During the 2008 campaign, there were many Jewish Democrats who said — and probably believed — that Barack Obama would be a better friend to Israel than would John McCain. They argued that Obama would cement friendships with moderate Arab states and extricate us from the Iraq adventure that had done so much to antagonize the Arab street. More than anything else, they said, he would put American diplomacy behind a broad effort to push Arabs and Israelis toward some kind of lasting peace agreement, based roughly on President Clinton’s model of active engagement.
Now, a bit more than 100 days into Obama’s presidency, what do we know? Were Jewish Democrats right to predict a beneficent, pro-Israel President Obama?
It’s early yet, but we know a lot. Obama and his emissaries have been predictable on the issue of a two-state solution (like Bush, in favor), ending the expansion of settlements (like Bush, in favor) and engagement with Iran and Syria (unlike Bush, in favor).
It’s not unusual for an American president to urge Israel not to build settlements in the West Bank — that has been American policy from 1967 to the present. What is noteworthy is this: Obama has, in his few months in office, given every indication that Israel’s most critical existential threat — the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb — will be addressed according to America’s timetable, not Israel’s. And his administration has often seemed more willing to play hardball with Jerusalem than with Tehran.
Whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu says the threat posed by Iran should be handled separately from the discussion over some future Palestinian state, Obama appears to disagree — his advisers have repeatedly been quoted linking the two, signaling that it would be a lot easier to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions if only Israel would agree to terms with the Palestinians. The Obama administration has let it be known that it expects Netanyahu to be a good soldier as it pursues an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Meanwhile, Vice President Joe Biden has sternly lectured Israel not to consider a unilateral military strike on Iran. And the Obama administration — even as it discourages Israel from preempting the Iranian nuclear threat — has taken a significant step away from America’s longstanding policy of secret and tacit support of Israel’s own nuclear deterrent, with a State Department official suggesting that Israel, among other countries, should join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
All of which raises the following question: Could pro-Israel Democrats have been wrong? Worse yet, are they providing the political cover for Obama as he fundamentally changes America’s special relationship with Israel?
Forget for a moment the J Street crowd, a group of leftist Jews conjoined by a deep lack of sympathy for Israeli security needs. There are other Jewish Democrats who understand that Israel’s enemies desire the destruction of the Jewish state. They know Obama’s charm offensive has yielded nothing. And they surely know that the Iranian threat to Israel is not going to fade because of charm. Indeed, many pro-Israel Democrats had spent the previous eight years castigating President Bush for not being sufficiently tough with Tehran and went after McCain for daring to oppose some forms of sanctions against companies linked to trade with Iran.
At what point will Jewish Democrats who care deeply about Israel’s security decide they have to stand up to President Obama? They have yet to do so — thus far, it has been difficult to oppose anything their party’s leader wants to do. But the moment will come when pro-Israel Democrats will have to make some tough choices.
Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as President Bush’s principal economic and domestic policy speechwriter from 2002 to 2004.