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White House Opens Doors for Moderate Jewish Voices

New America Media, News Analysis, Jalal Ghazi Posted: Jul 27, 2009

Editors Note: Jewish groups who oppose settlements and support a two-state solution have often found themselves left in the dust by more stridently pro-Israeli lobbying groups in Washington. But the Obama administration is signaling that it wants to hear from them as well because indications are that American Jews are increasingly less interested in blindly toeing the line of the Israeli government, writes NAM contributor Jalal Ghazi.

It is not unusual for Jewish leaders to meet the president in the White House. But when groups like Americans for Peace Now, J Street and Israeli Policy Forum were part of a delegation of top Jewish leaders invited to meet President Obama recently, it attracted notice. These groups want a more even-handed U.S. policy in the region, they support a two-state solution and they oppose expansion of settlements. They are not as well funded or vocal as some of the groups who demand unquestioning U.S. support for all Israeli policies, but they are part of the American Jewish community. Now they have more access to the White House.

Dan Flesher, author of Transforming America's Israel Lobby: The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change, told Al Jazeera English that the views of American Jews towards the Mideast peace are changing. He said that after 9/11 it became clear that stability in the Middle East was not just in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians. It was also in the interest of the United States.

These unconventional pro-Israel lobby groups claim to be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro-America. They stand in marked contrast to groups such as the Zionist Organization of America, which expect Washington to rubber stamp all Israeli policies.

Flesher told Al Jazeera that these groups have become more vocal recently and the that Obama administration knows that there is a multiplicity of views within the Jewish community. He said the growing prominence of these voices reflects the fact that many American Jews are realizing that unquestioning support for the Israeli government has been counter-productive to Middle East peace and has resulted in Israel being less secure.

Many American Jews, for example, support Obamas demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stop the construction of settlements in the West Bank. This has angered many in Israel. A recent Pew poll of worldwide attitudes towards the United States showed Israel as one of the few countries where favorable ratings for the United States under Obama have dropped compared to a year ago.

According to a Jerusalem Post-commissioned poll released on June 19, only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider Obama views pro-Israel. This is strikingly different from a Gallup poll, which was released in May, putting American Jewish support for Obama at 79 percent.

Israeli Television Channel 10 aired a report in which a settler named Gershon said, One needs to teach the nigger in Washington a lesson. The 'n' word or Koshon in Hebrew was also used by a radio host on Tel Aviv Radio. David Michaelis, senior editor of Current Affairs for LinkTV, said the Israeli channel decided to air the video unedited because it wanted to show the level of anger among settlers. In fact, angry settlers defied Obama by building another outpost and calling it Obama Hilltop.

Obama is trying to cover his bases with the more traditional Israeli lobbying groups as well. His main asset there is his chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel who served in the Israeli army and who has a long record of being a strong friend of Israel. In June 2008, Emmanuel personally escorted Obama into a meeting of the American Israel Public Action Committee, AIPAC, one of the most influential lobby groups in Washington.

Emmanuel has strongly defended the presidents policies in the Middle East, which has led to Netanyahu dubbing him a self-hating Jew. But Emmanuel told NBC that Obama was a true friend of Israel and a friend is someone whose loyalty is instinctively known Also a friend is someone who tells you the truth.

Significantly, Emmanuel also added, And most importantly he does not only support Israel, but he will also be a friend for Jewish Americans who also want to see change to American foreign policy in Middle East.

Emmanuel, said Dan Flesher, is a canny politician and he knows that there is a lot of support among American Jews for Obamas position on settlements. The vast majority of American Jews support him [Obama], the vast majority of Democrats support him and they want to see this position and he knows that, Flesher told Al Jazeera English.

The fact that Obama is sympathetic to the views of American Jews who want to see change in Middle East has given momentum to groups such as J Street.

That does not mean more stridently pro-Israeli groups are suddenly out in the cold. They are still a force Obama has to reckon with despite his great popularity. For example, they recently stopped Obamas nomination of Chas Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to the chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council because he was viewed as too critical of Israel by right-wing pro-Israeli groups. Journalist Max Blumenthal told Al Jazeera English, that Israel lobby-related groups have been taking public statements out of context and emailing sympathetic reporters.

But moderate Jewish voices are also piping up. Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) came under attacks from pro-Israel lobby groups because they were not pleased with her approach to the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. Over 600 J Street PAC members contributed over $25,000 to her campaign in less than 24 hours and helped get her elected. Edwards recorded a special thank you video message to JStreetPAC in which she clearly expressed her support for Obamas approach for peace in Middle East.

Obamas more even-handed approach towards the Middle East is part of his strategy of winning the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims, especially Israels neighbors. His new Jewish allies, who see no contradiction between being pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro-America are becoming crucial allies as the president tries to bring a true peace to the Middle East that can achieve the aspirations of the Palestinians and make Israel more secure.

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