This week highlights the degree to which Jewish voters have become central in the narrative about the Obama presidency.
On one hand, we have the ludicrous spectacle of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations giving U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice a service award. Remember this low moment in U.S.-Israel relations, when Rice felt compelled to issue this denouncement of the Jewish state in the U.N. Security Council: “Our opposition to the resolution before this Council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.”
Yes, the administration reluctantly vetoed the resolution but Rice’s condemnation was nearly unprecedented and surely warmed the hearts of Israel’s enemies. And this is the person the conference chooses to honor? You’d think the group, if it felt compelled to honor a Democrat, could have come up with a loyal, robust defender of Israel who doesn’t publicly excoriate our democratic ally. (Rep. Steny Hoyer?).
In response to a question as to why the Conference of Presidents held no gala and issued no press release featuring this award, conference president Malcolm Hoenlein e-mailed me, “It is an annual private event. We are issuing a release.” No word on whether there were dissenting voices or complaints about honoring Rice.
Meanwhile, the Emergency Committee for Israel is out with another tough ad. It takes the Obama administration to task for treating Israel like a “punching bag,” citing, among other things, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s speech, the remarks by Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, and the president’s off-mike comments to French President Nicolas Sarkozy about Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.
ECI chairman Bill Kristol released a statement that turns the knife a little more: “The Obama administration has been using Israel as a punching bag. The pro-Israel wing of the pro-Israel community is punching back.”
The good news is the president has a unique opportunity to repair some damage when he gives a speech tomorrow at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial conference. This is a fine chance for him to publicly repudiate Gutman’s words. He could impress pro-Israel Americans by taking to task the “Israel Lobby” screed issued by the New York Times columinst Tom Friedman. And he could remind Panetta and the rest of the country that Israel has been willing to sit at the “damn” negotiating table, but the Palestinians have walked out and tried to humiliate the United States by taking its unilateral declaration to the United Nations. It’s certainly a time to toss aside the platitudes and do some damage control.
This afternoon, Kristol and Rabbi David Saperstein will hold a discussion at the conference. What a wonderful opportunity it would be to forge some bipartisan agreement and ease the way for a successful speech tomorrow for the president. I mean, Saperstein certainly would agree to condemn the sort of language Gutman and Friedman deployed, right? And if his taste runs to domestic policy (nothing is so important to liberal Jews as abortion on demand, global warming and domestic spending), he certainly could agree with Kristol that the Medicare reform plan from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is a wonderful example of bipartisan progress that should warm the hearts of all Americans.
I look forward to hearing what Saperstein and Obama have to say for themselves. They certainly can agree, as ECI’s ad put it, that it is time to “stop blaming Israel first.”