Shortly after I posted a link to Aluf Benn's New York Times op-ed on President Obama, I spoke to two senior administration officials who seemed to feel fairly strongly that Benn doesn't understand what the President is trying to do. In his piece, Benn argued that Obama has spoken to most everyone in the world except to the Israelis -- the Cairo speech to the Muslim world being the most obvious example of Obama's desire to re-set relationships -- and that until he allays Israeli fears, and explains his vision for the Middle East and for Israel's security, Israelis will mistrust him, to generally deleterious effect.
These two senior officials -- sorry, those were the ground rules -- made the plausible argument that the Cairo speech was, in fact, directed at Israelis as much as it was directed at Arabs. "The President went before a Cairo audience in a speech co-sponsored by Al-Azhar with Muslim Brotherhood members in the audience and spoke of America's strong, unshakable support for Israel," one of the officials said. "He could have gone to a million different venues to say this, but he went to Cairo, and it wasn't exactly an applause line. Isn't it more important to say this to the Muslim world than it is to say it to an audience of Israelis or American Jews?"
These two officials pointed out something that I forgot about the speech, which is that it contained strong condemnations of the cynical Arab ploy to use the Palestinian issue as a diversion (in other words, to keep the focus of unhappy Arabs on Israel and not on the weaknesses of their own anti-democratic, corrupt governments), and of course it contained an unequivocal denunciation of terrorism committed in the name of resistance.
For what it was worth, I mentioned my worry that in all of the noise about settlements, the pro-Israel message of the Obama Administration wasn't being heard -- not only the left-sounding message that a Palestinian state is in the best security, demographic and moral interests of the Jewish state, but the message that Obama believes in the core ideas of Zionism (as he expressed them to me during the campaign) and that, because he's a believer, he sincerely wants to protect Israel from true existential threats.
I asked these two officials when Obama might visit Israel, or at least speak at length about his positive vision for a secure Israel, but they were non-committal, but I'm obviously hoping that this happens soon. Otherwise, the forces that seek to exploit the growing unease in some Jewish quarters with Obama in order to advance their own pro-settlement -- or pro-recalcitrance -- agendas will only be strengthened. The Obama Administration doesn't help its own cause when it condemns the so-called "natural growth" of settlement blocs that everyone from Abu Mazen to Hosni Mubarak knows will wind up as part of Israel in a final deal, but you're not going to get too many complaints from me, and, my guess is, from the majority of American Jews, when the Obama Administration questions the motivations of those who seek aggressive settlement expansion right now, at a time when the Palestinian leadership of the West Bank is actually fighting terrorism, and building a functioning economy.
To be continued, I'm sure.