Obama: A president of the Hebrew persuasion


That is, a president who’s finally trying to persuade Hebrews.

With just a few big steps, Barack Obama has erased George W. Bush‘s plodding steps in the Middle East sands.

After eight years of an administration that slavishly followed a pro-Israel bias, thanks mostly to the presence of dual-disloyalists like Doug Feith, Obama has jumped in with both feet — and right in the middle.

Whether Obama will leave a lasting impression won’t be known for a while, of course, but the hawkish U.S. Jewish establishment has taken notice.

For a change, it seems, a U.S. president didn’t consult the powerful Jewish establishment lobby before trying to change tack.

Not that Hillary Clinton and Dennis Ross are anti-Israel — far from it. (Ross, in fact, is somewhat of a hardline pro-Israel Jew.) Obama isn’t intent on pissing off the right-wing Jewish establishment’s leaders, but it has to shake them that the new president threw the Arab world an olive branch with his al-Arabiya interview and with his choice as envoy of George Mitchell, who’s not known for any particular pro-Israel bias.

These are not moves that were first vetted by the hawkish U.S. Jewish establishment.

You have to go beyond the mainstream U.S. press to try to gauge what’s happening in the Middle East. A good source is the New York-based Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which is sort of the Associated Press for Jews.

In “Mitchell’s questions may matter more than his past answers,” the JTA’s Ron Kampeas notes that Mitchell issued a 2001 report on the Arab-Israeli death dance.

Mitchell is one of many who have already tried and failed to broker a peace. But it wasn’t for lack of effort. Haaretz recalls:

Mitchell’s 2001 report on the Israelis and Palestinians called for Israel to freeze construction of new settlements and to stop shooting at unarmed demonstrators, and Palestinians to prevent attacks and punish those who perpetrated them.

OK, zero for two. But now he has the support of a president who — it seems — intends to do something. So the JTA’s Kampeas writes:

Hawks and doves in the pro-Israel community have read into the Mitchell selection the wishes and fears that have characterized their approaches in the U.S. Jewish community.

The Zionist Organization of America and Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, have fretted about Mitchell’s “evenhandedness” in the 2001 report, which faulted the Palestinian Authority for hardly attempting to rein in terrorists and Israel for not freezing settlements.

In his report, the ZOA said, Mitchell “promotes the false anti-Israel belief that Jews living in communities in Judea and Samaria [West Bank] is the biggest obstacle to peace — not Arab terrorism or Arab incitement.” In an interview, ZOA President Mort Klein said that blaming both sides equally for lack of progress was not “evenhanded,” but inaccurate and unfair.

On the other side, dovish groups emphasized Mitchell’s credentials in brokering Northern Ireland peace. The statement from the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, like those of J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, cited his work in that endeavor.

The truth so far is that no one knows for sure where the U.S. administration stands. To actually have an administration that is leaving both sides guessing is a big step. And it’s smart strategy to keep both sides from either counting on or counting against U.S. support. That’s called diplomacy.