by David Remnick
MARCH 29, 2010
For decades, mainstream Israeli politicians have taken pride in their fingertip feel for the subtleties of American life and politics. Israeli diplomats know the meeting halls of the Midwest almost as well as they do the breakfast room at the Regency Hotel. So it has been disturbing to see, during the 2008 Presidential race and after, that some right-wing members of the Israeli political élite, along with some ordinary Israelis, often seem to derive their most acute sense of Barack Obama from Fox News and the creepier nooks of the blogosphere.
Polls and conversations with right-leaning Israelis have long reflected a distrust of Obama and a free-floating anxiety about what they imagine to be his view of the world—specifically, his indifference to Israel. At the margins, and sometimes within them, one even hears the familiar aspersions about the President’s middle name, his childhood interlude in Indonesia, and his marination in a South Side milieu supposedly composed of incendiary preachers, black nationalists, fading Weathermen, and (Oy! Vey ist mir!) Palestinian intellectuals.
Most Israelis were convinced of Bill Clinton’s capacity to reconcile a deep admiration for Israel with a desire to end the occupation of the conquered territories and the suffering of the Palestinians. The Israeli right certainly appreciated George W. Bush for his unquestioning embrace, though most Israeli politicians say they would have preferred that more attention had been paid to the nuclear plants in Iran than to the phantom weapons in Baghdad. In Obama, however, many Israelis think that they are dealing with an American leader who, as one official put it, “has no special feeling for us.” Obama’s customary cool feels icy.
This month’s diplomatic drama, which was set off during Vice-President Biden’s visit by the announcement of sixteen hundred housing units planned for Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, reached its sad nadir last week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagai Ben-Artzi, declared on Israeli radio that Obama was an “anti-Semite.” No one, not even Netanyahu, should be denied his right to an idiot relation, but the remark is less readily dismissed when one recalls reports (later denied) that the Prime Minister himself has referred to David Axelrod (whose West Wing office featured an “Obama for President” sign in Hebrew) and Rahm Emanuel (a civilian volunteer in the Israeli Army during the first Gulf War) as “self-hating Jews.”
The Netanyahu government suffers from a troubling degree of instability, thanks to its far-right coalition partners (including its bigoted foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman) and its ineptitude. The insult to Biden, an ardent Zionist, was just the most recent blunder, following the humiliation of a resident diplomat from Turkey (Israel’s closest friend in the Muslim world) and of the Brazilian President, to say nothing of its presumed role in the assassination of a Hamas military leader on the soil of one of the few open-minded countries in the region. The professionals in Washington and Jerusalem share sufficient diplomatic agility to paper over this latest unpleasantness, but the memory of the trivial-seeming aspects of the dispute—the affronts, the lacerating phone calls—obscures a more unsettling pattern: a deep Israeli misreading of the President and an ignorance of the diversity of opinion among American Jews and in the United States in general.
Take Obama’s supposed indifference to Jews and the State of Israel. Among the many Chicagoans who are apt to find this idea hilarious is the one politician who has beaten him, Bobby Rush. In 2000, Obama, a bored member of the Illinois state senate, challenged Rush, a popular incumbent, for the seat in the state’s First Congressional District, on the South Side. Rush, a former leader of the Black Panthers, viewed Obama as the creation of cynical white liberals—particularly Jewish liberals, who constituted, in his term, a “cabal.”
As a rising politician with Ivy League connections, Obama had financial backing from all over, including from a class of young black entrepreneurs. But he has had Jewish mentors throughout his career. Philanthropists like Bettylu Saltzman, Penny Pritzker, and Lester Crown were crucial to his campaigns. His friend and neighbor the late Arnold Jacob Wolf was a rabbi. Michelle Obama’s cousin Capers C. Funnye, Jr., is the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom, a congregation on the South Side. One of Obama’s closest colleagues in Springfield was Ira Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew, with whom he shared an office suite in the Capitol building; Obama acted as Silverstein’s shabbos goy, turning on lights and pushing elevator buttons for him on Saturdays.
Obama’s Jewish friends and supporters report that they were convinced of his ease among Jews and of his advocacy for a two-state solution, with an emphasis on justice for the Palestinians and on real security for the Israelis. Obama also listened carefully to the arguments of Palestinian friends, such as the historian Rashid Khalidi. And why not? Obama told fund-raising audiences that it was entirely possible to support Israel, even passionately, without endorsing the platform of Likud and the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. One of his mentors in Chicago, Abner Mikva, a former congressman, federal judge, and counsel to Bill Clinton, jokingly told the Chicago Jewish News during the campaign, “I think when this is all over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” O.K., not quite, but he did win seventy-eight per cent of the Jewish vote. Only African-Americans voted for him in higher numbers.
In Israel, however, Netanyahu’s Likud-led government strangely misperceives the currents of American opinion. Netanyahu and his ministers are in the habit of speaking directly to adoring audiences at AIPAC and other groups led by older, conservative philanthropists; they largely overlook younger, more liberal constituencies, which for years have been more questioning of Israel policy. They have shown distinctly less affection for J Street, the newly formed lobbying group intended as a counterweight to AIPAC.
In fairness, many Americans see Israeli politics in atavistic terms, too, yearning for a Labor Party that shattered long ago. Even as they rightly deplore the injustice of the occupation and last year’s war in Gaza, they fail to recognize the complexity of trying to reach a final resolution when the Palestinians are so deeply and ruinously divided and when so many Israeli supporters of a two-state solution have, after Oslo, Camp David, and Taba, despaired of getting a workable deal.
The essential question for Israel is not whether it has the friendship of the White House—it does—but whether Netanyahu remains the arrogant rejectionist that he was in the nineteen-nineties, the loyal son of a radical believer in Greater Israel, forever settling scores with the old Labor élites and making minimal concessions to ward off criticism from Washington and retain the affections of his far-right coalition partners. Is he capable of engaging with the moderate and constructive West Bank leadership of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, and making history? Does there exist a Netanyahu 2.0, a Nixon Goes to China figure who will act with an awareness that demographic realities—the growth not only of the Palestinian population in the territories but also of the Arab and right-wing Jewish populations in Israel proper—make the status quo untenable as well as unjust?
Without the creation of a viable contiguous Palestinian state, comprised of a land area equivalent to all of the West Bank and Gaza (allowing for land swaps), and with East Jerusalem as its capital, it is impossible to imagine a Jewish and democratic future for Israel. There is nothing the Israeli leadership could do to make the current fantasy of an indifferent American leadership become a reality faster than to get lost in the stubborn fantasy of sustaining the status quo. ♦
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