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After months of uncharacteristic silence, New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer, finally voiced his concerns – and it could not have come at a more crucial time for American-Israeli relations.
Schumer, apparently wary of breaking ranks, had made a difficult tactical decision to not publicly challenge the administration’s misguided and increasingly alarming Middle East policies. But every strategic policy has a breaking point, and in the face of mounting pressure from Jewish constituents and intensified rhetoric from prominent administration officials, Schumer felt compelled to publicly rebuke the White House.
Schumer’s comments, made during an interview with radio host Nachum Segal and subsequently picked up by the influential website Politico, amounted to the toughest criticism to date leveled at the administration’s policies from a Democratic member of Congress. The New York Daily News in an editorial congratulated Schumer for “stepping up” and “restoring proper balance and true prospective to Obama’s approaches to Israel and the Palestinians.”
Questioned by reporters about Schumer’s remarks, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I don’t think it is a stretch to say we don’t agree with what Senator Schumer said,” before reiterating the administration’s now standard mantra about its “unwavering commitment to the security of Israel and the Israeli people.”
The dilemma for the Obama administration is that prominent Jewish communal, political and social leaders – most notably former mayor Ed Koch, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, venerable Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder and now Schumer – have visibly and publicly lost their patience. They are no longer willing to accept superficial and general declarations of “unbreakable bonds” with Israel that are increasingly in conflict with the administration’s actions.
The most recent and likely most egregious example of such conflict came when, at the same time Gibbs was emphasizing the strength of the American-Israeli alliance, veteran American diplomat Martin Indyk, acting as an adviser to Middle East envoy George Mitchell, issued a veiled threat regarding the possibly “dire” fallout should Prime Minister Netanyahu continue defying the administration.
In a New York Times op-ed article, Indyk warned that Netanyahu must choose between President Obama and Netanyahu’s own right-wing coalition, declaring that “given Israel’s dependence on the U.S. to counter the threat from Iran and to prevent its own international isolation, an Israeli prime minister would surely want to bridge the growing divide.” Indyk concluded: “If [Netanyahu] continues to defer to those ministers in his Cabinet who oppose peacemaking, the consequences for U.S.-Israel relations could be dire.”
Despite the most creative efforts of Gibbs and other administration officials to frame the situation otherwise, Indyk’s published threats confirm the obvious. After decades of deep friendship between the U.S. and Israel, and despite the overwhelming support of the American people for the U.S.-Israel alliance, as reaffirmed in a recent Quinnipiac poll, the Obama administration has turned on Israel.
As a result, Schumer, who for years has assumed the role of guardian of the alliance, was forced to react in a manner indicative of the intensifying diplomatic crisis. This development alone should give us all reason to pause.
Elie Wiesel and Ronald Lauder, recognizing the necessity of making known their views about the growing threats facing Jerusalem, placed separate full-page advertisements in major American newspapers, boldly articulating their disapproval of the administration’s unwise and counterproductive Israel policy. The ads reportedly earned the ire of administration officials for daring to publicly challenge the president.
In an unfortunate but predictable effort to counter the effect of Wiesel’s ad, J Street and its cohorts at the leftist Israeli newspaper Haaretz circulated an open letter to Wiesel from former Knesset member Yossi Sarid taking Wiesel to task for, among other things, having been “deceived” by “zealous Jews” who insist on “inserting themselves in Arab neighborhoods, purifying and Judaizing them with the help of rich American benefactors.”
Wiesel need not apologize for defending the Jewish people’s right to a safe and Jewish Jerusalem – in any neighborhood in Jerusalem. Additionally, many of the same “rich Americans” Sarid loathes have supported Israel through war and boycotts, and their largesse has sustained hospitals, museums, synagogues, ambulances, universities and soup kitchens all across the country.
Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer, meanwhile, called out Lauder for addressing his letter to Obama “as a proud American and a proud Jew.” Lauder, suggested Pfeffer, “should have put his pride aside for a moment and taken the advice of the Prophet Amos: ‘Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times.’ “
Pfeffer also attempted to marginalize Lauder as some fringe figure: “Now let’s try and think how Lauder’s intervention looked from Obama’s perspective. Did the president, who is surrounded by Jewish aides advising him to play hardball with Netanyahu, see an authentic leader articulating the concerns of the Chosen People, or did he see yet another staunch Republican and Bibi-crony trying to challenge his authority to run America’s foreign policy?”
Pfeffer concluded by dismissively asking, “Who does Ronald Lauder speak for?”
From the caustic tone employed by Indyk, Pfeffer and Sarid, it is clear that Netanyahu’s defiance of the unprecedented demands to cease all construction in Jerusalem has struck a raw nerve. Netanyahu’s approach and the resulting crisis have also energized pro-Israel Americans (though not nearly enough). The politically astute Schumer said what many in Congress were thinking. Thinking, but not verbalizing – for fear of political retribution by an aggressive administration that uses all means necessary to hold the line on its approach to Middle East politics (and any other important issue).
A growing chorus of criticism of the administration’s policies from its natural allies is taking shape. The American (and especially Jewish-American) public at large has a fundamental role to play in rousing Congressional support for Israel. Now is the time for those politicians who have made a career out of their professed love for Israel to speak out. Make no mistake: the Obama administration and, more acutely, Congressional Democrats, are feeling the heat. We must not let up.
With reports of the White House exerting pressure on Schumer, there are those who fear the senator has already been silenced. Time will tell if Schumer has the courage to stand firm. He and his colleagues must resist external political pressure and stand up for the interests of their constituents. They must counter accusations of acquiescence to administration policy with substantive actions rather than mere words or signatures. Their Jewish constituents will be watching carefully.
Indyk – and, more importantly, President Obama himself – must know that when it comes to the safety and security of the State of Israel, millions of Americans stand shoulder to shoulder with Elie Wiesel and Ronald Lauder. And in response to the question posed by Haaretz’s Pfeffer: Yes, in this matter, Wiesel and Lauder do indeed speak for the Jewish people. The real question is, whom do Pfeffer, Sarid and Haaretz speak for?
About the Author: Chaskel Bennett is a writer, respected activist and member of the Board of Trustees of Agudath Israel of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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