Israel’s leftists are lonely these days. This was the central thrust of an opinion column in Tuesday’s New York Times authored by Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper.
Benn’s article, “Why Won’t Obama Talk to Israel?” was a plaintive call for US President Barack Obama to woo the Israeli public. As Benn put it, “Next time you’re in the neighborhood, Mr. President, speak to us directly.”
Benn’s article has been touted by Obama supporters and detractors alike as evidence that the president has a credibility problem with Israelis. Jewish Obama supporters sought to soften the impact of Benn’s article on their fellow Jewish leftists by claiming that Obama is listening to the likes of Benn. For instance, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg reported without irony that administration officials defend Obama’s silence toward Israel by arguing that his June 4 speech to the Muslim world in Cairo was also geared toward Israelis.
The June 4 address of course was the one where Obama compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to the Nazi Holocaust of European Jewry and to black slavery in the antebellum American South. It was also the speech where he embraced Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that Israel owes its existence to the Holocaust and not to the Jewish people’s legitimate right to self-determination in our homeland.
Benn’s piece is an interesting read, but not for the reasons that have been widely cited. It is interesting for what it says about the Israeli Left on the one hand, and what it says about Obama and his American Jewish supporters on the other.
Although Benn gives a long bill of particulars on why Israelis mistrust Obama, the general thrust of the article is supportive of the administration. Far from an attack on Obama, it is a cry for help. Benn and his fellow Israeli leftists want the administration to help them by changing the tenor of its policies, not the policies themselves.
WHEREAS THE American Left was triumphant in the 2008 elections, the Israeli Left was decimated in Israel’s general elections in February. Its two standard bearers – Meretz and Labor – were effectively wiped out. Its new flagship, Kadima, failed to win the support of any other party in its bid to form a governing coalition. Worse still, consistent polling shows that the general public rejects every one of the Israeli Left’s central policies. From the swift establishment of a Palestinian state, to the mass expulsion of Jews from Judea and Samaria and Jerusalem, to unilateral land giveaways to the Palestinians, the Israeli Left today speaks for a but a small minority of Israelis.
Benn cited last month’s Jerusalem Post poll which showed that a mere 6 percent of Israeli Jews view Obama as pro-Israel while some 50% of Israeli Jews perceive the president as more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel. As he sees it, Obama’s failure to win the trust of the Israeli public will make it impossible for him to coerce the Netanyahu government into freezing Jewish construction in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. This is a disaster for Benn and his colleagues. For unless the US can force the government’s hand, there is no chance that they will be able to see their radical policies implemented.
It is in his attempt to convince Obama to help the Israeli Left that Benn makes his most consequential critique of the US leader. As he puts it, Obama “seems to have confused American Jews with Israelis.”
Benn points out that Obama’s repeated attacks on Holocaust denial resonate more strongly with US Jews than with Israelis and that the two Jewish populations have “different historical narratives.”
Benn is onto something when he notes the differences between Israeli and American Jews. But he fails to grasp the real significance of what Obama is doing and what is actually happening in relations between the two communities.
It isn’t that Obama is confusing the two groups. Through both his rhetoric and his actions, Obama is demonstrating his priorities and concerns.
Obama cares about securing the support of American Jews. He does not care about gaining the support of Israeli Jews. Moreover, Obama feels comfortable wooing the former while alienating the latter because he recognizes something that Benn has apparently missed: Today a large and growing chasm separates leftist US Jews from leftist Israeli Jews.
During his recent meeting at the White House with hand-picked American Jewish leftist activists and centrist American Jewish leaders, Obama explained that he welcomes open disputes with Israel. As he put it, during the Bush presidency, there was “no daylight [between the US and Israel] and no progress.”
Whereas Obama’s goal of openly distancing the US from Israel is a source of anxiety and frustration for Israeli leftists who believe that US pressure should be a means to the end of compelling Israel to give away land to the Palestinians, it is a positive development for American Jewish Leftists. Led by the new anti-Israel Jewish lobby J Street, and supported by groups like Americans for Peace Now, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the National Jewish Democratic Council, the American Jewish Left supports the White House’s hostile positions on Israel as an ends unto themselves.
J Street – a creation of Democratic fund-raiser and anti-Israel activist George Soros – was established ahead of the 2008 elections to lobby the White House and Congress to foment breaches in the US-Israel strategic relationship.
When Soros first raised the prospect of a Jewish anti-Israel lobby in October 2006, he argued that there was a need to institutionalize what had until then been ad-hoc anti-Israel lobbying efforts by American Jewish groups in order to scuttle Congressional support for Israel and undermine mainstream American Jewish organizations.
True to their mandates, today J Street and its fellow leftist Jewish groups Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom lobby Congress to adopt positions that place the US in direct confrontation with Israel. The three groups are presently lobbying Congress to oppose an AIPAC initiative calling on Obama to pressure Arab governments to normalize relations with Israel. In their view, the move is objectionable because it doesn’t contain a demand that Israel stop building homes for Jews in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. J Street similarly opposed Operation Cast Lead, claiming that Israel’s actions to defend its citizens from rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza were contrary to the interests of peace.
Although attacking Israel on the Palestinian issue is the central pillar of these groups’ missions, they are also involved in defending Iran’s nuclear weapons program and championing Syria in Washington. In late May, J Street lobbied Congress not to place new sanctions on Iran, claiming, “On Iran, the president is promoting tough, direct diplomacy… but the chances of [his] success won’t be helped by Congress imposing tight timelines or a new round of sanctions.”
The group has similarly supported ending sanctions against Syria and pressuring Israel to relinquish the Golan Heights to Syrian control.
In short, through their full-throated support for all of the Obama administration’s anti-Israel policies, the organized American Jewish Left has made clear that today it does not share a common goal with the Israeli Left. It does not view US pressure on Israel as a means to achieve peace and normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Rather, like Obama, it views pressure on Israel as a means to weaken US ties to Israel in the interest of pursuing closer ties with the Arab world.
THE CURRENT split between the Israeli and American Jewish Left, as well as the Obama administration’s disparate treatment of both groups have policy implications for the Netanyahu government in its dealings with all three.
According to a n
umber of American Jewish leaders, Obama’s decision to meet with a hand-picked audience of American Jews at the White House on July 13 was a direct response to the Jerusalem Post poll. Obama’s senior advisers feared that the massive Israeli mistrust of Obama the poll exposed was liable to spill over into the American Jewish community.
To date, in contending with the White House, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been careful to minimize the significance of the White House-initiated crisis in relations. Fearing a domestic backlash, Netanyahu and his advisers have even gone so far as to leak reports of imminent agreements between the Obama administration and Israel on the issue of home construction for Jews in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.
What the White House’s distress over the Post’s poll shows, however, is that today – with a domestic consensus now backing Netanyahu against Obama – Netanyahu has less call to minimize the breach than Obama does. Indeed, doing so only advances Obama’s fortunes among American Jews and so strengthens the position of anti-Israel Jewish organizations that support him. Rather than leak stories about an impending deal, Netanyahu’s advisers should leak stories about American intransigence and hostility.
Moreover, given the administration’s overarching desire to put “daylight” between the US and Israel, reaching an agreement with Washington will bring no relief. Since it is the administration’s goal to weaken US ties to the Jewish state, clearly any deal that Israel could obtain would either be antithetical to Israel’s national interests or breached by the administration.
Perhaps in response to J Street’s ever-expanding media presence, Ambassador Michael Oren intimated last month that he intends to reach out to far-Left American Jewish groups. To the extent that this is a serious initiative, it should be dropped immediately.
Through their actions, J Street and its allies have made clear that their institutional interests are served by weakening Israel. Their mission is to harm Israel’s standing in Washington and weaken the influence of the mainstream American Jewish community that supports Israel.
Rather than empower these anti-Israel groups by legitimizing them, the government should take a page out of Obama’s playbook. Obama gave the impression of hosting a big tent for American Jews by inviting both friendly far-Left groups and friendly centrist groups to meet with him on July 13. He legitimized his friends at J Street and Americans for Peace Now by treating them as equals of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
By the same token, Israel’s embassy should act as a big tent by reaching out to Israel’s supporters on both the political Right and the center. All groups that support Israel should be welcome.
As to the Israeli Left, to date, Netanyahu has successfully built a strong, stable center-right coalition by going over its head and forming a national consensus around support for defensible borders, a united Jerusalem and rejecting unreciprocated concessions of any kind. While the prime minister arguably made an unnecessary and potentially disastrous mistake in announcing his support for a demilitarized Palestinian state, by and large, he has successfully marginalized the Left.
Benn’s anguished plea for help from the Obama administration shows that Netanyahu’s policies are having the desired effect. His political opponents are descending into the depths of political irrelevance. Netanyahu should leave them to their richly deserved fate.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.