WASHINGTON (JTA) — Does President Obama need a “Shalom Chaver” moment a la Bill Clinton?
More fraught back-and-forth between the organized Jewish community and the Obama administration again has brought to the fore the question of what the president feels in his gut toward Israel and the Jewish people.
The questions were prompted by the Obama administration’s late and qualified response to last week’s naming of a square for Dalal Mughrabi, a terrorist who helped mastermind a 1978 bus attack that killed 37 Israeli civilians, including a dozen children. The hurt feelings were sharpened by the massacre over the previous weekend of an Israeli couple and three of their children in their home in the Itamar settlement in the West Bank.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, noted the Mughrabi square naming at a Manhattan memorial service for the murdered Fogel family members from Itamar.
“If governments, even our own, do not stand out and shriek and condemn and take action when they see this kind of action by the Palestinian Authority and their representatives" — and the incitement continues despite repeated promises — then "we must make sure that our voices are heard," Hoenlein said. "We have to demand accountability and that there will be consequences.”
Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, asked what the president feels “in his soul” — a reference to disputed reports that in a meeting with Jewish leaders last month, Obama asked them to “search their souls” regarding their desire for peace.
“In light of what President Obama said to us at the White House and in light of this present episode, the ZOA asks a simple question: What does President Obama’s shocking, unbelievable and frightening refusal to condemn the honoring and glorifying of a major Jew-killer by [President Mahmoud] Abbas’ P.A., a day after an anti-Israel massacre, tell us about Obama’s true feelings about Jews and Israel?” Klein asked. “Mr. Obama, we respectfully ask you, sir, to ‘search your soul’ to evaluate your feelings and actions and policies toward the Jewish state of Israel.”
President Clinton set the high mark for connecting with Israelis and Jews in his 1995 eulogy at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral when he encapsulated worldwide Jewish grief in a simple Hebrew phrase: "Shalom chaver," "Farewell friend." The second President Bush also made clear his affection for the Jewish state, both supporters and detractors agree.
Speaking on the record, most Jewish community leaders dismiss talk about Obama’s "kishkes factor" — what he feels in his gut — as overly focused on the ephemera of emotions and beside the point: The lines of communication with the White House are open, they say, and the president and his staff are responsive to their overtures.
“I would say we have a good line of communication with them,” said Alan Solow, the Presidents Conference chairman and a fundraiser for Obama in 2008. “Our access is both appropriate and excellent. There’s not a problem of communication issue between the Jewish leadership and the White House.”
Solow would not address the kishkes factor, saying it was inappropriate for him to comment.
Speaking on background, however, a number of Jewish community figures — among them those who generally sympathize with the administration’s outlook on Israel — say Obama just doesn’t get it.
“His J-Dar is off,” said one dovish figure who recalled Obama’s first meeting with Jewish leaders in the summer of 2009, when he told them that previous administrations’ policy of not being public about policy disputes with Israel was unproductive.
“It may have been true, but it was not the right thing to say” to Jewish leaders, the official told JTA. “What it implies is that you’re trying to drive a wedge between them and the government of Israel — but you should know that rarely, rarely works because the organized Jewish community supports Israeli governments. He doesn’t get the emotional issue, and maybe even the structural issue.”
Obama’s missed opportunity was not visiting Israel after his June 2009 address to the Muslim world in Cairo, a number of officials have said.
A conservative who has tried to make the case for this White House among like-minded friends and colleagues says Obama’s aloof personality is a problem.
“With Clinton, when he talked to you, it was like you were the most important person in the world,” the official said. “With Obama, it’s like he’s the most important person in the world."
A prominent Democrat and a Clinton administration veteran said the problem was not confined to the Jews: This White House had made the rookie mistake of believing its resounding victory gave it a license to ignore special interests.
“It’s frustrating for every community, not just the Jewish community,” the Democrat said. “They have turned up their nose at constituency politics — labor, Hispanics, blacks, gays and lesbians also don’t get courted. They think they can go past affinity groups, and they can in some instances, but they still have to court the groups.”
White House officials tend to audibly sigh when the question arises. They especially chafe at the notion, raised by a number of Israeli and pro-Israeli officials, that there is no immediate “hotline” official in the White House — someone like Elliott Abrams, the Bush administration’s top Middle East staffer, who could be reached at a moment’s notice.
That person in this White House has been Dan Shapiro, who has Abrams’ job, and he has been responsive, according to friends of the White House.
One sympathetic pro-Israel official said that expecting microscopic attention to square namings by West Bank Palestinians was demanding too much of Shapiro.
“He’s just been dealing with that small problem of Libya,” the official commented dryly.
Obama announced recently that Shapiro would be his nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.
White House officials say they have tried to be responsive and have engaged with Jewish leaders, and they say it’s a no-win situation: When they do not respond to a given event, like the Mughrabi square naming, they get into trouble, but when they do respond, the response is picked apart for inadequacies.
That damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t-prickliness characterized Jewish reaction to Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in 2009, when he went out of his way to condemn Holocaust denial among Arabs — and was slammed by some Jewish groups for seeming to draw moral equivalence with Palestinian suffering and for neglecting to mention the Jewish people’s biblical roots case for Israel.
The more recent episode, over the Mughrabi square, showed how an administration could stumble. The first response, days after the naming, came from relatively low-level officials and in response to a JTA inquiry, and said the administration was seeking “clarification” on an event that had been widely reported. The Palestinian Authority did not officially sponsor the event, nor did its officials attend it, but officials of Abbas’ Fatah Party were in attendance and Abbas did not reprimand them.
A day later, the State Department’s top spokesman, Mark Toner, explicitly condemned the naming and said the United States “urged” Abbas to address it.
Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, suggested such reactions were overwrought.
“Obama does not seem to have internalized yet, or does not seem cognizant yet of the fact that most American Jewish voters are progressive — they support his general agenda,” Nir said. “They typically don’t vote first and foremost on Israel and will probably overwhelmingly vote for him again."