American foreign policy American Jews Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israel lobby Middle East peace process Palestinians

Ace reporter: American Jewish leaders are getting nervous about Obama

The well-connected and astute James Besser is hearing from American Jewish learders who are concerned that Obama will ignore conventional political wisdom and not worry (too much) about battling “the pro-Israel establishment.” He tells us:

Last month Obama said “the status quo is unsustainable,” and he sounded like he meant it. For many pro-Israel leaders the status quo is just fine because it means there is no need to confront politically explosive issues such as Jerusalem – issues that divide the American Jewish community as well as the Israeli public…

[There is] a growing sense among many Jewish leaders that this administration may really mean what it says about a two-state solution – unlike the Bush administration, which said it was a priority but never acted like it was.

A lot of that angst comes from a growing sense this administration seems unusually willing to take chances and buck Washington’s conventional wisdom – on Cuba, on Iran, on a broad domestic agenda…. …More and more, this is looking like an administration determined to take full and quick advantage of President Obama’s unusually strong popularity, and it’s not unreasonable to think that extends to the Middle East conflict.

There’s another factor: this administration, more than any previous one, is listening to voices in the Jewish community that say the major pro-Israel groups, which can be expected to do battle against anything perceived as pressure on the Israeli government, are not representative of the broader Jewish community, which, some polls show, favors stronger U.S. action in the region and may not be averse to pressure on the Jerusalem government to achieve a settlement.

Does this mean the administration is set on a policy and is ready to move forward aggressively? I don’t think so, not yet.

But it means it is looking at a wider range of possibilities than most analysts predicted, and that it may be much more willing to defy some longstanding political assumptions and take risks to accomplish its goals.

Stay tuned. It’s going to be an interesting ride.

35 thoughts on “Ace reporter: American Jewish leaders are getting nervous about Obama

  1. I would say that “interesting” is an interesting choice of words for the wisp of a dream that a two state solution will result in peace. I’ve always loved nuance too, “…are not representative of the broader Jewish community, which, some polls show…” – really? “…it may be much more willing to defy…and take risks…” Might it not be more precise (less nuanced unfortunately) to point out who truly would be put at risk here?

  2. Kae,

    Keeping alive the wisp of a dream is better than doing nothing to stop the nightmare of an occupation that is destroying both Israelis and Palestinians.

    If I understand you correctly, you are worried about the “risks” to the Israelis if Obama and his team try to pressure Israel on the major issues, like border or refugees. Rest assured, that is not going to happen. The pressure that might arise will be targeted against steps being taken by both Israelis and Palesitnians, steps that, unless they stop, will make it impossible for the wisp of a dream to come true. Stopping settlement expansion, stopping the development of E1 east of Jerusalem. stoppping the habitual placating of hard core settlers, is not putting Israel at risk…NOT stopping those things is putting Israel at risk

  3. It is unlikely that Obama will get Netanyahu’s consent to adopt a two-state approach currently, without a fundamental change of heart and method on the part of Hamas and other permitted militant factions.

    The most that Obama can do relative to Netanyahu administration is contain, and that would take a stick, not just a carrot.

    My criticism of Obama’s current apparent foreign policy and other strategy, is that he is spread thin, and to the point that he is trusting powers to fall into some organic balance naturally, rather than by carefully defined structured and strategized shifts in relations.

    He is being tested, and is not yet succeeding.

  4. Richard, that’s an interesting observation of Obama’s foreign policy. I may end up agreeing with you about spreading himself too thin.

    I generally consider him thoughtful and measured–even if I don’t agree 100% with all of his decisions.

    Israel is going to do what it’s going to do, and cutting aid or whatever is no big deal (maybe a blessing)–it would take a lot to sever the American-Israel friendship.

    I went to Netanyahu’s site yesterday–sounds like he ultimately plans to topple Hamas. If that’s what it takes to get a 2 state solution–I’m not averse.

    Call it hawkish stubborness or whatever, but Israel is not obliged to make concessions towards peace with an untrustworthy foe.

    On the other hand, Netanyahu should be held to giving up settlement expansion if that obstacle called Hamas disappears.

  5. I’d prefer productive to interesting, although there’s nothing wrong with both. President Obama will fail to attain his bold and laudable objectives if his efforts coincide with a presumption that Jewish American sensitivities will not respond to pinpricks, fingers in the ear, and ultimately disrespect. That means President Obama had better take care not to follow the lead of J Street–which I submit has foolishly meddled into the periphery to its long-term detriment on issues such as Durban II, the Churchill play, and the Freeman “look at those powerful Hebes” boondoggle. President Obama should pick and choose his issues carefully, and always focus on the true objective, a peaceful two-stae solution along the lines of the Clinton Parameters (which J Street among others claims on its website is the key to resolution). In short, don’t be stupid, get it right, and take care not to follow inside the beltway types with axes to grind against other establishment figures with more sway. It may be fun to poke the Abe Foxmans of the world, there may be reason to do so at times, but again, the more important objective, the sole objective, should be the attainment of the two-state solution.

    The foregoing parameters are the source of this non-influential Jewish American’s concern.

  6. Bruce,

    I am not sure what you are referring to in your sundry claims about J Street. Forgive me in advance if I’m wrong because I haven’t taken the time for a thorough search, but I thought J Street stayed on the sidelines during the Freeman fracas and actually published a statement explaining why they didn’t get involved. They applauded the elimination of some of the extremist pre-Durban II language, and I assume you agree with that, but what else have they done re: Durban that offends you? What have they said about the Churchill play?

    Not that there would have been anything wrong with their engagement in all of those issues. For decades, people in my camp have forced themselves to make sure that every opinion wouldn’t get too far out in front of “the community,” for fear of offending American Jewish sensibilities. Everything had to pass the same “smell test.” What has that accomplished? Has it given mainstream, affiliated Jews enough assurance to join the pro-Israel left en masse? No. It hasn’t. Of course some caution is necessary because it is pointless to needlessly offend potential allies. But at this point, I would rather err on the side of exciting and inspiring the large numbers of youngish, marginally affiliated American Jews who do feel some connection to Israel but are appalled by the status quo and Israel’s contribution to it, and don’t care one whit what the Jewish establishment thinks…

  7. Dan:

    Please don’t get me wrong, or get me wrong if you must :). I support the goals of J Street, admire its principal Jeremy, whom my wife worked with on the first Clinton campaign back in ’92, and who I had the opportunity to sit and chat with at a lovely wedding in the Berkshires several years back.

    But J Street applauded our participation (before we pulled out), said nothing during the Freeman fracas but then opined that it was concerned about how the process played out, and last week gratuitously defended the right of Ms. Churchill to be heard (as she was being heard). I really take issue with none of these issues. The point is, why get involved with any of this. . .if your principal purpose is going along with a two-state solution?

    And, respectfully, Dan, I don’t get your point about the young. First, my three older kids, 23, 21, and 19, are either graduates or students at Northwestern University, who could care less about the difference between a pork chop and a nice piece of derma, and question everything that lots of older folks presume to be givens. That’s exactly how I was in the 70s (except I genuinely believed back then that Israel had no right to exist), that’s how I raised my kids, that’s how hopefully their kids will be raised too, but that has nothing to do how they may or may not feel 25 years from now.

    Pardon the digression, but my point is simple, and that is that if the goal is a two-state solution, then you keep the focus there. You seem to agree, but you also appear not to consider what I posit in good faith, namely that peripheral issues that do or could offend not just the Abe Foxmans of the world, but also folks who support a peaceful and just two-state solution, should be left to those not involved in the pursuing what truly is important.

    You may be tired of the establishment after trying to talk sense in the midst of the trench warfare Dan, and I respect that, but some of us outside of the trenches have some useful and plain old rational perspective as well. Mark my words; six years ago the sky was the limit for the GOP, and now it is in shambles because it bit off more than it could chew. I don’t want to say I told you so two years from now; history is full of both understeps and oversteps. I don’t want to see Obama do either; I want him to keep his eye on the prize.

    Lots of us are “appalled at the status quo” Dan. I am too. I just got off the phone with my cousin who happens to live in the same building in Manhattan as I do. Her Dad was Leon Lauterbach, who was the General Secretary of the Organization Committee of the World Zionist Congress and was with Chaim Weitzman from his days in London in 1919 (when Weitzman and Louis Brandeis were going at it as gentlemen but toe to toe). He was the one to report to the Congress from Vienna in 1938. She said to me her Dad would be turning over in his grave if he saw what was going on right now. And she’s not 18.

    We don’t have to be young to take on the status quo, but we do have to be smart. And Dan, I understand your frustrations I think, from bucking against the tide before it was acceptable, and I credit you for that. But on “smell tests”, the fact remains that some things do smell, and they smell differently to different folks.

  8. Pardon the sloppy editing. For one thing, the first sentence of the second paragraph should read: “But J Street applauded our participation in Durban II. . .” Also, here’s some links that might shed light on where I’m coming from as a friendly critic of J Street:

    J Street on Churchill (we take no position, but. .)

    J Street on Freeman (we take no position, but. . . ,)

    J Street’s initial position on Durban II (in fairness, J Street subsequently applauded Obama’s decision to withdraw, and applauded the removal of some of the more offensive language in the draft resolution)

  9. Contempt as means of discourse smells.

    Violence as means of dissent smells.

    Annexation as means of security smells.

    Lack of due process for all smells.

    Violation of signed agreements smells.

  10. Richard, that’s clever, and I take issue with none of that, but I’m really interested in how the Obama Administration helps Israel and Palestine come to terms on a two-state solution.

    There’s an old story that a senior management-side statesman once told a union client of mine when I was a young and very aggressive union lawyer, and it’s a little racey and I’ll try and dilute it to make it less offensive. The story goes that once upon a time there was an old ram and a young ram on a hill. Down below them were several dozen female sheep, and the young ram said to the old ram, “Hey let’s run down and “date” a couple of those”. The older and wiser ram chuckled and said, “Let’s walk down and date them all”.

    Sometimes it’s therapeutic to throw darts at the bad guys, I know. But more often than not all you end up doing is having a game of darts.

  11. I think the present is very difficult.

    The two powers are each rejectionist. To impose a solution would be Iraq.

    The best I can see is stopping the expansion of the settlements and stopping the shelling of Israeli civilians.

    If that leads to more normalizing of the borders between Gaza and Israel, and Gaza and Egypt, wonderful.

    I’m confident that if Hamas had not resumed shelling Israeli civilians after the formal cease-fire, then the borders would have relaxed considerably, and likely an Israeli coalition 10 seats to the left of the current coalition would be in power, and they would eventual adopt the Geneva accords, or my proposed alternative (green line with acceptance of settlers presence if they perfected title to land and lived as law-abiding Palestinian citizens).

  12. This isn’t any big secret. Obama went to a church where the pastor was pro-hamas. All his friends in Hyde Park were pro-hamas. And was raised Muslim. ( check out his interview with Stepenopholus ) Of course he is going to come down on the side of the Palestinians. What I always find disturbing are jews that take the side of people that want to see other Jews dead. I think Bruce Levine qualfies and Dan, your right on the line. Phil Weiss, is way over the line. And I say to you Dan, and Witty. Your pal is has big a genocidal anti-semite has anybody I can think of in America today. Tell me where I’m wrong?

  13. My guess is that Obama’s Palestine policy is really buttressing for the foundation of his Iran policy. It is made to keep Muslim moderates, pro-American autocrats, and the Europeans on board, just as the Road Map was launched in 2003 to satisfy Tony Blair, Mubarak, the Saudi king, and King Abdullah II.

    George Mitchell for all his statements about what Northern Ireland proves…knows personally that the Good Friday Agreement was concluded because the unionist extremists (DUP and UKUP) excluded themselves from the negotiations, Sinn Fein sidelined itself with demands for a united Ireland while the moderate nationalists and unionists got on with the job of negotiating
    a peace deal. There is no empowered Palestinian equivalent of the nationalist SDLP, Fatah is on the defensive, Meretz is even weaker than Alliance was in 1998, and Hamas like the IRA in 1998 is making the traditional demands, while the Zionist extremists are in power in Jerusalem and Yesha.

  14. Dan;
    Is there anything that you think that Obama should require from the Palestinians. Anything at all. Think of something please.

  15. Stop the arms flow from Egypt. Make a convincing, unadulterated case to the Israeli government and people that relinquishing the West Bank won’t create another launching pad for rockets aimed at the coastal plain. Hamas needs to accept prior agreements made with Israel (just as Lieberman needs to accept prior agreements made with the PA), police the other groups operating in Gaza and stop the rockets.

  16. Dan, given the two quotations from Saeb Erekat I posted in the previous blog entry, I think the issues is whether the Palestinians can be induced to accept something a little shy of absolutely everything they want.

    Look, the occupation is wrong, the settlements are wrong, there should be a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state, but two comprehensive proposals have now been submitted by two Israeli prime ministers, and both have been rejected out of hand, by Arafat and Abbas respectively. We knew this already, from Bill Clinton, from Barak, and from Arafat himself, but Erekat spells it out very clearly. And he says that it was because of territorial questions; more particularly over area spanning a single digit percentage of the land in dispute.

    We can look at this as encouraging, because we are so close to a deal, but it seems to me to beg the question over what is motivating Palestinian leadership, who seem to be more interested in securing some kind of personal historic legacy than in improving the lot of their citizens.

    Sharon’s solution was to unilaterally vacate the territories, but he uprooted settlers in Gaza, James Wolfensohn collected $15 million in contributions from wealthy American Jews to support the nascent government in Gaza, and we all know how it ended. I wouldn’t argue that there were not residual hardships for Gazans, but desecrating a Jewish holy site and firing thousands of missiles into Israel were not actions aimed at inspiring confidence in a future Palestinian state contiguous to Israel.

    Let’s not kid ourselves. Obama will have to impose his vision on the Palestinians as well as the Israeli government.

  17. Claskov,

    it seems Obama has to do a Three Stooges routine and knock the heads of Larry (Fateh) and Curly (Hamas) together to get their act together. I have stated a few times that the Palestinian state will need a lot of nurturing, mostly by Israel but if not, then by the neighbouring Arab states that they share a border with (but Israel would be the most effective partner on open borders and trade).

    There is a lot of bad blood going on here. Now I know you declared that there were “residual hardships” but it’s not as if Gaza was left totally to the PA, that’s just disingenuous. It is more likely that there could have been a better vision as to the idiot response by those movements in Gaza BUT it’s not as if this was a Palestinian state gifted to them by Israel (this really removes the subject of the West Bank as if Gaza and the West Bank were two separate topics to be dealt with separately, that is a mistake, they are connected).

    I don’t like the directions the Palestinians are being led to (because we all know that most of them don’t want to be led by Hamas or Fateh) and I wish there would be a total shakeup of the PA. (It needs to be destroyed.) They deserve a lot better than what they have right now and unfortunately, the existence of such a body such as the PA only helps dominate them rather than express them.

    But I don’t think Obama has the kith to do this, nor the base to push him on this. I know people want a solution but really, we’re not involved in the decision-making, and as much as Chomsky and the other lefties want to make a case for popular revolt of the masses and how democracy should really work, this isn’t Latin America, this isn’t the former Soviet satellites nor is it Africa. Popular opinion is meaningless unless it is pushed by a wealthy agenda by powermongers who have more of a say than you. And there’s a lot of money to be made with the way things are now: the PA puppets get rich and stay in palaces, the Israelis get rich off of their trade with the EU and the weapons industry, and the US gets to push and develop more weapons (amongst other bombing equipment) to conflict regions, Israel being one of them.

    So no, Obama won’t really change much.

  18. The current news cycle has been very odd in the left press.

    They’ve entirely ignored the hypocrisy of Iran and Libya as “leaders” of the human rights efforts in the world.

  19. Here is an article, written by a Jewish “progressive” who doesn’t like Israel very much, who wrongly calls the Judea/Samaria settlements “illegal” and calls for unilateral sanctions to be placed on Israel, AND YET who correctly points out what I have been saying here for a long time, that the Palestinians DO NOT want a state.

    He does leave out the important fact that both the FATAH and HAMAS regimes in power in different parts of the Palestinian territories are being showered with money now which is an additional inducement NOT to want a state.

  20. Yaakov–That Kaplan article is interesting. He doesn’t strike me as leftist–if that’s what you mean by progressive. He’s seeing this strictly from the standpoint of American interest.

    I looked up his credentials to get a better idea of where he was coming from–and indeed, he is a Fellow at the Center for New American Security.

    Anyway, the way I read it, he has a neutral–or at least moderate vibe–even sympathizes with Israel’s predicament…but believes the settlement issue is a headache for the US.

    In fact, he almost suggests that the settlement issue is a red herring…and is more about Israel’s (and by extension the US) relationship with the world. More about surface appearances, so to speak.

  21. The settlements are a disaster.

    Excepting the relatively very small portion of land that settlements were constructed on that were Jewish property prior to 1967, the rest of land used is by forced taking.

    Likely illegal, by a standard of law that values preeminent title claims as important, and requiring compensation or some other legitimate basis to perfect title.

    Decree isn’t it. The self-defined transfer of title of Jordanian state land to Israeli is not it. The rationale of expropriation of land for military purposes without compensation or due process, is not it. The transfer of formerly military used land to barracks, to leased residences, to individual title granted from such expropriated land, is not it.

    I don’t favor forced removal as remedy for the contested title, instead compensation. But, to imagine that the title is legitimate on the majority of settlement land, is a fantasy.

  22. I find the settlements to be unethical too. In fact, the whole thing makes my skin crawl. No offense to anyone who has relatives in settlements…but they stink of expansionism. And imo, do Israel more harm than good.

    That said, Kaplan’s suggestion that Palestinians might find statelessness advantageous makes the settlement issue less urgent.

    He seems to be saying that Israel should abandon settlements on principle–irrespective of Palestinians. I can see his point.

  23. Y. Ben-David,
    Kaplan’s article is interesting. It, however, proposes a theory largely unsupported by facts. The Camp David fiasco has since been explained much better by other factors (offer the Palestinians couldn’t not refuse, Barak’s inability – and what one suspects to be unwillingness – to deliver even that, etc) than some hypothetical and frankly hardly believable appeal the statelessness would have for the Palestinians. In fact, the living conditions of the Palestinians in this cozy statelessness are so miserable that for anybody to buy the premise of the article is to indulge in utter delusion and wishful thinking.
    However, one could make an argument that the Palestinian leadership as opposed to the Palestinian people is uninterested in achieving a state – you do so, and Kaplan hints at it with: “If his theory is correct, then the Palestinians may never have a state, because at a deep psychological level, enough of them—or at least the groups that speak in their name—may not really want one” Now, this is a bit more plausible, but only in relation to Fatah. It is very hard to make this argument in relation to Hamas (and in fact Grygiel article actually mentions Hamas among the “state-seeking groups”.)

  24. Peter-
    What the “Palestinian people” want is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what their leadership wants. Just like in Cuba, Iraq under Saddam, the USSR under Stalin and Germany under Hitler.
    Actually, their situation is not as “miserable” as you indicate. I recently travelled around the region of Ramallah and saw lots of nice new houses going up, plently of new cars, etc. They have plenty of money and a higher standard of living then most Arabs living in non-oil-rich Arab states. Yes, the situation in Gaza is not nearly as good, but nobody is starving there either, and as you recall, when the Gazans broke out into the Sinai last year, they went to El-Arish and bought up all the goods there, so they have more money than the average Egyptian. (Of course, there are the major inconveniences of the roadblocks they would like to rid themselves of). So, considering that the leadership has plenty of money and the population is also not so bad off, where is there pressure to make humiliating, even traitorous concessions to Israel in order to reach an agreement that will not satisfy them in any event?

  25. More on why there is no possibility of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
    Note that both articles point out that Olmert agreed so almost all the territorial demands of the Palestinians. Both articles show the reason why Netanyahu is correct in demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as being the state of the Jewish people (something no Arab leader could ever do).

  26. Sorry to be piling up so many postings, but here are two more articles which are not directly about the Arab/Israeli conflict but they do add to my claim that there is no chance of an agreement, and that the dream of Jewish “progressives” like MJ Rosenberg that Obama is going to drop everything and come down on Israel in order to impose an agreement is just not in the cards.
    First there are these developments in Pakistan, a country that has nuclear weapons:

    Obama’s Administration is quite concerned about the situation in Pakistan, and view it as far more urgent than what is going on here in Israel.
    Secondly, here is an article about the upcoming elections in Lebanon, which is the most “democratic” Arab state. What do you think a Palestinian state would look like with outside forces buying up influence if they are hostile to Israel, such as the Iranians and Syrians?
    This is how the HAMAS-FATAH split and civil war came about:

  27. What the “Palestinian people” want is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is what their leadership wants.

    True. Does this show why Israel did everything to make Fatah complicit and Hamas the bogeyman? Why it made sure to shoot down any possibility of a responsible Palestinian leadership?

    I recently travelled around the region of Ramallah and saw lots of nice new houses going up, plently of new cars, etc

    Sorry, YBD, this is pretty lame. Couldn’t you find a better argument? Of course there are some Palestinians who are doing well financially. And even among those I am sure most will tell you they’d want a state where they would be citizens with full rights. And recent polls show that most would want a separate Palestinian state. I just cannot see how the premise of the article can shown convincingly, unless one talks only of the corrupt PA.

  28. This is an observation based on what Yaakov said about Ramallah– and it doesn’t have a point.

    But a few years ago there was a PBS documentary told from the POV of a young Palestinian girl. I forget the name of the piece but I think it took place in Ramallah.

    Anyway…what I found puzzling was the dichtomy between the outside environment and how people lived at home. The streets and buildings looked like utter hell. Decrepid, bombed out areas, mountains of rubble… the whole bit.

    But the inside of people’s homes ( i.e., her friends and cousins) were REALLY nice and modern. Plus, she had braces on her teeth. So did a couple of her friends.

    These were people who lived in a regular neighborhood, I doubt they were affluent.

    Anyway…I couldn’t draw any conclusion from it. But the contradictions, at least on the surface, struck me as odd.

  29. Yes, Suzanne, this observation is correct. In a lot of places in the Middle East the inner space is treated very differently from the outside environment. It can be very frustrating for the Westerners, but it is part of the place.

  30. Peter, thanks for clearing that up. I guess I’m surprised to learn that– given a history of beautiful architecture and sophisticated gardens etc. I thought there was strong esthetic sensibility for the outside environment.

  31. Here is a good article from Aluf Benn in Ha’aretz explaining why there will NOT be a conflict between Netanyahu and Obama (this will no doubt disappoint J-Street and MJ Rosenberg who somehow came to believe that Obama has adopted all their neuroses about Israel and Zionism)…

    I mentioned the fact about all the new building and economic development around Ramallah in order to show that it is a myth that “the Palestinians are suffering more than anyone else in the world” or that “the Palestinian territories are like a concentration camp”, or that “there is widespread starvation among the Palestinians”. OF COURSE they want Israel out. I don’t dispute that. Of course they don’t like the roadblocks which were put up as a result of the terrorist campaign their own Arafat-FATAH regime carried out against Israel. But it is important to understand the reality of the situation.

  32. Y Ben David, I suppose you read Hebrew. Go here and tell me with a straight face afterwards that “roadblocks were put up as a result of the terrorist campaign” (read the discussion too, especially where it gets to discussing roadblocks that are there in order to impose hardship: search for “אני אתן לך 10 דוגמאות”, I cannot see a way to link to an individual post.) You can read it in English too. (And, yes, there are some roadblocks that are there for security reasons.) But you are free to keep drinking your own kool-aid.

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