MIDEAST: Obama Maneuvres Between Jewish Israelis, Jewish Americans

  • Analysis by Helena Cobban* (washington)
  • Inter Press Service

What effects might this perceived lack of intimacy have on Obama's ability to succeed in his goal of securing a final Israeli-Palestinian peace in a timely manner?

This question assumes more importance as many in Washington are predicting that Obama might well announce the terms of a far-reaching new peace push during the weeks that remain before the opening of the U.N. General Assembly's next session in late September.

Prominent Israeli journalist Aluf Benn recently rang the alarm bells regarding Obama's perceived lack of attention to Israelis. Writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, Benn complained that Obama 'hasn't bothered to speak directly to Israelis'.

One key effect, he wrote, was that 'Six months into his presidency, Israelis find themselves increasingly suspicious of Mr. Obama. All they see is American pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements.'

He wrote that as a result, 'Mr. Netanyahu enjoys a virtual domestic consensus over his rejection of the settlement freeze. Moreover, he has succeeded in portraying Mr. Obama as a shaky ally.'

As so often occurs in the ever-shifting dynamic between Jewish Israelis and Jewish Americans, many Jewish Americans see matters very differently. Prominent Jewish American writer Jeffrey Goldberg - who is also an Israeli citizen - noted that in Obama's big Jun. 4 speech in Cairo, he made a point of stressing the strength of the United States' long and unshakeable support for Israel.

True, Obama himself has not visited Israel since his inauguration. But several high-level members of his team have been there - many more than once. Just in the past four days, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and special Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell have all been in Israel, holding substantive meetings with their counterparts there.

So it is hard to conclude that the Obama administration has not given 'enough attention' to Israel, a country of just 7.1 million citizens. But for many Israelis, perhaps the most glaring contrast has been with the extraordinary amounts of attention and close political collaboration they got used to enjoying from both of Obama's predecessors.

This latter contrast was one sub-theme during the meeting Obama held Jul. 13 with the leaders of 16 leading Jewish American organisations. In the meeting, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, reportedly urged Obama to return to Pres. George W. Bush's practice of ensuring there was 'no daylight' publicly visible between the positions of Israel and Washington.

Obama's reported reply was to note that during that period of very close U.S.-Israeli alignment, Bush failed to make any meaningful progress in the peacemaking.

Several commentators also noted, regarding the Jul. 13 meeting, that simply by holding it, Obama was already privileging Jewish Americans over other ethnic/religious components of the U.S .population, many of which are considerably larger than U.S. Jewry.

In Benn's article, he cited a recent Jerusalem Post poll that found that only six percent of Jewish Israelis considered the Obama administration to be pro-Israel, while 50 percent judged that it tilts to the Palestinians.

Others who are worried about Obama's stance on Israel have noted that in a Pew Global Attitudes Poll conducted in May and June, Israel was the only one of 25 countries surveyed where views of the U.S. had deteriorated since Obama became president.

However, some parts of the Pew poll are much less alarming for Obama than that finding. Pew reported that in mid-2008, 57 percent of Israelis said they thought the U.S. would 'do the right thing in world affairs' - while in mid-2009 that figure was 56 percent.

Also, though the Jun. 4 speech caused some decline in Israeli support for Obama, Pew reported that even after the speech, 63 percent of Israelis said they had 'favourable' views of the U.S. and 49 percent expressed confidence in Obama's leadership. The corresponding (and also post-speech) figures among Palestinians were 19 percent and 26 percent.

If Benn's article drew attention to the possible new problems that have arisen between Jewish Israelis and Obama, another significant rift has been widening in recent years between the attitudes of Jewish Israelis and those of Jewish Americans.

While Jewish Israelis have been shifting ever further rightward - as shown most dramatically in last February's elections - Jewish Americans have stayed more or less constant for many years now, with over two-thirds of them supporting the Democratic Party.

During last year's Democratic primary, many Jewish Americans supported Hillary Clinton rather than Obama; but once he won the nomination nearly all the party's traditional Jewish voters swung behind him.

Since his inauguration, Jewish Americans have given strong support to all the main items on his domestic agenda. And thus far he seems to have kept their strong support for his foreign policy agenda - including for the positions he has adopted on key parts of his Israeli-Arab peace agenda.

Thus, on both the need to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and the push for a freeze on additional construction in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including occupied east Jerusalem, Jewish Americans have stayed strongly behind Obama.

On the Palestinian state question, Netanyahu did finally, many weeks into his term as prime minister, express some notably luke-warm support for the concept. But on the settlement freeze, Netanyahu has refused to accede to the firm demands for this that Obama and all his officials have made.

According to the latest findings of Tel Aviv University's 'Peace Index' poll, conducted in June, 61 percent of Jewish Israelis expressed support for Netanyahu's rejection of the freeze. But Jewish Americans have been far less supportive of his position on this issue.

Many Jewish Americans who are active supporters of Israel are affiliated with the powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). It is notable that AIPAC, whose leaders have long pursued a strategy of not taking on campaigns in which they might suffer a damaging public loss of face, has thus far chosen not to campaign around the settlements issue.

Meanwhile, other more reliably pro-peace organisations in the Jewish American community like Americans for Peace Now and J-Street have made support of Obama's stand on the settlements a centrepiece of their increasingly successful nationwide organising.

There are, of course, many connections between pro-peace political action in the U.S. and the attitudes of Jewish Israelis. The Peace Index poll, for example, found that, 'when one mentions to the [Jewish Israeli] interviewees the possibility that implementing Netanyahu's position [on the freeze] only 40 percent still support Netanyahu's position while a slightly higher rate (48 percent) oppose it.'

(It is also worth noting that the roughly 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are ethnic Palestinians give nearly total support to Obama's call for a settlement freeze. But the Peace Index poll, like many Israeli opinion polls, does not count the views of this significant minority in the citizenry.)

Meanwhile, there is a strong sense in Washington that the showdown between Obama and Netanyahu over settlements has only been an overture for what will come next.

One Arab-American analyst recently noted that, despite the firmness of his rhetoric on the issue, Obama has still done nothing to operationalise his insistence on the freeze by, for example, linking it to Washington's continued provision of very generous aid to Israel.

But this analyst and several others hope that instead of keeping his focus solely on the settlement freeze question, Obama will very soon also launch a broad and authoritative international push for a final-status peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

'Once Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians start looking at the final status borders, there will be context for the settlement discussion. The two should go hand-in-hand,' this analyst said.

He said that Washington 'should put its own final-status plan on the table, too. And yes, all this should happen soon. Then let's see how everyone reacts. That will be the start of real peacemaking.'

And in the context of a real peace push like the one this man is hoping for, Obama would surely have a lot to say to Israelis and everyone else who is directly concerned.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service