Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Barack Obama--Our Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace, and Pro-America President

As an American Jew who cares deeply about my religion and the State of Israel, the last few days have been the best of times and the worst of times.

The good news is that President Barack Obama has once again gone out of his way to show his grasp of the complex issues in the Middle East and his strong commitment to the safety and security of Israel as America's greatest ally in the region.

In both his speech at the State Department a few days ago and his address to AIPAC two days later, he stated (as he did in front of a Muslim audience in Cairo two years ago) his unshakeable commitment to Israel's safety and security.

He also made it clear in no uncertain terms that his support for a Palestinian state was contingent upon their abandonment of terrorist tactics and their willingness to recognize Israel's right to exist.  He made it clear that he will strongly oppose Palestinian efforts to be recognized as a state by the U.N. and all efforts to delegitimize Israel.

Here is what our President actually said:

"For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

 As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

His speech at the State Department seemed to be great news for Israel and horrible news for those who would like to see the views and tactics of Hamas become the dominant culture if the proposed reconciliation betwen that terrorist group and Fatah actually comes to fruition.

The only suggestion he had for Israel was to pick up where former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert left off and to use the 1967 borders as a starting point for boundary discussion with mutually agreed upon land swaps that reflect the changes that have taken place since Israel took control of the West Bank 44 years ago. 

This was not a new or shocking suggestion.  Olmert made the identical statement just two years ago.

"On the 16th of September, 2008, I presented him (Abbas) with a comprehensive plan. It was based on the following principles.

One, there would be a territorial solution to the conflict on the basis of the 1967 borders with minor modifications on both sides. Israel will claim part of the West Bank where there have been demographic changes over the last 40 years.

I repeat (for emphasis) that the above quote is from then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert detailing what he offered the Palestinians two years ago.  Whether one thinks his approach was ill-advised or not, there is no doubt that Obama was simply repeating a stated position of the Israeli government--not coming up with some radical new game changing idea.

Obama's speech at AIPAC put an exclamation point on all those sentiments and should have been reassuring to all of us who care deeply about Israel and long for peace in that region.

That assessment was clearly shared by many others who care deeply about Israel and the Jewish people.

The American Jewish Committee came out with a strong statement praising Obama's comments.  Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League called Obama's speech strongly pro-Israel and said it showed that Obama has a good understanding of the issue in the Middle East.  Atlantic Magazine columnist Jeff Goldberg, a strong supporter of Israel and former soldier in the Israeli army, concurred.  Tzipi Livni, the member of Knesset who heads Israel's largest political party, praised Obama's comments in the strongest terms.  J Street added its approval as well.

But, as we all know, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to Obama by throwing what several analysts referred to as a "hissy fit" and just one day before he was to privately meet with our president he felt the need to publicly state that he "expected" Obama to take back what he had said.  Then, the very next day, he openly lectured Obama in a way that suggested that our president was naive and needed a history lesson.

I will have more to say about Netanyahu (this article is the first in a trilogy) after his speeches to AIPAC and Congress but I will simply add now that one has to question the wisdom, common sense, and motivations of a national leader who would go out of his way to publicly admonish and distort the statements of the leader of his country's best and only friend and benefactor in the world.

But Netanyahu's remarks and attitude opened the floodgates for a numbers of Republicans and many Jews who care deeply about Israel to go "birther" and "Tea Party" on our president.

Mitt Romney was first--claiming that Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus" without stating how or why.  He was followed by the rest of the opportunistic Republicans who sensed (falsely I hope) that this distortion of our president's comments could be exploited as a wedge and used to lure our president's massive Jewish support away.

Zionist Organization of America head Morton Klein went the furthest, issuing a vitriolic statement in which he called Obama all sorts of nasty names and called on AIPAC to rescind their invitation for the president to address their conference. ZOA members also led an anti-Obama rally outside the Israeli embassy in New York.

I just heard Rush Limbaugh's cogent assessment of Obama's speeches as he told millions of listeners that "Obama has clearly chosen the Palestinians over the Israelis.  He has told Israel to go commit suicide."  Many other Right wing and pro-Israel bloggers have piled on in an effort to outdo themselves creating adjectives and invectives describing Obama's efforts to destroy Israel.

Equally disappointing was the way the mainstream media promoted the distortion of Obama's comments instead of providing truth and clarity.  Headlines and sound bites repeatedly gave the false impression that our president had ordered Israel to return to the 1967 borders.  None mentioned the other 98 percent of his speech, including the many criteria and guidelines he set for the Palestinians.  It was all about reacting to the distortion that had been angrily invented by the Israeli prime minister.

Never mind that Obama has done nothing of the sort.  Never mind that Obama in his words and actions has done just the opposite.  Never mind that this is the same Barack Obama whom Israeli ambassador Michael Oren--a man who has actually been in the room during each of the meetings between our president and Netanyahu--has repeatedly and effusively praised as a strong and steadfast friend of the Jewish state.

I find all this confusing and depressing.  Not so much the fact that other Americans and Jewish figures disagree with my assessment of Obama's performance but the fact that the smearing and vitriol and lies and distortions that have characterized one-issue fact-free hate campaigns against our president by the birthers (Obama was born in Kenya) and the Tea Party (Obama wants to destroy America) and the NRA (Obama wants to take away your guns) and the Right to Lifers (Obama wants to kill the unborn) are now being employed by Jews and others who claim to care so deeply about the future of Israel (Obama wants to destroy the Jewish homeland).

I believe that many of these people do mean well but it is sad beyond my ability to express that so-called Jewish leaders have resorted to slash-and-burn tactics in their inexplicable zeal to demonize our president. The tactics of distortion and fabrication have apparently replaced the respectful and nuanced, fact-based conversation that has always been the hallmark of Jewish debate.

It is both sad and disappointing that they are targeting a man whom I believe has acted and spoken more honestly and courageously in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and generate the best outcome for Israel and the U.S. than any president in my lifetime. 

It is even more tragic what this tone and attitude is doing to our efforts to build community and have a civil, productive conversation as committed American Jews.  Jeff Goldberg has shared some of the hatemail he has received from fellow Jews after he stated that he believes Obama is pro-Israel and made a wonderful speech.   But that too is a topic for another day.