Commentary Magazine


Obama, Koch and the Brooklyn Bridge

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch likes nothing better than being the center of attention, and he certainly achieved that last year when his highly publicized role in a special congressional election led to a Republican victory in New York’s 9th congressional district. Koch endorsed Republican Bob Turner, helping him to win the seat that was vacated after Anthony Weiner was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace. The former mayor sought to turn the race into a referendum on the Obama administration’s attacks on Israel. This was a factor in Turner’s defeat of David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew who professed to be as unhappy about the president’s hostility to the Jewish state as the GOP. Though Weprin’s support for gay marriage may have hurt him as much as being associated with President Obama, there’s no denying Koch played a key role in deciding the outcome in what may have been the most heavily Jewish district in the country (gerrymandering has caused the 9th to be divided up this year).

But ever since that triumph, the administration has been paying court to Koch, and he has characteristically responded to their flattery by switching sides on the issue. Since September, he has been one of the loudest advocates of the president’s re-election and recently claimed that it was he, Ed Koch, who caused the administration to change its policies toward Israel. But Koch is giving himself a bit too much credit. The charm offensive aimed at convincing Jewish voters the president is Israel’s best friend to ever sit in the White House actually preceded the NY-9 special election. If it has intensified since last September, more credit must be given to the calendar than to Koch. But ego aside, if the former mayor really thinks the president has “changed” for good when it comes to picking fights for Israel, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn he might be interested in buying.

The transparent nature of the president’s election year conversion on Israel is such that it hasn’t convinced many wavering voters. Polls show Obama losing nearly a quarter of the 78 percent of the Jewish vote he won in 2008. Though he retains the backing of a majority of Jews, it is because they are loyal Democrats who like his liberal policies and don’t prioritize Israel.

Though the administration is, no doubt, happy to get Koch’s applause, his claim that the president has altered his policies due to some degree to his advocacy actually contradicts the Democrats’ campaign appeal to pro-Israel Jews. The party line is to ignore the president’s stands on Jerusalem, the 1967 lines and settlements that tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians and to act as if the administration created the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance rather than merely not destroying it. Though buying into that requires a voter to ignore much of what happened between Israel and the United States from January 2009 to the summer of 2011, it’s probably a more convincing appeal than Koch’s claims, as even the most hard-core partisans understand that election-year conversions are not to be trusted.

Koch is a sincere and stalwart friend of Israel who has stood up on the issue to powerful Democrats such as Jimmy Carter. But most voters understand that once re-elected the president will have the “flexibility” he needs to go back to a policy of pressure on Israel and may also back off on the tough talk about the Iranian nuclear threat. Though the U.S.-Israel alliance is strong enough to survive even four more years of a re-elected Barack Obama, anyone who thinks the administration’s policies in the next four years toward Israel will resemble the rhetoric the president and his surrogates have been using while he is in a desperate fight for his political life may also interested in buying that bridge.