Barely a hint of protest from within his camp

By Nathan Guttman, Washington, June 4, 2009

President Obama’s change of tone toward the Middle East conflict and his administration’s overt pressure on the Netanyahu government has not affected Jewish-American support for the president.

Although some Jewish Democrats have raised concerns about putting too much pressure on Israel over settlements, most Jewish members of Congress support the president’s moves, as do most large Jewish organisations.

Mr Obama’s drive to end settlement expansion and his refusal to accept Israeli plans to continue building to support “natural growth” within settlements were met with silence by most Jewish groups. Community leaders say privately that it is too early for them to take a position on the growing friction between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama. An estimated 78 per cent of America’s Jews voted for Mr Obama.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Obama’s tough stance won praise from Jewish activists on the left and was criticised from the Jewish right.

Leaders of the Orthodox Union said they were “deeply troubled” by Mr Obama’s refusal to allow natural growth building in settlements. In a letter to the president, the group called the his approach “illogical” and “counter-productive”.

Dovish groups, on the other hand, came out in support of the administration’s policy. “This is exactly the sort of leadership we need,” read a statement by J-Street, a Jewish advocacy group that believes in greater American involvement in bringing about a two-state solution.

In Congress, Jewish lawmakers have generally expressed full support for the president’s approach and voiced their own concerns over Israel’s settlement activity in meetings with Mr Netanyahu during his visit to Washington last month. Aides to the prime minister said he was “stunned” by attacks from Democratic Jewish lawmakers, all known as staunch supporters of Israel. The critics included leading Jewish Democrats such as California’s Howard Berman and Henry Waxman and New York’s Gary Ackerman.

Recently, however, several Jewish Democrats in the House of Representatives have publicly warned the administration not to apply too much pressure on Israel. Politico newspaper this week quoted three Jewish lawmakers who, while supportive of Obama’s Middle East policy, expressed concern over the his stand on the settlement issue.

Florida’s Robert Wexler, an early Obama supporter, called for a more even spread of pressure, stressing that “Bibi Netanyahu can’t be expected to perform his obligations if the broader Arab world is not willing to take serious steps toward normalising relations with Israel.”

Shelley Berkley from Nevada added her concern that too much pressure is being applied “on the wrong party in the dispute.”

Last updated: 11:57am, June 4 2009