President Obama’s speech a week and a half ago at Washington D.C. synagogue Adas Israel was alternatively promoted as both an opportunity to address the scourge of anti-semitism, and a chance to reach out to American Jews. The speech did nothing to advance either goal and was tone-deaf to any Jews, or Americans for that matter, who don’t buy into the president’s foreign policy.
As far as his reaching out, the president simply rehashed all of his administration’s arguments about closing off Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon. He offered nothing new. Of course, he said that the deal he’s trying to make with Iran will make Israel safer. He made a point of saying that he shares the goal with Israel of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; but he said it with no real conviction. He was just repeating a talking point. Repeating all of his talking points isn’t going to convince someone who doesn’t already agree with him.
Notably, he repeated his 2012 line about having Israel’s back. But with Israel’s political establishment – Isaac Herzog is no less skeptical of the emerging deal than Benjamin Netanyahu is – doubting the efficacy of the ongoing diplomacy, that claim hardly seems credible. He says that he welcomes debate, but the night before Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress, Obama gave an interview to Reuters attempting to undercut Netanyahu’s arguments.
Instead of addressing reservations with the deal, Obama simply repeated his own arguments. Again that’s not how you convince doubters.
The same dynamic was at work when he discussed the peace process.
And it is precisely because I care so deeply about the state of Israel — it’s precisely because, yes, I have high expectations for Israel the same way I have high expectations for the United States of America — that I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland. (Applause.) And I believe that’s two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. (Applause.) Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people on their land, as well. (Applause.)
Now, I want to emphasize — that’s not easy. The Palestinians are not the easiest of partners. (Laughter.) The neighborhood is dangerous. And we cannot expect Israel to take existential risks with their security so that any deal that takes place has to take into account the genuine dangers of terrorism and hostility.
But what’s been noticeable about President Obama’s approach to the peace process since he’s been president is that because he has such “high expectations” of Israel, he only expects efforts from Israel. He’s asked nothing of the Palestinians. (This conceit prompted Eli Lake to ask why Obama couldn’t care a little bit less about Israel.)
Last year Israel’s former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni told an interviewer that last year’s American-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were torpedoed by Mahmoud Abbas, who refused to accept an American-sponsored framework that Netanyahu reluctantly accepted. When that happened there were no administration leaks about how Abbas was missing a historic opportunity or questions about his commitment to peace. And there was certainly no public haranguing of the Palestinian leader. Is there any reason to expect that when President Obama decides its time to start a new peace process he won’t demand some upfront concessions by Netanyahu to convince the Palestinians to negotiate?
In other words, whether addressing Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama offered no reason for a skeptic to change his mind. So his purpose was clearly not outreach.
And what about anti-semitism? Obama’s mentions of anti-semitism were general. He spoke of it as a “scourge,” but didn’t address a single specific instance of official anti-semitism. Why not? In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg earlier in the week Goldberg asked him about the official anti-semitism of Iran, so it isn’t like Obama could claim ignorance of the issue. Robert Wistrich, perhaps the world’s top authority on anti-semitism, passed away a few days before Obama spoke, but Obama didn’t mention his name.
Neither of the purported reasons for Obama’s talk were addressed (seriously) by the president. As Michael Doran noted, in A Letter to My Liberal Jewish Friends, published last week in Mosaic Magazine, Obama was speaking specifically to the “liberal Jewish community.” You could say he was preaching to the choir, making sure that one of his most loyal constituencies doesn’t stray. The pre-speech PR was misdirection, to make the president appear conciliatory and magnanimous. The speech itself was motivated by cynical self-interest.
Doran goes through the various reasons the president chose to speak as he did at the synagogue, but in the end he comes down to what was Obama’s likely calculation.
The president’s sophistry demonstrates a simple but profound truth: his commitment to the progressive values of tikkun olam is governed by its own “red lines,” and is entirely utilitarian. Which again raises the question: what was his purpose in stressing this shared progressive commitment in his address to you, and what was his purpose in subtly reminding you of the costs of failing to abide by its terms?
The answer, I hope, is obvious. On June 30, Obama will likely conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. This will spark a faceoff with Congress, which has already declared its opposition to the deal. Congress will inevitably pass a vote of disapproval, which Obama will inevitably veto. In order to defend that veto from a congressional override, however, he must line up 34 Senators—all Democrats. This calls in turn for a preemptive ideological campaign to foster liberal solidarity—for which your support is key. If the president can convince the liberal Jewish community, on the basis of “shared values,” to shun any suspicion of alignment with congressional Republicans or Benjamin Netanyahu, he will have an easier time batting down Congress’s opposition to the deal with Iran.
I think Doran is correct. Obama knows that a deal with Iran is not popular. He also knows that despite the limits that Corker-Menendez puts on him, it still means that a future nuclear deal with Iran will stand if the Senate cannot override his veto, even if Congress is not convinced that he made a good deal and initially votes the deal down.
As more news stories like Tuesday’s that Iran has increased its enriched uranium by 20% since the Joint Plan of Action was agreed even as Obama and his administration insist that Iran has abided by its terms, skepticism of the deal will only increase.
So as Doran pointed out, President Obama was asking his hardest core supporters to stand by him and ensure that minority who will support his bad deal with Iran will be a big enough minority to ensure that the deal stands.
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