Critics of US President Barack Obama say he has a “Jewish problem,” a claim that stretches credulity as the president received three-quarters of the Jewish American vote four years ago. Even his most vociferous opponents concede that Obama will likely win at least 60 percent of the Jewish vote this time around.
Nevertheless, Republicans believe they can cut into Obama’s sizable advantage in the Jewish community by criticizing his record on foreign policy and the way he has handled the US-Israel relationship. Last week, a top adviser to presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney told the Times of Israel that Obama’s approach to Israel has been “cold.”
But the president’s supporters point to strengthened US-Israel security ties, the implementation of biting sanctions on Iran, and American action at the UN in support of Israel as examples of President Obama’s commitment to the Jewish state.
In an interview with the Times of Israel, former South Florida Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler explains why he believes the President deserves the continued support of Jewish American voters. Wexler is currently the President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a key foreign policy advisor to Obama’s reelection campaign.
The Times of Israel: Let’s start with your general argument to Jewish American voters. Why should they elect to give President Obama a second term in office?
Robert Wexler: The fact is that President Obama has pursued economic and social policies completely aligned with the vast majority of people in the Jewish American community. On top of that, he has excelled in the national security arena like no other Democratic American president since Harry Truman. From the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of the great bulk of the al-Qaeda network to the recent revelation of the great work the CIA is doing in Yemen. To Israel itself, in which the security and intelligence bilateral relationship between the US and Israel for the past three and half years has never been better. That’s a big deal.
What about the political relationship, specifically, between President Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu?
The political relationship is strong, too. But in in terms of its historical context, this issue is a bit exaggerated by some of the President’s political opponents. President Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu fits very comfortably within the pattern of president/prime minister relationships. Take, for instance the relationship Clinton had with Netanyahu. The relationship that many American presidents have had with Israeli prime ministers were not uneventful relationships. They are very close and intimate in the sense of politics. And that’s exactly the kind of relationship Obama and Netanyahu have.
To say that the military and security relationship is stronger than ever before is not just a convenient argument for President Obama’s supporters. That is the test of the American-Israeli partnership. And that is what’s so critical for the Israelis and us. And that relationship doesn’t get stronger by allowing the other relationships to weaken. It’s just opposite. The President made the most pro-Israel speech at the UN in the history of the State of Israel. This president has articulated support and defense of Israeli policies in Europe, with Turkey, with our Arab allies in a very robust manner.
So what do you think one of Mitt Romney’s advisers was referring to when he told me last week that Obama’s “coldness to Israel has been manifest?”
That is the argument Republican surrogates make. They say he’s cold. I hear that he doesn’t feel Israel in his kishkes. I think that’s something you say when you don’t have any factual arguments to make. What does it mean that he’s cold? Does being cold mean articulating the strongest pro-Israel argument ever at the UN – a forum not warm to Israel?
Does being cold mean articulating the strongest pro-Israel argument ever at the UN?
When he got done making the most pro-Israel speech any president has ever made at the UN, what did he do? He hopped on an airplane and went to Europe where he spent a great portion of his days in essence lobbying the French, German, British and other European leadership to support policies that are supportive of Israel’s interests, both with respect to its immediate interests and with respect to Iran.
The president has used his strong relationship with [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan to interject a strong need for Turkey to repair its relations with Israel. Obama has provided the highest, most advanced set of weaponry to Israel. And not only does he do that, but he initiates it in terms of defense cooperation.
I guess I would ask that gentleman who referred to Obama as cold, “Is it cold that America has engaged in the largest joint military operation between the US and Israel in Israel’s history during the Obama administration? Is it cold that more than 200 high-level Pentagon officials visited Israel during the last calendar year? Is it cold that America and Israel will likely engage in an even larger joint military exercise this year?” And I’ll tell you one group who doesn’t believe the relationship is cold – that’s the current leadership in Tehran.
On the subject of Iran, in 2009, President Obama was criticized for not supporting the protesters during the Green Revolution. Is that a fair point?
That was a decision made based on the recommendation of the intelligence experts in the US as to the best way that the US might be able to affect Iranian policy. At the time, there was a consensus view in the expert community that if the protest movement was perceived as having external support from the US, it would likely undermine the credibility of the opposition. In retrospect, I understand the criticism that the result was not a success. However, this all needs to be put into context.
The context is this: when President Obama came into office, Iran’s power was on the increase. Its influence in the region was dramatically increasing. Today, after three and half years of President Obama’s policy, Iran’s influence has decreased dramatically. Its position in the region is significantly compromised and Iran’s economy is on the brink in the sense that their currency has been devalued by about 40 percent in the past several months relative to the dollar. They cannot find themselves admiralty insurance, which has wound up being arguably the most effective sanction in terms of creating exceptional economic pain. The Iranians find themselves incapable at this point of landing a large oil tanker in most of the ports of the world today.
I’ve heard you say that President George W. Bush didn’t do nearly enough on Iran.
It’s not that Bush didn’t do nearly enough. He actually did very little, or I should say that very little was accomplished during the Bush administration in terms of implementing economic penalties on Iran. More importantly, or I should say equally important, we shouldn’t just focus on sanctions. We should focus on the overall position a nation occupies in the world community. And, unfortunately, in part because of the Iraq War and in part because Bush was focused exclusively on Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s influence in the broader Middle East increased substantially during the Bush administration.
Iran’s influence in the broader Middle East increased substantially during the Bush administration
Obama has completely reversed that trend and, in fact, if we, along with our Turkish allies and others can successfully end Bashar Assad’s rule in Syria, a dramatic blow is about to be delivered to Iran. And Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other nations are engaged in a historical battle with Iran in terms of leadership in the region and our allies are gaining. During the Bush Administration, our allies were losing.
Do you give Bush credit for removing the threat of Saddam Hussein in the region?
Yes, facts are facts. He removed Saddam Hussein and he deserved credit for that. He removed a very evil character from the region. However, he shouldn’t get credit for removing him in a manner that didn’t bolster American or Israeli interests in the region. In the context of Iran, it in fact bolstered Iran’s interests in the region.
You praised Obama’s speech at the UN in September. What about his speech last May in which he called for an Israeli return to the 1967 lines with land swaps as the basis for a deal with the Palestinians? Did that damage Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians?
No, it’s just the opposite. You need to distinguish between the hysteria that was articulated by the President’s political opponents and the reality of what he said. First of all, remarkably to me, his opponents and others did not focus on some of the quite significant things the President said that, to my knowledge, no other president has articulated, certainly not as openly as President Obama.
This president, unlike any other to my knowledge, refers to Israel as a Jewish state in a way that no other president has done
For instance, this president, unlike any other to my knowledge, refers to Israel as a Jewish state in a way that no other president has done. This is precisely the tenet that Netanyahu calls for. Also, in that same set of speeches, Obama not only recognized Israel as a Jewish state, but he used language similar to what Netanyahu had said two days earlier in the Knesset about the need for an extended Israeli security presence in the West Bank along the Jordan Valley.
These are significant positions that bolster Israel’s negotiating positions as well as meeting Netanyahu’s requirements for a successful peace process. President Obama was also direct and adamant in referring to Hamas as a terrorist organization in demanding the fulfillment of the three Quartet principles of swearing off violence, recognizing Israel’s right to exist, and adopting the previously negotiated agreements that the Palestinian Authority had agreed to. President Obama went further for Israel than any other American president has gone.
Where do you think that hysteria you describe comes from? Why is it so intense?
I see it all the time. I saw it in my congressional district from a small minority within the Jewish community.
So it’s not unique to this president?
It’s not unique to this president, no. Remember what happened with Hillary Clinton. President Clinton received a great deal of this. President Reagan received it. President Bush the First received it. It’s not new. What is happening is – and I think people need to be cognizant of this – is that there’s a small, organized and vocal minority in the US Jewish community of people who still believe in Greater Israel. They believe in the Biblical notion of a State of Israel that extends far greater than where Israel exists on a map.
An agreement based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps… would give Israel the most defensible borders it has ever had
What would be the practical result of President Obama’s formulation in May which is, of course, identical to the formulation of what President George W. Bush used and what President Clinton used? In fact, every President since 1967 has used? The end result of what President Obama said was that 75 to 80 percent of Jewish Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines today, who are not within the internationally recognized border of the State of Israel today, would become included within internationally recognized borders. That would be a tremendous result for a Jewish state of Israel, to ensure Israel as a Jewish democracy.
There are few Israelis that would argue with that. An agreement based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps would result in all the major Jewish settlements being included within internationally-recognized borders of the State of Israel. And it would give Israel the most defensible borders it has ever had.
To be clear, you don’t believe there’s an ad hominem dimension to the attacks on President Obama from some quarters within the Jewish community?
There are, but they’re not new. Reagan also had enormous tension with Israel. And yet, he’s remembered today as a great friend of Israel. He had only a small fraction of the security relationship that President Barack Obama has with Israel today. And in terms of the coldness you talked about, I would ask the Republican who said that, “Tell me, was President Reagan ‘cold’ when he went to the cemetery near Bitburg where Nazi soldiers were buried and refused to visit a concentration camp, ignoring the pleas of the Jewish community and Israelis? Was that warm?”
So you think history will judge Obama similarly a decade from now in terms of Israel?
I think he’ll be judged very kindly in a historical sense in terms of America’s relationship with Israel.
Even if, in a second term, he is “unleashed,” as his critics fear, to exert more pressure on Israel?
Another hysterical claim. No, that’s not a possibility.
What do you think of presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s pledge to visit Israel as his first foreign destination if elected president?
I’m all for an early trip to Israel. In terms of that being our nation’s first foreign policy priority, I think Governor Romney is using that as an emotional and political ploy and, with all due respect, Jewish Americans are far more sophisticated than that. No serious presidential candidate needs to treat the American Jewish community in that kind of superficial manner.
America has such intense and important interests in Afghanistan. We still have tens of thousands of American troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan. It seems to me the president’s first responsibility in terms of foreign affairs is to protect and enhance the position of our men and women who are fighting overseas. And we’re still in a war in Afghanistan. We’ve got major interests still in Iraq. We have an Iran that is hopefully going to be thwarted in terms of its nuclear weapons ambitions. We have extraordinary interests at stake in the Pacific relative to China. And there are major events occurring in the Arab world.
Could Romney appeal to Jewish voters on domestic issues like healthcare and the economy?
No, he’s totally out of touch with the values of Jewish American voters. This is primarily why the claim of a Republican resurgence within the American Jewish community in 2012 will simply not materialize.
Romney is totally out of touch with the values of Jewish American voters
Governor Romney’s complicity with the Republican war on contraception and women’s reproductive rights and freedoms are roundly rejected in the Jewish community. Is there a single Jewish woman in America that’s comfortable with the Romney-Santorum-Republican right wing characterization of contraception and women’s health? There isn’t a one. Even Republican women aren’t comfortable. They may still vote for Romney, but whatever dreams the Republicans have for picking up Jewish votes in 2012 were shattered when they engaged in this 1950s Ozzie and Harriet view of the world with respect to women.