Mr. Obama, Did You Pack These Bags Yourself?

Gershom Gorenberg

At the airport, before his takeoff for the Middle East, no one will ask Barack Obama if he packed his bags himself. It would be rude, and besides he has a full-time handler for that. He never has the lurching feeling as the cab leaves his house that he left the tickets on the kitchen table and a prescription in the medicine cabinet. Just writing those words, I finally understand the attraction of running for president.

He has, however, packed his political baggage himself. Mostly he’s done a good job – better, in fact, than one could expect.

First, he’s meeting with Palestinians as well as Israelis. At least according to the Palestinian side, Obama has put a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on his schedule for next Wednesday. When I wrote about his trip a couple of weeks ago, before the requisite leaks on the itinerary, I was afraid he’d decide it was politically inexpedient to make that stop, essential as it is. Symbolically, the Ramallah visit shows that he intends as president to talk to both Israelis and Palestinians, and that he’s serious about working for peace. Practically, it gives him the chance to see how Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad respond to tough questions about the compromises they’ll need to make.

It would have been easy to skip Ramallah for fearing of losing Jewish votes, especially in swing states like Florida. The common mistake among candidates is to believe the rightwing minority in the U.S. Jewish community that purports to speak for the community as a whole, and that regards any contact with Palestinians as betraying Israel. The incident that Connie Bruck reported in his her recent New Yorker piece on zillionaire ideologue Sheldon Adelson is typical:

Adelson berated [former ambassador to Israel Martin] Indyk for hosting “terrorists” like Fayyad, who he said was a founder of Fatah. Indyk [now director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy] is said to have replied that Fayyad was never involved in terrorism and was not a member of Fatah, and that Adelson’s problem was really with Olmert, because he dealt with Fayyad. Adelson stood his ground, and declared that the Olmert government was an illegitimate government and should be thrown out.

As a point of principle, Obama’s refusal to give into that political reflex shows that he really is committed to peacemaking. Practically, it also makes sense. As James Baker might have advised Obama, “—- Adelson and his ilk, they’ll never vote for you anyway.”

On the other hand, as shown by J Street‘s new poll of American Jewish political views, released yesterday, most Jews are on Obama’s side on this as on other issues. Not only do US Jews believe overwhelmingly (90 percent to 10) that America is on the wrong track, not only do they believe (79-21%) that George W. Bush has mishandled Iraq, they believe (71-29%) that Bush has mishandled the Arab-Israeli conflict. Overwhelmingly, they want the U.S. to play a strong role in reaching peace, even if it means publicly stating disagreements with both the Arabs and Israel. By 59-41 percent they favor giving most of the West Bank and dismantling “many” settlements for peace. Obama isn’t going to drive away the Jews by showing he’s willing to get involved in making peace.

The one hawkish note in the survey was on the question about giving up Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem for peace. Here 44% of US Jews were in favor, 56% against. I don’t think that the people who answered in the negative on that question really picture the Arab neighborhoods of Sur Barhir or Beit Hanina, really understand how much of a different world they are from Jewish Jerusalem, how little the two parts of the city have been made into one.

Given Jews’ generally dovish views, a politician ready to explain and lead could change the balance on this question. Last year, Hillary Clinton’s position paper on Israel, with its promise of an “undivided Jerusalem,” suggested that she wasn’t that politician. When he addressed the AIPAC Conference in June, Obama also seemed ready to pander, promising that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” When I criticized that statement, an Obama adviser quickly emailed to tell me the candidate really meant physically undivided: No fences. Political arrangements were a different matter. Obama, he said,

has said before that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be negotiated by the parties, but that two principles that should guide any outcome is that it will remain Israel’s capital and it should never be redivided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was from 1948-67.

Getting ready for his travels, Obama has gotten around to saying the same thing himself on camera:

You know, the truth is that this was an example where we had some poor phrasing in the speech. And we immediately tried to correct the interpretation that was given…

That’s flipflopping only if the definition of “flipflopping” includes “saying something dumb to a receptive audience, and then having the sense to correct the mistake.” Better that he corrected himself, and will be arriving here with a a reasonable position on Jerusalem packed alongside his shirts and ties.

If there’s a flaw in his preparations, it may be that he’ll be coming with Dennis Ross in his entourage, and without Rob Malley. (Thanks to Ezra Klein for flagging this.) I respect Ross, and the presence of the veteran negotiator is another signal that Obama wants to get down to work on Mideast peacemaking, as soon as he has gotten done with the pesky election and sent John McCain off for some remedial geography lessons. (Full disclosure: Though I don’t know Ross personally, he endorsed my book, The Accidental Empire.)

But Malley, a former Obama adviser, has written an essential account of what went wrong at Camp David eight summers ago, when Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat were such unhappy campers. In Malley’s picture, all three sides mishandled the negotiations. From my own experience with Barak, as I’ve written, that’s also a more believable version than blaming Arafat alone. You can’t experience Barak, and not presume that he’d come unprepared, insult his negotiating partners and then blame everyone else. Which is certainly not to let Arafat off the hook.

With only Ross along to explain what’s gone wrong so far, there’s a a risk that Obama may find his baggage weighted to one side and unwieldy. As prep, he should make a late-night call to Rob Malley. It should include an offer of a business meeting the day after the voters let McCain go quietly back to Arizona.

Also at South Jerusalem:

The Bush Doctrine: No Peace. (And What’s the McCain Doctrine?)

Wright, Race and Contested Stories

McCain, Hagee, Lieberman, Clinton, Obama: Who’s good for Israel

McCain: Uh, Sunni? Er, Shi’ite?

10 thoughts on “Mr. Obama, Did You Pack These Bags Yourself?”

  1. Interestingly Jeff Huber at The Pen and Sword has written a similar-ish article on Obama’s Iran policy, but looking from the Pentagon (I comment on their similarities here). I am curious to know whether you would agree with his analysis.

  2. Oii! Have you got your head in the sand? Read your Bible. It will tell you that [Palestinians] are your enenmy – they want to kill you, your children and your spouse, take your land, decimate you. When will you wake up?

  3. You say that, according to the poll of American Jews, that since a majority oppose turning the Arab parts of east Jerusalem over to Palestinian rule that “they don’t understand the situation there” and if they did , they would support your position of redividing the city. On the other hand, I say that since the majority supposedly favors giving up most of Judea/Samaria and dismantling “many” settlements there, that they don’t understand the situation there, either. Let’s be honest, most American Jews don’t know anything about Israel, most have never visited, and even many of those who have visited, have never visited Judea/Samaria, and the Jews living there. How can someone who really knows nothing about a problem make an informed opinion about it. The fact is that the American Jews who are most involved with Israel, those who have visited numerous times, those who have children who spend at least a year studying in Israel, those who contribute significant amounts of money to Israeli causes and those who have close relatives who have made aliyah, are more “Right-wing”.

    I am sorry Obama is coming at all. It makes it look like he is pandering to the Jewish vote, and he will say things that will get people’s hopes up. I see the “progressives” are constantly saying that “if only the President of the United States would only crack down on the two sides and make as full-court press to force a settlement, then there would be peace”. Clinton did all these things and he failed….so I see you start making excuses that he and the others involved “made mistakes”, “didn’t know what they were doing”, “were too pro-Israel”, etc,,etc.
    These are not the problem. The problem is that the Arab side is not prepared to reach an agreement that ANY Israeli government, no matter how Leftist, could agree to. Arafat told Clinton this before Camp David, but Clinton and Barak refused to listen. It is the same thing today.

  4. You know, the truth is that this was an example where we had some poor phrasing in the speech. And we immediately tried to correct the interpretation that was given…

    Here’s how little you know Obama: He never takes responsibility for anything he says. Just look at the backtracking he did on the FISA bill. He initially promised to filibuster any bill containing telecom immunity and then voted for a flawed bill that contained telecom immunity.

    Never take Obama at his word for anything.

  5. I wasn’t there, of course, but I found Malley’s account of what happened at Camp David unpersuasive to the point where I wondered what, exactly, his motivations were.

    In any case my guess is that Barack Obama is an astute enough politician that he will remain a former advisor.

    By the way I found your blog via Laura Rozen and I enjoy it very much.

  6. Devout Christian: You would come to a “battle of wits” unarmed with that “half-baked” statement . The complexities confronting Israel are better to see up close and personal ratherl than on a tourist bus but face to face as I did in March. Barak ,I,hope will get a better understanding of the situation on the ground by talking to the principals involved

    Devout Christian I question your bigoted values and your literal translation of the Bible.Some of the Palestinians are Christians so crawl back in the hole you and Hagee came from with the rest of the “bottom feeders”. a member of Christians with IQ’S over 115

    You misspelled ENEMIES ,you knucklehead

  7. ——————————————————————————–

    December 3, 1988
    ‘Who Is a Jew?’ Debate in Israel Attracts Leading Figures of U.S. Judaism
    LEAD: An elderly man rose last month at the annual convention of the Council of Jewish Federations and spoke in a voice heavy with emotion.

    An elderly man rose last month at the annual convention of the Council of Jewish Federations and spoke in a voice heavy with emotion.

    ”I came out of Auschwitz, a place where they decided ‘who is a Jew,’ ” he said as the audience at the New Orleans convention center fell silent. ”I didn’t think I was going to live to see the day when it was decided in Israel.”

    In the month since the Israeli elections, American Jewish officials have rushed to Israel in great numbers and with surprising spontaneity to fight an Orthodox effort to amend Israel’s Law of Return.

    The remarks of the Holocaust survivor before some 3,000 Jewish convention delegates helped galvanize that response. Before the convention was over, a 10-member delegation left for what they called an ”emergency mission” to Israel. Change in Law Sought

    Under Orthodox tradition, a person is Jewish if he or she has a Jewish mother, and conversions must be conducted under strict Orthodox conditions. The Orthodox parties want to amend the law – giving every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel – to specify that among converts, only those converted by Orthodox rabbis are eligible for automatic citizenship. The reaction among American Jews, 90 percent of whom are non-Orthodox, has been widespread and anguished.

    The ultimate impact of the American lobbying remains unclear because the parliamentary maneuvering in Israel is still going on. But both Americans and Israelis agree the Americans had helped forestall the creation of a narrow government between Likud and the Orthodox parties.

    ”When I left for Israel on Nov. 13, it looked like a narrow government would be formed,” said Dr. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. ”That was delayed by the firestorm that swept across Israel from the States. Without it, there would have been a government in place already.” #27 Jewish Groups Represented A few days before the News Orleans gathering, representatives of 27 Jewish groups had met in New York to draft a statement urging the major Israeli parties to resist the change. The meeting, at the headquarters of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, had been called by Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the union, which represents more than 1,000 Reform congregations.

    Mr. Vorspan, a critic of Israel’s handling of the Palestinian uprising, reached across the Jewish spectrum to organizations that have been reluctant to criticize Israel, such as Hadassah and B’nai B’rith.

    ”When we were finished, we knew we had to do more than send a telegram,” said Rabbi Daniel B. Syme, one of the participants. Before the month was over, the groups sent a 33-member delegation to Israel.

    At least five waves of American delegations have traveled to Israel in the month since the Israeli elections. The various missions to Israel were not coordinated, much less inspired, by any central body. The depth of feeling about the issue seemed to have set the groups in motion with little time for orchestration. American Support at Stake

    Representatives of virtually every major American Jewish organization have made the trip. In blunt terms, the visitors warned that political and financial support from American Jews was at stake. Some of the visitors had been publicly critical of Israel before, but others had never before breathed a word of dissent against the Jewish state.

    The delegation that left at the end of New Orleans meeting was made up of the top executives of the United Jewish Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations. The two organizations represent the major fund-raising arms of the American Jewish Community. They raise some $720 million each year, half for domestic use and the rest for Israel.

    Prominent American Jews followed, like Morris B. Abram, Max Fisher and Robert Asher. Rabbi Syme’s delegation of 33 left last Sunday, representating 27 major American Jewish organizations, like B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Committee and Hadassah. The group also included representatives of the Reform and Conservative religous and communal bodies, including the Reform Zionists of America.

    Another group representing the U.J.A.-Federation of New York left Nov. 28 that included five Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, all committed to stopping the ”who is a Jew?” amendment. Trips Planned Hastily

    The trips were so hastily planned that some American rabbis had to ask colleagues to fill in for them at weddings and funerals. One Reform rabbi rushed to the airport after a meeting in Jerusalem so that he could get home to San Francisco in time for his daughter’s bat mitzvah.

    Colleagues explained that the rabbi felt strongly about being in Israel despite the potential conflict with his daughter’s bat mitzvah because the ”who is a Jew?” issue struck very close to home for him. His wife is a Reform convert. Both his wife and his daughter were in the category of those who would be ineligible for automatic citizenship in Israel should the Orthodox parties have their way.

    Several participants told stories of running into American colleagues they did not know were in Israel.

    Richard Cohen, press spokesman for one group, told of waiting with his delegation to see Israel’s Chief Rabbi. After 40 minutes two rabbis from New York, Haskel Lookstein and Louis Bernstein, emerged from the Chief Rabbi’s office. ”Fancy meeting you here,” Mr. Cohen said.

    Not all of those who rushed to lobby in Israel in recent weeks have been opposed to the change, however. Rabbi Aron Soloveitchik, a leading professor of Talmud at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an Orthodox school in Manhattan, went to encourage the Israeli Orthodox to continue to press for the amendment. ‘Cannot Remain Silent’

    Rabbi Soloveitchik, who uses a wheelchair, said he told Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: ”I am a stroke victim, but I cannot remain silent.” Several other American Orthodox rabbis, however, were in Israel at the same time to ask the Prime Minister to drop the ”who is a Jew?” issue for ”the sake of Jewish unity.”

    On the same El Al plane that took the Orthodox Rabbi Soloveitchik to Israel earlier this week, sat numerous members of the delegation organized by Rabbi Syme, who is Reform. One of them, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, who is Conservative, borrowed the Arabic term for the year-long Palestinian uprising to describe his group’s effort.

    ”This is the spiritual intifada,” said Rabbi Kelman. ”And just as the intifada irreversibly changed Israel-Arab relations, this spiritual uprising has changed Israel-diaspora relations forever.”

    Dr. Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, called the American effort a ”turning point” in the relation between American Jews and Israel. ”We’ve got to become more deeply involved to insure the kind of Jewish state that will continue to inspire our loyalty,” he said.

    This is not the first time that American Jews have tried to reverse Israeli policies in recent years. American voices were raised in protest over the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Pollard spy scandal and Palestinian uprising. But the intensity of the protest over the current issue and its grass-roots nature set it apart. ‘A Kishka Issue’

    ”This is a kishka issue because it affects all of us,” Raphael Rothstein, a vice president of the United Jewish Appeal, said, using the Yiddish word for ”gut.”

    Rabbi Syme, who is vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said both Israeli officials and American Jewish officials failed to recognize the ”intensity of feelings” on the part of American Jews. Of the 5.8 million Jews in the United States, he said some 500,000 were either non-Orthodox converts or their offspring.

    But none of the protesting groups appeared to have had the impact of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the grand rabbi of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, who endorsed the platform of one of the Orthodox parties, Agudat Israel, before the Nov. 1 election. Without ever leaving Brooklyn, the 86-year-old Rabbi Schneerson helped bring in thousands of new voters to the party by offering blessings of prosperity to those who voted in accordance with his wishes. Campaign literature was adorned with his photograph.

    Several Americans and Israelis have appealed to Rabbi Schneerson as well to drop his support for the amendment, but the rabbi has stood firm. According to a summary of his sermon last Saturday, made available by his office, the rabbi repeated that the Israeli law must specify conversion according to Orthodox standards.

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