Obama Redefines the Debate for New York’s Israel Boosters

Barack Obama is changing what it means to be a pro-Israel politician in America.

That much is obvious from the unusually thoughtful, nuanced and varied reactions by officials in New York—the world capital of Israel-boosterism—to his criticisms of the Netanyahu government’s settlement policies.

“I think Obama feels that this type of shock therapy will have an effect on Netanyahu and also cause some American Jews to rally to his side,” said Representative Pete King, a staunchly pro-Israel Republican who said he is willing, for now, to go along with the president on the settlement issue. “If he continues to take this hard a line, I think you will see a split.”

A more vigorous debate among American friends of Israel is precisely what Mr. Obama had in mind at least as far back as February 2008, when he told Jewish voters in Cleveland, “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”

He added, “One of the things that struck me when I went to Israel was how much more open the debate was around these issues in Israel than they are sometimes here in the United States.”

Since becoming president, he has resolutely set about making here more like there.

Last month, he and Secretary of State Clinton, who was unwavering in her support of Israeli government policy as a senator from New York, caused Israeli officials and supporters to shudder when she said Mr. Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions.”

In his historic address to the Muslim world on June 4 in Cairo, Mr. Obama made the position official.

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” he said. “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

As the ground moves beneath them, some of the standard-bearers of pro-Israel politics in America, most notably Senator Chuck Schumer, are proceeding with caution.

In a statement to The Observer, Mr. Schumer–who once assured an audience of Jewish donors that then-Senator Clinton “will just look to me” on “Jewish issues”–emphasized Mr. Obama’s overall commitment to protecting Israel from terrorism—a word the president himself avoided in his Cairo speech.

Mr. Schumer steered clear of Mr. Obama’s demands on Israel.

“President Obama is determined to eliminate the terrorists who attacked our country and the hateful extremist groups determined to destroy Israel,” said Mr. Schumer in the statement. “He has initiated a strong plan to reach out to the Muslim community across the globe in an effort to get them to support pragmatic peace efforts in the Middle East. I believe the President understands Israel’s security needs and I look forward to sitting with Secretary Clinton and the members of the Administration to discuss the path ahead.”


BUT SOME MEMBERS of the New York delegation in Washington are willing to go further, providing evidence of a pro-Israel contingent that will allow for more criticism of the sitting Israeli government in pursuit of what they believe to be Israel’s longer-term interests. 

“A large part of the pro-Israel community does call for a freeze on settlements, as does a large part of the political spectrum in Israel,” said Representative Jerry Nadler, an immaculately credentialed Zionist who was an early supporter in Washington of the two-state solution. “I think the general direction the president is going in is good.”

Mr. Nadler said that he was “somewhat uneasy” with Mr. Obama calling the settlements illegal, but that he thought Democrats would follow Mr. Obama for now.

“You’ve got Rahm Emanuel in there, and he’s got [Iran envoy] Dennis Ross, who I regard as a friend, and you got Hillary in there. I very much think he is not going to go farther than he really should,” said Mr. Nadler. “Right now, it’s within the bounds.”

Representative Steve Israel, another influential voice in the delegation, said that the tough talk didn’t make Mrs. Clinton or the administration any less pro-Israel.

“There may be a change in nuance and tone, but there is no fundamental change in policy,” he said.

He was inclined to follow the administration’s new approach as long as they did not question Israel’s existential validity or shirk from ensuring its security. “So if the administration wants to talk about settlements and issues like natural expansion, I’m not uncomfortable with that,” Mr. Israel said.

Representative Nita Lowey, who chairs the powerful foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, also said she considered Mrs. Clinton as pro-Israel as ever. Although she said she didn’t know whether it would become more acceptable in the pro-Israel community to criticize the Israeli government, she added, “To have a president who will aggressively work towards peace is in the interest of, I would say, most members of the Jewish community that I know.”

Other members of the delegation seemed slightly more uneasy about the administration’s demands on Israel.

In some recent statements, Representative Gary Ackerman has expressed support for the Obama administration, but he has also called for the administration to more clearly define what it means by a settlement freeze and has called for “compromise” that would seem to benefit Mr. Netanyahu.

Representative Anthony Weiner said he applauded Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo, but said that he thought the president went “too far” in condemning the settlements. He suggested that might have been designed to cause conflict with the pro-Israel community to gain the credibility to attain Arab concessions. 

“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,’” said Mr. Weiner.

Eliot Engel, who has said that the singling out of the settlement issue caused him grave concern that the administration was abusing an ally in Israel, said after the speech that the conditions put on the Arabs made him more likely to “cut the president slack.”

“When he makes a statement to which I disagree, rather than jumping up and attacking him for it, I am going to say maybe he is making that statement because he has other things on his mind,” said Mr. Engel. “Maybe he’s able to get something else in return that the pro-Israel side wants to see. And as long as I’m convinced that he is moving along those lines, then I’m willing to trust him.”

Asked if his colleagues in the delegation felt similarly, Mr. Engel said, “Yes.”


MR SCHUMER’S.colleague in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, once expressed a view much closer to the one currently held by the Obama administration, telling The Observer in February that if Mr. Obama “offers positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement, that will be a strategic decision for the administration and our secretary of state.”

Now, though, she is clearly following Mr. Schumer’s cautious lead.

On June 8, Ms. Gillibrand spoke in front of American and Israeli flags at a women’s event sponsored by the UJA-Federation at the Grand Hyatt in midtown, where she repeated her new go-to line, which is that her focus is Israel’s security. In an interview outside the ballroom, Ms. Gillibrand told The Observer that she thought the Cairo speech was “a call to action for everyone to focus on the peace process, particularly the Arab world. I think that was something new.”

As for the administration’s specific call on Israel to freeze settlement activities, she repeated several more times that “my primary focus is on Israeli security” and suggested she saw it more as a bargaining chip, saying that she thought the president was trying “to make sure that if we are going to ask for sacrifices from Israel, we are going to ask for sacrifices from the Palestinian people as well. I think what he is trying to do is bring everyone to the table and put all those issues on the table.”


ON THE MORNIN of June 7, New York Jewish leaders met at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown for a charity breakfast of bagels and lox, white fish and rugelach. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said that as long as the president called for preconditions to a deal on all sides, he was fine with the president “trying to portray an evenhanded approach.”

He said that the Cairo speech had given the president greater leeway, but said that people like “Chuck Schumer, Jerry Nadler, Eliot Engel are probably going to stay with their positions. But hopefully the end result can be judged in the next three years.”

Outside the hall, State Senator Eric Schneiderman of the Upper West Side paused from shaking hands with rabbis to address the settlements issue, which he said the Obama administration was making more acceptable for Israel supporters to debate publicly.

“There will continue to be a lot of debate about what you say publicly,” said Mr. Schneiderman. “No one wants to be perceived as undercutting Israel. but that doesn’t mean you don’t talk about what you think Israel should do.” Obama Redefines the Debate for New York’s Israel Boosters