The Washington Post

Obama needs to speak from the heart on Israel

The president came to deliver a speech saying the United States would block any attempt by the Palestinians to gain U.N. membership. The speech itself was a parochial, prosaic affair, delivered by a president who said all the right things about Israel — maybe because he believed it or maybe because he fears losing the Jewish vote in the upcoming presidential elections. In 2008, he got an astounding 78 percent of the Jewish vote. At the moment, his approval rate among Jews is around 55 percent and is possibly heading south.

What accounts for this precipitous drop? Well, policy is one factor. The Obama administration has been tone-deaf to the concerns of the organized Jewish community — a bit more conservative than non-affiliated Jews — when it pushed for Israel to cease building West Bank settlement and, oddly, asked very little of the Palestinians and the Arab world in general. From both sides, it got nothing, but the issue of settlements is hardly peripheral to Orthodox Jews and to Israeli nationalists. As far as they’re concerned, the West Bank is the heart of biblical Israel, not that Bauhaus wonder on the coast, Tel Aviv.

Still, Obama’s policy might have worked — or not met such furious resistance — had the president done what Perry would have done: Yelled. By that, I mean showed genuine concern for Israel, shown affection, shown a lachrymose appreciation for its history. No. Not Obama. To him, this was an issue, a policy dilemma and he would not engage in the kitschy politics of it. So when he went to Cairo for a major speech in June 2009, he refused to play even-Steven by going to Jerusalem, too. The trip, as any Israeli air force pilot can tell you, is frighteningly quick.

Perry would have gone with a whoop and a holler. He would have embraced Benjamin Netanyahu with a bear hug. After that, a president Perry (perish the thought) would have been free to twist Israel’s arms a bit. He would have made it plain where his heart is and that would have mollified American Jews who live with a keen appreciation that genocidal madness is always around the corner.

Perry has the wrong policy toward Israel. He has already aligned himself with the most reactionary elements in Israeli politics and should he become president the Arab world would go into toxic shock — and so, for that matter, would Israeli liberals. But the point is that he has shown where he stands. Obama has not. He knows the lyrics but lacks the music.

Obama’s own people have never grasped that. They think the criticism of him regarding Israel is unfair — right-wing Jews doing their right-wing thing. This is the response I got when, during the presidential campaign, I asked why Obama did not protest when his minister (and, remember, spiritual adviser) the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. presented his church’s highest award to an anti-Semite, Louis Farrakhan. The answer I got was that I was carrying water for right-wing Jews. That’s not what I do for a living.

So now, Obama is boxed in. He cannot rely on good will in the Jewish community because he has precious little left. He needs its votes, its activism and its money. But as president of the United States, he has an obligation to further the Middle East peace process and that means getting Israel to put down its dukes for a moment and recognize that truculence is not a policy. He was right on settlements, just as he’s right about negotiating with the 1967 borders as a starting point. But being right is not always enough. Everyone trusts Obama’s brain. His heart’s a different matter.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.


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