Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Poll: Jewish Dems Strongly Support Obama on Israel

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The results are in.

After all the gnashing of teeth by Obama’s critics that his policies on Israel are costing him the support of his Jewish base, a new poll — by a right-wing organization, no less — shows that 92 percent of Jewish Democrats approve of President Barack Obama’s job performance.

The poll also found that 58 percent believe President Obama “is doing a good job of promoting peace in the Middle East.” (Only 16 percent disagreed with this statement.) Moreover, when asked: “Do you think President Obama is being too tough on Israel?”, 55 percent answered “No.” (Only 18 percent said yes.)

The poll was conducted at the end of July by the Traditional Values Coalition, a conservative lobbying group that represents 43,000 churches.  A quick perusal of the coalition’s Web site gives a clear sense of the values it seeks to promote. The home page offers a click through for “Causes and Cures of Homosexuality.” It opposes abortion but supports the death penalty, citing Biblical imperatives. Its chairman and founder, Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, is a strong defender of Israel.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Sheldon and TVC seemed almost let down by their own polling results. The coalition takes great pains to emphasize the negative results of the poll, issuing a release headlined: “TVC Poll Finds Americans Conflicted Over Israel and Obama.” They cite as evidence the fact that 52 percent of respondents said “the Arabs will never live in peace with Israel” — as if that’s somehow definitive.

“In other words,” Sheldon is quoted as saying in the TVC release, “the President’s support among Jewish Americans is a mile wide but when specific issues about Israel’s defense are raised it is about halved and looks ‘an inch deep.’ ”

Wow. What a stretch. I guess there’s spin, and then there’s flat-out desperation.

Here’s more: When asked if Israel should bomb Iran to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons, only 15 percent of Jewish Democrats answered “yes.” A whopping 62 percent said, “no.”

You can nearly hear Sheldon contorting to make this statement: “Support for President Obama is high among Jewish Americans but half express concerns and disagreements with specific policies, particularly where Iran is involved.”

His conclusion is apparently based on the fact that 45 percent said they were “not sure” what Obama would do if Israel attacked Iran. TVC flat out ignores the fact that when answering the same question, 40 percent said they thought Obama would support Israel, while only 15 percent said he would not.

Ignoring the central findings of the poll, Dick Morris and Eileen McGann penned a missive in the New York Post headlined “Where BAM Breaks With Jewish Dems,” which begins:

JEWISH Democrats strongly agree with the Israeli position and disagree with President Obama’s on issues such as a Palestinian state, settlement construction and trading land for peace. Does the president realize he’s at risk of a break with an important part of his base?

Cherry-picking through the poll with an eye to anything at all that might convey discord, Morris and McGann downplay all the poll results they don’t like. True, they shrug, half of Jewish Democrats flat out reject the notion that Obama is biased against Israel, but “a significantly large number” — 35 percent — are still undecided on the question!

Is this what happens when the rhetoric of Obama’s detractors fails to square with the reality of his wide and strong support among Jewish Democrats?

For a fair and balanced analysis of the poll results, see this Jewish Telegraphic Agency article: “It’s almost unanimous: Jewish Dems on board with Obama.” The JTA writes:

The survey suggests that despite the Obama administration’s repeated calls for an Israeli settlement freeze, support for the president among American Jews remains high.

It’s a good article. Morris and McGann should read it.

Thank You, Thomas Friedman

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

The conservative mind is made up. President Obama is anti-Israel. See, for example, John Podhoretz’s latest essay in Commentary, “The Turn Against Israel“:

There is no question that we have entered a new era, one that I expect will be characterized by tensions and unpleasantnesses of a kind unseen since the days when George H. W. Bush was president, James A. Baker III was secretary of state, and the hostility toward Israel oozed from both men like sweat from an intrepid colonial traveler’s brow as he journeyed across the Rub-al-Khali.

It’s pretty wearying stuff, after awhile. I’ve heard Obama talk about Israel. Personally, in a small group in Cleveland, two weeks before the Ohio primary. This is a man who oozes respect for the Jewish state, its history, and its people.

“The US-Israel relationship is rooted in shared interests, shared values, shared history and in deep friendship among our people,” Obama said, last October. “I will work tirelessly as president to uphold and enhance the friendship between the two countries” …

Obama next described a trip he took to Israel 2 years ago, and his travels around the country, saying it “left a lasting impression on me.”

“Seeing the terrain,” Obama said, “experiencing the powerful contrast between the beautiful holy land that faces the constant threat of deadly violence. The people of Israel showed their courage and commitment to democracy everyday that they board a bus or kiss their children goodbye or argue about politics in a local café.”

Never mind. Podhoretz skewers Obama for telling NPR that part of being a good friend to Israel is being “honest.”

But, of course, honest discourse about Iran [and its nuclear threat] was not the fearless truth Barack Obama wished to bestow upon Israel or the Muslim world.

Rather, his honesty solely concerned the trajectory of the “settlements” …

Nice to read this, then, posted a few minutes ago by the NY Times:

Officials said the United States was pushing for a package of measures ranging from Arab countries’ opening commercial offices in Tel Aviv to their leaders’ granting interviews to Israeli journalists. Another step would be getting Arab nations to allow Israel’s state carrier, El Al, to fly over Arab countries to cut flight times to Asia.

So much for only pressuring the Israelis. Obama’s negotiating team, lead by George Mitchell, is working tirelessly to get Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, to take concrete steps they’ve never taken before.

“One of the public misimpressionsis that it’s all been about settlements,” Mr. Mitchell, the administration’s special envoy to the Middle East, said in a rare interview Friday after six months on the job. “It is completely inaccurate to portray this as, ‘We’re only asking the Israelis to do things.’ We are asking everybody to do things.”

Podhoretz, though, has a point to make:

And so the turn against Israel that so many predicted during the 2008 campaign is coming to pass—with a smile, and a nod, and an invocation of a word [honesty] that actually means something very different from friendship. It might even mean its opposite.

What a tonic, then, to read Thomas Friedman’s column this morning in the NY Times. Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jewish columnist who began covering the Middle East for UPI in 1979, does have some advice for  Obama: 1) Don’t get into the historical blame game in the Middle East, because nobody believes they are at fault, and 2) Connect with Israel on a gut level. (I couldn’t agree more. I blogged nearly a month ago, “The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel.”)

[This, also from the Times article, should help address Friedman’s second point: “In coming weeks, senior administration officials said, the White House will begin a public-relations campaign in Israel and Arab countries to better explain Mr. Obama’s plans for a comprehensive peace agreement involving Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. The campaign, which will include interviews with Mr. Obama on Israeli and Arab television, amounts to a reframing of a policy that people inside and outside the administration say has become overly defined by the American pressure on Israel to halt settlement construction on the West Bank.”]

But here’s the rest of what Friedman has to say. And, as he’s been covering this topic for literally 30 years — and is one of the most even-handed and knowledgeable commentators on the region — he’s worth quoting in full:

President Obama is not some outlier when it comes to Israel. His call for a settlements freeze reflects attitudes that have been building in America for a long time. For the last 40 years, a succession of Israeli governments has misled, manipulated or persuaded naïve U.S. presidents that since Israel was negotiating to give up significant territory, there was no need to fight over “insignificant” settlements on some territory. Behind this charade, Israeli settlers bit off more and more of the West Bank, creating a huge moral, security and economic burden for Israel and its friends.

As Bradley Burston, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, put it last week: “The settlement movement has cost Israel some $100 billion. … The double standard which for decades has favored settlers with inexpensive housing, heavily subsidized social services, and blind-eye building permits has long been accompanied by a kid-gloves approach regarding settler violence against Palestinians and their property. … Settlers and settlement planners have covertly bent and distorted zoning procedures, military directives, and government decrees in order to boost settlement, block Palestinian construction, agriculture, and access to employment, and effectively neutralize measures intended to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace progress.”

For years, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the pro-Israel lobby, rather than urging Israel to halt this corrosive process, used their influence to mindlessly protect Israel from U.S. pressure on this issue and to dissuade American officials and diplomats from speaking out against settlements. Everyone in Washington knows this, and a lot of people — people who care about Israel — are sick of it.

The Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, captured the we-are-untouchable arrogance of the settlers last week when he quoted Rabbi Yigael Shandorfi, leader of a religious academy at the settlement of Nahliel, calling Mr. Obama in a speech “that Arab they call a president.”

So if Mr. Obama has bluntly pressed for a settlements freeze, he is, in fact, reflecting a broad sentiment in Congress, the Pentagon and among many Americans, Jews included. …

What about Mr. Obama? He has nothing to apologize for policy-wise. The president is working on a deal whereby Israel would agree to a real moratorium on settlement building, Palestinians would uproot terrorists and the Arab states would begin to normalize relations — with visas for Israelis, trade missions, media visits and landing rights for El Al. If the president can pull this off, it would be good for everyone.

Put another way: The so-called “turn against Israel” is pure fiction.

Solow: Obama’s Support for Jewish State ‘Unequivocal’

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

The other day, I received an email from a Jewish communal leader, forwarding an email from another Jewish communal leader, which stated simply: “The honeymoon is over.”

Attached was an article from American Thinker, a daily conservative web site, headlined: “National Leader Turns Against Obama.”

The national leader in question was Alan Solow, which made the article particularly damning, because Solow is the Jewish Chicagoan who has known Obama for years, and who prominently heckshered Obama as a friend of Israel during the election campaign. With false news articles swirling that Obama was a Muslim with a retinue of anti-Israel advisors, many Jews looked to Solow’s endorsement as evidence that Obama supports Israel — not just in word, but in his kishksas.

Since the election, Solow has been named chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The American Thinker article was pinned on a statement from Solow and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents, taking issue with the Obama administration for opposing a Jewish construction project in East Jerusalem.

The article claimed “a huge crack has surfaced in Obama’s Jewish base in the person of Alan Solow,” noting that Solow’s “rosy expectations of Obama and [chief of staff Rahm] Emanuel as reliable friends of Israel have been dashed.”

When I received the email and read Solow’s statement, it was immediately apparent that the American Thinker article was a wildly exaggerated hatchet job. Solow and Hoenlein had objected to a specific policy. Nowhere in the statement was there evidence of the catastrophic schism suggested by the article.

Indeed, Solow has just come out with his own rebuttal:

The statement we issued on Jerusalem reflected long standing policy of the Conference of Presidents. Given the press attention focused on this issue, we thought it was appropriate to speak out. It was not intended as a general comment on President Obama’s ongoing approach in his current discussions with Israel. One thing the President made clear in our White House discussion of July 13 was that there might be points of disagreement over issues of strategy, but the President also wanted it known that his support for Israel as a Jewish State in the Middle East was unequivocal. The President’s commitment to Israel’s safety and security is one that he has previously stated publicly, as well as privately to me over the years. Our relationship remains excellent, and the President understood when I became Conference Chair that I would advocate for positions based on communal consensus. As Chairman of the Conference, I look forward to working with the President to make his support meaningful and effective, and his hosting of the meeting with Jewish leaders is an indication that he wants to hear from our community. I think all participants in the meeting would agree that it was valuable and productive. I intend to continue to engage with the Administration to advance the interests of American Jewry, and I expect that the President and his team will continue to value our input.

The president’s support for Israel as a Jewish state is unequivocal. Obama is committed to Israel’s safety and security. Our relationship remains excellent

Alan Solow is probably one of the most important Jewish leaders in America right now. He not only trusts Obama, but Obama trusts him.  Perhaps more than any other leader, when Solow speaks out, you can bet Obama will get the message. This was not the first time Solow has offered Obama constructive criticism on Israel, and I hope it won’t be the last.

As for American Thinker, the damage is done. The inflammatory storyline about a fairy tale breach is out there, circulating, taking hold. Don’t expect a retraction any time soon.

Oh, Jerusalem

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

President Obama is taking a bit of a beating these days for allegedly taking a hard line on Israel. See, for example, this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which takes Obama to task for demanding “that Israel freeze construction in East Jerusalem.”

Never mind that, according to all I’ve read, Obama himself has done no such thing.  Rather, according to the NY Times, a State Department official “raised concerns” over the East Jerusalem project with Israel’s new ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

The American officials suggested that going ahead with the development now would cause problems in negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The hawks — and even some of Obama’s supporters in the Jewish community — have reacted to this by intimating that Obama has crossed another red line. It’s as if the president has personally challenged Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, and taken a pot-shot at the Jewish world.

“If Jews were prohibited from buying property in New York, London, Paris or Rome, there would be an international outcry,” writes Mackubin Thomas Owens in the Journal.  “Why, [Israeli Prime Minister Bibi] Netanyahu wondered, should the standard be different for Jerusalem?”

Last I checked — unlike East Jerusalem — New York, London, Paris, and Rome were not home to 300,000 Palestinians, and were not candidates to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, but I digress.

Put me in Jeffrey Goldberg’s camp. In one of his most recent blogs, “In Defense of J Street,” The Atlantic reporter, whose dispatches from the Middle East are very even-handed, puts a “kosher stamp of approval on Obama’s approach to Israel.”

I’m not naïve about Arab intentions – or should I say, I’m no longer naïve about Arab intentions. I don’t automatically believe that the creation of a Palestinian state will lead to an end of claims, or an end to the conflict. But I know that Israel’s continued entanglement with the Palestinians, an entanglement deepened and exacerbated by its addiction to settlements, will eventually lead to the demise of the Jewish state. So I’m glad that “Obama’s Jews” support his demand for Israeli self-reflection (are we so wonderful that we couldn’t use a little self-examination now and again?), and I’m surprised that people are surprised by Obama’s modest demand. He said in his campaign that he would hold up a mirror to Israel, and he is. He’s also holding up a mirror to the Arab side, and that’s all for the good as well. Time is running out – if Israel doesn’t achieve permanent, internationally-recognized borders and diplomatic relations with the bulk of Muslim-majority countries soon, the campaign to delegitimize the very idea of Israel will become even more ferocious than it’s been.

To his point about the Arab side, as the Forward is reporting: “Freezing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank was once seen as a unilateral Israeli obligation. But the Obama administration is now treating this as part of a package that will require concessions from Arab states, as well.”

“The Americans now understand that if they get anything from us on the settlement issue, it will only be in the broader context of some kind of Arab return,” said an Israeli diplomat, one of many similar comments from Israeli officials recently.  …

America’s request for signs of normalization with Israel is focusing now on symbolic steps. According to Arab and American diplomatic sources, Washington is now asking for the reopening of commercial interest offices of Oman, Qatar and Morocco in Israel and for permission for Israeli commercial airliners to fly over Gulf states, shortening by several hours flight routes from Israel to East Asia.

I’d like to also note that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today warned Iran that its pursuit of nuclear weapons is “futile,” adding: “we’re not going to let that happen.” This, just days after she raised the possibility of an American-created “defense umbrella” over the Middle East “to counter Iran’s efforts to build its power in the region by trying to develop weapons capacity.”

I admit, these facts are particularly inconvenient for the “Obama takes a hard line on Israel” crowd. Do not expect the Wall Street Journal to opine about them any time soon.

Where Amazing Happens

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Critics of President Obama’s Middle East policy like to say the Palestinians have “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” It’s a twist on the quote from Abba Eban, the Israeli diplomat and politician, who said after the Geneva Peace Conference in 1973: “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Their point is that the Israelis do not have a partner for peace, and until they do, there should be no peace process. Moreover, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is extremely weak. In the absence of a partner, Israel certainly should not be pressured to make concessions.

I’ve always believed this line of thinking stands logic on its head. It’s the peace process (not unilateral Israeli moves) — including the active engagement of the United States bringing Arab nations along — coupled with economic improvement for Palestinians on the ground, that will over time create the partner.

An article on the front page of the New York Times today, “Signs of Hope Emerge in West Bank,” is a reason for optimism.

The first movie theater to operate in this Palestinian city in two decades opened its doors in late June. Palestinian policemen standing beneath new traffic lights are checking cars for seat belt violations. One-month-old parking meters are filling with the coins of shoppers. Music stores are blasting love songs into the street, and no nationalist or Islamist scold is forcing them to stop. …

For the first time since the second Palestinian uprising broke out in late 2000, leading to terrorist bombings and fierce Israeli countermeasures, a sense of personal security and economic potential is spreading across the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority’s security forces enter their second year of consolidating order.

The International Monetary Fund is about to issue its first upbeat report in years for the West Bank, forecasting a 7 percent growth rate for 2009.

Police checking cars for seat belt violations? Are we in Nablus, or suburban Central Jersey?

The article is accompanied by a photo of Palestinian teenage girls — hair straightened, wearing rhinestone-studded jeans, glittering belts, and showing some skin — buying movie tickets in front of a huge poster of Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean. It chronicles a surge in car sales, the success of a seven-story home furnishing store that sells the latest espresso machines, and a growing trust between Israeli and Palestinian forces, some of whom have been trained abroad.

If social and economic conditions continue to improve in the West Bank, isn’t it possible — despite all the heated rhetoric and even anti-Israel propaganda — that moderation will ultimately attract more disciples than fundamentalism? And that if this is coupled with continued engagement by President Obama, in a regional strategic approach with the Arab states, it could strengthen West Bank leadership, and embolden them meet the Israelis half-way?

“Twice in recent months we have been amazed,” an Israeli general told the New York Times, speaking about the seriousness of Palestinian security forces, who in June clashed ferociously with Hamas terrorists, fighting them to the death.

The West Bank. Where amazing happens? It’s only twice, but it’s a start.

Clinton: Arabs must ‘Prepare their Publics to Embrace Peace’

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

Following on the heels of President Obama’s meeting with Jewish leaders this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave an important foreign policy address yesterday, calling on Palestinians and Arab nations to do their part for peace.

“We know that progress toward peace cannot be the responsibility of the United States – or Israel – alone,” Clinton said at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Ending the conflict requires action on all sides.

The Palestinians have the responsibility to improve and extend the positive actions already taken on security; to act forcefully against incitement; and to refrain from any action that would make meaningful negotiations less likely.

And Arab states have a responsibility to support the Palestinian Authority with words and deeds, to take steps to improve relations with Israel, and to prepare their publics to embrace peace and accept Israel’s place in the region. The Saudi peace proposal, supported by more than twenty nations, was a positive step. But we believe that more is needed. So we are asking those who embrace the proposal to take meaningful steps now. Anwar Sadat and King Hussein crossed important thresholds, and their boldness and vision mobilized peace constituencies in Israel and paved the way for lasting agreements. By providing support to the Palestinians and offering an opening, however modest, to the Israelis, the Arab states could have the same impact. So I say to all sides: Sending messages of peace is not enough. You must also act against the cultures of hate, intolerance and disrespect that perpetuate conflict. 

(You can watch the speech and read the full transcript here.) 

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Clinton did not specify what steps should be taken by the Arab nations. However — and this is important:

Obama administration officials have suggested allowing Israeli commercial airlines to fly over Arab nations and enhancing business ties short of full diplomatic relations.

The timing of this speech, just days after Obama assured Jewish leaders that “forceful” pressure is being applied on the Palestinians, indicates just how sensitive the Obama administration is to perceptions in the Jewish community that Israel is being pressured unilaterally to freeze settlements.

Moreover, the Obama administration is explicity rejecting the notion that the Saudi peace plan by itself is enough, and is pressing for concrete concessions on the Arab side, beyond the sometimes ephemeral demands to reign in terror and take action against incitement.

U.S. ‘Gaining Ground’ on Arab Street

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

President Barack Obama’s overtures to the Arab world are working.

That, according to an important new report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a powerful D.C.-based think tank devoted to a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

Several new polls suggest that the United States is gaining ground in the Arab street, and that President Barack Obama’s latest overtures, specifically his June 4 speech in Cairo, were well received by some important Arab constituencies … Students of Arab public opinion would regard these numbers as surprisingly encouraging. In contrast, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad’s popularity has slipped dramatically in the Arab world … Approximately half of the Arabs questioned even agree that “if Iran does not accept new restrictions and more international oversight of its nuclear program, the Arabs should support stronger sanctions against Iran around the end of this year.”

(You can read the full report here.)

The report notes that these marked shifts in public attitudes provide a “window of opportunity,” in which Arab governments, fearful of a dominant Iran, will be increasingly receptive to cooperating with the United States. It argues that the Obama administration “should accelerate and publicize defensive military cooperation with friendly Arab countries.” And it concludes that the U.S. should continue trying to engage Iran, while at the same time actively enlisting broader Arab support for sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Which is to say that, despite the loud naysayers on the right, President Obama’s bold outreach to the Arab world is already paying crucial dividends.

It should be noted that the Washington Institute is not by any means a left-leaning think tank. Its board members range across the political spectrum (from former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger and Warren Christopher, to Martin Peretz, editor in chief of the New Republic, a staunch pro-Israel hawk). According to SourceWatch, the Institute burst on the scene in 1988 with a paper urging that the U.S. “resist pressures for a procedural breakthrough (on Palestinian-Israeli peace issues) until conditions have ripened” — a report that was extremely influential in the George H.W. Bush administration.