N.Y. Magazine on Obama and Israel

This is an interesting piece defending the Obama Administration’s record on Israel.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Obama is “anti-Israel.” But I think the NY Mag piece misses some significant elements of the puzzle. Obama made it clear during the 2008 campaign that he was anti-Likud. Likud happened to be the Israeli party in power when he came into office. This created several problems for Obama, some substantive and some for “optics.”

On the optics side, it’s pretty hard to be anti-Likud when the Likud is in power and not look like you are exhibiting some hostility to Israel.

Relatedly, on the substantive side, it’s pretty clear to me that the Obama Administration wanted to topple the Likud-led government so they could get a more dovish government more to their liking in power.

This led the Administration to publicly demand that Israel initiate a full settlement freeze, something the Palestinians themselves had never demanded [as a precondition to negotiations]. The strategy, as I see it, was that with a new extremely popular president Israel wouldn’t be able to say no, but Netanyahu’s coalition was too right-wing to say yes. So the government would have to fall, as Shamir’s did in the early ’90s in part because he couldn’t get along with the Bush Administration.

This proved a spectacular miscalculation. Netanyahu had a much broader coalition than Shamir’s, including the Labor Party. And Israel has become a major issue in conservative politics, which is was not twenty years ago. Pressure on Netanyahu invited pushback from the Republicans, leading Democrats to tell the president to ratchet it down. And again optics-wise, how often does the U.S. try to undermine the coalition governing one of its democratic allies?

Meanwhile, the Palestinians couldn’t demand less from the Israelis than Obama demanded, so they refused negotiations in the absence of a full settlement freeze. In interviews I’ve seen, Palestinian officials have been quite explicit that this is the reason they have been unwilling to negotiate with Israel. So Obama not only came off as anti-Israel to many friends of Israel, he also undermined what was left of the peace process.

Finally, with regard to domestic politics I pointed out repeatedly during the 2008 campaign that one of Obama’s weaknesses was that his entire adult life was spent in circles in which liberal/left views were taken for granted. In Obama’s circles, publicly pressuring Israel and using “evenhanded” language to refer to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (while favoring Israel beneath the rhetorical surface) seems perfectly reasonable, even a bit “right-wing.” The JStreet types that are Obama’s natural constituency would certainly think so. (The mistaken assumption, pushed by JStreet itself, was that the average pro-Israel American was the equivalent of a JStreeter. This isn’t true, and to the extent it applies to some Jewish voters, the JStreeter types are almost all hardcore Democrats, not the swing voters/donors Obama is having trouble with.)

But in mainstream pro-Israel sentiment, especially among the more traditional Jewish communities on the East Coast, “evenhanded” sentiment sounds extremely suspicious, especially (lest we forget) given that Obama still faced suspicion thanks to his longstanding membership in a church with an arguably anti-Semitic and certainly anti-Israel minister. (Remarkably, Rev. Wright never comes up in the NY Mag piece).

In short, I think the Obama Administration took it for granted that pro-Israel Americans would understand Obama and his administration were pro-Israel, but were simply willing to pressure Israel for its own good, at the expense of the Likud and its allies but not Israel. Instead, what a lot of Americans thought they saw was the Administration pressuring Israel publicly but coddling the other side. The NY Mag piece suggests that the Administration was also pressuring the Arabs, but much more quietly. Perhaps, but you can only get away with that if folks trust your pro-Israel bona fides, which they did not with Obama.