March 2, 2011

Obama shows lessons learned on Israel, American Jews

President Obama held a plenary meeting yesterday with representatives of American Jewish organizations, implicitly marking the end to his first effort at peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians. He reportedly encouraged attendees to ask their Israeli friends to search their souls and decide if they're really ready to move ahead. A couple of years ago, community leaders used a slightly more candid conversation at the White House to press the President not to allow disagreements with the Netanyahu government to enter the public domain.

Yesterday was the first Israel-related meeting since, and it was telling in itself. First, participants were seated theater-style rather than around a table with the President, so it was more about theatrics than deliberation. Paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson's famous line, if Jewish leaders want the privilege of genuine conversation with the President of the United States, at his table, they should not abuse the privilege by throwing complaints and demands onto that table. Now the President can show he meets with American Jewry, and Jewish organizations can promote themselves as having access to the corridors of power.

Long before yesterday's sit-down, and even before "people power" started taking over the Middle East late last year, the President had made clear that his risk-taking for Mideast peace had run its course. No U.S. President can want peace more than the parties themselves, especially if those parties happen to be Israelis and Palestinians.

Since the mid-term elections, where Prime Minister Netanyahu's favored Republicans made big gains, the President needs to focus on the very real economic challenges as well as GOP opposition to most of his agenda for meeting those challenges. He also needs to find some foreign policy successes and to address the Mideast's new overarching issue of democratic change.

The United States will continue to watch Israel's back at the United Nations and on the battlefield, as the Administration proved last week in the Security Council and as U.S.-Israeli military cooperation continues to thrive. And the President will not be pressuring Israel so much anymore, just be careful what you wish for.

If Israel or the Palestinians are unwilling to make the substantive effort to deal with real issues, including Jewish settlements over the Green Line, this President will not pretend that Israel is somehow relevant to U.S. national security on a daily basis. Substance begets substance, and relevance begets relevance, results... results.

Rumors that Dan Shapiro will soon leave the National Security Council to be U.S. Ambassador to Israel should put Israeli and Jewish leaders at ease. While he obviously supports the President's approach, Dan is seen as sympathetic to Israel and will be in a position to convey Israeli concerns straight through to the President's desk. Yet his departure may reflect that he is no longer needed working the
White House phones on a peace track to nowhere.

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