The Obama administration is confident it will retain strong Jewish support even as it ratchets up the pressure on Israel and offers clues that, unlike its predecessors, it means what it says about the thorny issue of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
While the pro-Israel establishment is already reacting angrily to the administration’s shifted red lines on settlements, many analysts say President Barack Obama’s ability to soften tough positions with pro-Israel reassurances will prevent a broad Jewish backlash.
“The conflict is sharpening,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who pointed out that friction over settlements is nothing new. “But I don’t remember it escalating so quickly before.”
Part of that escalation could be “orchestration” in advance of President AHA Obama’s long-awaited speech on Thursday to the Muslim world, the centerpiece of an effort to reboot U.S. relations in the region, Foxman said.
In private some Jewish leaders aren’t so sure it’s just pre-speech orchestration.
“President Obama is sending out very clear signals that he plans to follow through with action,” said an official of a mainstream pro-Israel group who was not authorized to speak on the record. “That is consistent with his approach to other issues. When it comes to the issue of settlements, we’re not used to presidents who say what they mean and mean what they say.”
Just what that action might be remains to be seen.
In a National Public Radio interview on Monday, Obama said that “I’ve said very clearly to the Israelis both privately and publicly that a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, is part of [Israel’s] obligations.”
But asked what he would do if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to bend to U.S. pressure on settlements, his response was evasive.
“I think what is certainly true is that the United States has to follow through on what it says,” he said. “Now, as I said before, I haven’t said anything yet, because it’s early in the process. But it is important for us to be clear about what we believe will lead to peace and that there’s not equivocation and there’s not a sense that we expect only compromise on one side; it’s going to have to be two-sided.”
The New York Times reported on Monday that the administration is considering a range of options, including reduced U.S. involvement in beating back United Nations resolutions unfavorable to Israel. But the paper also reported that tougher measures like linking U.S. loan guarantees to Israel’s settlements policies are not currently under consideration.
Anxiety about a possible clash also prompted the Netanyahu government to dispatch Defense Secretary Ehud Barak to New York and Washington, where he met special U.S. envoy George Mitchell, national security adviser Jim Jones — and, in an unscheduled meeting, President Obama.
What’s different about the Obama approach — in addition to his apparent determination to follow through on demands for a settlement freeze, including “natural growth” — is his seeming confidence that even though major pro-Israel groups are already working to generate congressional opposition to the new squeeze on Israel, the Jewish public won’t turn on him, several political observers said this week.
“He has a lot of latitude,” said Steven Spiegel, a UCLA political scientist and adviser to the pro-peace process Israel Policy Forum (IPF). “This is a popular president who knows settlements aren’t popular with American Jews.”
Looming large in administration thinking is an election last November in which Obama won an overwhelming proportion of the Jewish vote despite an aggressive campaign by the Republicans depicting him as anti-Israel and a virulent email campaign predicting dire consequences for Israel if he won.
Moreover, this president is developing a language and diplomatic style that, while worrying pro-Israel leaders and incensing the right, is likely to soothe a Jewish majority that cares about Israel but does not take a single-issue approach to politics — the same majority that defied the experts and voted for Obama last year.
In his Monday NPR interview, Obama said compromises must be “two sided” and that “I’ve said to the Palestinians that their continued progress on security and ending the incitement that, I think, understandably makes the Israelis so concerned, that that has to be — those obligations have to be met.”
That kind of language reflects a president who has close advisers attuned to the nuances of Jewish politics, several observers said this week, and who believes American Jewish support for Netanyahu and for Jewish settlements is shaky, at best.
“I think Obama has the political capital to move on [settlements], abetted by the simple fact that many American Jews simply don’t like Netanyahu and are embarrassed by the hard line taken by (Foreign Minister Avigdor) Lieberman,” said University of Florida political scientist Kenneth Wald.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn predicted a strong reaction by pro-Israel groups to the mounting U.S. squeeze play — but no broad Jewish political backlash. “There’s a big demographic factor — the segment of the Jewish community that is most angered, disappointed or frustrated with U.S. pressure on the settlement issue is the most religious and the ultra-nationalist,” he said.
Since that is a small minority of the overall Jewish community, “that does not suggest a dramatic risk for Obama, politically. That doesn’t mean significant portions of the Jewish leadership won’t respond strongly — but I’m not sure those segments are in touch with the Jews on the street.”
On Tuesday leaders of the Orthodox Union wrote to Obama, saying they are “deeply troubled” by a settlements policy they said reflects “a blunderbuss, one-size-fits-all attitude toward everything from building a new house on an empty lot in the midst of the city of Ma’ale Adumim to erecting new houses on an empty hilltop in Samaria.”
Kahn said the political calculus is more complex for members of Congress, who in the past have been called on to oppose pressure by U.S. administrations. Many pro-Israel Democrats who regularly take pro-Israel positions may be unwilling to go up against a popular Democratic president, he said — but things could be riskier for members from districts with large populations of Orthodox and hawkishly pro-Israel activists.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), agreed that American Jews are not signaling any great anxiety about Washington’s new settlement squeeze, but insisted that could change. “The Jewish public is not speaking up because they have not distinguished between building new communities and allowing the building of new Jewish homes in existing communities,” Klein said. “As they become more aware of this distinction, I think they will start speaking up.”
Despite repeated calls by all past U.S. presidents for limits on settlements, Klein said Obama’s stance is fundamentally different.
“You’ve never had a president or secretary of state say that there will be no exceptions, not a single Jewish home,” he said. “In the past, they’ve simply said settlements are ‘unhelpful,’ and left it at that. And you’ve never had a president hint that there could be consequences if Israel doesn’t agree.” But Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, said Obama’s blend of strong support for Israel and unequivocal opposition to any settlement growth “exactly where the majority of the Jewish community is. So there is no risk for the president here.”
Ben-Ami said the new language coming out of the White House “echoes the vocabulary we use at J Street; this is what it means to be sensibly, realistically pro-Israel. This is drawing a line where other lines have been trampled. We had 110,000 settlers when the Oslo process began, we have 290,000 today, and the whole time the U.S. was telling Israel to stop. This is a little game that has to end.” Both public opinion surveys and the results of last year’s election reinforce the view that Obama is unlikely to lose much Jewish support if he continues to push Netanyahu on settlements, Ben-Ami argued — and the White House knows it.
But the administration squeeze on settlements may be limited by indications the Palestinian leadership isn’t particularly interested in going along with the administration’s new peace plans.
Last week’s Washington visit by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas angered some Jewish leaders, who said he is getting a free pass from the administration, while Netanyahu is getting the pressure treatment.
“Where is the criticism of Abbas?” asked ADL’s Foxman. “He tells the Washington Post the Palestinians have to do nothing to promote peace. Why doesn’t President Obama tell him what he’s supposed to do, since he, too, is our ‘friend?’”
And the administration can press Israel only so far while the Palestinian leadership remains divided between Hamas and Fatah.
For that reason and others, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-L.I., Queens) sees a possible compromise solution to the mounting diplomatic tiff.
Ackerman — who just returned from a trip to Israel and a two-hour meeting with Netanyahu — agreed that sometimes, “natural growth” has been used as a cover for expanding the actual area of settlements, but insisted there could be compromise by clearly delineating different kinds of settlement expansion and finding language that would allow genuine natural growth while prohibiting any territorial expansion. But a leading Jewish activist here predicted that’s unlikely to happen.
“Obama has made opposing settlements part of his overall approach in the region,” this official said. “His credibility is on the line. And I believe he is convinced he has little to lose with the Jewish community, as long as he continues using the kind of moderate, supportive language he’s been using.”