Spoiling for a Fight in Washington


By Jonathan S. Tobin

Published December 04, 2008, issue of December 12, 2008.
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In a post-election Internet posting, M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum neatly summed up the sentiments of the Jewish left.

Responding to rattlings on the Web that Rahm Emanuel, President-elect Barack Obama’s future chief of staff, might be, as Rosenberg put it, “an AIPAC stooge, Likudnik, or whatever,” the IPF’s director of policy analysis set them straight.

Emanuel, Rosenberg wrote, is no right-winger. More to the point, Rosenberg eagerly predicted that Emanuel would “be the one encouraging Obama to go for an Israeli-Palestinian deal the first year. And, when the rightwing Jews complain, he’ll tell them to stick it up their ass.”

Rosenberg’s brazen vulgarity confirms that many on the left don’t think much of Obama’s campaign talk of post-partisanship and civility. More interesting than that, however, is the fact that a portion of the Jewish left believes Obama’s victory will mean the pursuit of policies that will lead to a confrontation with many of Israel’s supporters.

The writer Bernard Avishai broached this sort of sentiment before the election in a widely discussed article titled “Obama’s Jews” in the October issue of Harper’s magazine. In the article, Avishai suggested that the Obama campaign provided the Jewish community with an “occasion for repudiating” the type of leadership offered by mainstream pro-Israel groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Underlying this type of thinking, it seems, is the notion that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is readily achieved. All it will take is an administration willing to face down any Israeli or American who stands in the way — which, in this view, includes virtually the entire Jewish organizational establishment.

But telling “the rightwing Jews” where they can “stick it” has never been at the top of the calm Obama’s agenda. Nor, I imagine, is it the most important thing on the mind of his far more intemperate chief of staff.

Until November 4, Obama’s goal was to win the election. Part of this mission required spending the entire campaign being painfully clear that such a confrontation is the last thing that would happen were he to be elected. The Democrats successfully reassured most Jews that Obama was indistinguishable from his many Capitol Hill colleagues who happily identify themselves as supporters of Aipac. Now, his agenda is to govern and manage a failing economy as well as juggle wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — goals that would hardly be advanced by wantonly picking fights with mainstream Jewish groups in a quixotic quest for a peace deal.

Indeed, a return to the fevered quest to end once and for all the Israeli-Palestinian struggle that characterized the final days of the Clinton administration is not only a poor use of Obama’s time and effort. It also fails to take into account the reasons why the last Democratic president failed.

Though Israelis and their American friends would welcome an end to the conflict, Obama surely knows that, as was the case eight years ago, the obstacle to peace is not the government of Israel. Nor is it the obduracy of Aipac and the rest of the vaunted “Israel Lobby.” The vast majority of Israelis and their American friends have long embraced far-reaching concessions, assuming there was a hope of real peace.

The obstacle to peace for the past 60 years remains the same today: the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah Party, is powerless to make any real deal. With Hamas in control of Gaza and the P.A.’s authority only stretching to those areas effectively controlled by the Israeli army, the chances of any Israeli government handing over more territory in the immediate future are slim. Israel can’t afford a repeat of the debacle of the withdrawal from Gaza, when surrendered land became terrorist bases overnight. The notion that the process begun last year in Annapolis will lead to peace in the near future is one that serious people know is nonsense. That is why, among other reasons, the Likud Party is favored to win the next Israeli elections in February.

But Jewish doves often seem less interested in the facts on the ground in the West Bank than they are in those in Washington, D.C. Their long-shot goal is to topple the centrist and bipartisan Aipac as the pro-Israel community’s voice and replace it with voices from the left. Overturning the realities of the Middle East may be beyond their reach, but that’s not going to stop them from trying to “stick it” to anyone who opposes pressuring the Jewish state to do things that its democratically elected leaders may find ill-advised.

Jonathan S. Tobin was executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia from 1998 to 2008. He will become executive editor of Commentary magazine in January.

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