The American Jewish community in all its various facets — synagogues, federations, lobbies, Zionist movements, and rabbinical councils — was taken by surprise when President Obama announced that his first trip abroad of his second term in March would include Israel.
Some of these groups likely saw a flash of hope that this trip would help create serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, negotiations that would lead to an illusive two-state solution and end to the constant existential pressure and tension that Israelis feel.
Although it was officially announced that the president would discuss the Syrian and Iranian problems with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, almost every Israeli newspaper, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro claimed that the announcement of the visit was timed to pressure Netanyahu to form a more centrist coalition, one that included political parties that had campaigned for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. One writer, J.J. Goldberg, wrote this past week that Obama had not only made it the top item of his foreign policy agenda, but that he had put his whole body into it.
In some respects, the surprise occurred because Netanyahu had pushed back so hard and outmaneuvered Obama to such an extent in the latter’s first term that this president, the experts concluded, would allow the European Union and the United Nations to bang their heads against the proverbial wall of Israeli resistance.
That theory, however, was contradicted by the facts that the majority of the American people, American Jews and Israelis still favor a two-state solution. Also, contrary to efforts to interfere by major Jewish and Evangelical donors and some of his own operatives such as Ron Dermer, 69 percent of American Jewry voted for Obama.
Although so many individuals and groups vilified Obama, often announcing that he would “throw Israel under the bus,” Democratic and Independent Jewish voters rejected those organizations’ and individuals’ pleas in the Jewish communities to give Romney their ballots. Netanyahu, who speaks excellent English, likely recalled the American expression, “what goes around comes around.” He reportedly had a bad headache after Obama’s re-election.
Even though Obama is expected to visit Jordan, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he will first see Netanyahu and the Israeli people for at least three days. Outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon even predicted that the president would set up a mini-conference in Jordan between Abbas and Netanyahu. Obama would also give the Israeli people a big hug and tons of credit, one commentator wrote. They will love it.
The recent turn of events will not likely end the anti-democratic tactics in the American Jewish community to curtail Jewish free speech in regard to Israeli-centered topics. The debate that occurred in Brooklyn College when the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions issue was the subject for discussion, or in the past when a liberal Zionist or certain rabbi was scheduled to speak at a synagogue and a vocal minority threatened to leave the institution are just a few of the frequent examples of attempts to silence liberal elements in our community who wish to participate in an open dialogue.
However, the Obama political victory, his visit to Israel and New York Mayor Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s statement during the Brooklyn College free speech controversy will send a message that attempts to silence or interfere in such a manner are inappropriate meddling or just undemocratic, and will not always turn out the way the spoilers wish.
Obama’s visit also is a logical follow-up, not only to Secretary of State’s John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks about the need this year for Israelis and Palestinians to restart serious negotiations, but also to Obama’s own belief that there is a connection between the peace process and stability in the Middle East, especially now that the Middle East is going through major convulsions.
Although no one can predict how the discussions will go in regard to the approach to Iran and nuclear weapons, and the Palestinians’ aspirations, Netanyahu will have to make some strategic decisions this year. They will ultimately relate to his legacy, and how Israel will survive as a Jewish and democratic state. Apparently, Obama has already made his decisions, and he has even announced one of them.
(Ivan C. Frank, an author and teacher, lives in Squirrel Hill.)