LAYING THE GROUNDWORK for a bold presidential bid, the young Democratic senator set up a meeting with a key leader of the Jewish community. He had won substantial Jewish support in his home state, but as a first termer, he was not yet well known nationally. Sitting down with a prominent Chicago developer, the senator averred that he hoped to make progress on the Palestinian refugee situation.
The rebuke to John F. Kennedy came instantly. Philip Klutznick told him, "If you are going to run for the presidency, and that is what you are going to say, count me out and count a lot of other people out too." Kennedy counted Klutznick in, shortly thereafter giving a speech lavishly praising Israel and dropping the refugee question for the duration of his campaign.
Once elected, he did broach the issue during a state visit with David Ben-Gurion, and subsequently floated a plan that would allow some Palestinians to return home. The Israeli prime minister was not enthusiastic, calling the Kennedy proposal "a more serious danger to Israel's existence than all the threats of the Arab dictators and kings." Leaders in the American Jewish community campaigned vigorously against the initiative, which was quietly dropped. Disappointed in his effort to reach an entente with Egypt's Nassar, Kennedy offered high-tech Hawk missiles to Israel, beginning the process of turning the United States into Israel's chief arms supplier and laying the foundation for the present bilateral relationship.
Several wars and many billions of aid dollars later, the politics of Israel-Palestine are not exactly the same as 50 years ago but not that different either. Israel is more powerful and more dependent on American largesse. Americans are far more deeply engaged in the Middle East and for the most part are not happy about it. And American Jews still play a large, perhaps preponderant, role in Democratic Party fundraising.
On the surface, the tie between Barack Obama and Israel's establishment supporters is warm and comfortable, as it would be for almost any major Democratic candidate. Last year the Illinois senator spoke at AIPAC's annual conference--"a small group of friends" by his description--and described a recent trip to Israel, his ride in an IDF helicopter, the horror of Hezbollah rockets, the great threat to the United States and Israel posed by Iran. Israel was America's "strongest ally" in the region. Obama mentioned the peace process, but assured his listeners that he would neither "drag" Israel to the negotiating table nor "dictate" what would be best for the Jewish state's security. The speech, if not the paean to right-wing Zionism delivered by John Hagee or Dick Cheney, was still well received.
Nonetheless, there is a sense among the Jewish establishment that all is not as it seems--and if the view has not yet crystallized that Obama has a less Israelocentric perception of the Middle East than any major party nominee since Eisenhower, there is foreboding that the times are a-changin'.
That Obama has an Israel issue is not only being stressed by smear artists anonymously circulating emails that the senator is a "secret Muslim." It's also a worry percolating at the highest levels of the Jewish establishment. Listen to Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, at a press conference last month in Jerusalem: "All the talk about change, but without defining what the change should be, is an opening for all kinds of mischief." It's not Obama himself, Hoenlein assured. He has plenty of Jewish supporters and advisers. But, he added, "there is legitimate concern about the zeitgeist of the campaign." Obama, he worried, had criticized Hillary for putting Iran's Revolutionary Guard on the list of terrorist organizations. Overall support for Israel is broad yet thin, he warned, adding that an increasing number of Americans see the Jewish state as a "dark and militaristic place. …