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Insiders’ debate: Is Obama good or bad for Israel?

CHICAGO — A debate on Israel at the annual meeting of the American Jewish Press Association featured a very informed and influential face-off.

On one side was Alan Solow, chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (who spends “75% of my time on the conference, and another 75% of my time on my law practice”).

On the other side was Jonathan Schanzer, a public policy specialist with the Israel Policy Forum in Washington.

They spoke in very friendly and civil tones, often with good humor, and even agreed on a lot, but couldn’t hide their very different perspectives on the Obama admin- istration’s policy to Israel.

Solow is not “just” the chair of the Presidents Conference. He is one of President Obama’s longest Jewish friends (no doubt, one reason Solow’s colleagues found him suitable to chair the conference). Solow backed Obama for his first run for public office in 2002. Solow accompanied Obama on his first trip to Israel in 2006.

It was almost as if Solow were expected to speak for the President. His denial that he could or would do this only highlighted his closeness to the president and gave weight and credibility to his descriptions of Obama’s attitudes and policy toward Israel and the Arabs.

Schanzer, meanwhile, is relentless in pressing his own articulate and informed perspective. So is Solow. Neither pushes a party line. 

SOLOW said that Obama believes that a two-state solution is critical for Israel’s continuation as a Jewish state.

“Obama’s trying to increase the strength of the [Palestinian] moderates. He believes he can ask Israel to be flexible with a more serious appraisal on growth [in settlements].”

Pointing out Obama’s pro-Israel bonafides, Solow observed, “Obama’s not asking Israel anything it hasn’t already agreed to. George Mitchell said that we don’t engage with Hamas.”

Suddenly, surprisingly, Solow reverses course:

“At the end of the day, the Arabs will not accept a Jewish state. There is doubt and fear about whether Obama can succeed.”

Solow denied that Obama is “naive” or doesn’t understand the Middle East. “Obama is highly intelligent, and a realist. His objective is to deliver something to Israel in return — something from the Palestinians or the Arab states or both.”

He conceded that, concerning the settlement controversy, the Obama administration was not as circumspect as it would have liked, in retrospect.

“The relationship between the US and Israel remains strong. There always are modest problems.”

If this sounded like the standard lukewarm diplomatese coming from a chair who must represent the American Jewish consensus, it did not prevent more candid remarks (see below).  

I ASKED Schanzer and Solow why Obama raised a great controversy over settlements when Israel has already agreed to cede the equivalent in land from the Negev to a Palestinian state.

Schanzer replied:

“Obama believes that time is not on the side of the Israelis — the demographics, the increased Islamic radicalism, the intellectuals that speak against a Jewish state.

“This is the motivation driving Obama.

“The President thinks that in order to make progress:

“One, the moderate Palestinians need to be strengthened;

“Two, the battle is not between Israel and the Palestinians, but between the Palestinian moderates and the Palestinian radicals. The Arab states fear a radical Iran and, to a certain degree, are on Israel’s side.”

Solow replied:

“You can’t go to the final status negotiations. Palestinians don’t have a government. You can’t cut to the chase.

“You must take smaller steps. Obama is trying to improve America’s image in the Arab world.”

He cited, by way of example, Obama’s interview to an Arab outlet at the beginning of his administration, and his speech in Cairo, June 4, to the Arab world.

Schanzer:

“Obama is buying into the Arab view that settlements are the problem. He lends credence to the Arab narrative.

“I don’t think settlements are the problem. It’s the existence of a Jewish state.”

Solow:

“Obama wants to acknowledge this narrative to appear even-handed to the Arab world.

Schanzer:

“Israel has been a solid ally of the US. The Arabs sided with the Soviets, and sided with Saddam Hussein. The US shouldn’t be even-handed. Obama is obsequious and bending over backward.

“Prof. Rashid Khalidi [a long time professor in Chicago] has the ear of Obama. Khalidi believes that Israel should not be in the West Bank. Period. It’s a crime. The West Bank needs to be Judenrein.

“Why? If Arabs can live in Israel, why can’t Jews live in the West Bank?”


Solow:

“I don’t tell any Israel government what its policies should be [on, for example, settlements]. Netanyahu was elected by millions of people, while I was elected by a couple of dozens of American Jews who think they’re important.”

“On the Arab narrative, it’s much fairer to say that Obama understands the Arab narrative than that he buys into it. In the Cairo speech Obama said that the US has an ‘unshakable relationship’ with Israel. That’s not part of the Palestinian narrative.

“What we’ve tried so far [to make an Israeli-Palestinian peace] hasn’t worked. There’s some interest in doing something different.

“I respect the concern [about Obama] that some of my dear friends have.

“The President will not reverse longstanding policy.

“To say that Khalidi ‘had the president’s ear for a long time’ — the impression that comes out of this is that no one else had the ear of the President. He listens to many people — and learns from people he agrees with and doesn’t agree with.

“I’m glad Obama understands what Khalidi says. That’s much better than having no understanding. If a President hears the Arab narrative before he gets to office, that’s preferable.” 

SCHANZER:

“Yes, Obama said that the US has an unshakable bond with Israel. But why, then, the airing of the dirty laundry? In the Cairo speech, Obama called out in detail what he would ask Israel do do on settlements. If the US has an ‘unshakable relationship,’ why didn’t Obama sit down in private with the Netanyahu government and give it a six-month deadline?

“To call out Israel on the details was a mixed message, to say the least, to the Arab world.”

Solow:

“An alternative explanation is that Obama needs to be tough on settlements to get the Arab world on board to join a united front against Iran.”

Schanzer:

“I don’t see any evidence of this.”

Solow:

“The dispute over the settlements has been a little too public. Return the issue to Mitchell.

“The problem with doing this in public — it’s not a good way to treat an ally — it’s a question of degree, even if the President felt the point needed to be made. It doesn’t help the problem when the US takes absolutist positions because it’s very hard for a politician [such as Netanyahu] to back down. 

QUESTION from a journalist: What’s the impact of the Cairo speech’s call to the Arab world to embrace democracy?

Solow:

“Too early to tell. It’d like to think that what happened in Lebanon [the pro-West election results] and Iran [the protests] is a result of the speech. But I have no evidence.”
Schanzer:

“[In the Cairo speech,] we heard a lot about mutual respect. Honesty is implied. If so, why was there not more emphasis on democracy? It was one item among many. There was no frank discussion on democracy. And a lot of the Bush doctrine on democracy has been walked backwards.

“There’s a sense of relief [in the Arab world] in this.

“Egypt is about as far as possible from democracy — and Obama went there.

“Now, the Arab world is emboldened and doesn’t feel it needs to become more democratic.”



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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]


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