This week’s New York Magazine cover story, by John Heilemann, suggests that Barack Obama might be “The First Jewish President”. At any time this would be controversial. But this week it seems particularly provocative because of Republican Bob Turner’s historic victory over Democrat David Weprin in a special New York Congressional election. The outcome in the 9th District was widely attributed to the largely Orthodox Jewish electorate’s protest against Obama’s perceived hostility toward Israel.
Still, Heilemann maintains that Obama is “every bit as pro-Israel as the country’s own prime minister [Benyamin Netanyahu] — and, from the proper angle, maybe even more so.”
Heilemann asserts that the Jewish community’s suspicion of the deepness of the president’s bond with Israel was “present from the start”, but it was “always rooted in a reading of his background that was as superficial as it was misguided”. Heilemann writes,
“Yes he was black. Yes his middle name was Hussein. And yes in his time in Hyde Park his friends included Palestinian scholars and activists, notably the historian Rashid Khalidi. But far more crucial to Obama’s makeup and rise to prominence was his ties to Chicago’s Jewish milieu, whose players, from real-estate powerhouse Perry Pritzker to billionaire investor Lester Crown, were among his chief supporters and financial patrons.”
Once Obama became president tension between him and many Jews intensified largely because the his administration seemed to confirm suspicions about his hostility toward Israel. Heilemann places the blame primarily on Netanyahu for friction between the two countries. He accuses the Israeli prime minister of deliberately exaggerating small differences with Obama.
In a speech last May, Obama called for Israel to return the 1967 borders with territorial adjustments, Netanyahu chastised him both from Jerusalem and then in a joint public appearance with Obama a few days later in Washington for calling for the withdrawal to the 1967 borders — while conveniently failing to mention that the President’s proposal had also called for territorial adjustments to those borders.
Making things worse, Heilemann claims, was the press’s failure to present Obama’s overall Middle East policy accurately. This created the false impression that while the administration was calling on Israel to freeze settlements it was not asking for any reciprocal concessions from the Palestinians. Jonathan Prince, a senior State Department official tells Heilemann,
The Israelis would do settlements, the Palestinians would do some stuff on incitement [of violence against Israel] and security, and other Arab states would undertake a variety of measures that would be steps toward normalization. It could be reopening trade offices. It could be opening cell-phone connections. All stuff Israel said it really wanted. We spent many more hours in meetings with Arabs about Arab steps then we did with the Israelis. We had equally tough conversations with the Arabs; the president had some hard meetings. But that didn’t get reported.
Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel tells Heilemann that the Obama administration was also responsible for these misperceptions. While he make no apologies for the Obama’s tough stance on Jewish settlements, Emmanuel confesses, “(T)here was a sense that we were too one-sided. We had an obligation — and this is where we deserve a yellow card — to explain what we were doing with the Palestinians or Arabs, to put more air in the tires on that side. Not tone down what we said on settlements, but work harder so there was more recognition of the parity that existed with Arab violations.”
Heilemann’s narrative has serious flaws. Start with the cheap shots. Where’s the evidence for the contention that some Jews mistrusted Obama because he was black? Is Heilemann trying to tar critics of the administration’s Israel policy as racists?
When Prince claims that the administration tried to give Israel everything that it “said it wanted” was he implying that Israel’s public demands are less stringent than its actual demands? Or, was he trying to say, as many today do, the Netanyahu government will always refuse to make concessions necessary for peace, even if the Palestinians and other Arab countries fulfill all of Israel’s demands?
In fact, as the Israeli writer Daniel Gordis writes in this month’s Commentary magazine,
There was once an era when no major Israeli party recognized the Palestinians as a people. Today, they all do. There was a time when no significant Israeli political leader would entertain the notion of a two-state solution. Today, they all do, even Benjamin Netanyahu, which now heads the party led by [ultra-nationalist] Menachem Begin, has endorsed this position.
On what position, though, have the Palestinians changed their stance? On the refugees’ right of return (which would end the Israel’s Jewish character)? On recognizing Israel’s right to exist? On accepting the notion that Israel is, by design, a Jewish state. On their willingness to allow even some Jews to remain in Palestine, just as Arabs live in Israel? Tragically, they have not budged on any one of these issues.
Moreover, Israel has a right to expect more than Emmanuel’s “parity” from US policy. The Palestinians should acquiesce to at least some of Israel’s demands without expecting any reciprocity. For instance, Mahmoud Abbas’s regime should not expect anything in return for undertaking actions such as: removing material that demonizes Israel and Jews from its media and textbooks; arresting suspecting terrorists; and, stopping stipends to terrorists in Israeli jails.
Emmanuel’s principle of “parity” also ignores the inherent uneven distribution of risk in the concessions demanded that Israel and the Palestinians as well as other Arab states could conceivably make. Israeli civilians have to put up with either terrorist or missile attacks from almost every territory from which Israel has ever withdrawn. And the cooling of its relations with Egypt has exposed the fragility of even Israel’s longstanding relations with Muslim countries. However, Arab regimes can make every concession that Israel has ever made of them without endangering or even imposing any hardship on their citizens.
Gordis writes of, “peacemakers” who “will continue to coddle [the Palestinians], helping them avoid the soul-searching that Israel has undertaken and to delay further the Palestinians’ need to take responsibility for their contribution to this endless conflict”. Since the Obama administration has asked the Palestinians and other Arab states to make only token concessions, the President and his team should be counted among the “coddlers”. And that makes the notion of Obama as the “first Jewish President” absurd.