President Barack Obama was more than half way through his address Sunday before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee before he mentioned the issue of the hour: Iran. That may well be because public officials tend to leave the thorniest subjects to later in their speeches. But it struck me as an apt metaphor for American Jewish reaction to the president in this white-hot election year.
Here’s why. Obama devoted the first and largest portion of his Aipac speech to a robust defense of his administration’s policies toward Israel, essentially repeating the phrase he mastered in an interview with Atlantic magazine a few days earlier – that is, he’s got Israel’s back. Anyone who believes this argument will very likely believe the subsequent pledges he made about Iran, because they are logical, systematic, and hold up to the facts as presented.
And those American Jews (and their evangelical Christian counterparts) who don’t believe that this administration has been as staunch an ally of Israel and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as it should be will simply not believe Obama on Iran, either.
In the end, it’s a matter of trust. And politics.
It’s clear that Obama and Netanyahu do not trust each other in the easy, open way in which we mortals would want allied leaders to behave. Both came to office around the same time, but Netanyahu had already served a stint as prime minister of Israel, and is a shrewd political infighter, with initially more experience on the world stage than the young American president. Obama was clumsy and overreaching in his first foray into Middle East diplomacy, caught in the thicket of that region’s Byzantine politics, not helped by an indecisive Palestinian leadership.
But it’s also fair to say that Netanyahu has never gotten along well with Democratic American presidents, and his alliances with Republicans have grown even more explicit during the time this Democrat has been in the White House. So it is possible that the personal relationship between these two leaders never would be warm and trusting. (Let’s pay attention to the body language at their meeting Monday.)
The question for American Jews, and the many other Americans who care about Israel, is whether that should make any difference at all.
Besides being openly sympathetic to Netanyahu’s position during his Aipac speech, Obama spared no effort to defend aggressively his administration’s support of Israel in the political, diplomatic, economic and military spheres. He asked to be judged not only by words, but by deeds.
“So there should not be a shred of doubt by now: when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” he declared. And, with regards to the Palestinians, “I make no apologies for pursuing peace.”
With that stage set, Obama then explained and defended his strategy to persuade Iran not to develop nuclear weapons: to pursue ever-tightening sanctions and international diplomatic pressure against the Islamic republic, while not ruling out a military option. The president is facing domestic pressure from a Congress that seems ever-eager to pick a fight with Iran, spurred on by some American Jewish leaders worried about Israel’s security, and by Republican presidential candidates looking for a way to exploit any apparent weakness in the president.
Still, Obama confidently held his ground before Aipac and warned against “too much loose talk of war”:
“For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built.”
Whether one believes him on Iran depends on whether one believes him, period. Most Jews have done so, and, I predict, will show that they still do when it comes to November’s election.
Obama stepped lightly in this speech, asking nothing of Israel except to tone down the rhetoric on Iran, never mentioning the previously contentious issue of settlement activities as a legitimate obstacle to peace. Even so, that won’t be enough for some American Jews, whose anxieties over Iran are being stoked by a well-funded, highly partisan rightwing campaign to discredit Obama more broadly.
The president seemed to underscore that in his interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, when he noted:
“This is one of the few times in the history of US-Israeli relations where you have a government from the right in Israel at the same time you have a center-left government in the United States, and so I think what happens then is that a lot of political interpretations of our relationship get projected onto this.”
It sure does.
(This post also appears on The Guardian)