Obama’s pro-Israel bad cops


Back during the primary, Hillary Clinton was seen as the clear favorite of hawkish pro-Israel Democrats. And when Barack Obama finally secured the nomination, he brought Rahm Emanuel to a meeting with AIPAC leaders in an effort to boost his pro-Israel bona fines.

These days… Clinton and Emanuel are serving as Obama’s bad cops on Israel.

Dan Ephron and Michael Hirsh of Newsweek recently took a look at Emanuel’s role:

Emanuel, as Obama’s chief of staff, is not going to be negotiating directly with the Israelis, Iranians or anyone else. But he is emerging as a central player in efforts to press Israel on key issues like Iran’s nuclear program and talks with the Palestinians — and to sell those policies to the U.S. Jewish community. "Rahm’s got a big role, no question," says a senior administration official who would discuss Emanuel only on condition of anonymity. "He has a huge level of knowledge on the issues, a history with the issues. And he’s got the complete trust of the president." …

Emanuel has a special kind of credibility when it comes to pushing Mideast peace. "It’s a Nixon-goes-to-China thing," says Rep. Jane Harman, a senior member of the House Democratic Caucus, where Emanuel served in a leadership position until last fall. "He can be blunt in ways that others can’t." William Daroff, who directs the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities and knows Emanuel, calls him "Obama’s secret weapon." It’s not just that Obama can use Emanuel’s Israel-friendly reputation as a kind of shield, allowing him to display "tough love" toward the Jewish state. Daroff told NEWSWEEK Rahm has such a nuanced understanding of Israeli politics, he can easily act as the president’s BS detector as negotiations go forward. "The Israelis aren’t going to be able to slide anything past the administration because Rahm is who he is." The Hebrew-speaking Emanuel, as much as anyone on the American side, will know if the Israeli prime minister is bluffing about his "red line" on Iran, or what he can really do about halting settlements in the West Bank. (Asked to comment, Emanuel’s spokeswoman, Sarah Feinberg, told newsweek that his goal was to ensure that the president has "every option available to him as we pursue peace.")

Emanuel’s status as a near-native son gave some Israelis and Jews the impression he would be their guy on the Obama team—the pro-Israeli with the receptive ear. He had those golden Zionist credentials, after all: His father, Benjamin, had been a member of the Irgun, the right-wing Jewish militia that existed before Israeli independence. His Uncle Emanuel had been killed in a skirmish with Arabs back in the ’30s, prompting the family to change its name from Auerbach to honor him. But some in the Jewish community have been disappointed. Even his own rabbi, Asher Lopatin, has doubts about his absent congregant. "There is a lot of disappointment," says Lopatin, who presides over the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. "In some ways there was a heightened expectation because Rahm is so connected to Israel and the Jewish community. Instead what we’ve seen is more of the tough Rahm Emanuel. Not the warm Rahm."

Meanwhile, Clinton’s emerged in the past week or two as the main administration heavy when it comes to calling for a settlement freeze. First, last month, she delivered the firm public message that there was no wink-wink in the president’s position: "He wants to see a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions."

Then in her first Sunday talk-show interview as secretary of state — with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos — she delivered the official Obama rejection of Israeli claims about a Bush-era understanding about allowing growth in some settlements.

Other important snippets from the Obama-Stephanopoulos interview:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So is there any room for compromise on the settlement issue?

CLINTON: Well, I don’t think we want to pre-judge the effort. I think that, if you look back, certainly from my perspective, every Israeli leader that I have personally known and others who I have looked at through an historical lens has come to the same conclusion.

Who would have predicted that Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert would have reached the conclusions they reached about what was in Israel’s best interest? Who would have predicted that even Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his earlier term during the 1990s, would have made some of the decisions he made?

STEPHANOPOULOS: But his team says now that, if you continue to push this, it’s going to bring down his government.

CLINTON: We are setting forth our views. Obviously, decisions about how to go forward are up to the Israelis and the Palestinians. But I think it is an appropriate role for the United States — and, certainly, it is what the president has decided — to make clear some of the obstacles he sees.

On Palestinian responsibilities:

CLINTON: … So I think that what the president is doing is saying, Look, everybody should comply with the obligations you’ve already committed to. And for the Palestinians, let’s not forget: They must end incitement against Israel. They must demonstrate an ability to provide security. …

STEPHANOPOULOS: Abbas was in Washington last week. He had an interview in the Washington Post where he sure seemed to suggest that he doesn’t have to do anything right now.

CLINTON: Well, I think you’re seeing public positions taken, which is understandable in a process like this. But we’ve made it very clear to President Abbas what we expect from him, as well.


STEPHANOPOULOS: How about Iran? You were quoted in the papers back in March when you met with the foreign minister of the UAE that you were skeptical of the possibility that diplomacy would work to stall or stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Are you still that doubtful?

CLINTON: Well, I am someone who’s going to wait and see. I mean, I — I want to see what the president’s engagement will bring. We have a team of people who we have tasked to work on this. I think there’s an enormous amount of potential for change, if the Iranians are willing to pursue that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, what do you think they want, deep down? You know, you read some of the public declarations by their supreme leader and others saying that they consider nuclear weapons un-Islamic, and yet they continue to pursue the nuclear program.

CLINTON: But, George, one of the values of — of engagement is, we need to have better information, and maybe about each other, not just about a one-way street of information.

The idea that we could have a diplomatic process with Iran means that, for the first time, we would actually be sitting at a table across from Iranians authorized by the supreme leader to talk with us about a whole range of issues. That gives us information and insight that we don’t have.

Of course there’s contradiction, because we don’t have any really clear sense as to what it is they are seeking. Now, one of the things that you heard the president say is, we understand the legitimate right of nations…


OBAMA: … any nation, including Iran…


CLINTON: … to have access to peaceful nuclear energy. If that is at the core of what they want, there are ways of accommodating that that do not lead to a nuclear weapon.

But we have to — have to test that, and we have to be willing to sit and listen and evaluate without giving up what we view as a primary objective of the engagement, which is to do everything we can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your own envoy, Dennis Ross, has said one way to strengthen the position of the United States going into these negotiations is to make it very clear that, if Iran used nuclear weapons against Israel or any U.S. ally, that would be met as an attack on the United States, full response. Now, that was your position during the campaign, as well.


CLINTON: I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Is it U.S. policy now?

CLINTON: I think it is U.S. policy to the extent that we have alliances and understandings with a number of nations. They may not be formal, as it is with NATO, but I don’t think there is any doubt in anyone’s mind that, were Israel to suffer a nuclear attack by Iran, there would be retaliation.

STEPHANOPOULOS: By the United States?

CLINTON: Well, I think there would be retaliation. And I think part of what is clear is, we want to avoid a — a Middle East arms race which leads to nuclear weapons being in the possession of other countries in the Middle East, and we want to make clear that there are consequences and costs.

Now, let me just put it this way: If Iran is seeking security, if they believe — and, you know, you have to put yourself into the shoes of the other party when you negotiate — if they believe that the United States might attack them the way that we did attack Iraq, for example…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Before they attack, as a first strike?

CLINTON: That’s right, as a first strike, or they might have some other enemy that would do that to them, part of what we have to make clear to the Iranians is that their pursuit of nuclear weapons will actually trigger greater insecurity, because, right now, many of the nations in the neighborhood, as you know very well…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Because Israel will strike before they can finish?

CLINTON: Well, but not only that. I mean, other countries, other Arab countries are deeply concerned about Iran having nuclear weapons. So does Iran want to face a battery of nuclear weapons countries…


STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you get those other Arab nations to say that publicly? That was part of the president’s theme today.

CLINTON: Well, you know, we’ve been there a little over four months. And clearly a lot of what we are doing is teeing up our framework for decision-making.

We are aggressively pursuing diplomacy, not as an end in itself, but as a means to try to resolve some of these outstanding and very difficult problems. We are trying to make clear that the United States is of course going to pursue our interests in values, but, frankly, we believe there are ways that we can make them consonant with the issues and values that are important to others, as well.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, when I saw President Ahmadinejad last month, he said the U.S. wasn’t really walking the walk here, and he cited the idea that President Obama never responded to his initial letter of congratulations. Why not?

CLINTON: Well, I think that President Obama has made very clear that he is going to put forth an open hand, but not as part of an electoral ploy or propaganda.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You have to let the elections play out?

CLINTON: I think, just like in every country, there is a process that takes place during an election. That will be over soon, and then we’re going to hope to get a positive process going.

Click here to read the full transcript.

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