Obama, Netanyahu, and the Future of the Jewish State

Will Israel’s prime minister recognize that his country faces more than one threat to its existence?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

A congregational rabbi, an acquaintance of mine, called the other day in search of sermon advice in advance of Rosh Hashanah. This particular rabbi leans right ritually and left politically. His question: How do I explain to younger congregants that the cause of Israel remains just, given their distaste for the reactionary Benjamin Netanyahu; their incomprehension of Israel’s settlement policy; and their intuitive sympathy for Netanyahu’s adversary, Barack Obama, and the liberal politics Obama represents?

One suggestion I made was to place Zionism in a context understandable to young American progressives: Explain to them that Zionism—the movement to create and support a Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people—is the equivalent in many ways of the American civil-rights movement, which, like Zionism, seeks equality and justice for an oppressed people.

The rabbi laughed. “Who’s going to believe that anymore?” he asked.

Well, I said, the president of the United States, for one. In fact, I told him, this wasn’t my formulation. It was Obama’s.

In an interview this past May, Obama discussed in great depth his beliefs about Israel and the innate justice of its cause. “To me, being pro-Israel and pro-Jewish is part and parcel with the values that I’ve been fighting for since I was politically conscious and started getting involved in politics,” he told me. “There’s a direct line between supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland and to feel safe and free of discrimination and persecution, and the right of African Americans to vote and have equal protection under the law.”

To me, someone who came up in the progressive Zionist movement (socialist, actually, if you must know), this seemed like an astute, morally coherent, and rhetorically effective formula. Shortly after I posted the interview, I mentioned Obama’s formulation to a couple of friends who labor in the vineyards of the Jewish people. It was not my business to tell them how to do their jobs—they are both engaged professionally in advancing Israel’s argument in America in ways I wouldn’t—but I said that, if I were Sheldon Adelson, or some other similarly situated, pro-Israel oligarch, I might think it wise to plaster Obama’s equation onto the sides of city buses.

They thought about this for a moment, and then said—this is the shortened version of their answer—“But, Iran.”

To which I responded: “Israel faces more than one threat to its existence.” In other words, even if you believe that the Iran nuclear agreement is treyf beyond treyf, why wouldn’t you make hay out of the fact that the first African American U.S. president, a liberal icon, not only believes that the cause of Israel is just, but states this openly and unapologetically at a time when many on the international left are working obsessively to delegitimize the Jewish state?

This was too much cognitive dissonance for one conversation, apparently. How could anti-Israel Obama be pro-Israel? Such a contradiction could not be easily digested.

Which is too bad, because I believe that Barack Obama represented for Israel, in perhaps its most crucial existential fight, not a threat but an opportunity—an opportunity that was blown, I believe, by an Israeli prime minister too paranoid, too tactically minded, and too out of touch with current American Jewish political reality to see this opportunity when it presented itself.

Obama was perfectly situated to carry Israel’s message to the many corners of the world that are hostile to the underlying idea that animates the Israeli cause. If Netanyahu believes what he has said on occasion—that the international delegitimization campaign, and the related movement to boycott and sanction his state, poses a threat to Israel’s existence—then he might have embraced Obama as his partner and as his advocate. Obama has, through his two terms, played this role in some ways, in any case. In speeches, even in speeches before Muslim audiences, Obama has spoken at times feelingly in defense of Israel. But he could not speak full-throatedly, because there was something about Netanyahu that stuck in his craw. This was, of course, Netanyahu’s settlement policy.

When Obama came into office, he demanded that Israel curtail its settlement-building on the West Bank. It was a demand that was made, at least initially, clumsily and bluntly, and without sufficient thought, but it was not an outrageous demand (it was in line, in fact, with the anti-settlement inclinations of previous U.S. presidents). And it was—and here is the part that Netanyahu could not abide—presented to Israel by Obama as a move that would be in its own best interests.

Every bad marriage has its recurring irritants, and the bad marriage between Netanyahu and Obama is no different. One chronic irritant for Netanyahu is Obama’s oft-stated suggestion that his understanding of Israel’s long-term best interests is deeply considered and comprehensive. One chronic irritant for Obama is his belief that Netanyahu has neither the courage nor the prescience to move Israel toward a two-state solution, the only solution that will preserve Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy.

I understand why Netanyahu might find Obama’s assertion that the Iran nuclear agreement is in Israel’s best interests somewhat galling. I’m 60-40 on the issue myself, and though I’m pleased that the deal, if properly implemented, will keep Iran from the nuclear threshold for at least 10 years, if not more, the Obama administration inadvertently reminds me from time to time that it might have an overly sanguine view of Iran’s ultimate intentions.

On the other set of issues—those related to Israel’s hemorrhaging legitimacy, which is in many ways derivative of Netanyahu’s obstinate desire to defend the settlement project at almost any cost—my sympathy for the prime minister dissipates. In this case, I don’t doubt at all that Obama is asking questions about Israel’s direction that must be asked by its friends.

In an earlier interview with me, Obama put it this way: “[I]f there’s something you know you have to do, even if it’s difficult or unpleasant, you might as well just go ahead and do it, because waiting isn’t going to help. When I have a conversation with Bibi, that's the essence of my conversation: ‘If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?’” He went on to say, “I believe that Bibi is strong enough that if he decided this was the right thing to do for Israel, that he could do it. If he does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach. And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.”

I find it very difficult to argue with Obama when he asserts that time is running out for Israel to create conditions in which it will remain a Jewish-majority democracy and a safe haven for the Jewish people. We are now in the 48th year of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Hope for a two-state solution dims by the day. Right now, there are influential figures on the center-left, in America and in Europe, and certainly in the developing world, who believe that Israel is becoming an apartheid state, or is one already. Though this belief is steadily taking root, Netanyahu still has time to get Israel’s house in order. The choice is difficult: create conditions on the West Bank for the emergence of a Palestinian state, or give the Palestinians the vote in Israel. The third option—the permanent disenfranchisement of the West Bank Palestinians—is not an acceptable option, practically or morally. It is certainly not a legitimate option in the eyes of the international community, and such an option would be rejected by millions of Jews in the United States and elsewhere, including and especially in synagogues whose rabbis are searching for ways to explain today’s difficult reality to disaffected young congregants.

To say that Israel faces an existential challenge on the West Bank is not to say that it doesn’t face other existential challenges as well. There is no intellectually coherent reason for the left to reject the idea that the Iranian regime’s ideology poses an acute threat to Israel’s physical health, and there is no intellectually coherent reason for the right to reject the idea that settler ideology and the continued occupation of the West Bank pose an acute threat to Israel’s international standing and moral legitimacy.

My wish for the New Year is that Netanyahu sees more clearly what is actually happening in the world; that he comes to understand that not all existential threats have a nuclear component; and that he commits himself, in word and deed, to repairing the damage his policies and political machinations have done to Israel’s relationship with centrists and liberals both inside and outside the Jewish community. My broader wish is that he helps to create an Israel whose behavior matches the highest ideals articulated both by the founders of Zionism and by the founders, and current-day leaders, of the American civil-rights movement.