Accustomed as he is to public speaking here and around the country, David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, can read an audience as well as anyone. Lately, he says, he is "hearing a growing number of questions and concerns about the U.S.-Israel relationship, and a sense that the Obama administration’s response to the Iran crisis was slower than it should have been."
Harris is not alone. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, says the normal anxiety level among American Jews when a new administration takes shape has been heightened to new levels because President Obama "champions change, and American Jews tend to approve of U.S. policy toward Israel and don’t necessarily welcome change" on that front.
Leaders of American Jewish organizations note an unease among mainstream supporters of Israel and Jewish causes — we’re not talking about marginal "Obama is a Muslim" critics here — who say they voted for and admire Barack Obama and support many of his policies, but feel he is being overly critical of Israel and too soft on the Palestinians and on an Iranian regime bent on developing nuclear weapons that could end up aimed at the Jewish state.
As one leader put it: "Moderate people come up to me and ask, ‘Should I be worried?’ "
It’s a good question, though it’s being whispered more than spoken these days.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group on policy issues supporting Israel, was quoted recently in an interview as saying Jewish leaders "are expressing concern" over Obama’s June 4 Cairo speech, particularly its comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He later said his remarks were taken out of context, but he told me the other day that "judging from phone calls" he has received, and other responses, "there is an increasing unease" about a number of the Obama administration’s recent statements and actions.
Those include the president’s reference in his Cairo speech to 7 million American Muslims, when in fact most studies believe the number to be closer to 2.5 million; the narrative suggesting that Israel’s roots go back only as far as the Holocaust rather than to the Bible; the public pressure on Israel to halt settlements — as if they represented the key to peace rather than the Palestinians’ consistent refusal to recognize a Jewish state in the region — and the lack of specific demands on the Palestinians; and the concern that the president is still determined to engage in dialogue with Iran, despite the regime’s brutal behavior following national elections last month.
Is it possible that the "unbreakable bonds" between Israel and the U.S. that the president referred to in his Cairo speech are on shaky grounds? And is the gap growing between leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations and the majority of American Jews, more than three-quarters of whom voted for Obama, support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian crisis and may well agree that settlements are a hindrance to peace?
Several of those leaders, speaking off the record, account for the gap by pointing out that they are more knowledgeable than most people about the complexities of U.S.-Israeli policy, following it every day on a high level. They note, for example, that on the topic of settlements, most American Jews (and most Israelis, for that matter), do not distinguish between large, established suburbs of Jerusalem, like Ma’ale Adumim, with a population of 35,000, and hilltop outposts led by a handful of religious zealots attracting media attention.
Not all settlements are equal, and virtually every peace proposal under serious discussion calls for those settlements in the vicinity of Jerusalem, containing the majority of the West Bank Jewish population, to end up as part of Israel. President George W. Bush acknowledged in his 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that "in light of the new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion."
But the Obama administration has a different take, and its seemingly willful refusal to recognize past U.S. commitments makes Israeli leaders worry about the trustworthiness of guarantees in the future.
Several weeks ago Secretary of State Hilary Clinton asserted that President Obama "wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions." Such a blunt, public statement about a close strategic ally caused a ripple of worry among Jewish leaders, one of whom told me the only conclusion he could reach was that the administration wanted to bring down the Netanyahu government, hoping it would be replaced by a more moderate one.
But both Israeli and American Jewish leaders are well aware of the widespread popularity of President Obama and are reluctant to take him on. There is a debate going on among Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem; some are describing the administration as unfriendly while others are urging caution and a more nuanced response.
Hoenlein says the point is to "deal honestly on the issues themselves, not the personalities. You deal with substance, and with sensitivity — not always in the media. These issues are of such consequence that we dare not avoid confronting them forthrightly, and we are respected when we do that. You don’t whitewash issues that are troubling."
Complicating the problem further is that this administration is relying less on American Jewish leaders for input because two of the most powerful men in government, with daily access to the president, are high-profile Jews: senior adviser David Axelrod and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
When one Jewish organizational leader questioned a White House aide as to why the president only sought advice from American Muslim leaders prior to the Cairo speech, he said he was told: "Why should we invite Jews in? We have so many here."
The ADL’s Foxman says, "What troubles me most is a lack of consultation and the need [for the administration] to do things publicly. There’s a [U.S.-Israel] relationship of 60 years and all of a sudden they’re treating Israel like everyone else. I find that disturbing."
At this point it is difficult to tell how much of the backdoor complaining from some Jewish leaders is about serious policy concerns and how much is sour grapes over reduced access. What is clear is that there is worry that this administration, with its emphasis on change, appears convinced it can resolve the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict within two years, and seems bent on extracting concessions from Israel before getting tough with the Palestinians. And there are worries that after pledging dialogue with increasingly intractable enemies like Iran, Obama has no substantive Plan B.
None of the leaders I spoke with think this administration wants to endanger Israel in any way. Far from it. But some question whether focusing on settlements was an attempt to weaken Netanyahu and split the American Jewish community.
For now, it’s important for supporters of Israel to make their voices heard, pointing out the nuances and critical distinctions in discussing "the settlements"; emphasizing that the crux of the problem is and has always been Palestinian intransigence, terrorism and refusal to accept a Jewish state; and pressing Washington for a clear policy on dealing with Iran, and the Palestinians, beyond diplomacy.