy.”
And indeed both the RJC and the Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group formed ahead of the 2010 Congressional elections, made Obama’s hostility to Israel a major issue in the NY-9 race.
Congressional Republicans have also stopped giving the Democrats a free ride. In the past Republicans avoided introducing major legislation on Israel without Democratic co-sponsors and willingly watered down their initiatives to attract Democratic support. This is no longer the case.
Last month Cong. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill that will end U.S. financial support for the Palestinian Authority and steeply curtail U.S. funding for the UN if the UN upgrades the PLO’s diplomatic mission. All 57 of the bill’s co-sponsors are Republicans.
Congressman Joe Walsh introduced a resolution this month calling for Israel to annex Judea and Samaria. His resolution’s 40-odd co-sponsors are also all Republicans.
Israel’s enemies in the U.S. peddle the anti-Semitic fiction that Israel’s supporters are nothing more than a cabal of activists who band together to defend Israel at America’s expense. Extensive polling data shows that the “pro-Israel cabal” includes the vast majority of Americans. It is due to the public’s overwhelming support for Israel that pro-Israel activists have no reason to fear injecting support for Israel into the political debate. The more politicians are called to account for their positions on Israel, the most pro-Israel their positions will be.
In fact, it was due to the Jewish community’s willingness to pretend there is no partisan divide on Israel that for the past generation, in the face of growing popular support for Israel, successive administrations adopted policies of appeasement toward the Arabs that required Israel to take actions that weakened it. That is, because American Jews have agreed not to make Israel an issue, politicians have felt free to pressure Israel to take steps that harm it – without the public’s knowledge and against its wishes.
Bob Turner’s victory and Obama’s UN speech expose the folly of this practice. They show that Israel’s position in the U.S. is enhanced, not weakened, when politicians are called to account for their positions.
Caroline Glick is senior contributing editor at The Jerusalem Post.Her Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the last week of every other month.Caroline B. Glick
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