WASHINGTON — At no point was former president Barack Obama more “annoyed” in his eight years in office than before his address to AIPAC’s annual policy conference in 2012, right in the middle of his re-election campaign.
The event came one year after Obama had given his speech calling for a return to the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps, a position that was met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s derision, and an insulting Oval Office lecture, in front of the cameras, about the history of the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “These lines are indefensible,” Netanyahu told Obama.
According to a new memoir released Tuesday by Obama’s former deputy national security adviser and one of his closest aides, Ben Rhodes, the Israeli premier had used that moment, skillfully, to turn the American Jewish establishment against the American president.
“It was the perfect way to mobilize opposition to Obama among the leadership of the American Jewish community, which had internalized the vision of Israel constantly under attack,” Rhodes writes in his 422-page book.
“I was familiar with the emotions,” adds the once aspiring novelist, who grew up with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father. “As secular Jews in postwar New York City, my mother’s family maintained its sense of Jewishness in part through support for Israel. Some of this was rooted in guilt — they’d emigrated to Brooklyn, not Tel Aviv; and some was rooted in the heroic Israel of the 1960s and ’70s, Jews building a nation in the desert, fighting off the Arab armies, led by towering figures like Golda Meir, who seemed both indefatigable and profoundly just.”
Yet later in life, Rhodes writes, “the Israel that my mother’s generation idealized was increasingly eclipsed by an Israel driven by the settler movement and ultra-Orthodox emigres. That was Netanyahu’s political base, and he knew how to play in American politics on their behalf.”
In the book, titled “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House,” Rhodes argues that Netanyahu assiduously blocked Obama’s efforts to resolve the conflict. That was in part due to Netanyahu’s continual approval to build settlement projects and his reluctance to embrace Obama’s vision of a two-state outcome.
But Netanyahu, Rhodes explains, was remarkably shrewd at galvanizing the kind of pressure on Obama that made it politically unfeasible for the president to push forward on his peace plan.
After Netanyahu’s Oval Office lecture to Obama in 2011, Rhodes writes that he was then “given a list of leading Jewish donors to call, to reassure them of Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides.”
“It was far too painful to wade into these waters with no prospect of success,” he goes on, explaining the administration’s reluctance to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more of a central focus. “Netanyahu had mastered a certain kind of leverage: Using political pressure within the United States to demoralize any meaningful push for peace, just as he used settlements as a means of demoralizing Palestinians.”
Just before the 2012 AIPAC speech, as Obama was preparing to go up in the general election against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who had charged the president had “thrown Israel under the bus,” Obama asked Rhodes to edit the draft of his remarks, which was written by another speech writer on staff.
But Obama, Rhodes recalls, also wanted to vent. “This is as annoyed as I’ve been as president,” Obama told him, perturbed by his inability to make his private positions public on four final-status issues in peace negations — borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees — and his need to placate the mostly right-wing crowd.
Based on the recommendation of his Middle East advisers Dennis Ross and Tom Donilon, Obama had decided to not take a public stance on the status of Jerusalem or how to resolve the refugee issue — to avoid any political fallout.
“It’s not on the level,” Rhodes said to the president of Netanyahu and AIPAC’s machinations, evoking a phrase he writes that the two used to describe “the dishonesty” they often felt they were surrounded by in Washington.
“It’s not on the level,” Obama repeated back to him. “Dealing with Bibi is like dealing with the Republicans.”
Rhodes writes that he told the president it was frustrating for him on a personal level, based on his Jewish background, to watch AIPAC and Netanyahu inflict political constraints on Obama that made it difficult for him to advocate positions he felt were actually in Israel’s long-term interests. Obama told him he felt the same way.
“Me too,” Obama said. “I came out of the Jewish community in Chicago. I’m basically a liberal Jew.”
Obama notedly skipped Israel in his first trip to the Middle East, in 2009, when he gave his Cairo speech addressing the Muslim world. Rhodes writes that they waited to schedule his visit to the Jewish state for when “there was an opening in the peace process.” Yet four years into the presidency, Rhodes writes, it was clear “that an opening might never come.” Obama eventually went to Israel on the first foreign trip of his second term, in March 2013.
In a noteworthy dig at a vociferous Obama critic, Rhodes describes coordinating the trip with Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.
“In multiple conversations, he encouraged me to have Obama visit a village of Ethiopian Jews,” Rhodes writes of Oren. “I demurred, a little put off by this persistent suggestion that Obama would want to see black Jews more than others.”
Rhodes also describes the trip as being filled with conflicting emotions for him personally.
“Working on Obama’s speech, I felt a bit like a bystander, aware of my own half heritage, neither full Jew nor non-Jew,” he recalls. “Israel’s history is in no way normal, and its security concerns are rooted in a history of anti-Semitism that continues to the current day. At the same time, I had to confront the intractability of the Palestinian predicament as I wrote the last appeal for peace, knowing it would likely fall on deaf ears.”
In one harrowing passage in his book, Rhodes describes a meeting Obama had with young Palestinians the morning before his speech in Jerusalem.
Flying to Ramallah on the way to that event, Rhodes writes that he felt the settlements were corroding the possibility of an eventual Palestinian state’s emergence, and that he noticed the inequality of resources that were plainly visible between those settlements and West Bank villages.
“I looked out at rolling hills and could see where Israeli settlements were splitting the West Bank in two,” he writes. “We were in the air for less than ten minutes, but the contrast could not have been starker: Israel from the air resembles southern Europe; the settlements looked like subdivisions in the Nevada desert; the Palestinian towns looked shabby and choked off.”
In the meeting, young Palestinians went around in a circle to describe their experiences living under Israel’s rule over the West Bank.
The last student was visibly tense the whole way through, Rhodes recalls. And then, when his turn came, he said with force, “Mr. President, we are treated the same way the black people were treated in your country. Here, in this century.” He then paused, allowing a moment of silence to add some affect. “Funded by your government, Mr. President.”
Shortly thereafter, Obama told Rhodes, “It took a lot of guts for him to do that.”
“Well,” Rhodes said, “that makes our theory more necessary: Show Israelis you love them but also challenge them.”
Obama’s guiding principle to Israel was often characterized as that of a friend who won’t let another drive drunk: that he believed settlements and the prospect of Israel perpetually occupying the West Bank would abrogate Israel’s status as a Jewish-democracy. Yet Rhodes less than subtly suggests that he himself may have been the architect of that approach.
“That’s your theory,” Rhodes said Obama replied. “The Ben Rhodes theory.”