When President Obama travels to New York city for the United Nations General Assembly next week, he may see a number of billboards through the windows of his armored vehicle that might make him uncomfortable: "Obama wants to divide Israel's capital," "Obama questions Israel's desire for peace," "Obama pressured Israel to apologize to terrorists," "Obama attacks Israel at the UN," "Obama: not pro-Israel."
The billboards will stay in place for a full four weeks, with some parallel ads in the press, on local TV stations and on websites. Behind the campaign stands the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), a right-wing political advocacy group that already launched campaigns against some Congressional candidates during last November’s elections.
The battle started with the race for the congressional seat of Democrat Anthony Weiner, who left the House of Representatives in the wake of his Twitter sexting scandal. In the traditionally democratic NY-9 district, special elections with David Weprin, Democratic member of the New York State Assembly, against the Republican Bob Turner, turned out to be a toss-up between the two candidates, with Turner leading in several polls.
Some democrats already complained in the past that President Obama's perceived negative attitude towards Israel might hurt their election chances, so the billboards attacking Obama are trying to kill two birds with one stone. They are aimed not only at voters in the special elections, but also at the dignitaries, journalists, and diplomats who will also be arriving in New York for the UNGA.
"We want Obama to do the right thing - to stand with Israel," Noah Pollak, executive director of the ECI, told Haaretz.
"But he hasn't done the right thing. He ignores Palestinian incitement and anti-Semitism while criticizing Israel constantly over the location of apartments in Jerusalem. His UN Ambassador delivered a tirade against Israel at the UN Security Council. Turkey issues new threats every week, the centrifuges in Iran keep spinning, and the Arab Spring is being used as an excuse to attack Israel," he said.
"Those are the facts. It's not Obama's fault that Erdogan is an Islamist or the Palestinians don't want peace or that a Cairo mob attacked the Israeli embassy - but what is Obama doing about it? What kind of signals does he send to the Middle East when so many of his statements about Israel take the form of criticism? What is he telling Israel's enemies by his reluctance, in both word and deed, to stand with Israel?” Pollak said.
“We expect more from our president. We expect moral clarity and the defense of American values. Obama's response has been inadequate and in some cases, such as pressuring Israel to apologize to Turkey, it has been dangerous. We're beyond the stage of having doubts about Obama's commitment to Israel. We're deeply concerned and we want the President to act, and so we're warning the public," he added.
Although Pollak talks about facts, several statements seem inaccurate. For instance, the claim that Obama "attacks Israel at the UN" is highly problematic. US Ambassador Susan Rice did criticize Israel over its settlement policy, but only after vetoing the UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements.
The division of Jerusalem claim has a big question mark over it as well. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did reiterate on Tuesday that the US still expects the negotiations to restart based on the President's May speech formula, "67 borders with land swaps," but it avoided going into Jerusalem border questions, as this was supposed to be left to direct negotiations.
The claim that “Obama pressures Israel to apologize to terrorists” (hint, in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident), sounds shaky after US efforts toward reconciliation between Turkey and Israel, and appeals to Turkey to avoid "provocative rhetoric," – particularly regarding the weekend when most senior Administration officials, including Obama himself, intervened on Israeli diplomats’ behalf in talks with officials in Cairo.
Alan Solow, a Chicago-based lawyer and former Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations, seems to disagree with the ECI’s sentiments.
"As a Jewish communal leader who is fully familiar with President Obama's policies and record, I would characterize this as part of a continuing partisan effort to misrepresent what the President has stood for and done. His record is clearly that of a strong friend of Israel,” he told Haaretz.
“The military cooperation between the US and Israel is at an unprecedented level. The US is currently undertaking extraordinary efforts to assist Israel at the UN. The PM himself acknowledged that the President himself made the critical difference this past weekend in Egypt. This is consistent with his record as an unequivocal friend of Israel. I believe these attacks reflect an effort to distort his record in order to discourage Jewish voters from supporting a President who is fighting against efforts to block his agenda across the board, including his programs to revive the American economy. When the falsehoods are stripped away, American Jews will strongly support President Obama who stands with them on Domestic and foreign issues alike.” Solow said.
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