American foreign policy Barack Obama Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israeli occupation Israeli settlements Middle East peace process

Obama should not be afraid of AIPAC

Despite recent tension with Israel, President Obama’s approval ratings have remained consistently high among American Jews, according to a new J Street poll. He was viewed favorably by 62% in March compared to 64% in October, 2009. That is true even though Americans as a whole are less enamored of him than they used to be. Other poll data show a rising confidence that the country is on the right track under Obama.

The poll was taken on March 17th through 19th, about a week after the firestorm that erupted when Vice President Biden’s trip to Israel was greeted by an announcement of settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Apparently none of the squabbling diminished most American Jews’ affection for Obama.

That should be encouraging news to the Administration as it tries to stop the folly of Israeli settlement construction and preserve the chance, however slim, for peace talks that accomplish something. Another tidbit from that poll should also be encouraging: when respondents were asked to choose the top two issues they will use to decide their 2010 Congressional votes, Israel ranked 7th. It was deemed to be less important than the economy, health care, the deficit and government spending, Social Security and Medicare, and terrorism and national security. Israel was given the same ranking as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only 10% of the respondents chose Israel as one of their top two issues.

No doubt Obama is hearing warnings about the political costs of even minor tussles with Israel. But while American Jews do have concerns about Israel and its security, their votes are based mainly on the same bread-and-butter issues that other Americans care about.

If health care reform is implemented without too many setbacks, the economy doesn’t do a nosedive and the lunatic fringe keeps vying for control of the Republican party, it seems likely that Obama will retain his popularity with Jewish voters if he stands firm on Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. More than 70% of American Jews say the U.S. should play an active role in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even if it means pressuring or publicly disagreeing with both sides, according to the J Street poll. And 55% agree the “U.S. did the right thing by strongly criticizing the Israeli announcement of new housing in East Jerusalem during the Vice President’s visit.”

Of course, the right-wing Jewish minority is making noise, and noise matters to presidents as well as members of Congress. Right now, MJ Rosenberg complains, AIPAC is pushing two Congressional letters urging that there be “no space” between American and Israeli policy. Obama should shrug off those letters and keep his eyes on the prize. Most American Jews will back him.

22 thoughts on “Obama should not be afraid of AIPAC

  1. But it’s not just votes that Obama and his party honchos are worried about. It’s also money. J Street’s PAC is off to a great start, it seems, but the AIPAC fundraising network is still vast. You tried to downplay it in your book but it still matters a great deal to the Dems and I think it will limit how hard Obama can push.

  2. It’s one thing for Obama to “hold firm” on the settlements question by publicly disagreeing with ISrael It’s quite another to actually push Israel, using tangible penalties like cutting off loan guarantees or not vetoing anti-Israel UN resolutions. I don’t see how you could predict that Obama could pressure Israel without losing political support from Jewish centrists in the organized community. A general poll question on that topic doesn’t tell us what will happen if the sh*& actually does hit the fan and there is a major confrontation. This latest “tussle” was actually pretty minor.

  3. Lefty,

    Criticism of Israeli policies without the courage to back those up with tangible actions is an empty intellectual and rhetorical exercise. This is what the Likud and its settler partners are counting upon. It is up to President Obama to decide if he wants to make a serious attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but if he decides that he will, either in this term or the next, he will have to deal with this issue and get serious about confronting Israel. He will also have to get serious about confronting Palestinian incitement–either directly or through Brussels.

  4. The prospect of a political price can only occur if the tensions in the relationship get so much worse that the Arab League reverses its offer of reconciliation, that becomes a game-changer.

    According to Haaretz, Assad urged in closed-door meetings, that Fatah return to armed resistance against Israel, and that the Arab League should support that position as theirs. (Hard to know what was actually said, in a closed-door meeting.)

    In either/or settings, the game is a different one. That is a choice within a war, rather than an effort at negotiation.

    The disaster for Obama is if the Arab political world perceives his change in policy as “permission” to reject mutual acceptance and reconciliation in favor of either/or.

    The US position is clearly conditional, meaning that there is a reasonable path for Israel to retain strong US support, confident support.

    That Netanyahu describes the right of Israel to control Jerusalem as existential, and intrinsic to Zionism, expropriates the definition of Zionism.

  5. And, the Israeli right response to Obama will give Israel only East Jerusalem, instead of an accepted place in the world.

  6. An “accepted place in the world” is not such a high priority with most Israelis, because we have never been fully accepted, and even if we were to reach a “peace agreement’ along the lines you want, we still would not be ‘fully accepted’. This is the Jewish condition. All I know is that our situation is a heck of a lot better now than it was up until 62 years ago. Before then, we were in the “progressive’s” ideal situation of being the “ultimate victims”. The Jewish “progressive” viewed his highest aspiration as having the world look upon the Jews with pity. The hell with that.
    I’ll take Jerusalem over the approval of the world any day.

    Hag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach

  7. YBD:

    You throw the term Jewish “progressive” around like a curse word–maybe its time you defined exactly who you mean by the term. Presumably it would mean the Israeli left, which to you stretches all the way to include Ariel Sharon. Do you mean that David Ben-Gurion’s highest aspiration was to look upon the Jews with pity? Was this Sharon’s highest aspiration?

  8. I don’t think Jewish isolation is a fulfillment of either Zionism or Torah.

    Is there any significance to being a “light unto the closet”?

  9. Richard-
    It says in the Torah “Am l’v’dad yishkon”- A national that dwells alone. What that means exactly can be debated. For instance, religious anti-Zionists use it to mean that we should not have a state since having a state means having normal relations with other states. Yet the Torah clearly shows we are supposed to have a state. It can mean that standing up for our principles is more important that grovelling for acceptance by “world opinion”, whatever that is (it usually means “progressive opinion”).

    Yes, Tom, I do pretty much use the term “progressive” as you indicate. Of course, there were once Progressives like Teddy Roosevelt around, men who were basically conservatives who felt that changes were needed. But I got the modern definition of “Jewish progressives” from MJ Rosenberg, Richard Silverstein, Phil Weiss and others. What I see from them, and others, is (1) a complete intolerance for views that dissent from theirs, (2) A complete refusal to acknowledge facts that contradict their position (3) an automatic, knee-jerk response to various issues. For example, all “progressives” of this type bash Israel, believe the global warming hysteria, assume JFK was killed as a result of a “right-wing conspiracy”, define anyone who is critical of militant Islam as an “Islamophobe”, define anyone who opposes homosexual “marriage” as a “homophobe”, say that anyone who opposed Obamacare is a heartless fascist, etc.
    Don’t forget that Silverstein and Weiss were invited by “progressive J-Street” to have a forum at their conference, so J-Street feels comfortable with this sort of mentality.

  10. Tom-
    Regarding your question about what David Ben-Gurion’s and Ariel Sharon’s aspirations, I would point out that the policy of the Zionist Left was to have the world look upon Jews with pity. This was one of the main motives of the “havlagah” (refusal to retaliate) in the period of the 1936-9 Arab uprising. True, in the 1950’s, Ben-Gurion had Sharon set up Unit 101 to carry out reprisal raids against Arab attacks, but Foreign Minister Sharett and many others strongly opposed them because it made us look “too strong” and would alienate (progressive) “world opinion” which supposedly sympathizes with “victims”.
    Don’t forget Levi Eshkol’s famous statement after the Six-Day War: “we now have to convince everyone that we are Shimshon der nebbisher” (pathetic Samson). Everyone in Israeli politics knows that the power and money in the world are with those who are either ambivalent to Zionism or outright hostile to it (Arab petrodolloars, George Soros, etc, etc). Sharon realized this in when he became Prime Minister. He bragged how after he destroyed Gush Katif, he went to address the UN and how the delegates there campe up to him and hugged him. Did they do this because he was Sharon the military hero of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, or because he threw Jews out of their communities and bulldozed their homes and synagogues and yeshivot? You tell me.

  11. Ya’akov,

    In regard to progressives you’ve created a straw man. The term is essentially meaningless except in a specific context. In the U.S. today it means former liberals who needed a new term when liberal went into disrepute because everyone knew that it was American for social democrat. In white politics in South Africa progressive meant those who were opposed to apartheid and wanted either a qualified franchise or one man, one vote. Helen Suzman a longtime star of the Progressive Party and Progressive Federal Party was actually a disciple of Margaret Thatcher on economic policy. In Israel in the 1940s both the followers of Moshe Sharett and Weizmann on one hand and many in Lehi on the other, as well as those in Faction B/Mapam (later Ahdut Ha’Avoda) would have regarded themselves as progressives. So what did they all have in common? They certainly disagreed both about Israel’s borders and about the means of obtaining a state.

    If you can lump Sharon with the progressives, then be prepared to have all sorts of people you disagree with lumped with you. Eshkol’s remark was meant as an ironic comment on Israel’s schizophrenic personality that regarded itself as both invincible and threatened. Sharett’s biographers have pointed out that Sharett differed drastically from Ben-Gurion over how to deal with the Arabs but always gave in to Ben-Gurion.

  12. Tom-
    I am adopting the use of the term “progressive” as used by Silverstein and Weiss and people at TPM Cafe. They seem to use it to mean further Left than the mainline American liberals.
    I never said that Sharon was a “progressive”. I do say that at the end of his career he found it a lot more profitable to talk like them and to do what they want than it was to hold on to his previous positions. You must remember that he ended up accusing the Israeli right of being “racist” to the Arabs, he said Israel’s presence in Judea/Samaria was “occupation”, he accused the settlers of being ‘extremist troublemakers’ and the such. He was babbling pretty much what MERETZ was saying at the end. He was telling people just before he was struck down that he intended to unilaterally withdraw from most of the rest of Judea/Samaria (even though he convinced the YESHA leadership and other Likud people before the destruction of Gush Katif that it was being sacrificed to “save” the rest of Judea/Samaria, just as Netanyahu justified his settlement freeze in order to “save” Jerusalem.)
    Richard-
    The expression “am l’vadad yishkon” (also can be translated as “a nation that dwells apart”) appears in parsha Balak, in the prophecies given by the non-Jewish prophet Bilam who was sent to curse the Benei Israel but instead was forced to bless them. It is found in the Book of Numbers, (23,9). Aryeh Kaplan translates it as “they do not count themselves among the other nations”.

  13. Yakov,
    And, the invocation to honor the stranger is repeated perhaps 7 times in Torah.

    Doesn’t that have more weight, more clarity?

  14. Koshiro got offended when I recently pointed out that Arabs will not work in textile plants in Jordan, so they have to import foreign workers from the Far East. Here is an article about it…note how Muslim groups are trying to get the factories shut down: (BTW-someone explains that they are training thousands of Jordanians to take over the jobs “this year” but this situation has been going on for something like 15 years)

    http://www.jpost.com/MiddleEast/Article.aspx?id=173011

  15. Richard Witty’s comment:

    “And, the invocation to honor the stranger is repeated perhaps 7 times in Torah.
    Doesn’t that have more weight, more clarity?”

    Regarding clarity, the penultimate expert on the Torah, the Rambam (in Hilchot Melachim) defines the not-so-elegant translation of “Ger” (Stranger). A “Ger” is a non-Jew who accepts that the Land of Israel is rightfully Jewish and the Jews the rightful heirs.

    Is there anyone in the Arab leadership who does so? Last I heard, they’re categorically refusing to recognize Israel as the Jewish State.

    Furthermore the predicate of that same verse “just as you were strangers in the Land of Egypt”. Let’s examine that. The Jews in Egypt fully accepted the fact that Pharaoh was in charge, they had no thoughts about challenging that or “demanding a say in the process, that they were guests in the land and were happy living in the land of Goshen; the parcel meted out to the Jews at Pharaoh’s discretion.

    Now, I’m not saying that the verse should be the basis of Israeli policy (as you imply it should for your own reasons), but considering both the logic of the predicate part of the verse, and accepting the Rambam’s scholarship, it would be intellectually dishonest and disingenuous to steer the meaning into something else whether because it personally resonates well or any other reason.

    Also, there is nothing mutually exclusive about Bilaam’s blessing (A Nation that Dwells Apart) from the mitzvah of “Loving the Proselyte”. Sorry, but the King James version of “stranger” is not accurate linguistically or colloquially.

  16. Please allow to clarify the last statement.

    Maybe there is a basis for “Ger” to be a “stranger”. But in 2 cases, such as where Avraham our Patriarch bought the Cave of Machpelah he referred to himself as a “Ger” and therefore bought the Cave at an inflated price because he was a sojourner in the midst of the Hittites. It wasn’t yet the land of the Jewish People.

    Also, Moshe our Teacher named his son “Gershom” because back in Midian where his son was born, he was also a stranger; sojourning there at Yithro’s discretion.

    Sorry if this digresses, but we are talking about the source of why Jews are present in the Land of Israel, to this day.

  17. The history of Israel is the shift from visitor/guest to dominator.

    The neo-religious describe that in terms of Torah, but the formation of Israel is an entirely mundane phenomena. Many, too many, think with a level of intoxication that these are the promised messianic times, and the sum total of Torah has shifted from how we live in the midst of nations, to living as a separate nation.

    The significance of honoring the stranger is to note the basis of “love thy neighbor as thyself”, especially those that are under one’s responsibility.

    The fear of the enemy is real, but also exagerated, and the animosity of the enemy is mostly conditional on how they are treated.

    As conditional, the invocation of “they” forced us to defend harshly, is at best partially true.

    We are failing in making peace, failing in making the land and the people holy, as in capable of serving God where God is, everywhere.

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