Frenemies

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Beinart

President Obama betrayed his ideals and misplayed his hand with Israel. How Bibi got the better of Barack.

Bibi was coming again, and the White House was determined: this visit would not play out like the last one. On Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's previous trip to Washington, Obama had proposed that Israel and the Palestinians negotiate a peace deal based on the armistice lines drawn after Israel's birth. Netanyahu reacted badly, publicly lecturing the president that "we can't go back to those indefensible lines."

The encounter enraged Obama, who felt, in the words of one administration official, that "the dignity of the office [of president] was insulted." Privately, Vice President Biden reprimanded Netanyahu for his tone. But despite their fury, Obama officials watched impotently as the Israelis and their American allies controlled the media spin. One administration official even got a call from his sister, a Hebrew-school teacher, demanding to know why he was compromising Israel's security.

This time, with Netanyahu coming to discuss a potential attack on Iran, the administration tried a "preemptive" strike of its own. A key target: AIPAC, the influential pro-Israeli government group at whose annual conference both Obama and Netanyahu were slated to speak. Five days before the conference, Chief of Staff Jack Lew summoned AIPAC's president to the White House. Obama dropped by as well. Their message was clear: AIPAC was not giving the administration enough credit for imposing harsh sanctions on Tehran.

With the Israeli government, the administration's strategy was similar: solicit public praise. After Netanyahu's last visit, the Obama reelection campaign had begun polling American Jews. It found that the best validators of Obama's Israel policy were Israelis themselves. In response, the campaign began distributing glowing statements about Obama's performance from top Israeli officials. Now, with Netanyahu about to arrive in Washington, Team Obama wanted a positive review of its Iran policy as well.

The White House strategy worked. At the AIPAC conference, executive director Howard Kohr declared that "President Obama and his administration are to be commended. They have--more than any other administration, more than any other country--brought unprecedented pressure to bear on Tehran through the use of biting economic sanctions." After meeting Obama, Netanyahu--instead of reproaching the president as he had the previous May--declared that "Israel and America stand together."

But all this camaraderie came at a price. In his effort to win AIPAC and Netanyahu's favor, Obama committed himself--far more explicitly than before--to taking military action if there was no other way to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb. It was a far cry from the early days of his presidency, when he told the Iranian people that "this process will not be advanced by threats."

It's not just on Iran. The story of Obama's relationship to Netanyahu and his American Jewish allies is, fundamentally, a story of acquiescence. Obama took office with a distinctly progressive vision of Jewish identity and the Jewish state, one shaped by the Chicago Jewish community that helped launch his political career. Three years later--after a bitter struggle with the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment--that vision is all but gone.

Obama entered the White House after an adulthood spent--more than any predecessor--in the company of Jews. Most of his key legal mentors were Jews (Abner Mikva, for example); many of his biggest donors were Jews; his chief political consultant, David Axelrod, was a Jew. And for the most part, the Jews Obama knew best were progressives, shaped by the civil rights movement and alienated from mainstream American Jewish organizations over Israel.

Obama's initial statements about Israel often mirrored the liberal Zionism of his Jewish friends. …