The twelve-term Democrat, whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester and Rockland counties, gave high marks to Obama’s Israel policy “behind the scenes” but said that the administration’s rhetoric has led to the perception among some Jewish voters of a “lack of support for Israel.”
That, in turn, may have given an opening to Bob Turner on Tuesday among the many Orthodox Jewish voters in New York’s 9th district, particularly after former mayor Ed Koch (D) called on voters to back the Republican businessman over state Assemblyman David Weprin (D) in order to send a message to Obama about his Israel policy.
“What I get in my district is that people want the president to stand up for what he believes,” Engel said Wednesday in a phone interview. “They want him to stand up to the Republicans; not cave in; stop giving up the store. I think that some of those people stayed home. ... And then I also get in my district a lot of Jewish people dissatisfied with Obama’s policies; what they’ve perceived to be his lack of support for Israel.”
Engel called the dynamic “paradoxical in a way, because behind the scenes, the president and the administration have worked very hard (to support Israel).”
“Defense and security with Israel have never been stronger,” he said. “I just came back from Israel last week, and this is what the prime minister of Israel says, what the Israeli ambassador says. ... But what happens is some of the rhetoric coming out of the administration has ruined the good that’s going on behind the scenes.”
Among the issues Engel pointed to was the administration’s rhetoric on settlements and the expansion of Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. He cited the U.S. veto in February of a United Nations resolution on the settlement issue; the move against the Palestinian-backed measure marked the first time the U.S. had wielded its veto power on the Security Council.
“In the veto message, they sort of tried a bit to equivocate the veto, to say, ’While we don’t support settlement activity, the language in the resolution was too strong,’” Engel said. “And so people heard that and said, ‘They’re equivocating.’”
“If you’re going to veto something, veto it and be forceful about it,” he added.
In the current debate over U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state — on which the body is expected to vote later this month— Engel praised the Obama administration’s vow to veto the measure in the Security Council and said that the United States has “been working behind the scenes to try to get countries not to support it should it come to the General Assembly.”
“But again,” he said, “if they’re going to do a veto and then issue a statement sort of walking it back, people get very uneasy.”
There are also the matters of Obama’s statement in May on Israel’s borders and of the president’s treatment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House a year earlier.
On the border issue, Obama said last May that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
Engel said Wednesday that “those are code words that worry every supporter of Israel, because every supporter knows the ‘67 lines are indefensible lines.”
“Even though president said ‘67 lines ‘with land swaps,’ it made people uneasy and made people wonder why he was even raising the ‘67 lines,” he said. “It’s sort of giving the Palestinians another excuse, another precondition before they’ll even sit down and talk with Israel.”
On the White House’s treatment of Netanyahu during a March 2010 meeting, Engel said that “sometimes the perception becomes reality, and when the perception was Netanyahu came to the White House and they kind of snubbed him and kept him waiting, that’s kind of a festering, lingering annoyance that most pro-Israel voters have.”
Even the White House’s statement commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks was irksome to some, Engel said.
“Somewhere in that statement he mentioned cities — terrorism in Nairobi, Madrid,” he said. “No mention of Israel. No mention of Tel Aviv. .... What would it have taken to add Israel to the list?”
Ultimately, Engel said, Tuesday’s special election in New York was “the perfect storm” for Republicans, who benefited from a depressed Democratic base and voter frustration with the sluggish economy as well as more local issues such as Weprin’s vote in favor of same-sex marriage in New York.
But frustration among Jewish voters with the Obama administration’s rhetoric on Israel was certainly “part of the equation,” he said.
“I don’t know what it is anymore,” Engel said. “I’ve been talking to (the administration) and telling them this as a supporter. ... Maybe this will send a message.”