Perhaps the best indicator of President Obama’s standing in the Jewish community was the repeated reminders AIPAC sent out implicitly imploring its conference delegates not to boo him. This was the same person who received a rock star welcome in the past but whose policies now are seen as so threatening to Israel that they were undoubtedly a major reason for the record turnout at AIPAC’s annual policy conference.
Obama expected a different reception when he originally accepted the invitation to speak. When he gave his speech on the broader Middle East at the State Department earlier he thought he was giving a pro-Israel speech that would be warmly received and that his appearance at AIPAC would be a victory lap. It didn’t turn out that way.
Obama’s State Department speech, which was far more supportive of Israel’s positions than that of the Palestinians, provoked a firestorm of controversy because of his reference to the 1967 border as the starting point for a future Israeli withdrawal. The statement was misconstrued as a call for a total withdrawal from the west bank – his call for land swaps had indicated Israel would be expected to keep some territory – and he was forced to tell AIPAC what he really meant.
His AIPAC address was again overwhelmingly pro-Israel, but the response ranged from deafening silence to tepid applause. Coming on the heels of reports that the Obama campaign is concerned about losing the support of major Jewish donors, Obama had hoped to shore up a loyal base. Two years of disastrous policies, however, have created feelings in the pro-Israel community that range from suspicion to hostility, with only the most rabid Democratic partisans and the “save Israel in spite of itself” crowd still blindly supportive.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vigorous riposte to Obama’s initial speech and lecturing of the president at the White House would normally make the Israeli lobby jittery, as tensions between presidents and prime ministers are never good for Israel, but Netanyahu was greeted as the rock star when he spoke to AIPAC and, even more so, when he addressed Congress.
Many people were disappointed that Netanyahu did not present a peace plan; however, his description of the realities of the current situation in the region were consistent with the views of the Israeli lobby. By contrast, the president’s Arabist outlook, placing the Palestinian issue as the crux of all the problems in the region while ignoring the implications of the Arab spring for regional stability, is viewed as woefully naÃ¯ve.
Obama has no doubt seen poll data indicating his Jewish support has fallen from the 78 percent he was elected with to the mid-60s. While still a healthy majority, this is the lowest level of support for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter, and could be the difference in key states such as Florida in a close election.
One thing Obama has going for him is the lack of a Republican alternative. Moderate Jewish Democrats are looking for someone who is liberal on social policies but hawkish on defense and unabashedly pro-Israel. No one in the current Republican field fits that bill and it is unlikely such a candidate could win the nomination given the bias in favor of social conservatives in Republican primaries and the influence of the Tea Party. On the other hand, Ronald Reagan got 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 despite his conservative views because of Jimmy Carter’s anti-Israel image. Obama may yet alienate a majority of Jews.
The irony is that Obama’s two recent speeches showed greater support for Israel than his earlier policies – he made no demand for a settlement freeze and recognized that Israel will keep part of the west bank while blasting the Palestinians for refusing to negotiate, uniting with Hamas, and their efforts to delegitimize Israel and unilaterally declare a state.
Clearly, he must do more.
Obama must go to Israel to speak directly to the people. He must show that he feels their pain from six decades of war and terror. He must recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, make clear Palestinian refugees will go to Palestine, and demonstrate understanding of the dangers to Israel posed by Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and regional turmoil. The president should acknowledge Jewish claims to Judea and Samaria and express understanding for the sacrifice involved in making territorial compromises on the west bank. He should renounce the Arabist view that Israel is the source of Mideast instability and the cause of anti-American feelings, and that solving the Palestinian issue is a panacea. He must tell the Israelis he will not try to impose a solution on them and that he will facilitate direct negotiations and demand that the Palestinians cease terror, recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and negotiate without preconditions. Obama must convince Israelis that he understands the risks involved in making peace and that America has their back.
This may be viewed as pandering before the election, but if his deeds match his words, he could win back the doubters, rebuild trust with Israelis, and create the conditions for restarting the peace process. For now, however, 10,000 of Israel’s most staunch supporters sent the president a message that they need to be convinced of his commitment to Israel.