President Barack Obama’s speech to the Jewish Federations of North America (formerly UJC) General Assembly next week, his first to a Jewish group since his inauguration, could be a turning point in his low standing in Israeli polls and help blunt the skepticism of many Jewish leaders here about his Middle East policies.
(Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also speak, an embarrassment of media riches for the group.)
But, predictably, there are conflicting ideas about what he needs to do to reconnect to an American Jewish electorate that voted overwhelming for him a year ago but which has grown warier of his stance on Israel since then. And there are doubts a speech in Washington will do much to reverse his sinking standing in Israel, where polls show only about 4 percent of voters regard him as a friend of the Jewish state.
“With all due respect, the way to address the Israeli public is not through the American Jewish public,” said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political consultant and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. “Most Israelis don’t know what the GA is and couldn’t care less about it. That Obama believes this is the way to address Israel says something about the bad advice he is getting.”
Still, the speech is just one element in a new administration strategy — urged by a number of American Jewish leaders — of addressing an Israeli public whose skepticism is a growing obstacle to Obama’s goals in the region. That effort includes Obama’s videotaped message at the Yitzchak Rabin memorial in Tel Aviv this week and his taped message to the recent Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.
“The president is certainly aware of his low pull numbers in Israel; this is an opportunity, short of going there, of addressing them,” said Jess Hordes, Washington director for the Anti-Defamation League.
Obama will emphasize critical Middle East issues, but Washington insiders expect him to also present a strong domestic policy message. The Jewish Federations and affiliated agencies have a huge stake in health care reform proposals that top the administration’s legislative agenda and are front and center on Capitol Hill now.
The GA extravaganza — with its high-profile keynoters and ongoing discussions about the troubled umbrella organization’s future — comes in the wake of a week of U.S.-Middle East diplomacy that has left Jewish leaders scratching their heads.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left a trail of confusion after a swing through the region. At one point she suggested that Israel has made “unprecedented” moves toward satisfying U.S. demands for a halt to settlement construction, but the next day explained that Israel has to “do much more.”
One thing was clear after Clinton’s mission: Washington’s hopes for a quick resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a possible jump to critical “final-status” talks have all but evaporated.
“There have been a number of unfortunate steps in recent months — including the administration’s call for a complete stop to settlement activity,” said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East Programs at the Institute of World Affairs.
And Clinton’s “exaggerated words” when she appeared with Netanyahu last week, Kipper said “created the lasting impression that the U.S. has caved on the issue, and once again the Arabs have to accept the U.S.-Israel position. Clearly that’s not going to work.”
With positions hardening on both sides, direct negotiations are as far away as ever — complicated by the uncertain prospects for upcoming Palestinian elections, she said. “One cannot see any kind of meaningful negotiations going on anytime soon, since the parties are not willing to take the necessary steps to move forward.”
Not surprisingly, pro-peace-process groups want to see the president use Tuesday’s speech to signal tougher, more aggressive U.S. policies for breaking through that stalemate.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and executive director of J Street, said Obama should use the speech to “make the case that the status quo — which some regard as a victory — isn’t going to work, that it’s unacceptable.”
Obama has to connect “with the Jewish community here — and, frankly, in Israel,” Ben-Ami said — and explain that his determination to advance the peace process “comes not out of a utilitarian desire to improve relations with the Islamic world, but that it’s really about the survival of Israel.”
Some pro-peace-process activists are hoping Obama will use his Jewish Federations appearance to announce a much more aggressive U.S. stance toward peace negotiations and a more ambitious timetable.
Ben-Ami thinks that with the administration facing major domestic challenges and an explosive situation in Afghanistan, that’s not likely. “But the moment has to come when they jump back in,” he said.
But most leaders of major Jewish groups say the focus should be on broad assurances on Iran and the U.S. commitment to Israel, not details of new U.S. peace efforts.
“He needs to address the administration strategy for dealing with Iran in a realistic manner that recognizes both its interest in engagement, but also a skeptical awareness of Iran’s history of deception and evasion,” said the ADL’s Jess Hordes. “He needs to show that he has a clear strategy and that he is realistic in his understanding of the issue.”
The speech could also be an opportunity for Obama to “push the reset button on some of his public statements about the U.S.-Israel relationship, and how he intends to get the peace process started again,” Hordes said. “It’s a matter of reassurance, of understanding the basics of reaching out and explaining his policies and approach to the American Jewish community and to Israel.”
The speech should be “aimed at both Israel and the American Jewish audience,” he said.
But Israeli analyst Alpher doubts the effectiveness of indirect outreach to Israel via the Jewish group’s forum.
Instead, he said, the president “should invite himself to Israel and to the Knesset in order to bypass both the American Jewish public and the Netanyahu government, which has an agenda not necessarily compatible with that of Obama.”
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said he expects nothing shocking on Tuesday when Obama mounts the dais under the Jewish Federations banner.
“The contours are pretty clear — no doubt the White House knows the drill by heart,” Harris said. “If he wants to reach into the center of the Jewish community, he has to make it clear he believes that the U.S.-Israel relationship is unshakable, that the road to peace is a necessary road to pursue — but also that he understands that it is fraught with tremendous minefields for Israel. The president needs to make it clear he recognizes those minefields and is determined to avoid them.”
Finally, Obama must reaffirm his commitment “that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons,” Harris said. “If he underscores those three issues, it will have extremely strong reverberations in the Jewish community. It should be broad reassurances on overarching themes.”
But Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna said a presidential pro-Israel pep rally won’t suffice.
“President Obama needs to think about his speech to the Jewish Federations of North America the way he thought about his speech in Cairo,” Sarna said. “He wants to tell folks some things that they want to hear and some things that they may not want to hear.”
What his audience wants to hear, said Sarna, is “praise for the long history of Jewish contributions to philanthropy and social justice, a strong statement on Iran and an inviolable American commitment to the security of the State of Israel. It would be great if he were to repeat what he said about Sderot, to make clear that Israel is allowed to think about the security of its citizens just the way he thinks about the security of American citizens.”
That’s the molasses, but Sarna said that Obama also must deliver some sulfur to Jewish leaders here and to leaders in Jerusalem.
“What they do not want to hear, but need nevertheless to hear from the president, is a clear statement of Israel’s problem,” he said. “It cannot simply annex the land that it moved into in 1967 because it would then cease to be a Jewish state. It cannot expel the Arabs, even though many countries have done such things to populations that they do not like, because Jews above all understand the inhumanity of doing so; it is unthinkable.
“So the only solution,” continued Sarna, “is a Palestinian state, and that state has to be viable. … He has to make it clear that there is no other solution. He can then pledge to advance that solution and perhaps say how.”