As Barack Obama’s presidency stretches into its final quarter, relations between the United States and Israel have reached the breaking point. Having come into office determined to put “daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem, as the president told Jewish leaders in 2009, the Obama administration is now discarding the basic assumptions underpinning the U.S.-Israel alliance. The equities of the Arab–Israeli conflict, the nature of the Iranian threat, the region’s security architecture—all the old certainties have given way to the president’s quest for a rapprochement with the Iranian regime and a new balance of power in the Middle East.
Even as it seeks a regional order that will come at Israel’s expense, however, the White House professes a great love of the Jewish state. Those who doubt this love, administration spokesmen say, are “politicizing” the Israel issue. This raises a critical question: What does it mean to be pro-Israel in the age of Obama?
That America and Israel are in some fundamental sense diverging is beyond question. Speaking in March before a gathering of the progressive advocacy outfit J Street, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called for ending “an occupation that has lasted 50 years.” He was probably referring to the “occupation” of territories the Jewish state acquired after winning a defensive war in 1967. The 50th anniversary of that victory is still two years away. Perhaps McDonough was rounding up.
Ending the occupation of the West Bank through a negotiated settlement has been a bipartisan aim of U.S. diplomacy. But to speak of it as McDonough did—as if the Jews made a wanton land-grab half a century ago and must now disgorge its fruits—was a stunning departure from the traditions of American policy, not to mention the historical record. Here was the U.S. president’s chief of staff sounding not unlike, say, a Norwegian anti-Israel activist.
Days earlier, in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest issued a thinly veiled threat that Washington might withdraw its support for Jerusalem at the United Nations. Netanyahu, in the heat of the campaign, had just made remarks ruling out the
formation of a Palestinian state during his premiership. These ill-phrased comments were open to misinterpretation by a hostile press, and his later warning to supporters that Arab Israeli voters were coming out “in droves” was ugly.
The prime minister soon clarified his statehood position and apologized to Israeli Arabs, but the White House kept hounding him. Speaking to the Huffington Post after the election, Obama reiterated the UN threat: “We take him at his word when he said that [statehood] wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region”—as if Netanyahu’s hardnosed view of Palestinian statehood was the only cloud in the otherwise friendly Mideast skies.
By contrast, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called Israel a “rabid dog” in 2013, an unnamed senior U.S. official told BuzzFeed that this made him feel “uncomfortable.” Khamenei’s genocidal sloganeering—for what does one do with a rabid dog?—didn’t draw condemnation, let alone delay Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with the Tehran regime. Having reportedly dissuaded Netanyahu from taking military action against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program during his first term on the grounds that he would make sure Iran never got the bomb, Obama in his second term started talks that quickly became predicated on the inevitability of Iran’s becoming a nuclear power.
For his cooperation, Netanyahu was labeled a “coward” and a “chickenshit” by Obama officials speaking anonymously to the press. And Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein told the child Netanyahu to “contain himself.”
Israel’s defense on the world stage, once a transcendent cause, is now hostage to the whims of a vindictive president who has pinned his legacy to turning away from America’s traditional allies, Israel above all. The administration’s cheerleaders in the media and surrogates within the American-Jewish community may pretend otherwise, but the Jewish state now faces a White House that is oblivious to regional realities, is disdainful of the Israeli body politic, and is flirting with the lexicon and tactics of delegitimization.
Yet this turn away from Israel has been accompanied at every step by barrages of pro-Israel platitudes. The worse the White House’s treatment of Jerusalem gets, the more ardent its pro-Israel rhetoric becomes.
“Ours is a deep and abiding partnership between two vibrant democracies,” said McDonough in the same speech that saw the administration adopt the logic of Arab rejectionists. “Our commitments to our partnership with Israel are bedrock commitments, rooted in shared fundamental values, cemented through decades of bipartisan reinforcement,” said U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, days before the White House hinted at the possibility of abandoning Israel at the Security Council.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice even broke into Hebrew in her ode to the U.S.-Israel bond at this year’s gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “Our alliance grows l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation,” she said, adding: “President Obama’s commitment to Israel is deep and personal. I know, because I see it every day. I first saw it when I accompanied then–Senator Obama to Israel in 2008. I saw it when he surveyed with horror the stacks of charred rockets that Hamas had fired on Israel.” This, from the same White House that tried to block munitions transfers to the Israel Defense Forces amid last summer’s Gaza operation, which was launched to silence Hamas rockets targeting civilian population centers.
The dissonance between the Obama administration’s rhetoric and reality isn’t limited to its Israel policy. From the Sunni Arab states to Ukraine, American allies have grown accustomed to a White House that professes the deepest love even as it shirks old commitments and embraces their enemies. In Israel’s case, the gap between rhetoric and treatment is especially wide, and appalling, since few American allies enjoy as much popular support as the Jewish state does. Saudi Arabia, the Baltic States, France, and Brazil are all allies, but you don’t see thousands of Americans descending each year on Capitol Hill to lobby on their behalf.
The administration’s bet all along has been that it can degrade the alliance from within while maintaining an outward narrative of stalwart support for Israel. This strategy has largely succeeded, and the best measure of its success is the sense of disorientation today within the pro-Israel camp, especially among many pro-Israel Democrats as they come to grips with how, in 2015, abandoning Jerusalem to the diplomatic wolves at the UN is not only a possibility—but can even be justified as an act of tough love for a wayward Jewish state.
How did we get here? The Obama administration’s efforts to redefine the term pro-Israel to mean nearly its opposite have benefited from three broad developments that have blindsided the actual pro-Israel community.
First, beginning in the president’s first term, administration supporters in the journalism and think-tank worlds began promoting figures and ideas once relegated to the fringe into the mainstream of elite opinion. Anti-Israelism, often bleeding into Jew-hatred, has long thrived on the American far left and especially among academe. But whereas in Europe post-1967 anti-Israelism quickly found a home within mainstream social democracy, the U.S. Democratic Party largely resisted its tug.
Until the arrival of Barack Obama, that is. The Obama administration didn’t create the anti-Israel waves now engulfing the Democrats. The hostility had already been bubbling beneath the surface in the early-2000s Net-roots and blogs, such as Democratic Underground and Daily Kos, which began shaping progressive discourse on foreign policy after the attacks of 9/11. But the Obama administration learned to harness that hostility, opening the door to some of its messengers.
Consider the Center for American Progress (CAP). The progressive think tank has served as a brain trust for the Obama administration, with leaders and fellows cycling in and out of government in the Obama years. CAP’s blog, Think Progress, is where many of the administration’s talking points first percolate. It has also been a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. In the winter of 2011, CAP faced a crisis over a Think Progress staffer’s repeated use of Israel-firster—a term with origins in the white-nationalist movement—to describe American supporters of the Jewish state. The staffer resigned, and CAP issued an apology.
The “Israel-firster” brouhaha and its aftermath masked a still more troubling fact: that Think Progress’s approach to the Middle East as a whole is Israel-obsessed, shaped by the belief that Israel’s presence in the Palestinian territories is a unique evil, a stain on the American soul. “Like segregation in the American South, the siege of Gaza (and the entire Israeli occupation, for that matter) is a moral abomination that should be intolerable to anyone claiming progressive values,” wrote Think Progress blogger Matt Duss in May 2010. Five years later, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough would speak about the conflict in similar, if more muted, terms.
Or take the liberal New America Foundation, which in 2013 lent its platform to Max Blumenthal, an anti-Israel agitator who routinely compares the Jewish state to Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the Obama State Department, was then and remains president and CEO of New America. Pressed on its invitation to Blumenthal, New America took refuge in its commitment to free inquiry. “Free societies need this kind of cleansing discussion, and they need to be able to tolerate and hear it even when it’s ‘unbalanced’ or ‘goes too far,’” wrote Atlantic magazine correspondent and New America board member James Fallows at the time. This was a dodge. Critics weren’t calling for Blumenthal to be censored, but for New America to account for failing to fulfill its gatekeeping function against cranks.
And herein lay the crux of the matter. Slaughter and Fallows were correct that inviting Max Blumenthal isn’t tantamount to endorsing all his views. Even so, such invitations shift the margins of the debate, so that positions that seemed outlandish and reprehensible a few years ago attain respectability, or at least they enter the realm of the possible. One day it seems crazy for the United States to join with the tyrants and anti-Semites at the United Nations to pressure the world’s sole Jewish state. The next day, it doesn’t.
Influential think tanks and journalists would have taken the Obama administration only so far. To radically alter the U.S.-Israel relationship, the White House also needed the backing of a domestic lobby to counterbalance the pro-Israel establishment led by AIPAC. Bonus points if this new lobby could lay claim to Jewish values and identity.
Enter J Street. Founded in 2008, J Street presented itself as the progressive alternative to Jewish organizations that, it charged, march in lockstep with Israeli leaders, no matter how misguided or immoral their policies. The organization was to be a “home for pro-Israel, pro-peace” Americans, who worry that Israel’s failure to extricate itself from the lives of some 5 million Palestinians will soon threaten its status as either a Jewish or democratic state. If Israelis on their own lacked the will to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve a two-state solution, then it was up to progressive American Jews to bring peace, by pressing the levers of U.S. power if need be.
To meet this aim without abetting Israel’s enemies would have required immense ideological discipline on the part of the new lobby. J Streeters would have to take seriously the perils facing the Jewish state, including Iran’s nuclearization, the rise of political Islam, and the campaign in elite quarters to delegitimize Israel. They would have to respect the sovereign decisions of the Israelis, recognizing that it is they—not American Jews with anguished consciences—who would have to pay the price in blood for any ill-conceived land-for-peace schemes. And they would have to retain a sense of perspective about the relative importance of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict: The moral coarsening wrought by a decades-long occupation is a real tragedy, but it is a minor one in a region of Sudanese génocidaires, Baathist chemical warriors, and homosexual-hanging ayatollahs.
As it soon became clear, however, J Street’s leaders had entirely different notions of what it means to be pro-Israel. J Street has flirted with elements of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement and lobbied against congressional sanctions on Iran. It helped promote the UN’s Goldstone report, which accused Israel of war crimes in 2009’s Gaza operation only to be retracted by its author, the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. A campus chapter of J Street discarded the “pro-Israel” half of its motto in 2009. “We don’t want to isolate people,” the chapter reasoned, “because they don’t feel quite so comfortable with ‘pro-Israel,’ so we say ‘pro-peace.’” And Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami has refused to say whether his organization is Zionist: “It is silly to insist that any organization that supports Israel say it is Zionist.”
Most important, the organization has been a standard-bearer for the hoary theory of “linkage,” which holds that much if not all the instability in the Middle East, and the threats to the United States emanating from the region, can be attributed to the absence of a negotiated settlement to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute. As Ben-Ami wrote in a 2010 New York Times letter to the editor: “An analysis of the Obama administration’s calculus on Middle East policy should reflect that many in the Jewish community recognize that resolving the conflict is not only necessary to secure Israel’s future, but also critical to regional stability and American strategic interests.”
The eruption of popular uprisings across the Arab world, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and North Africa’s descent into Islamist chaos have shattered the linkage theory, and yet it remains at the heart of J Street’s Mideast vision—notwithstanding the more than 200,000 people killed and millions more displaced in Syria’s civil war, the collapse of several Arab states, the ISIS rampage in Mesopotamia, and the widening sectarian war pitting the Sunni world against Shiite Iran and its proxies. In this way, J Street melds the parochialism of Jewish politics with the Israel obsession of the progressive left.
It has often been so with the Obama administration. Recall how Secretary of State John Kerry spent days conducting shuttle diplomacy between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while a slaughter of biblical proportions was underway next door in Syria. True to linkage-theory form, Kerry even blamed the absence of a two-state solution for the rise of Islamic State, telling reporters last October that stalled Israel–Palestine peace talks are “a cause of [ISIS] recruitment and of street anger and agitation.” As a Hill lobby, J Street has had triumphs few and far between—one of the Iran sanctions measures it opposed passed the House 414 votes to six, a typical legislative outcome for the group—but that was never the point. In J Street, the Obama administration found a Jewish voice to echo its own misconceptions about the Middle East, and its antipathy for Israel.
Finally, the Obama White House brought the mainstream Jewish establishment to heel by framing low-cost assistance—military aid and, until recently, support at the UN—as unprecedented acts of generosity. And the president and his senior officials learned that parroting vapid pro-Israel-speak suffices to persuade many American Jews that the administration has Israel’s back. There’s a reason journalists have created parody bingo charts for speeches at AIPAC confabs: Check off unbreakable bond, all options on the table, and special relationship, and you win.
The Obama administration’s turn against Israel, moreover, benefited from a new style of pro-Israel advocacy that has come into fashion in the last two decades. Under this model, the case for Zionism first formulated more than a century ago by Theodor Herzl doesn’t suffice to legitimize the Jewish state. Rather, pro-Israel organizations must highlight every sign of the tolerance of the Jewish state: Look at this gay-pride parade in Jerusalem! Behold this Arab Muslim serving proudly in the IDF! It’s not that these achievements should be ignored: Zionism has proved an extraordinary triumph of liberal nationalism. But the trouble with such feel-good hasbara is that it betrays an inner insecurity or defensiveness about Israel rather than confidence. It does little to persuade the convinced Israel-haters, who are rarely known for their faith in liberal democracy to begin with. Such advocacy, moreover, is a double-edged sword: The more you uphold Israel as exceptionally moral, the more every moral failing will count against the Jewish state. One should be proud of the achievements of Israeli liberalism but remember that even if the Jewish state were a tenth as tolerant, it would still be as legitimate as every other nation, with politicians just as prone to occasional lapses into demagogy as the ones occupying the White House.
Groups such as AIPAC, moreover, prize access to lawmakers and civic leaders above all—an understandable reaction to the bitter lessons of Jewish history. That, plus the fact that American Jews still vote overwhelmingly Democratic, has meant that these groups are cautious to a fault about confronting a president who carried nearly 80 percent of their community in 2008 and nearly 70 percent four years later. That forbearance at crucial points in the past six years allowed the White House to have its way on key personnel and substantive debates. AIPAC, for example, stayed out of Chuck Hagel’s nomination battle for secretary of defense, despite the former senator’s cringe-inducing record of apologetics for Iran. The group was also slow to embrace the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, aimed at strengthening the administration’s hand in negotiations with the Tehran regime.
As the White House’s anti-Israel outrages pile up, patience might run out. The administration senses the threat. In an interview published after the Lausanne talks, Obama told the New York Times:
It has been personally difficult for me to hear…expressions that somehow…this administration has not done everything it could to look out for Israel’s interest—and the suggestion that when we have very serious policy differences, that that’s not in the context of a deep and abiding friendship and concern and understanding of the threats that the Jewish people have faced historically and continue to face.
American and Israeli leaders, the president said, shouldn’t “try to work with just one side” in each of their countries. This appeal for bipartisanship was a classic Obama rhetorical gesture. Having upended the alliance, in part by deploying politics of the basest sort, the president now says those opposed to the changes are politicking an arena that should be left beyond politics. When I launch policies that harm you, it’s out of love and because I know your interests better than you do. Let’s not get political.
Perhaps the Obama administration and its allies will stretch the term pro-Israel beyond all recognition, thus prompting a more honest discussion, in the United States and in Israel, about what it means—and what it doesn’t mean—to support the Jewish state. Such a debate would have a salutary, clarifying effect within the pro-Israel camp. If we’re lucky, being pro-Israel will once again come to mean treating an ally like an ally; not demanding a beleaguered democracy in the world’s least free and least stable region to behave like a Scandinavian country when defending itself; and giving Israelis, like free people everywhere, the space to determine their own national destiny and even make their own mistakes.