From New York Magazine: The last time Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu shared each other’s company, you could say that the encounter did not go well-if by “not well” you mean abysmally. This was on May 20, the day after Obama gave his big speech on the Arab Spring, in which he unleashed a tsunami of tsuris by endorsing the use of Israel’s 1967 borders “with mutually agreed [land] swaps” as the basis for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Obama and Netanyahu were seated in the Oval Office for what was supposed to be one of those photo ops devoted to roasting rhetorical chestnuts about the solidity of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Instead, while Obama watched silently, looking poleaxed, Netanyahu lectured him-for seven and a half minutes, on live television-about the folly, the sheer absurdity, of suggesting Israel ever return to what he called the “indefensible” 1967 lines.
Obama was furious with Netanyahu, who in choosing to ignore the crucial qualifier about land swaps had twisted Obama’s words beyond recognition-the kind of mendacious misinterpretation that makes the presidential mental. The seniormost members of Obama’s team felt much the same. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Bill Daley, the former Mideast-peace envoy George Mitchell: All were apoplectic with the prime minister, whose behavior over the past two years had already tried their patience. “The collective view here is that he is a small-minded, fairly craven politician,” says an administration source deeply involved in its efforts to push the parties to the negotiating table. “And one who simply isn’t serious about making peace.”
But this week, when Barack and Bibi arrive in New York for the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, they will not be going toe-to-toe but standing arm-in-arm. For months, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been threatening to mount a bid for statehood recognition at the U.N. The Obama administration has been scrambling furiously to fashion a compromise with Abbas to forestall that application-at this writing, to no avail-and has pledged to veto the bid should it come before the Security Council.
For both Israel and the U.S., the timing could hardly be more miserable. With the Middle East apparently hurtling headlong into crisis, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, beleaguered, and besieged: its embassy in Cairo invaded by Egyptian protesters, its relations with Turkey in tatters, its continued occupation of (and expansion of settlements within) the Palestinian territories the subject of wide international scorn. How wide? Wide enough that Abbas could credibly claim that 126 of the 193 U.N. member states support his statehood initiative. Yet despite the damage thwarting that bid might do to America’s standing in the region, the Obamans have never wavered in going balls-out for Israel.
And not for the first time, either. Again and again, when Israel has been embroiled in international dustups-over its attack last year on a flotilla filled with activists headed from Turkey to Gaza, to cite but one example-the White House has had Israel’s back. The security relationship between the countries, on everything from intelligence sharing to missile-defense development to access to top-shelf weapons, has never been more robust. And when the Cairo embassy was seized and Netanyahu called to ask for Obama’s help with rescuing the last six Israelis trapped inside the building, the president not only picked up the phone but leaned hard on the Egyptians to free those within. “It was a decisive moment,” Netanyahu recalled after the six had been freed. “Fateful, I would even say.”
All of which raises an interesting, perplexing, and suddenly quite pressing question: How, exactly, did Obama come to be portrayed, and perceived by many American Jews, as the most ardently anti-Israel president since Jimmy Carter?
This meme, of course, has been gathering steam for some time, peddled mainly by right-wing Likudophiles here and in the Holy Land. But last week, it took center stage in the special election in New York’s Ninth Congressional District, maybe the most Jewish district in the nation and one held by Democrats since 1923. When the smoke cleared, the Republican had won-and Matt Drudge was up with a headline blaring REVENGE OF THE JEWS.
Obama’s people deny up and down that the loss of a seat last occupied by Anthony Weiner portends, well, pretty much anything for 2012. But the truth is that they are worried, and worried they should be, for the signs of Obama’s slippage among Jewish voters are unmistakable. Last week, a new Gallup poll found that his approval rating in that cohort had fallen to 55 percent-a whopping 28-point drop since his inauguration. And among the high-dollar Jewish donors who were essential to fueling the great Obama money machine last time around, stories of dismay and disaffection are legion. “There’s no question,” says one of the president’s most prolific fund-raisers. “We have a big-time Jewish problem.”The sources of that problem are many. In a way, history has been cruel to Obama, forcing him to succeed the wrong Bush-the one whose support for Israel, unlike that of his father, was uncritical to the point of blindness. Obama’s team has made its share of errors in the conduct of its diplomacy and in allowing misperceptions to take hold: that its tough-love approach to Israel has been all the former and none of the latter; that its demands on the Palestinians have been either negligible or nonexistent. And many Jewish voters, like those Wall Street financiers (and, to be sure, the overlap between those groups isn’t trivial) who flocked to Obama and were then chagrined when he called them out as “fat cats,” have all too often focused more on the president’s words than his deeds-and come away with the impression that he doesn’t seem to “feel Israel” in his bones.
For Obama, such assessments would be funny if they weren’t so frustrating and absurd; and for the Jews who know him best, they are simply mystifying. In the last days of the 2008 campaign, the former federal judge, White House counsel, and Obama mentor Abner Mikva quipped, “When this all is over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” And while that prediction has so far proved to be wildly over-optimistic, there is more truth in it than meets the eye.
In attempting to apply tough love to Israel, Obama is trying to make a stalwart ally see that undertaking the painful and risky compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians is the only way to preserve the Zionist dream-which is to say a future as a state both Jewish and democratic. His role here is not that of the callous assailant but of the caring and sober brother slapping his drunken sibling: The point is not to hurt the guy but to get him to sober up.
The suspicions regarding the bone-deepness of Obama’s bond with Israel were present from the start, and always rooted in a reading of his background that was as superficial as it was misguided. 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 were his ties to Chicago’s Jewish milieu, whose players, from real-estate powerhouse Penny Pritzker to billionaire investor Lester Crown, were among his chief supporters and financial patrons. In 2008-after herculean efforts by his campaign to reassure the Jewish Establishment that he was, er, kosher and stamp out the sub-rosa proliferation of the lie that he is a Muslim-he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, four points higher than John Kerry’s total four years earlier.
This background meant that, although Obama was hardly an old hand on Israel when he became president, he was well attuned to the Jewish community and its views. “With the kind of exposure he had to Jewish backers, Jewish thinkers, in Illinois,” says deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes, “he came into office with a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and Jewish thought than, I would argue, any president in recent memory.”
Like all those presidents, Obama placed a high priority on pursuing a deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where he departed from his predecessors was on a number of premises. When there were differences between America and Israel, Obama wanted to address them: “We’re not gonna be saying one thing in public and another in private,” he told his team. And in the effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table, pressure would be applied equally to both sides.
Obama also believed that it was critical to begin the process immediately; thus on his third day in office did he name Mitchell to his post. “Our view of Bush was, yeah, Annapolis was great, but he started in his last year in office, and that was just too late,” recalls former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. “So our theory coming in was that [Obama] was gonna put his foot on the gas from day one.”
The problem with that theory was the situation on the ground: During Obama’s transition, the Israelis and the Palestinians had been at war in Gaza. So Mitchell began traveling in the region, searching for a series of measures that might change the climate sufficiently to get the two sides talking again. What he heard uniformly from the Arab states was that a halt to the construction of Israeli settlements was key. “The idea came from the Palestinians first and the rest of the Arabs second-and I mean all of them,” says Jonathan Prince, a senior State Department aide who worked with Mitchell. “We were told it was the only way to give the Palestinians political cover to get them back to the negotiating table.”
Read more at New York Magazine.