Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Puzzle of Obama as Not Pro-Israel

NY Mag has a good and much-talked about article up on President Obama's struggles to be seen as "pro-Israel", even though by any objective metric he has been a stalwart supporter of the Jewish state. President Obama has leaned upon Israel, this is true, but he has also leaned upon the Palestinians as well. Moreover, Obama's pressure on Israel has in my view clearly been in support of policies in Israel's own interests anyway (the settlements are catastrophic for Israel from both a moral and strategic perspective). His outlook on the conflict mirrors of that of many prominent Israelis, most notably opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

But therein lies a large part of the problem. President Obama's positions are perfectly within the Israeli mainstream. But they happen to be reflected by the party out of power. The current Prime Minister and Obama do not see eye-to-eye. It is easy to cast personal and political tensions between the two as tension between America and Israel.

I actually think David Bernstein has a solid read on this. I don't think that Obama was actively trying to bring down Bibi's coalition (though I don't think he would have shed any tears if it had happened), but I agree that President Obama's avowed "anti-Likud" standpoint is going to be problematic when Likud is in power. President Obama is clearly correct that "pro-Israel" and "pro-Likud" are not the same thing, but the potential for political awkwardness is obvious.

Bernstein also notes the rise of Israel as a central part of conservative domestic political mobilization as something President Obama didn't anticipate. I think this is right as well, but I think Bernstein elides a critical part of this story. The effort by the GOP to turn Israel into a partisan wedge necessarily implies that there will be a concerted effort by GOP operatives to cast President Obama as anti-Israel regardless of whether the attack is fair or not. That's how politics works, of course -- it is not as if virulent Obama opponents are going to come out and say "hey, he's got a point." They are going to try and find an avenue for why whatever it is he's advocating represents bad policy by a bad president who should be defeated. The conservative critique, in other words, doesn't flow organically out of policy disputes, but is political theater promulgated by political opponents who hate Obama far more than they love Israel.

The most obvious example of this was Noah Pollak, who in 24 hours did a complete 180 on his beliefs about what policies were good for Israel after realizing the opportunity to launch an attack ad against the President. This helps illuminate part of President Obama's sin: he is guilty of caring about Israel enough to actually have opinions about it, and try and promote them. People like Pollak, on the other hand, appear to be complete mercenaries when it comes to Israel -- they don't have actual beliefs about what is best for Israel, they just have a political calculation about how to use Israel to hurt Obama. Others explicitly urge that to be "pro-Israel" is to lack any such beliefs -- a standpoint which is frankly bizarre. If I told you I cared deeply about America and its future, and you said "Oh really? What policies do you support?" and I replied "oh, it doesn't matter to me -- whatever the current government decides, I'll just support that", you'd be right to challenge just how deep my commitment runs. Caring about something means having opinions about it.

Obviously, one can be genuinely pro-Israel and disagree with President Obama. But a sober look at political realities requires us to admit that a not-insubstantial portion of the political attack on Obama comes from those who have no discernible (or at least stable) opinions about Israel at all -- who view Israel as a useful rhetorical tool to bash the President and will happily mouth whatever position makes those attacks feasible at any given time. These people, of course, are no real friends of Israel at all, and as Robert Wexler boldly put forth today, it is Israelis who will "pay in blood" for it.


Cycle Cyril said...

When Obama speaks he has numerous and specific steps that Israel must take in order advance peace. When Israel has a "transgression" he is quick to reprimand.

But with regards to the Palestinians he has few and generic demands. When the Palestinians act in a provocative manner (such as having mickey mouse like characters teach anti-Semitism) there is silence.

The New York article is, at best, an example of willful blindness, which the Jews of NY 9, many of whom having a religion other than liberalism, are not subject to.

Smoke and Mirrors said...

These times are littered with short term blog liked thinking invading strategic and involved political calculations.

US Policy making, headed by Obama and Clinton team has done their homework and is warning nay sayers about the risk of their political mis-calculations on Israel.

It is a pity that Israel and its large American lobby is wallowing in its massive hubris. They all are blinded and cannot stand up and listen its best interests.

To all - Make appropriations for peace and be willing to negotiate in earnest. This is the only way forward - anything short of this can be very destructive.