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Last summer, Alan Dershowitz wrote “Has Obama Turned on Israel?” in The Wall Street Journal, a defense of Barack Obama’s policy toward Israel and, by extension, the numerous Jewish Democrats who had supported the president’s election and stuck by him despite a rocky first few months in office.
Reacting to what he acknowledged was a “harsher approach toward Israel ” than had been displayed during the campaign, Dershowitz insisted that despite disputes over settlements, the new administration was still solid on what was really important: safeguarding Israel’s security.
But as I wrote at the time in Commentary magazine, rather than encouraging the Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world to finally make peace, Obama’s decision to distance himself from Israel encouraged the foes of the Jewish state to dig in their heels and to wait for more American pressure.
By picking a needless fight with Israel over settlements and expanding a long-standing disagreement over Jewish settlement in the West Bank into one about the right of Jews to build in Jerusalem, Obama changed the dynamic of the relationship into one characterized by distrust rather than friendship.
By the start of Obama’s second year in office, the situation appeared brighter. His commitment to engagement with Iran had wasted a full year on fruitless diplomacy that merely replicated the failures of the Bush administration and gave Tehran another year to advance its nuclear ambitions before the West even considered serious steps to stop the regime. But the contempt with which Iran had treated his outstretched hand had appeared to sober Obama up about engagement.
Having failed in an effort to topple the newly elected Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and disappointed by the Palestinians’ refusal to talk peace, the president seemed to have finally grasped the limitations on his power to remake the Middle East.
But optimism about Obama’s attitude toward Israel was dashed earlier this month as Washington seized on a poorly timed announcement of a housing project in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to set off a major confrontation with the Netanyahu government. By choosing to turn a minor gaffe into a major incident while ignoring far worse Palestinian provocations and specifically attempting to muscle Netanyahu into a pledge to stop building in East Jerusalem – something no previous administration had ever done – Obama showed that pressure on Israel remained high on his agenda.
Having already reneged on pledges of American support for Israel’s holding on to parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem, the president is doubling down on his drive to bludgeon the Jewish state into further concessions without any hope of reciprocation from the Palestinians.
While it was apparent that one of Obama’s goals in this controversy was to have another go at either chasing Netanyahu from office or altering the composition of his coalition to slant it more to the left, Washington has placed the onus for the certain failure of peace talks on Netanyahu despite the fact that he has accepted the principle of a two-state solution, frozen building in the West Bank and sought to minimize interference with the lives of Palestinians. And by responding more forcefully and with greater anger to a minor dispute with its ally than to the endless atrocities and provocations committed by the Islamist regime in Tehran, Obama has sent a clear signal that no one need take seriously his pledge to stop Iran.
All this raises the question of what Obama’s Jewish supporters have to say now. While Dershowitz and other Jewish Democrats may still claim that statements by Secretary of State Clinton and other officials reiterating America’s resolve to stand by Israel reflect the real nature of the relationship, the latest round of bitter and pointless controversy over Jerusalem orchestrated by Obama must leave even the most ardent fans of the president wondering.
Some on the Jewish left, like the J Street lobby, are happy to see the administration bashing the Netanyahu government because it hopes American pressure can reverse the outcome of the last election in which Israel’s left-wing parties crashed and burned. But while the majority of American Jews may not be particularly fond of Netanyahu or supportive of West Bank settlers, they, like the vast majority of Israelis, do not wish to see Jerusalem divided. Nor do they believe Israel needs to be saved from itself.
Like most Americans, they understand that the Palestinians, both the moderates of Fatah and the extremists of Hamas who rule Gaza, are the real obstacles to peace, not a democratically elected government of Israel.
It remains to be seen how much damage the decision by the Obama-Clinton team to distance itself from Israel and to prevaricate on Iran will affect American Jewish support for the administration. The overwhelming majority of American Jews remain diehard Democrats and it is unlikely that most will let even the most egregious betrayal of Israel affect their votes.
But in a year when widespread dissatisfaction with the president’s policies will put his congressional supporters in electoral jeopardy this November, even a small slippage in Jewish support may prove crucial in several states. While health care and other domestic hot-button issues may dwarf concern over Israel’s fate, the impact of Obama’s disdain for the Jewish state could still turn out to be an issue that haunts him in the coming months and years.
About the Author: Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com, where this first appeared. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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