While even dovish pro-Israel groups concede the Obama administration has done a poor job of selling its Middle East policies to a nervous Israel, there are growing indications major Jewish leaders are reluctant to directly challenge a popular and persuasive president on the substance of those policies.
At Monday’s meeting between President Barack Obama and 16 Jewish leaders representing most points on the Jewish political spectrum but not the administration’s harshest critics, the president refused to back down on the issue of publicly criticizing Israeli policy and aggressively refuted charges that his administration has demanded much of Israel, and little of the Palestinians and Arab states. Some of the Jewish leaders were aggressive in criticizing the tone of administration actions — but criticism of the policies themselves was virtually nonexistent.
“I made the point that our movement — both the congregational and rabbinic bodies — support his views on halting settlement building, and that a great majority of American Jews don’t support settlement building,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “I thought there might be others who would argue the issue on substance — but nobody did.”
Rabbi Yoffie said that while there was a shared perception among the assembled Jewish leaders about the “public relations aspect of the settlement issue, and about the fact that America seems obsessed with the settlements issue, not a single person said [Obama] was wrong on the substance. There was a recognition of the reality that we have a president who is very committed on this issue.”
“Nobody spoke in favor of Judea and Samaria as rightful places of Jewish settlement,” said Jason Isaacson, Washington director for the American Jewish Committee. “The concerns that were expressed were concerns about the way he has expressed himself on these issues, in ways that will not necessarily advance peace.”
That may suggest that while numerous Jewish leaders are anxious about what they perceive as one-sided U.S. pressure around the issue of Jewish settlements, there is little appetite for an all-out battle over a settlements question that does not resonate with a majority of American Jews. Obama, several participants said after the meeting, seems increasingly confident that he can retain the strong Jewish support he won in last year’s election even as he presses both Israel and the Palestinians to move toward a peace agreement.
He also seems eager to learn about ways those policies can be more effectively conveyed to a community whose leaders remain skeptical and anxious.
“I don’t think there’s any question he is going to change the tone of some of his comments, and he’s going to do a much better job explaining that he is pressing both sides to live up to their obligations,” said one Jewish leader who was not authorized by his organization to speak. “I don’t see any changes in the substance of those policies, but I suspect we’ll see a change in how they are presented in the days and weeks ahead.”
Will that be enough to satisfy the top ranks of the pro-Israel leadership?
“I think many will still have concerns, but they’re not going to go to war because the president still has most of the Jewish electorate behind him,” this official said. “So far, he appears very adroit in handling the concerns of our community, and I think that’s a real dilemma for those who are most strongly opposed to what he is doing in the Middle East.”
The AJC’s Isaacson said Obama has already taken strides to package his policies in ways that will keep the Jewish pot from boiling over.
“He’s very confident,” Isaacson said. “He brackets almost everything he says with concerns about Israel’s security. He talks about Israel having the tools to defend itself. And he seems to know where the limits are.”
Instead of criticizing the substance of administration policies, the strongest critics at Monday’s meeting complained that the president is too willing to express disagreements with Israel in public, which they say gives the Palestinians and the other Arab states a free pass and undermines support for U.S. policy within Israel.
Obama vigorously defended that policy, saying that a public airing of differences between close friends can only bolster their friendship.
“What we heard from the administration is that the president believes he has an ability to open up to the world in a way that his predecessors didn’t,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “He argues that by reaching out and showing a different approach, we can bring peace and security — he used the word ‘normalization’ — to Israel and the Arabs.”
Foxman pressed Obama to keep policy disputes between the two governments private, arguing that perceived differences between the two allies can be exploited by Palestinian leaders not interested in making compromises.
The president did not back down an inch, he said. “He spelled out that he has a strategy — and the strategy is to tell it like it is. Tell your friends the truth. The problem is, some of us feel he is not telling the truth in a fair way.”
The unintended result, he said, is that “Israel looks like it is the obstacle to peace when it doesn’t agree with U.S. demands. It takes the Palestinians off the hook and it means Israel will not feel secure enough to take risks.” Foxman said he and Malcolm Hoenlein, the Conference of Presidents’ executive vice president, pressed hard on that point — but that “the president disagreed. He said that for the past eight years there was no public difference between the U.S. and Israel — and nothing was accomplished. So it’s time for a change.”
Foxman said he and other critics came away with a sense that Obama administration policy in the region will continue without major change — but the way that that policy is packaged may be refined. Still, there was little opposition to specific Obama administration policies, and several observers said this week’s Jewish outreach efforts gave the administration a tentative green light to proceed with aggressive peace efforts.
“He knows how to push while he’s hugging,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the pro-peace process J Street, who attended the Jewish leadership gathering, another signal of the administration’s desire to hear from a broader segment of the Jewish and pro-Israel communities.
“He embraces the very basic concerns of the Jewish community on issues like security and the U.S.-Israel relationship, and at the same time he is taking them forward on a peace agenda that he believes is in Israel’s interests,” Ben-Ami said.
“It was brilliantly done,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “The fact this meeting took place shows that the White House wanted to grab these issues before they bubbled up. They were proactive. They have 80 percent support from the Jewish community, and they don’t want it to go down to 55.”