Last summer, Alan Dershowitz wrote a defense of Barack Obama’s policy toward Israel and, by extension, of the numerous Jewish Democrats who had supported the president’s election and stuck by him despite a rocky first few months in office. Reacting to what he acknowledged was a “harsher approach toward Israel” than had been displayed during his campaign, Dershowitz insisted that despite disputes over settlements and engagement with Iran, the new administration was still solid on what was really important: safeguarding Israel’s security.
But as I wrote at the time, rather than encouraging the Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world to finally make peace with Israel, Obama’s decision to distance himself from Israel and downgrade America’s alliance with the Jewish state encouraged its foes to dig in their heels and to wait for more American pressure. By picking a needless fight with Israel over settlements and expanding a longstanding disagreement over Jewish settlement in the West Bank into one about the right of Jews to build in Jerusalem, Obama changed the dynamic of the relationship with Israel into one characterized by distrust rather than friendship.
Yet by the start of Obama’s second year in office, the situation appeared brighter. The contempt with which Iran had treated his outstretched hand had appeared to sober Obama up about engagement. Having failed in an effort to topple the newly elected government of Israel led by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009 and been disappointed by the Palestinians’ refusal to talk peace, the president seemed to have finally grasped the limitations on his power to remake Middle East.
But such optimism was dashed this past week as Washington seized on a poorly timed announcement of a housing project in Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to set off a major confrontation with the Netanyahu government. By choosing to turn a minor gaffe into a major incident while ignoring far worse Palestinian provocations, and specifically attempting to muscle Israel into a pledge to stop building in East Jerusalem — something no previous administration had ever done — Obama showed that brutal pressure on Israel remained high on his agenda. Having already reneged on previous pledges of American support for Israel’s holding on to parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem, the president is doubling down on his drive to bludgeon the Jewish state into further concessions without any hope of reciprocation from the Palestinians. Washington has placed the onus for the certain failure of peace talks on Netanyahu rather than on a Palestinian leadership that has no intention of signing any agreement no matter what it says. And by responding more forcefully to a minor dispute with its ally Israel than to the endless atrocities and provocations committed by the Islamist regime in Tehran, Obama has sent a clear signal that no one need take his pledge to stop Iran’s nuclear program seriously.
That raises the question of what Obama’s Jewish supporters have to say now. While Dershowitz and other Jewish Democrats may still claim that statements by Secretary of State Clinton and other officials of America’s resolve to stand by Israel reflect the real nature of the relationship, the latest round of bitter and pointless controversy over Jerusalem orchestrated by Obama must leave even the most ardent fans of the president wondering.
Some on the Jewish Left, like the J Street lobby, are happy to see the administration bashing Netanyahu, because they hope American pressure can reverse the outcome of the last election, in which Israel’s left-wing parties crashed and burned. But while the majority of American Jews may not be particularly fond of Netanyahu or supportive of West Bank settlers, they, like the vast majority of Israelis, do not wish to see Jerusalem divided. Nor do they believe that Israel needs to be saved from itself. Like most Americans, they understand that the Palestinians, both the moderates of Fatah and the extremists of Hamas who rule Gaza, are the real obstacles to peace, not a democratically elected government of Israel.
Two years ago, Obama wooed American Jews at an AIPAC conference by pledging his devotion to the alliance with Israel. As AIPAC begins its annual conference this week, the distance that Obama’s administration has traveled from those pledges will be hard to ignore.