Alex Brummer

Obama's empty legacy

February 26, 2015 13:49

Some years ago, as Washington correspondent of the Guardian, I found myself covering a bitterly fought Congressional race in South Dakota. It is a vast state of prairies, cornfields and grain silos. It is a state with a modest population of less than 900,000 of which 10 per cent are Native Americans. It was as far removed in culture and geography from the American-Jewish population centres of the East Coast, Chicago and Los Angeles as it is possible to be.

Imagine my surprise when I switched on my television set in the capital, Sioux City, to be bombarded with commercials urging voters in this farm state to vote against the re-election of a Republican Congressman James Abdnor who had voted against the supply of a new generation of advanced F16 fighters to Israel.

It was a sharp remainder that, even in the most remote corners of the US with virtually no Jewish population, voting against Israel was tantamount to political suicide. Abdnor lost his seat. That election, almost three decades ago, illustrated to me the reach and depth of support for Israel in America and the unbreakable bond between the two countries. So it is disturbing to find that on the eve of this year's annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's scheduled speech to a Republican-controlled Congress, relations are badly strained.

American presidents and Israeli prime ministers have often had their differences. George Bush briefly cut off loan guarantees to Israel in 2001 in the wake of the Iraq war. It was a temporary gesture and relations were rapidly restored. In contrast the six-year relationship between the Obama White House and Israel has remained strained. Partly this can be put down to bad chemistry between a rightist Israeli Premier and a liberal American president who has shown less interest in foreign policy and the Jewish state than his predecessors.

In much the same way as Obama has lacked the touchy-feely relationships that make it possible for a president to deal with a Congress dominated by an opposing party, so Obama has found it all but impossible to form a rapport with Netanyahu.

This is somewhat surprising in that American Jews traditionally have given voting and funding support to Democratic candidates. Moreover, Obama's capture of the White House largely was due to the efforts of two Chicago Jews Rahm Emanuel (his first chief of staff) and David Axelrod, currently an adviser to Ed Miliband.

The public rift between the White House and Netanyahu is ostensibly over the Republican invite to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on March 3. Such invitations are a huge honour and would normally be cleared with the White House before being issued. The current one originated with the Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.

The slight felt by the President and his entourage is understandable. The idea of giving a foreign political leader a platform, so close to an election in their country (March 17), breaches convention. More importantly, the White House fears Netanyahu could undermine Obama's own legacy.

Obama has few foreign policy successes to his name. He has been looking to the five plus one (the US, Russia, China, France and plus Germany) to bring an end to decades of hostility with Iran and to curb its nuclear ambitions. The President wants the current round of talks with Iran to run their course until the end of March and hopes for a framework agreement.

What he doesn't want is for the Israeli Prime Minister to use his platform before Congress to demand a deepening of the sanctions. The official Israeli position also has been weakened by the leak to the Guardian of intelligence papers from Mossad saying that Iran "does not appear to be ready" to enrich uranium to the higher levels necessary for nuclear bombs.

A dangerous aspect of the present stand-off between the White House and Bibi is that it threatens bipartisan consensus on the Middle East. Senior Democrats, including Vice-President Joe Biden, who is ceremonial chair of the Senate, have threatened a boycott of Netanyahu's address.

There is broader concern that this could feed into widening dissent in the US over its "Israel right or wrong" support. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League of the B'nai B'rith argues that the dispute could damage ''the essential relationship between allies.'' The current imbroglio reopens wounds and grievances built up over six years not least during the 2012 election when Netanyahu came close to cheerleading for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Obama and the Democrats also recognise that opinion about Israel is more divided particularly among youthful voters. Younger Jews are more sceptical about Israel's policies.

During Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer a Jewish group on campuses - "If Not Now" - used social media to build a campaign against Israel's actions. Nathan Sachs, at the influential think tank Brookings, argues the danger for Israel is that it becomes a cause-célèbre.

Americans in general still hold Israel, its democracy and leaders in huge regard. The simmering distrust between Obama and Netanyahu and an increasingly partisan divide places unequivocal support at risk.

February 26, 2015 13:49

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive