The reaction of Israel supporters to President Obama’s Cairo speech has been closely monitored for signs of increasing tolerance for criticism of the Israeli government’s policy on settlements, which the Obama administration has explicitly opposed in recent weeks.
While some veteran Middle East analysts have suggested Obama did not go far enough in his criticism of Israeli policy, Representative Anthony Weiner of New York said that he went “too far.”
Weiner called the speech “big and momentous” and an example of “Obama at his best,” but made clear that he disagreed with the administration’s new hard line against natural-growth expansion of settlements.
“President Obama said that part of his mission was to speak the truth to friends,” said Weiner. “Well I think that I’m doing that with President Obama. Being truthful in saying that he got it wrong when he went as far as he did on settlements. That doesn’t mean that I don’t support him and that he’s not a friend to Israel. I just mean he went a little far out there.”
Weiner said he viewed Obama’s tough talk as a tactic to bolster the standing of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
“It’s my view they are doing this to prop up Abbas, to give him a victory, to give him the opportunity to say, ‘I got more out of Americans than any leader of the Palestinians has ever gotten,'” said Weiner. “I think it’s a hollow effort because I don’t think that Mahmoud Abbas can win an election, but I think that’s what it was about.”
Weiner said that Obama’s remarks on settlements in Cairo were “not newsworthy” because they broke no new ground on policy, and said that he thought they were meant once again to demonstrate Obama’s effort to distance himself from George Bush.
“If you proceed that they want to show there is a new sheriff in town and they are not like the Bush administration, there are only so many things that they can say,” said Weiner. “Are they going to say, ‘Tear down your security fence?’ Are they going to say, ‘Stop the checkpoints going into Gaza?’ What are they going to say? And the settlements also have the benefit of already being something the Israelis have decided is a problem.”
When asked if some Jewish members in the delegation will follow Obama’s lead, Weiner said, “I don’t know. I get the sense just hearing the buzz that he went too far. But it’s a relatively small thing and it’s a nuanced thing and who knows what was said behind closed doors, what kind of assurances Bibi got from the president on the much bigger issue of Iran.”
When asked if it was possible that some Jewish members of the New York delegation would peel off and support Obama, Weiner said, “Give me a name. Would Gary Ackerman, because he’s the chair on the subcommittee? He’s a powerful guy now. I bet he’d say, ‘Yeah I thought that was wrong.'”
On Monday, Ackerman also distanced himself from the Obama administration’s comprehensive opposition to settlements, expressing confidence that a “compromise” would be reached to allow for natural-growth expansion, as long as it proved not to be “ruse” for a land grab.
(A story in yesterday’s Times showed that the population growth in settlements outpaced rates throughout Israel, suggesting that the official Israeli explanations of “natural growth” to accomodate growing families don’t tell the whole story.)
I asked Weiner if Obama’s increasingly assertive rhetoric about the Israeli settlements might lead to split among pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrats in Congress.
He said that the fight over settlements would serve more to bolster Obama’s credibility with Arab interlocutors than cause any “peeling away” or political movement in the pro-Israel community.
“Even the hawks believe you have to do something on settlements,” he said. “I believe even the doves believe you have to allow for natural growth. But if he pushes in this direction more, I just don’t think you’re going to see large numbers of people peeling away and saying, ‘Yeah, you have got to stop natural growth.’
“More than likely it’s, some people stop marching up the hill with him in the pro-Israel community and he makes the calculation, ‘Well, I still have plenty to go and it’s more important that I show people that I’m different. ‘”
Weiner also suggested that Obama had calculated that if he did clash with some of the most uncompromisingly pro-Israel officials in America–like, say,Anthony Weiner–it would only serve to boost his credibility in the Arab world as an honest broker.
“I think with settlements,” Weiner said, “he wanted a fight with me.”