How AIPAC Beat J Street

It has the formula for healing the dangerous U.S.-Israeli trust deficit that emerged under Obama.

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images
Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

For decades, the number one rule of ally-to-ally diplomacy governing America’s relations with our closest friends was simple and straightforward: We settled our differences in private.

But when President Barack Obama’s administration took office three years ago, that axiom appeared to fall out of practice — at least when it came to the U.S. relationship with Israel.

The White House struck a confrontational stance with Israel from the outset, choosing to elevate the issue of Jewish housing construction across the 1949 armistice lines, even in Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem, as the fundamental issue of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The administration also refused to acknowledge prior understandings between the United States and Israel — breaking with American promises that had come in conjunction with irreversible Israeli concessions.

Some, like Michael Lerner of the fringe-left Tikkun magazine and self-proclaimed "pro-Israel and pro-peace" group J Street, an old-wine new-bottle version of groups long calling for pressure on Israel, cheered the White House’s approach. Many were frequent visitors to the West Wing. Their calls for an increasingly confrontational style with the Jewish state were suddenly en vogue.

In more recent months, however, things have changed. As ideology gave way to reality, longtime Middle East hands and mainstream pro-Israel organizations, which have long argued the Obama administration’s publicly confrontational approach was faulty, appear to have won the White House over to their side. 

This transformation was on full display during the president’s remarks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference, which has gathered 14,000 people in Washington to voice their support for a close U.S.-Israel relationship. "[T]here should not be a shred of doubt by now," Obama said. "When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back."

The tension of the past has given way to a less confrontational style from the Obama administration — and none too soon. But was it soon enough? And will it be enough to overcome the deficit of trust between Obama and Netanyahu?

Trust matters. History teaches us that progress toward peace is most likely when there is no daylight between the United States and Israel, and that public spats undermine trust and encourage recalcitrance among the Palestinians — who in turn make no concessions, waiting for the Americans to deliver Israel.

Above all, the looming threat of Iran’s nuclear program calls for an extraordinary relationship of trust to ensure the closest possible cooperation between the United States and Israel. It’s impossible to exaggerate the weight of responsibility resting on the Israeli prime minister, charged with safeguarding the people of Israel after millennia of Jewish life being subject to the whims of others.

Even when the personal relationship between the Israeli prime minister and the American president are as close as imaginable, it is a very high bar for an Israeli leader to put the future security of the Jewish people in the hands of another, especially when faced with the truly intolerable threat coming from a nuclear Iran — which has pledged to annihilate the Jewish state.

And even with the greatest level of trust imaginable, Israel has never let any country fight its battles. Israel and can and clearly will defend the Jewish people herself. That is the Jewish state’s raison d’être.

How did we get here?

Many in the pro-Israel community shook their heads and some crowed "I told you so" as the administration made early misstep after misstep. Analysts pointed not only to the troubling approach coming from a candidate, now president, they didn’t fully trust. They also shook their heads at the predictable outcome of the White House approach to the peace process, where emboldened Palestinians refused to negotiate with Israel and ultimately set back the peace process to a pre-1991 status — when the Palestinians literally refused to be in the same room as Israel.

In a private White House meeting with leaders of the Jewish community in September 2009, Obama was asked why he had moved so decisively away from the private ways in which friends like the United States and Israel usually settle their differences. Trust, participants explained to the president, was key to Israel’s ability to undertake difficult choices on peace and was vital for U.S.-Israel cooperation on Iran.

"I disagree," the president responded. "Public pressure compels people to act."

A crescendo to this public tension with Israel came in the spring of 2010, when an unfortunate but meaningless announcement related to future housing construction in a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem came in the midst of a vice presidential visit. It enraged the president. The White House and State Department issued a stark ultimatum that if Israel did not do what it was told, they might have to conclude that our two nations no longer share the same interests.

Despite the administration’s support for increased security aid to Israel, eventual pursuit of sanctions against Iran, and continuation of U.S. support for Israel at the United Nations, these incidents and others caused deep distress among the mainstream pro-Israel community and undermined the trust between the two governments. If Obama was prepared to so casually toss aside American commitments to Israel on such sensitive and meaningful issues, what possible weight could American commitments to stop Iran’s nuclear pursuit provide?

The Obama administration’s approach began to shift in the fall of 2011, when the threats facing Israel began to come into stark relief. The Palestinians were refusing to negotiate with Israel, even indirectly, and consistently rebuffed Obama’s private entreaties to return to the table. The International Atomic Energy Agency declared Iran’s nuclear scientists were engaged in work that cannot be related to "anything other than a nuclear explosive." And Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak worried that Tehran was approaching a "zone of immunity" in pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

After nearly 36 months of public disagreements with Israel, Obama stepped to the podium at the U.N. General Assembly and turned a symbolic page, delivering an address candid in its appraisal of Palestinian failure and generous in its appreciation for Israel’s security needs — and its consistent efforts in pursuit of peace.

"Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map," the president said. "The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth, just as friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution with a secure Israel next to an independent Palestine."

It appeared that reality, experience, and the uncooperative nature of Israel’s adversaries and enemies had trumped the White House and its allies’ "confrontation" theory. To many in the mainstream pro-Israel community, this was a welcome change in the administration’s tone and, in some cases, its policy.

"Confrontation" cheerleaders like J Street, whose executive director recently took to the Washington Post to legitimize an anti-Semitic canard, have become irrelevant in the public debate and in Congress. They lied about their ties to funder George Soros and other anti-Israel figures. They took embarrassing positions — like support for the anti-Israel Goldstone Report, a libel that even its author later denounced. They suggested that the United States should side with the rest of the world in ganging up on Israel in the United Nations.

These ideas are deeply in contrast with the broad spectrum of the mainstream pro-Israel community and have rightly been rejected by the Obama administration. And now, over these groups’ objections, the White House has moved away from the failed and counterproductive policy of public feuding with Israel.

As the Iranian nuclear challenge comes to a head, and the Arab Spring poses serious challenges to American interests in the region and to the progressive values that the United States and Israel embody, America’s need for a relationship rooted in trust with Israel seems to have trumped the tension of the past few years, at least for now.

Trust matters. Friends can disagree without losing that trust. But it cannot survive diplomatic campaigns waged in public or in the press. That’s a lesson that the White House, at long last, seems to have learned.

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