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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.

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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.”

JTA

 
 

Why Israel allowed the settlement freeze to expire

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Bulldozers get to work in the Israeli west bank settlement of Revava on Sept. 27, the day after Israel’s 10-month settlement construction freeze expired. Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – In the four weeks since direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks resumed, settlement construction has been identified widely as the most immediate obstacle to the survival of negotiations.

In media accounts about the diplomatic standoff over the issue, Israel’s decision not to extend its self-imposed 10-month freeze on settlement building has been portrayed as a slap in the face to the Obama administration, deepening Israel’s occupation of the west bank and creating more stumbling blocks to a final peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

News Analysis

This week, world leaders reportedly telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge him to extend the freeze. French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for an end to settlement building following a meeting in Paris with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Quartet peacemaking envoy Tony Blair met with Netanyahu twice over four days. All to no avail.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, say they will wait a week before carrying out the threat of withdrawing from the peace talks.

“Of course we don’t want to end negotiations; we want to continue,” Abbas told Europe 1 radio, according to Israel’s daily Haaretz. “But if colonization continues, we will be forced to end them.”

In Israel, the only response is the rumbling of earth-moving equipment headed for construction sites in the west bank.

That’s because what is perceived around the world as Israeli stubbornness is seen much differently in Israel. The differences in outlook cut to the heart not only of how Israelis view these negotiations but how they view the future border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

In Jerusalem, it is the Palestinians who are seen as stubborn for sticking to their insistence that settlement building be halted before coming to the negotiating table. Never before had such a precondition been imposed on negotiations; in the past, Israelis and Palestinians talked while both continued to build in their respective west bank communities.

Having offered the freeze unilaterally 10 months ago to coax the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and satisfy U.S. demands for an Israeli goodwill gesture, the Israeli government sees itself as the accommodating party whose gesture was never reciprocated. Rather, it took the Palestinian nine months to agree to resume negotiations, leaving virtually no time for substantive progress before the freeze expired.

Then there are the political considerations: Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition partners made clear that extending the freeze was a nonstarter. Perhaps most important, however, the freeze was seen by many Israelis as unfair.

The vast majority of the 300,000 or so Jews who live in the west bank are families living in bedroom communities within easy commuting distance of Jerusalem or metropolitan Tel Aviv. While some Israelis moved to the settlements for ideological reasons, for many the motivating factor was economic: Housing was much cheaper in the west bank than in Israel proper.

What’s more, for decades the government offered Israelis economic incentives to settle across the Green Line — the 1949 armistice line that marked the Jordan-Israel border until the 1967 Six Day War.

During the freeze, these Israelis saw themselves as unfairly penalized: Why were they barred from expanding their homes when their Palestinians neighbors were not?

“Stop making us look like monsters,” Yigal Dilmoni, director of the information office for the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella organization, told JTA in a recent interview.

The problem, of course, stems from the ambiguous nature of Israel’s presence in the west bank.

Most nations view the area as illegally occupied by Israel. The Israeli government views it as disputed territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. While Israel annexed some territories captured in that war (eastern Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria) and withdrew from others either unilaterally or within a peace deal (the Sinai Peninsula in a deal with Egypt, the Gaza Strip unilaterally), Israel left the west bank in legal limbo.

The Palestinians claim the land as the site of their future state.

In Israel, many on the right believe that Israel should not cede an inch, and many on the left say settlements are a crime and the west bank should be entirely Palestinian. But the majority Israeli view is that most of the west bank will end up as Palestine, while parts of it — large Jewish settlement blocs adjacent to the Green Line — will be annexed to Israel.

In almost all the scenarios, Israel plans to keep the major settlement blocs. Among them are Gush Etzion, a largely religious cluster of towns with some 55,000 people less than 10 miles from Jerusalem; Maale Adumim, a mixed religious-secular city of some 35,000 about five miles east of Jerusalem; and Modiin Illit, a haredi city of some 45,000 located less than two miles inside the west bank, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

More difficult is Ariel, a city of 18,000 located approximately 13 miles inside the west bank. Israel also aims to keep the smaller settlements near the west bank-Israel boundary. This plan encompasses the vast majority of the settler population.

Israeli officials say they have received assurances from U.S. officials that this would be the case — most notably in the April 2004 letter by then-President George W. Bush to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Operating under this assumption, the Israeli government viewed a complete, open-ended settlement freeze as unreasonable: If the major settlement blocs will be Israeli, why stop building within them?

After 10 months of an experimental freeze to see what it would elicit from the Palestinians, their return to the negotiating table was not enough. It was time for the experiment to end.

JTA

 
 

Israel, Iran, court, entitlements — what would a GOP Congress mean?

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The likely prospect of Republican control of at least one chamber of Congress has triggered broad speculation about the remainder of President Obama’s time in the White House, Republican bids for the presidency in 2012 — and the very course of the nation, if not the West.

The issues that preoccupy Jewish voters and groups have a narrower cast. Nevertheless, the likelihood of a GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, along with the more remote possibility of a Republican Senate, could mean sharp turns in foreign policy and domestic spending. Here’s a glance.

Israel

The biggest Israel headlines of Barack Obama’s presidency have had to do with the renewed direct talks with the Palestinians and with the Obama-Netanyahu administrations’ tensions that preceded them.

Such tensions have informed tight congressional races, where an array of Republican candidates have pledged to stand closer by Israel and painted their opponents as pawns of a president who is cool, if not outright hostile, to Israel.

In reality, the peace talks are not likely to be affected by a switch of congressional leadership. Obama’s opposition to Israel’s settlement policy has been expressed through rhetoric and not any action. In fact, Obama’s main substantive shift has been to increase funding for Israel’s defense and enhance defense cooperation as an incentive to make concessions to the Palestinians — intensifications of the relationship a Republican Congress would likely embrace.

If there is a change, it might have more to do with politics than policy. An adversarial Congress may force the White House to tamp down public criticism of Israel ahead of 2012 presidential elections.

The single substantive policy a GOP House might influence is the massive increase in funding for the Palestinian Authority launched in the last years of the George W. Bush administration, from occasional spurts of $20 million in the early part of the decade to today’s $500 million annual expenditure, including half in direct funding.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the GOP whip, has suggested that continued funding could be contingent on PA recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. (See related story.)

Theoretically, putting a stop on such funding could threaten U.S.-backed programs, especially training for Palestinian security services.

In fact, such foreign policy funding confrontations in the past have rarely led to defunding. Instead the executive branch — under Democratic and Republican presidents — has dipped into approved funds to keep programs going while it works out new arrangements with Congress.

Congress also is less likely to defund programs favored by Israel. The Israeli defense establishment, while not as gung-ho as the Obama administration in praising PA nation-building, nonetheless appreciates the increase in stability in recent years brought about in part by U.S.-led financial backing for the moderate west bank government of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Still, even the congressional threat of a U.S. cutoff of funds can inhibit growth and investment.

The more substantive possibility for change on Israel is in Cantor’s pledge to remove defense funding for the nation from the overall foreign aid package and place it elsewhere — perhaps in the defense budget.

In the short run, all this means is that Israel will continue to receive $3 billion in aid annually while the Republicans attempt to gut backing for nations they do not consider reliable allies.

Pro-Israel officials, speaking on background, have said they would work hard to beat back such a proposal because of possible long-term consequences. They see aid for Israel as inextricably bound with the broader interest of countering isolationism.

These officials are concerned, too, that elevating Israel above other nations might be counterproductive in an American electorate still made up of diverse ethnic groups. They also believe that such a designation would make Israel more beholden to U.S. policy and erode its independence.

Iran

Republicans have sharply criticized Obama’s outreach to Iran and said he was too slow to apply sanctions.

Over the summer, however, Obama dialed back the outreach to the Islamic Republic and signed a sanctions bill. His Treasury Department already has intensified sanctions, particularly against Iran’s financial sector. U.S. and Israeli officials say Iran is feeling the bite.

The principal U.S.-Israel difference remains timing, or what to do when: When does Iran get the bomb — and what happens then?

Cantor, in his interview with JTA, emphasized that Obama must make it clear that a military option is on the table.

Congress, however, cannot declare war by itself, and while a flurry of resolutions and amendments pressing for greater confrontation with Iran may be in the offing, they will not affect policy — except perhaps to sharpen Obama’s rhetoric ahead of 2012.

Should Obama, however, return to a posture of engagement — this depends on the less than likely prospect of the Iranian theocracy consistently embracing diplomacy — a GOP-led Congress could inhibit the process through adversarial hearings.

Social issues: abortion,
church and state

The two Supreme Court justices more likely than not to uphold liberal social outlooks who were itching for a Democrat in the White House so they could retire — David Souter and John Paul Stevens — have done so. Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan replaced them following smooth confirmation processes.

No other such resignations are imminent. However, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also tilts liberal in her decisions, is 77 and has battled cancer; Antonin Scalia, a reliable conservative, is 74; and so is Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote who tilts right more often than not.

In case one of them retires, don’t expect the smooth transitions that characterized Obama’s first two appointments. Republicans may not control the Senate, but they will likely have a stronger filibuster in January.

Republicans now control 41 seats — one more than is needed to keep a nomination from advancing to a full vote. After Nov. 2, more among their numbers are likely to be diehard conservatives and less likely to cross the floor to break a filibuster.

They will want Obama to tailor a judge more to conservative likings under those circumstances, especially if he is replacing Scalia or Kennedy.

Earmarks

The House’s GOP caucus imposed a yearlong moratorium on its own earmarks last March. An extension is likely, Cantor said, and a GOP majority will be able to enforce a moratorium on Democrats.

That prospect concerns federations and Jewish groups that care for the elderly and infirm. Earmarks, less lovingly known as “pork,” are the funds lawmakers attach to bills in order to help their districts. Such funds have helped spur forward the Jewish Federations of North America crown project, naturally occurring retirement homes, among other programs for the elderly.

Medicare, Medicaid, and health care

No matter who wins next week, both parties have pledged cuts to entitlements like Medicare, the program that funds medical assistance for the elderly, and Medicaid, which provides medical care for the poor. Jewish groups draw on both programs to help fund assistance for the elderly and provide the Jewish poor with kosher meals.

Targeting entitlements misses the point, say Jewish professionals whose expertise is elderly care. They say the real savings come from addressing burgeoning health care costs overall and not just entitlements.

“Let’s go after health-care spending and health-care costs and see how we can make the system more effective,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of aging policy at B’nai B’rith International, the largest Jewish sponsor of senior housing in the United States.

The Republican leader in the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), has said he will lead an effort to repeal the Obama health-care reforms passed this year by the Democratic Congress. It’s not clear that Boehner has broad party support, and he likely would not be able to override Obama’s veto of such a bill.

JTA

 
 

Questioning the values of the values-voter

_JStandardColumns
Published: 25 March 2011
 
 

Ari Fleischer comes to New Jersey

Former White House press secretary dishes on Bush, Obama, Israel

Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary, is coming to speak June 12 as part of an effort by the Republican Jewish Coalition to ramp up its outreach in New Jersey in advance of the 2012 election (see sidebar). The event, “A Conversation with Ari Fleischer and Steve Malzberg,” will take place at Cong. Sons of Israel in Manalapan. Fleischer will discuss his journey from Democrat to Republican from a Jewish perspective, and share impressions of “what September 11 was like, from within the White House,” according to RJC spokesman Greg Menken. In advance of his talk, Fleischer spoke by phone with The Jewish Standard about current affairs as well as his years working in the White House.

Jewish Standard: I understand you’ll be speaking this month in New Jersey about your journey from Democrat to Republican, from a Jewish perspective. Can you tell me a little bit, in advance, about that aspect of your talk?

Ari Fleischer: I was raised in a very Democratic family in New York and my parents were very involved with politics. I entered college as liberal Democrat and, because of Jimmy Carter, I graduated as conservative Democrat. Jimmy Carter kept apologizing for America, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, and I thought Carter was leaving us weak. Because of his belief in peace through strength, I fell for Ronald Reagan. The Democratic Party at that time was for a nuclear freeze, and I thought that would be a terrible mistake. I thought we needed to respond to what the Soviets were doing, and so I changed parties a few months after I graduated.

J.S.: I think for many Republican Jews, awareness of the Holocaust links to the need to support Israel’s right to self-defense as well as a belief that it’s important, when possible, for a superpower to come to the aid of the defenseless. At essence it is an anti-appeasement mindset that is influenced by the Holocaust. Can you relate to that? Did awareness of Holocaust history help shape your political philosophy?

A.F.: The Holocaust has been in the backdrop [of my consciousness] in the past 15 years, not as a 21-year-old who made the change — I hadn’t been to Auschwitz at the time. It was more as I mentioned [the standoff between] the U.S. and the Soviets and the Iranian hostage crisis … but now … with regard to Israel, and how vulnerable Israel is, certainly, if the philosophy of peace through strength makes sense anywhere, it is in Israel.

J.S.: What did you make of last week’s flap in which President Obama said that, as part of a final peace deal, Israel would need to return to the pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps?

A.F.: It was an unnecessary wound to inflict on those who care about Israel’s security, and about peace. He retreated from it two days later at AIPAC, which means he should not have said it to begin with.… My sense is he holds no special emotional bond toward Israel, he faults both sides equally, and he would like to be the man in the middle. That’s why he can say return to the ‘67 borders without having sensitivity about how bad that will sound to Israelis and Israel’s supporters.

Look at his Cairo speech — he talked about Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and in the next sentence about Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis. He equates the two and omits vital facts such as none of the Arab states took in Palestinians, Palestinians [and other Arabs] attacked Israel in ‘48 and [on an ongoing basis] because they fundamentally reject Israel’s right to exist. I found [his statement] troublesome and it was a self-inflicted wound that was unnecessary.

J.S.: There’s a general perception that President George W. Bush, your former boss, was sensitive to the importance of respecting Israel’s right to deal with its own problems in its own way. From your position within the White House, what factors do you think produced that understanding in him?

A.F.: From the beginning, the president distrusted Yasser Arafat. Arafat lied to the president about a shipment of weapons from Iran, and that convinced the president [that] Arafat couldn’t be trusted. After September 11, President Bush saw that what he was doing to protect the U.S. was similar to what Israeli leaders were doing…. He knew what he would do if rockets were fired into America. He came into office pro-Israel and that put even more steel in a solid spine.

J.S.: How do you think President Obama is doing on national security and foreign policy? Do you think he’s following [President George W.] Bush’s lead at all?

A.F.: Yes, I think he’s following [Bush’s] lead on wiretaps, indefinite detentions, Guantanamo Bay, military trials [for terror suspects], [and] predator drone strikes, all of which he accused George Bush of violating the Constitution over. I’m glad Obama is a convert to the cause; I just wish he hadn’t criticized Bush the way he did. On foreign policy, this president has a habit of speaking when he should be silent and being silent when he should speak. In 2009 Iranians took to the streets in peaceful protest and were brutalized by the Iranian government and the president didn’t [initially] speak out. When Syrians peacefully protested and were being gunned down, he was silent. When Israelis built housing he instantly condemned them using some of the harshest words in diplomacy.

J.S.: Do you approve of anything President Obama is doing?

A.F.: Obama is doing a good job on anti-terrorist activities.

J.S.: Would you say that in this area, his policies have vindicated those of George W. Bush?

A.F.: Yes.

J.S.: Where do you stand on the waterboarding controversy? Do you believe the waterboarding of the three high-value detainees that were subjected to this harsh interrogation tactic did lead to [Osama] bin Laden’s capture and in light of that, was President Bush justified in approving the tactic?

A.F.: Indefinite detention certainly led to information about the [bin Laden] courier [who eventually led to bin Laden], no ifs ands or buts. Waterboarding, depending on whom you talk to, may or may not have played a role in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed corroborating information about the courier. Whether it did or didn’t, I still think any president in office after September 11 would have faced difficult decisions about the use of these techniques. Uncomfortable as I am with waterboarding, I think there should be some allowance for the possibility we could have been attacked again at any moment.

J.S.: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about what it was like for you to serve as press secretary for President George W. Bush?

A.F.: It was always a great honor to work for someone who had so much Israel in his heart.

 
 

Coming to a Supreme Court near you

 
 
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16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31