Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tobin - Political Extortion: The Effort to Get Jews to Keep Quiet About Obama and Israel

Jonathan S. Tobin
25 October '11

The debate about the appalling effort by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee to stifle discussion about Israel continues to simmer. As I wrote yesterday, the “Unity Pledge” promoted by the ADL and the AJC is aimed at removing Israel as an election issue in the upcoming presidential contest. Considering President Obama’s record on Israel has been the subject of non-stop debate since he took office, the pledge simply doesn’t pass the political smell test, as it would give him immunity for three years of picking fights with Israel’s government and tilting the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians.

In today’s Tablet, Marc Tracy offers an interesting argument as a reason for conservative critics of Obama to observe the ADL and AJC’s oath of omerta about the president’s attitude toward Israel. Tracy contends that if Obama is re-elected despite a successful effort by Republicans to portray him as a foe of Israel, that would effectively destroy a bipartisan consensus on the issue. So according to this scenario, the best thing for friends of Israel to do is to keep quiet about Obama’s record lest he take revenge on the Jewish state in his second term. Yet what Tracy seems to ignore is if Obama truly were no friend to Israel or at the very least an unreliable one, his re-election would make the same point. That presents the pro-Israel community with the option of either staying silent about his record and thereby vindicating Obama’s decision to distance the United States from Israel or speak out and show that most Americans don’t support Israel. But this is a false choice.

Tracy concedes that “Given President Obama’s political missteps when it comes to Israel, it seems undeniable that a call to prevent Israel ‘from becoming a wedge issue’ is pro-Democratic in effect, and so likely in intent.” He contends “the AJC and especially the ADL are not the first two organizations you would peg as Democratic or Obama shills.” Tracy goes on to assert, “If this is the sort of thing [these groups are] calling for, then it could reflect a genuine backlash at the recent hyper-politicization of the Israel issue at the hands of groups like ECI that surrounded events such as the UN General Assembly and the special election in New York.”

But concerns about Israel’s future while Obama is in the White House that the stunning results in the NY-9 election and other polls showing the president’s declining popularity among Jews, reflect reality, not political spin. The only people who are talking about a “backlash” against efforts to hold Obama accountable are partisan Democrats who worry the issue could eat into their party’s historical stranglehold on the Jewish vote next year.

Moreover, there is something profoundly troubling about a Jewish community so worried about making its voice heard that it would silence discussion about a vital issue for fear of offending the president. If Obama intends to crack down on Israel in his second term — an idea that Israel-bashers seem to be counting on as an article of faith — it is unlikely he will be deterred by the loyalty of Jewish voters. After all, he was elected with nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 and promptly set out on a course in which he picked bitter and unnecessary fights with the Netanyahu government while staking out a position on Jerusalem that did more to undermine Israel’s hold on its capital than any previous occupant of the Oval Office.

If Tracy’s argument is the true motivation for this effort, then the ADL/AJC pledge seems to reflect a spirit of an earlier age in which the Jewish community was too timorous to make its voice heard on life and death issues. It would, in effect, sanction a form of political extortion in which the president would demand silence on his record on Israel without a guarantee of continued support for the Jewish state in his second term. This is an unconscionable bargain no group dedicated to support for Jewish rights or Israel ought to countenance.

But no matter what the rationale for this thinly veiled partisan power play, it is not likely to succeed. The reason why Democrats fear this discussion is that support for Israel remains a point upon which there is genuine consensus. While, as I previously wrote, Democrats can make their arguments defending his record, the undeniable difference between him and that of his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on Israel hurts his chances of re-election with both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. No matter what the liberal Jewish establishment says or does, Obama’s record on Israel is an issue that voters will consider next year. Pledges aimed at suppressing that debate are going be ignored no matter how great the prestige of the groups recruited to front that effort.

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