In interview, Obama tries to set terms for US-Israel ties

In a trial run for Friday’s address at a Washington synagogue, US president offers little reassurance to doubters

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Barack Obama, left, speaking with Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on May  20, 2011. (Pete Souza/White House)
Barack Obama, left, speaking with Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on May 20, 2011. (Pete Souza/White House)

WASHINGTON — A day before a major address to America’s Jewish community, President Barack Obama’s interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg set the tone for the coming outreach effort meant to soften the impact of any Iranian nuclear deal among skeptics. After months of acrimonious back-and-forth between top officials in Washington and Jerusalem, Obama set out his parameters for US-Israel relations – retaining his right to criticize Israeli policies, but asserting that even publicly aired discord did not preclude support for Israel and the Jewish people.

The interview with Obama was published one day before the president is set to give a major speech directed at American Jews. The address will be delivered at Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue that counts among its members numerous Washington heavy-hitters, including Goldberg himself.

Although Obama’s speech is officially timed to mark Jewish American Heritage Month and is slated as a tribute to former senator and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, Obama is expected to use the opportunity to try to calm the waters over the impending nuclear deal with Iran and his administration’s frosty relationship with the Netanyahu government.

Obama’s interview was at times defensive, arguing that criticism of Israel’s policies did not constitute a lack of support for Israel and the Jewish people as a whole — and, for that matter, that he was not “bifurcating” the American Jewish community. Obama’s opponents have pointed to his pursuit of an Iranian nuclear deal as linked to his very public run-ins with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over topics that include both Iran, the two-state solution, and the status of Israeli Arabs.

If, as Vice President Joe Biden said last month, the US and Israel fight like a family, Obama sees it as a family whose fight extends past the closed doors of the house, and into the street, no matter what the neighbors think

Obama complained that “there has been a very concerted effort on the part of some political forces to equate being pro-Israel, and hence being supportive of the Jewish people, with a rubber stamp on a particular set of policies coming out of the Israeli government.”

“If you are questioning settlement policy, that indicates you’re anti-Israeli, or that indicates you’re anti-Jewish. If you express compassion or empathy towards Palestinian youth, who are dealing with checkpoints or restrictions on their ability to travel, then you are suspect in terms of your support of Israel. If you are willing to get into public disagreements with the Israeli government, then the notion is that you are being anti-Israel, and by extension, anti-Jewish,” he continued. “I completely reject that.”

Obama’s argument echoed those made by leftist groups like J Street. If this was a trial balloon for Friday’s speech, the argument is unlikely to win over many beyond the already-converted – who have been making this argument themselves for almost a decade.

Obama’s red lines for the US-Israel relationship do not preclude criticism. Obama also rejected arguments made by many American Jewish leaders that suggested that even if criticism is necessary, the acrimony should not be public.

If, as Vice President Joe Biden said last month, the US and Israel fight like a family, Obama sees it as a family whose fight extends past the closed doors of the house, and into the street, no matter what the neighbors think.

“You should be able to say to Israel, we disagree with you on this particular policy. We disagree with you on settlements. We think that checkpoints are a genuine problem. We disagree with you on a Jewish-nationalist law that would potentially undermine the rights of Arab citizens. And to me, that is entirely consistent with being supportive of the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” he argued. “Now for someone in Israel, including the prime minister, to disagree with those policy positions—that’s OK too. And we can have a debate, and we can have an argument. But you can’t equate people of good will who are concerned about those issues with somebody who is hostile towards Israel.”

While most of Obama’s interview seemed to offer a traditional set of guarantees – ensuring Israel’s security, fighting international actions that unfairly single Israel out, maintaining security and intelligence ties – he also occasionally seemed to mix messages about the red lines.

Obam asserted that under certain conditions, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were clearly linked. “Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire?” he asked. “And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind.”

But at a different point in the interview, referring to his critiques of Israeli policy, he said he maintained the right to “speak honestly and truthfully about what I think will be most likely to lead to long-term security, and will best position us to continue to combat anti-Semitism” – a statement that seemed to tie willingness to criticize Israel’s policies with the ability to combat anti-Semitism. “I make no apologies for that precisely because I am secure and confident about how deeply I care about Israel and the Jewish people,” he stated.

If Obama’s interview is any indication of his case to American Jews as a whole, it does little to break ground in appealing to the center-right who are likely to remain unconvinced by the argument that his criticism is a sign of tough love. The “we’re such good friends that we should be able to criticize each other” argument has been tried before, with little resonance outside those who already leaned toward supporting the president.

The red lines in the interview – reserving the right to publicly criticize, ambiguity on the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and American support for Israel’s security that transcends immediate political acrimony – offer little in new reassurances for those who fear the erosion of the US-Israel relationship.

If past interviews with Goldberg are any indication, Thursday’s interview is a dress rehearsal for Friday’s speech – one that can still be sharpened or dulled before the president makes what will probably be his most significant speech to Jewish America in some time.

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