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By Adam Bronstone, Jacksonville, Jan 7, 2010

Two very different positions appear to have surfaced between United States and Canada with respect to the Middle East.

Going viral on Facebook was a short clip of Prime Minister Harper’s opening comments at a conference on Anti-Semitism and his stand for Israel. A person attending the conference was interviewed on Canadian news television with respect to the Prime Minister’s position and if this pro-Israel stance had been a factor in Canada not having a seat on the United Nations Security Council as a non-permanent member. The guest was clear that, in addition to other factors, this pro-Israel stance probably did cause some harm to Canada but that it was obviously a stand that the Government of Canada was and continues to be comfortable with, as evidenced by the Prime Minister’s attendance at the conference and crystal clear statement about Anti-Semitism and Israel.

However, the ‘word’ out of Washington has been somewhat different. All of the leading papers carried the news that the United States had stopped negotiating with Israel with respect to an additional three-month freeze on settlement construction, as a means to jump-starting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even with the prospect of a guarantee that the United States would not ask Israel for additional freezes after this one and the prospect of an twenty more F-35 strike aircraft (at half price to go along with the existing order of 20 planes), the Israeli government declined. The ball appeared to have been given to Israel by the United States and the former had refused to pick it up, leaving them to blame for the end of the current round (was there a round?) of Middle East peace talks.

With a significant push at the end of the presidential campaign, including videos by prominent Jewish entertainers such as Sarah Silverman, the Jewish vote in the last Presidential election was, as it has traditionally been, heavily Democrat. Given that Jews live in key large states in significant blocs, the Jewish vote is considered important, even if numerically it is small in the larger scheme of a 300+ million person electorate.

President Obama captured some 78% of the vote, close to what both John Kerry and Al Gore before him garnered in their campaigns. This is significant because much was made in the Jewish community of candidate Obama’s religious leader, Reverend Wright, and his thoughts on Jews, and on the flip side, the close relationship between candidate John McCain and Senator Joe Lieberman. But, vote for Obama they did, and it is thought that many did and ‘held their noses’, meaning that many were not sure of Obama and his relationship with both Jews and Israel, but sided as they tend to with the Democratic nominee.

Further, when Rahm Emanuel was appointed Chief of Staff, many Jews were relieved that their vote for the President had been vindicated by the selection of a person who is not only Jewish, but very identifiably so in terms of his family history and commitment to Israel. At the end of the day, many thought that all was going to be well with this president – he not only shares our liberal values concerning civil society, but he has a Jewish Chief of Staff!
Two years’ into President Obama’s term of office, and after the Cairo speech and his on-off again relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Jewish reaction to this president is becoming more and more mixed. At the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Vice-President Biden, whom has a long-standing close connection with the Jewish community of the United States and Israel, spoke on the first day. After mentioning a number of strong security partnerships with Israel, he said that there was no daylight (differences) between the President and the Prime Minister. In comparison to AIPAC, the JFNA crowd tends to be more liberal and Democrat, and even then, the Vice-President received a very lukewarm response to this one line, as if few in the audience of over 4,000 people really believed that the President was lock-step with Israel. 

Whereas the Jewish community of Canada, which has traditionally voted Liberal nationally, appears to be coming around to Prime Minister Harper, there is a growing sense that, depending on the Republican challenger in 2012 for the presidency,  President Obama is not guaranteed the same percentage of Jewish vote as he garnered in 2008.

While not said aloud, there are the whispers that, on Israel, President Obama has not, does not and will never ‘get’ Israel and its issues. Certainly, most American Jews and Israelis agree that the settlements in the West Bank (aside from major settlement bocs ) could and should be traded away for a meaningful peace.

However, Jerusalem is another matter, and it appears that unlike Prime Minister Harper, President Obama does not understand this, and no one in his foreign policy team has either.  I think that Jerusalem, for most Jews, is a non-starter; it is the capital of Israel, and is and should not be considered a settlement to be negotiated.

If the President is such good friends with people like Rahm and the Pritzker family, then either he should have figured this out, or one of them should have told him – Mr. President, do not mess with Jerusalem. And of course we in the cheap seats do not know if they tried and he has not listened, or they have not tried, or a combination thereof. But for a President who is certainly intelligent, he seems dumb, deaf and disengaged on the matter of Jerusalem.  All I know is this – if this keeps up, the 2012 campaign will be interesting, and maybe even Sarah Silverman’s pleadings to vote Obama  might not be enough to rescue this president.

Now, I am not encouraging people to stop believing in the President nor am I encouraging people to start believing in the Prime Minister, and yes, it is much easier for Canada to take stances compared the United States. Nonetheless, this past week has certainly been very much a tale of two leaders, and two countries, when it comes to supporting Israel.

Adam Bronstone is a graduate of Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate and the University of Manitoba, and holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Hull (United Kingdom), with a specialization in International Politics. Adam has worked for many years in the Jewish communal field, with a specific interest and expertise in Israel advocacy work. And, he still calls Winnipeg his ‘home’


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