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entries tagged with: Benjamin Netanyahu


Kennedy seen as giant on domestic issues, Soviet Jewry

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is being remembered in the Jewish community for his huge impact on domestic issues such as education and health care, but also as a giant in the Soviet Jewry movement.

Kennedy “was one of the earliest, strongest champions on behalf of Soviet Jewry,” said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia. “He was always proactive and didn’t wait for NCSJ and other organizations to come to him — he was always looking to see where he could make a difference.”

In his 2006 book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” Natan Sharansky mentions Kennedy as the first Western politician to meet with refuseniks “in a midnight meeting that was kept secret from the KGB until the very last moment.”

And Levin noted that whenever Kennedy met with Soviet officials, in Washington or in the Soviet Union, he would bring lists of those he wanted to see released.

“He never forgot we were talking about individuals and families,” Levin said.

Kennedy also will be remembered as a strong champion of Israel. Jewish organizational officials noted that he was a stalwart supporter of foreign aid, opposed arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, and was a strong backer of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also publicly rebuked President George H.W. Bush when he linked settlements to U.S. loan guarantees for the emigration of Soviet Jews, and was a leading voice in speaking out against the Arab boycott of Israel.

Israeli officials rushed to praise Kennedy, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the senator “an American patriot” and “a great friend of Israel,” according to media reports.

And Israeli President Shimon Peres said Kennedy’s death was “a very big loss to every sensitive and thinking person the world over.

“Kennedy was a clear friend of Israel the whole way, and in every place that he could help us he did help.”

The late senator drew praise from a broad range of Jewish organizations, including both the Orthodox Union and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. They noted that he had worked on a vast array of domestic issues over his 47 years on Capitol Hill, from religious liberty bills such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to his efforts on children’s health insurance.

In a statement, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Nancy Ratzan, said, “We were honored to work by his side on so many critical issues: Family and Medical Leave, the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, the Americans with Disability Act, hate crimes prevention, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, health care, the increase in the minimum wage, and numerous judicial nominations — to name a few.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement that the “greatest tribute” to Kennedy would be for Congress to enact comprehensive health insurance reform.

“On the little stuff and the big stuff, he was always there for us,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Boston JCRC. “There wasn’t an issue he wasn’t on top of.”


Despite progress, Obama appears hesitant about Netanyahu meeting

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 06 November 2009

WASHINGTON – With President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set to appear at the same convention of Jewish activists, and their governments nearing a deal on the thorny settlements issue, it would seem like a great time for a sit-down.

But there’s a problem: the reluctance of the Palestinians — and by extension the Arab world — to climb on board for renewed negotiations.

News Analysis

The close-but-no-cigar atmosphere prevailing in Washington is what’s behind Obama’s reluctance to meet next week with Netanyahu, insiders say, although both leaders will be addressing the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in the U.S. capital. (See Big stars, nuts and bolts at the GA.)

Spokesmen at the White House and the Israeli Embassy said there are discussions about a meeting, but as of Tuesday nothing had been scheduled.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured at a White House meeting in May, will address the upcoming Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, but it remains unclear if they will meet at the Washington event. White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson

With Netanyahu set to arrive Sunday, the continuing uncertainty shocked Jewish communal insiders: No one could remember a time when an Israeli prime minister was this close to coming without a meeting in place.

“Someone’s playing chicken,” one insider said.

The sense is that Netanyahu wants a meeting and Obama isn’t so sure.

The ducking and weaving was all the more unusual for what Americans and Israelis agreed was a good meeting over the weekend between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Clinton came to Netanyahu’s defense when a reporter asked the prime minister at a joint press availability Sunday why Israel would not agree to a settlement freeze as a means of luring the Palestinians back to the talks. Netanyahu replied that such a freeze was never a precondition for talks, but that he was ready to impose a qualified freeze in any case.

“I said we would not build new settlements, not expropriate land for addition for the existing settlements, and that we were prepared to adopt a policy of restraint on the existing settlements, but also one that would still enable normal life for the residents who are living there,” he said.

Clinton jumped in and noted that what Israel was offering was unprecedented.

“I would add just for context that what the prime minister is saying is historically accurate,” she said. “There has never been a precondition. It’s always been an issue within the negotiations.

“What the prime minister has offered in specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements, which he has just described — no new starts, for example — is unprecedented in the context of the prior two negotiations.”

Clinton quickly added that “for 40 years, presidents of both parties have questioned the legitimacy of settlements,” but Arab capitals were buzzing with protests within minutes.

Clinton, who was on her way to Morocco to attend a summit of Arab foreign ministers — and to make the case for increased Arab involvement in the peace process — was under pressure, insiders said, to “walk back” her statement before arriving in a lion’s den.

Hence the statement that Clinton issued Monday, saying Israel’s current offer “falls far short of what we would characterize as our position or what our preference would be.”

“But if it is acted upon,” she added, “it will be an unprecedented restriction on settlements and would have a significant and meaningful effect on restraining their growth.”

There was a degree of understanding for Clinton’s position in the pro-Israel community in Washington, and no one was ready to walk back the praise they had lavished upon her for backing up Netanyahu in the first place. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee “applauded” Clinton, and the pro-Israel lobbying group called on the Palestinian Authority and Arab states to return to talks.

If anything, pro-Israel insiders say, the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu teams is on a good footing and improving. Obama’s officials are pleased with the restrictions Israel has lifted in the west bank; Israel backs Obama’s strategy of containing Iran through engagement backed by the threat of far-reaching sanctions.

And the Israeli army and the U.S. European Command carried out a joint exercise Tuesday witnessed by Netanyahu, who called it “an expression of the meaningful relations between Israel and the United States.”

So what’s behind Obama’s reluctance to meet Netanyahu?

Insiders suggested that the U.S. president still feels burned by the summit he had in September at the United Nations in New York with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that produced no results and led to sniping between the Israeli and Palestinians sides. Obama wants the promise of substance before another meeting takes place.

Ori Nir, a spokesman and analyst for Americans for Peace Now, said a frustrated Obama administration is no longer looking for a boost in peacemaking and instead simply wants to usher along whatever components of the process it can.

The problem now, said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is that Abbas faces elections in January.

“The general rule is that neither side makes concessions during an election,” said Makovsky, who has just co-authored a book with Obama’s senior Iran adviser, Dennis Ross, called “Myths, Illusions, and Peace.”

Vexing the matter further is that Abbas, while popular throughout the Palestinian areas, does not rule the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas terrorist group is in control. Hamas has made it clear that it will not allow elections, and Abbas has yet to decide whether to hold an election in the west bank alone or to suspend polling until he reaches an accommodation with Hamas.

Clinton pressed Abbas on where he stood on whether to go to elections and more broadly on rejoining peace talks. He has yet to answer.



Abbas’ threat to resign sparks fears

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 13 November 2009

JERUSALEM – Just as he hoped it would, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ threat to resign has concentrated the minds.

Both Israel’s prime minister and the U.S. president are considering new ways to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a bid to keep the two-state vision alive. Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama both fear that Abbas’ departure could lead to instability, chaos, and even violence in the Palestinian-populated territories.

With the process deadlocked ever since Israel went into a new election cycle more than a year ago, an element of desperate brinkmanship is in the air. Abbas’ threat to resign is aimed at pressuring the United States and Israel to come back with a serious offer.

News Analysis

Abbas, 74, announced last week that he would not seek re-election in a ballot scheduled for January. One of the main reasons he gave was a profound sense of betrayal by the U.S. administration after Obama dialed back the pressure on Israel for a full settlement freeze.

“We had high hopes in President Obama — they had a very clear attitude on settlements — but it turned out that the American administration favored Israel,” Abbas declared.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, shown speaking in Ramallah on Oct. 24, is insisting that his decision to resign is not a tactical ploy. Issam Rimawi/Flash 90/JTA

Abbas had understood from Obama that he would force Israel to stop all settlement construction and then launch peace talks. The Palestinian leader believed the policy would push Netanyahu into a corner and possibly even topple his Likud-led government for one more likely to cut a deal with the Palestinians.

Taking his cue from Obama, Abbas made a full freeze of settlement construction a precondition for talks.

But when the Americans backed down several months later after Netanyahu offered a slowdown but not a freeze, Abbas was left high and dry. He held to a condition he could not abandon without losing face among his people, but he could not approach the negotiating table so long as he stuck to it.

The last straw was U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement early last week aligning herself with the Israeli view of the settlement issue. Clinton backed Israel’s claim that the Palestinians had never before made a settlement freeze a condition for talks, and she praised Netanyahu’s agreement to restrictions on settlement building in the west bank as “unprecedented.”

Clinton’s forthright language stunned the Palestinians. For Abbas it meant his gamble on a settlement freeze had failed. A few days later he announced his intention to step down.

While insisting that his decision was not a tactical ploy, he raised the specter of the two-state solution for which he had worked so hard slipping away.

Abbas also finds himself in a no-win situation with regard to Hamas. If he backs down on settlements, the fundamentalists will accuse him of being an Israeli-American lackey. If he resigns, they will say his resignation is proof of their thesis that negotiations with the Zionist enemy can only lead to grief.

Abbas had hoped through Egyptian mediation to reach a national reconciliation deal with Hamas. That would have been the basis for truly representative national elections in the west bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza. But now Hamas says it will not contest elections in the west bank and will prevent balloting in Gaza.

For Abbas, who had hoped to regain legitimacy as leader of all the Palestinian people through the ballot box, this is another source of deep frustration.

A third source of frustration is Netanyahu’s refusal to recognize the progress Abbas made with the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. Abbas says he was very close to an agreement with Olmert: On borders, he says, they were already reviewing detailed maps, and on the thorny question of the right of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees, Abbas says the differences were only over numbers.

Abbas would like to continue negotiations from the point Olmert left off. But by insisting on “no preconditions,” Netanyahu seems to be indicating that he wants to start from scratch.

To break the impasse, P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is considering declaring independence unilaterally if the United States agrees to back a self-declared Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. But other voices in the Palestinian camp are talking about a return to armed struggle and a new intifada.

What makes the situation even more volatile is the lack of an obvious successor to Abbas if he goes through with his threat to stand down. The front-runner is the jailed former leader of the young Fatah military cadres, Marwan Barghouti, who would likely take a more militant line toward Israel — if he’s even able to compete.

Abbas’ move has forced early-decision time on the main players: Obama must decide whether to work with Netanyahu to appease Abbas — for example, by getting the Israelis to release Fatah prisoners and make a serious peace offer — to disengage altogether until both parties are ready to talk business, or to shake things up by putting a detailed American peace plan on the table.

Netanyahu must decide whether to seize the moment to launch a major peace initiative or face the consequences of a resignation by Abbas that could spark chaos on the Palestinian side. If he really wants to persuade Abbas to stay, he will have to make a far-reaching offer on settlements or on substance.

Although there has been no hard evidence yet, confidants say he is ready to go much further than most people expect.

The next few weeks could be crucial.



U.S., Israel closing gaps on Iran and peacemaking

Leslie SusserWorld
Published: 04 December 2009

JERUSALEM – Israel and the United States seem closer than they have been for months on two key issues: peacemaking with the Palestinians and Iranian nuclear ambitions.

The point was hammered home with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of a 10-month freeze on building in west bank settlements and strong White House censure of Iran’s plans to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants.

But important differences of nuance remain on both fronts. Israel would like to see more robust action on Iran without delay, and the United States wants Israel to make further substantial peace overtures to the Palestinians.

The latest escalation in tension between Iran and the international community came after the International Atomic Energy Agency demanded that the Islamic Republic immediately halt enrichment at a previously secret site near the holy city of Qom, and outgoing IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei declared that he could not confirm that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program.

Signs show that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Nov. 29 during a news conference in his Jerusalem office, and President Obama are very much on the same page concerning Iran sanctions. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90/JTA

The strongly worded IAEA motion of censure was endorsed by Russia and China, two powers that in the past have tended to steer clear of tough measures against Iran.

Iran responded with contempt. Rather than close down the facility at Qom, it would start building five new ones over the next few months, and accelerate plans for another five in their wake. The Iranian parliament urged reduced cooperation with IAEA inspectors, and there was even talk of Iran’s withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — moves that would give it a free hand to pursue a nuclear weapons program without international scrutiny.

Israeli pundits say the Iranian threats are intended to test international resolve in the hope of getting an improved offer from the United States and other major powers: permission to enrich uranium to industrial grade on Iranian soil rather than in France and Russia.

But this time, the pundits say, the Iranians may have miscalculated, and the clear White House warning that “time is running out for Iran to address the international community’s growing concerns about its nuclear program” could presage the end of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran and the beginning of the harsh sanctions regime Netanyahu has long advocated — with Russia and China aboard.

Indeed, when he first met Obama in 2007, before either man was in high office, Netanyahu pressed the case for strong economic sanctions against Iran. Obama, then a junior senator, picked up on this and soon afterward sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act.

During their latest meeting in Washington just over three weeks ago, Iran again was high on the agenda. Netanyahu told journalists that time would show the meeting to have been very significant — he strongly emphasized the word very — language some pundits took to imply that major understandings on the Iranian nuclear issue had been reached.

For now, the signs are that Obama and Netanyahu are very much on the same sanctions page, with slightly different views on the timing. The big question is what happens if sanctions fail.

Israeli pundits argue that Obama, embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan, will not want to open a third front against Iran, whereas Netanyahu is not ready to take any option, including the military one, off the table.

What is clear to both leaders is that if either decides to attack Iran, Israel will become a target for Iranian retaliation. Hence the huge joint military exercise in the Negev in late October, testing Israeli and American anti-missile defense systems.

On the Palestinian front, the Americans welcomed Netanyahu’s building freeze as going beyond anything previous Israeli governments had done. But at the same time the Americans made it clear that they would have liked to have seen more — for example, a freeze that did not exclude East Jerusalem, public buildings, and housing units already started — because the object of the exercise was to get the Palestinians on board for peace talks, and only a full freeze might have achieved that aim.

The Americans also are pressing Netanyahu to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners outside the framework of an impending deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal held by Hamas for more than three years, because of the bitter rivalry between the secular Fatah organization and the more militant Hamas. The thinking is that the standing of the U.S.-backed Fatah leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, could be weakened by the planned release of about 1,000 prisoners to Hamas in return for Shalit. Releasing large numbers of Fatah prisoners to Abbas would help prevent him from losing face.

The main U.S. goal, though, is to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and here the administration believes Netanyahu could have done more — for example, by agreeing to resume talks where his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left off, or giving the Palestinians a clearer idea of the contours of a final peace deal.

The way forward now could be new U.S. bridging proposals, which do exactly that. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Netanyahu’s settlement freeze has made this possible, and the United States will soon present the parties with something along these lines.

The Americans, however, are well aware that with Hamas in control of Gaza, and with conflicting Israeli and Palestinian bottom lines on all the core issues, the chances of success are not high. On the other hand, the prize to be won is huge. Success would mean a pacified Middle East with enhanced American influence and prestige.

The question is, will Obama be prepared to take the risk of likely failure, with the attendant consequences for his and America’s international standing?


Signs show that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Nov. 29 during a news conference in his Jerusalem office, and President Obama are very much on the same page concerning Iran sanctions. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90/JTA

EU ‘concludes’ that Israel must step up peace pace

European relations with Israel have taken a hit since the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shown with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Nov. 23. Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – The new European Union document on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is being interpreted in Jerusalem as a warning to the Israelis: Do more to restart stalled peace talks or face mounting pressure from Europe.

The document, published as a set of “conclusions,” was the result of a Swedish initiative to have the European Union recognize eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state — and part of a new strategy the Palestinians have been pressing in a bid to have the international community impose solutions on key issues of conflict with Israel, including borders and Jerusalem.

News Analysis

Israel was able to block the gambit this time, at least partially, arguing that recognizing East Jerusalem now as the Palestinian capital would prejudge the outcome of peace talks and make a Palestinian return to the negotiating table even less likely.

In the end, the European Union adopted a French draft highlighting the need for mutual agreement.

“If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states,” the final EU text read.

Nevertheless, the wording still suggests having part of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital — a position the Israeli government rejects. Other parts of the document reflect European unease with Israel’s policies under Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. And Israeli actions in and around eastern Jerusalem are strongly criticized.

Although the conclusions take “positive note” of Netanyahu’s “partial and temporary” freeze on settlement building, they go on to urge Israel “to immediately end all settlement activities in East Jerusalem and the rest of the west bank and including natural growth, and to dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001.”

The conclusions reflect an erosion in Israel’s relations with the European Union in the wake of last winter’s Gaza war, the subsequent collapse of peace talks, and Netanyahu’s election in the spring as prime minister.

The EU conclusions come as the organization sets out to revamp its foreign policy structure in an attempt to gain added clout on the world stage. Starting Jan. 1, Catherine Ashton, in the EU’s newly created position of high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, will be in charge rather than the foreign minister of whatever EU country holds the EU’s rotating presidency.

The aim is to give European policy greater coherence and consistency. The result could give the European Union more power to exert pressure on Israel down the road.

Additional “conclusions” could be even less to Israel’s liking. With a more coherent foreign policy leadership, the European Union could coordinate moves more closely with the United States and exert greater influence on the international Quartet, all adding to pressure on Israel.

While not as significant as U.S. influence, European influence has not been negligible. Oded Eran, who served as ambassador to the European Union from 2002 to 2007, says the Europeans often have served as a bellwether for the rest of the international community. He noted that they were the first to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination in the 1980 Venice Declaration and the first to talk about recognition of Palestinian statehood 19 years later in Berlin.

Now, Eran says, the EU is taking the lead on making East Jerusalem the Palestinian capital.

“If you look at the precedents, all those who are against any compromise in the city should be worried,” said Ran Curiel, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union.

Nevertheless, Curiel insists that if the Europeans want to play a role in Middle East peacemaking, they will have to start taking Israeli concerns into account.

“They keep saying they want to be a global player. But if Europe wants to be heard, it will have to reach out to Israeli public opinion and show that it understands Israeli dilemmas and sensitivities, and not only those of the Palestinians,” Curiel told JTA.

Israeli experts such as Eran do not expect EU attempts at economic pressure. On the contrary, with trade volume of $40.3 billion last year with Israel, the European Union is Israel’s largest trading partner; the United States takes a close second with $36.8 billion. Eran doesn’t expect those numbers to change as a result of politics.

“Both sides have learned to distinguish between political positions and ongoing trade, and I doubt whether even countries like Sweden would back economic sanctions against Israel,” Eran said.

The bottom line is that although economic pressure is unlikely, unless Israel is able to revive a credible peace process with the Palestinians, it could well find Europe using the Middle East as the place it spreads its new foreign policy wings.



Hamas official blames Bibi for dooming Shalit talks

JTA StaffWorld
Published: 05 February 2010

JERUSALEM – Negotiations to bring about the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit have collapsed, a Hamas official said.

Mahmoud Zahar told the BBC Tuesday that the process to swap prisoners has “failed” over the “interference” of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The main cause ... is that after the interference of the political element, after the interference of Netanyahu personally, there was a big regression and retraction,” Zahar said during an interview from Gaza on BBC World News’ “Hardtalk” program. “For this reason, everything now is stopped.”

Last month, Netanyahu called on Israeli negotiators to take a tougher stance on the deal being mediated by Germany, Reuters reported.

Hamas was angry that Israel planned to deport dozens of the up to 1,000 Palestinian prisoners that would be released in the deal.

Other reports have suggested that Hamas halted the negotiations after the murder of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. Hamas still publicly blames Israel for his assassination even though its own internal probe reportedly showed that Arab agents killed him.

Shalit was kidnapped in Gaza during a cross-border raid in June 2006.

Activists for Shalit on Tuesday morning demonstrated at the Karni and Kerem Shalom crossing between Israel and Gaza, preventing fuel trucks from crossing into Gaza. Police disbursed the demonstraters.



Poll: Obama struggling with Jews, but not on Israel

WASHINGTON – A new survey shows President Obama struggling with American Jews — but not on Israel-related matters.

The American Jewish Committee poll of U.S. Jews found that Obama’s approval rating is at 57 percent, with 38 percent disapproving. That’s down from the stratospheric 79 percent approval rating among Jews that Obama enjoyed about a year ago, in May 2009. The AJC poll was conducted March 2 to 23 and surveyed 800 self-identifying Jewish respondents selected from a consumer mail panel.

This question, in the American Jewish Committee’s new survey, asked: “Do you approve or disapprove of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue?” AJC

Obama’s advantage among Jews versus the rest of the population appears to be eroding. The latest Gallup polling shows Obama with a national approval rating of 48, nine points below Jewish polling. Last May, general polling earned him 63 percent approval, 16 points below Jewish polling.

Despite the drop — and weeks of tensions with the Netanyahu government — Obama still polls solidly on foreign policy, with a steady majority backing his handling of U.S.-Israel relations, according to the AJC poll.

It is on domestic issues that the president appears to be facing more unhappiness.

Jewish voters are statistically split on how Obama has handled health-care reform, with 50 percent approving and 48 disapproving. On the economy he fares slightly better. Jewish voters who favor his policies stand at 55 percent, while 42 percent disapprove.

The last AJC poll on the views of American Jews, released in September, did not address domestic issues, so there’s no measure to assess any change in support on the specific issues of health and the economy. Indeed, this is the first poll in at least 10 years in which the AJC has attempted to assess views on the economy and health care. However, Jewish voters in solid majorities describe themselves as Democrats and as liberal to moderate in their views, and traditionally list the economy and health care as their two top concerns in the voting booth.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the relatively low score on domestic issues underscored what he said was a steady decline in Democratic support among Jewish voters.

“This indicates a serious erosion of support,” he said. “It’s a huge drop. There’s no silver lining” for Democrats.

Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, countered that the poll did not account for Jewish voters who might be disappointed with Obama from a more liberal perspective — for instance, over his dropping from the reform bill of the so-called public option, which would have allowed for government-run health care.

Additionally, much of the AJC polling took place before Obama’s come-from-behind victory on March 21, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed health-care reform, Forman said. Since then, Democrats have said they see a turnaround in the president’s political fortunes. “The narrative was the president was in the tank,” Forman said. “This was when it was thought his initiative was dead.”

Obama fares strongly with Jews on homeland security, with 62 percent approving and 33 percent disapproving — a sign that Republican attempts to cast Obama as weak on protecting the nation have had little impact in the Jewish community.

He also scores 55 percent approval on how he handles U.S.-Israel relations, which is virtually unchanged since last September, when his handling of the relationship scored 54 percent approval. At that juncture, the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem were kept at a low bubble and were confined to U.S. insistence on a total freeze of Israeli settlement and the Netanyahu administration’s reluctance to concede.

The latest questions, however, coincided almost exactly with the period when U.S. officials accused the Netanyahu government of “insulting” the United States by announcing a new building start in eastern Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, and when the president refused to make public gestures of friendship during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s subsequent visit to Washington.

A question on Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear capability showed a statistical dead heat on the approval side between last September — 49 percent — and now, at 47 percent. However, disapproval ratings rose moderately, apparently borrowing from the “uncertain” column: Back in September 35 percent disapproved; now 42 percent give a thumbs down.

The marks compared favorably, however, with Bush administration figures. Bush scored 33 percent approval ratings on Iran in 2006, the most recent year that AJC asked the question.

Support for U.S. and Israeli attacks on Iran to keep it from making a nuclear bomb appeared to drop slightly. Asked about a U.S. strike, 53 percent said they would support one and 42 percent were opposed, as opposed to 56 percent and 36 percent in September. On an Israeli strike, 62 percent supported and 33 percent opposed, as opposed to 66 and 28 percent in September.

The only other question in the most recent survey directly addressing Obama’s foreign policy also showed strong support for the president: 62 percent of respondents agreed with Obama’s decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This contrasts with the consistently negative Jewish assessments of Bush’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, except in the period immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Approval of Obama’s foreign policies contrasts with increasing uneasiness in the Jewish establishment with the administration’s approach. Several influential pro-Israel organizations have spent months, to little avail, pleading with the administration to confine its disagreements to back rooms.

A handful of prominent Jewish backers of candidate Obama also appear to have had second thoughts. Most pointedly, in a New York Daily News column Monday, Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor and a supporter of Obama during the 2008 general election, said he was “weeping” because the president had “abandoned” Israel.

And Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), perhaps the most influential member of the Senate’s Jewish caucus, on Sunday pointedly avoided answering a question on ABC’s “This Week” about whether he agreed with a Netanyahu confidante who said Obama was a “strategic disaster” for Israel. Brooks, the Republican, predicted a tide of defections. “You’ll have a number of candidates” in areas with a strong Jewish presence “asking him not to campaign for them,” he said.

David Harris, AJC’s executive director, cautioned that low approval ratings did not necessarily translate into electoral losses.

Brooks said that he would advise GOP candidates to hammer Democrats hard on foreign policy, particularly in tight races in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida, where Jewish voters trended less liberal than on the coasts. “If Republican candidates are smart, they will make Democratic candidates in these races answerable to whether they support Obama’s policies of pressuring Israel,” the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition said.

Jewish Democrats are already preparing a response strategy of arguing that the relationship remains close on defense cooperation and other matters, despite heightened rhetoric on settlement differences.

Harris suggested that the polling showed that the American Jewish public would prefer to imagine a closeness rather than deal with tensions. Obama and Netanyahu scored similar solid majorities — 55 percent and 57 percent, respectively — on how they handled the relationship.

American Jews “don’t want to be forced to choose,” Harris said. “They would rather say a blessing on both your houses than a plague on both your houses.”

According to the survey, 64 percent of Jews think Israel should, as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, be willing to remove at least some of the settlements in the west bank. But 61 percent rejected the idea that Israel should be willing to “compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction.”

The poll had a margin of error of plus/minus 3 percentage points. Interviews were conducted by the firm Synovate, formerly Market Facts.


Obama spreads the love, keeping Jewish leaders happy — for now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is projecting a new attitude when it comes to Israel, and is selling it hard: unbreakable, unshakeable bond going forward, whatever happens.

Jewish leaders have kicked the tires and they’re buying — although anxious still at what happens when the rubber hits the road.

News Analysis

“It’s a positive development,” Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of the recent Jewish outreach blitz by the administration. “There are two questions, though, that will only be answered over time: Will the outreach be sustained, and will the policy be consistent with the positions being expressed in the outreach?”

Tensions between the administration and Israel were sparked in the first week of March, when Israel announced a major new building initiative in eastern Jerusalem during what was meant to be a fence-mending visit by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden’s rebuke of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the trip was followed by a 45-minute phone berating by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then statements by senior administration officials that the announcement had been an affront.

That in turn spurred howls of protest by top Jewish figures saying that while Netanyahu indeed had blown it, the backlash should have ended with Biden’s rebuke. Worse, opinion-makers in Washington had seized on a paragraph in 56 pages of Senate testimony last month by Gen. David Petraeus in which the Central Command chief said that one of many elements frustrating his mission in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli peace freeze.

The turning point, Solow said, was the letter he received April 20 from President Obama.

“Let me be very clear: We have a special relationship with Israel that will not be changed,” Obama wrote. “Our countries are bound together by shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests. Many of the same forces that threaten Israel also threaten the United States and our efforts to secure peace and stability in the Middle East. Our alliance with Israel serves our national security interests.”

Obama suggested that the letter was prompted by the “concerns” Solow had expressed to White House staff. Solow said the letter was a surprise.

Whatever the case, the letter was only one element in a blast of Israel love from the administration, including speeches by David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, at the Israeli Embassy’s Independence Day festivities, and to the National Jewish Democratic Council; Clinton to the Center for Middle East Peace last week and to the American Jewish Committee this week; Petraeus, keynoting last week’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s commemoration at the U.S. Capitol; Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, meeting recently with a group of 20 rabbis; Jim Jones, the national security adviser, last week at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Jones’ deputy, Daniel Shapiro, addressing the Anti-Defamation League next month.

The main theme of the remarks is, as Jones put it, “no space — no space — between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.”

Petraeus especially seems to have developed a second career keynoting Jewish events. He also spoke recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is addressing a Commentary magazine dinner in June.

Much of his Holocaust address, naturally, concerned itself with events of 65 years ago, but he couldn’t help wrenching the speech back into the present tense to heap praise on Israel.

Speaking of the survivors, he said, “They have, of course, helped build a nation that stands as one of our great allies.”

The blitz also has assumed at times the shape of a call and response. After the initial “crisis,” a number of Jewish groups wondered why the administration was making an issue of Israeli settlement and not of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to renew talks until Israel completely froze settlement-building and of continued incitement under Abbas’ watch.

In fact, the administration repeatedly warns against any preconditions and has made a consistent issue of Palestinian incitement, but Clinton appeared to get the message that the message hasn’t been forceful enough.

“We strongly urge President Abbas and his government to join negotiations with Israel now,” she told the Center for Middle East Peace on April 15. She also called on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

Jewish leaders also were wounded by what they saw as a dismissive attitude to Israel’s contributions to the alliance.

“It is Israel which serves on the front lines as an outpost of American interests in a dangerous part of the world,” Lee Rosenberg, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee president, said April 14 at Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. “Israel’s military expertise and the intelligence they share with us help the United States remain on the offense against those who seek America’s destruction in some of the darkest and most difficult places on the planet.”

Cue Jim Jones, addressing the Washington Institute exactly a week later.

“I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America,” Jones said. “Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.”

The feel-the-love show extends to Israelis as well, a marked change from the no-photos snub Netanyahu received when he met at the White House with Obama in late March.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the red carpet for his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, on Tuesday, a signal that the sides are coordinating closely on Iran containment policy. And when the Israeli defense minister met at the White House with Jones, Obama dropped by Jones’ office to chat informally — a signal that presidents have traditionally used to underscore the closeness of a relationship.

Furthermore, the administration is not limiting its message to Jewish audiences. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, spoke last week to the Arab American Institute and made points that essentially were the same as Clinton’s when she addressed the Center for Middle East Peace.

“Our position remains clear: We do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” Rice told the Arab American group. “Israel should also halt evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority should continue to make every effort to ensure security, to reform its institutions of governance, and to take strong, consistent action to end all forms of incitement.”

Differences remain — like Rice, Clinton has emphasized that the Obama administration is not about to let the settlements issue go. More subtly, Obama is not going to concede in his overarching thesis of a “linkage” that has been repudiated by Israel and its defenders here: that Arab-Israeli peace will make it much easier to secure U.S. interests in the region.

“For over 60 years, American presidents have believed that pursuing peace between Arabs and Israelis is in the national security interests of the United States,” Obama said.

That’s essentially true — Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, made the same point multiple times, but not with the doggedness and emphasis of Obama.

Jewish leaders said they would closely watch the aftermath of next month’s visit to Washington by Abbas, when the sides are expected to announce the resumption of talks. The nitty-gritty of the talks may yet derail the new good feelings; how that works depends on communications, said William Daroff, who heads the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America.

“This charm offensive is part of a prefatory way of setting up the communications so that when we get to proximity talks we will all move forward instead,” he said.

Critical to that success was listening, said Nathan Diament, who heads the Orthodox Union’s Washington office.

“Too many of the tensions of the past months have been generated by a lack of communication,” Diament said. “But just as important is for the administration to talk with, not just at, the community. The president benefits from having more input inform his policy choices.”



White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”


President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Accepting Israel as the Jewish state

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