'Tough Love' Obama Courts Jewish Democrats in Advance of Iran Showdown

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U.S. President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, May 21, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The primary object of U.S. President Obama’s fascinating interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic published on Thursday was not, to my mind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nor was it aimed at swaying Israeli public opinion.

President Obama was addressing, first and foremost, his core constituency of American Jewish liberal voters. He is seeking to shore up their support so that they will help, or at least not hamper, his efforts to ensure that no more than 12 Democratic Senators, at worst, defect to the Republican side to form a veto-proof majority against a nuclear deal with Iran, if and when it comes up for a vote in the Senate.

The Iran deal is now the name of the game for the White House, and it is the only game in town: Obama’s overtures, including his speech on anti-Semitism at Adas Yisrael synagogue in Washington on Thursday, should be viewed, first and foremost, through that prism.

That’s why I’m not as certain as much of the Israeli media that Obama had meant to warn or even threaten Netanyahu of the “profound consequences” that might arise from some of the prime minister’s controversial statements, including those he made on Election Day about Israeli Arabs. From the transcript of the entire Q&A that Goldberg published, it seems to me that Obama was referring to the harsh criticism that the White House had already leveled at Netanyahu as consequences that have already been incurred, in past tense, rather than warning of those that were still to come in the future.

Given his overarching objective to calm his jittery Jewish-Democratic base and their representatives in Congress, it doesn’t seem to me that Obama would use this opportunity to re-escalate his already frayed ties with Bibi.

Nonetheless, Obama places himself squarely as Netanyahu’s ideological adversary, especially on the Palestinian issue. He is clearly alluding to Netanyahu when he notes that “if feels to me as if all we are talking about is based from fear.” And he rejects the “pernicious” nature of statements made by Netanyahu’s benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, who told the Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt in 2011 that Obama’s policies “are liable to bring about the destruction of the Jewish state”.

With Adelson and others of his ilk obviously on his mind, Obama returned to the theme that has been dogging him since the 2008 presidential campaign, when he told Jewish leaders, somewhat naively, that being pro-Israel should not be equated with being pro-Likud. “There has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government. If you are willing to get into public disagreements with the Israeli government, then the notion is that you are being anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish. I completely reject that.” His ardent admirers at the much-maligned J Street couldn’t have said it any better. 

Obama was doing what comes to him naturally: talking the talk of liberal American Jews, at least those who still care enough about Israel one way or another. Not standing up for Israel would be a “moral failing” he said. He spoke of his admiration and support for Israel, invoking old-time liberal Jewish icons Golda and Dayan and kibbutzim for the umpteenth time, but he also defended the “tough love”, in his eyes, that the White House has been handing out to Netanyahu over his statements and policies.

Obama estimates, and he may have polls to back him up, that Netanyahu and his new government are out of favor with even the more fervent Israel-supporters in his Democratic base: a harsh blow might be damaging, but not a series of raps on Netanyahu’s knuckles.  

After all, at one point Obama even compares his spats with Netanyahu to his disagreements with none other than liberal demigod Senator Elizabeth Warren, an analogy that would probably take both her and Bibi by complete surprise. Alluding to his recent spat with Warren over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Obama said:  “The fact that I agree with Elizabeth Warren on 90 percent of issues is not news. That we disagree on one thing is news.”

The interview was presumably conducted before the ill-advised and since-revoked Israeli decision on segregated bus lines for Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, but Obama’s own analogies between Jews and African Americans highlight what raw nerves would have been touched by the decision. “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law. These things are indivisible in my mind,” Obama said. He then added that he wants Israel to embody “the same values that led to the end of Jim Crow and slavery” - the same Jim Crow laws which underpinned the segregated bus lines that figured so prominently in the Civil Rights Movements, from Rosa Parks in Montgomery to the Freedom Riders, of which a sizeable proportion was Jewish.

Obama was talking to Goldberg in terms of the feel-good American Jewish maxim of tikkun olam and he will be undoubtedly pleased by Goldberg’s comment that he reminded him of a progressive Jewish rabbi. By now, however, Obama should have been disabused of his nave belief that if he loved Israel as Jewish liberals do – these days, perhaps even more than they do – he would be tolerated by Israel-lovers of other political outlooks as well.

Of course, the opposite is true: Jewish right-wingers, in Israel and America, often save their most venomous invective for such knee-jerk Jewish do-gooders. By sounding like a spokesman for J-Street or the New Israel Fund, Obama pours fuel on the right-wing’s burning rage against him, but he is hoping to quell some of the doubts that are simmering in his own ranks about his handling of Iran and ISIS, if not Netanyahu himself. 

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