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Adam Bronstone

Sometimes, You just have to wonder about American Jewish Thinking…

By Adam Bronstone, February 17, 2011

Last month (January 25), President Obama gave his second State of the Union address to Congress and the country. Beset with numerous domestic challenges such as stagnant unemployment, rising debts and deficits, a significant mid-term electoral loss where the President’s party lost control of the House of Representatives and anger from the left-wing segment of his own party, the President chose to focus most of his speech on domestic issues.

During his speech, the president spoke of investing in education, infrastructure and clean technologies, as well as reducing the national debt, helping small business owners and other ‘small ball’ policy issues. The president, during the hour plus speech, was funny, engaging, poked his finger at the Republican party, and otherwise in my estimation gave a very good (not great) speech.

But he did not spend much time on foreign policy issues, and Israel was not mentioned once. Therefore, it was not surprising when, in the online Jewish press, the title of an article on the State of the Union was ‘In speech, Obama misses some Jewish priorities: poverty, abortion rights, Israel…’

Now, I am very well aware (especially given my last column), that American Jews (even Democrats) are at times concerned that the president does not ‘get it’ when it comes to Israel and the Middle East. The President’s attempts to assure Arab states, leadership and the ‘street’ that he understands their concerns; his push for peace in the region by making settlements in and near Jerusalem the issue of negotiations rather than an issue, and Jerusalem itself, cornerstone negotiating issues and general tone towards Prime Minister Netanyahu are also signs that this is a president who, in his heart, may not be Israel’s best friend that it ever has in the White House. To be sure, and it is true, military cooperation has never been better, but on the public side of diplomacy, American Jews concerns about the president are very real.

So when President Obama spends an hour plus on his State of the Union and barely mentions Iran, and does not mention Israel at all, those who are falling out of love of this president are rolling their eyes and scratching their heads and saying to those who state that this president is still good for Israel – I TOLD YOU SO.

But let us step back for a minute and reflect on the American political landscape as of late January 2011. The economy is not out of the dark, people are massively unemployed, anger remains at bail-outs to Wall Street and the auto industry, they are concerned about being taxed, deficits, debts and the rise of China, and are looking at gasoline being over $3 per gallon. The president’s approval rating might be at 50+%, but that does not mean that he is a shoe-in for 2012.

In this light, the president needed to ‘come home’ for an evening and talk about what really matters to the average, middle-class working American – and that is – making sure that they know that the president is working on their issues, as they see it. In 1984 and 1992, Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton delivered the blueprint for understanding voter interests. It is not about the environment or foreign policy; it is, as Clinton coined it, ‘about the economy…’ And in 1984, when running for re-election, Reagan asked the voters if they were better off now (4 years after his first election) than they were four years earlier. Aside that he was running against the hapless Walter Mondale, Reagan and Clinton like him years later, were both able to tune into the psyche of the average American family, and that is what President Obama is attempting to at this moment. And, I hate to say it to all of the Jewish groups out there criticizing the president for not mentioning Israel – the average American could not give one whit about the Middle East, unless it directly affects their daily lives (which it does in some ways, but we tend to not connect any of the dots to make this understandable). Traditionally, foreign policy issues unless it is war-related, are not found high on the list of issues of concern to the American electorate in non-wartime period.

So of course the president barely mentioned Iran and did not mention Israel. This is not the ‘proof’ that he does not get it; it is the proof that he is fighting for his political career and the 2012 presidential election, and that election will not be won or lost because of the Middle East.

American Jewry is, by all accounts and measurements, the most successful Diaspora Jewish community in the history of the world. But that does not mean that its core issues will always be at the top of the list of the president’s agenda, and nor should it be, just because. And does this indicate some degree of lack of self-confidence in this otherwise strong community,  that we have failed to get our message across and that is the reason why Israel wasn’t found in the State of the Union?

 From a Canadian living and working south of the border, there are times when I just want to say to myopic self-interested American Jews – Get over yourselves!

Winnipegger Dr. Adam Bronstone  has a doctorate in Intenational Relations.

Editor’s note: I also think that one of the reasons Obama did not mention the  Israeli-Arab conflict is that so far his administration has been less than successful in getting negotiations even started between the Israelis and Palestinians—it has been far more complicated than he probably realized from the get go.

Interestingly, President Obama did not listen to  J-Street which asked Obama to  outline a “bold ambitious approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which  I interpret as meaning coming closer to imposing a solution on the parties.

Here is what J Street sent to its supporters:

In just 48 hours, President Obama delivers his State of the Union address. Every word will be analyzed for signals about his plans for the second half of his term.
We want the White House to know that a large number of Americans expect him to list Middle East peace among his priorities and urge him to outline a bolder, more ambitious approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obama Administration officials told Politico recently that they're openly seeking new ideas on the Middle East [1], and a change in course could well be in the works.  This is an important moment for us to make our voices heard.
Click here to ask the President to renew his commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the State of the Union and urge him to put forth bolder American proposals for achieving peace.
We'll relay your views in our communications with Administration officials.
Consensus is growing that America needs a bolder approach to resolving the conflicts in the Middle East.

New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman argues that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing and Israeli leadership is "disconnected from reality." [2] Influential pundit on Israel Jeffrey Goldberg wonders aloud whether Israel will choose to remain Jewish or democratic. [3]
David Makovsky at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues for a borders and security approach that tackles final status issues head on. [4] New Yorker Editor David Remnick voices frustration, as a supporter of Israel, that the current government just doesn't seem to get the vital importance of achieving an agreement now. [5]

And just last week, Peter Beinart joined a group of experienced foreign policy hands, including 3 former US Ambassadors to Israel, in signing a letter to President Obama calling on his administration to support a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied territory. [6]
The State of the Union is the perfect place for the President to reiterate America’s commitment to leading the way to the end of the conflict and to tell the world of his Administration's plans.

That's where you come in.

Click here to tell the President to make a bolder, more assertive push for peace in the region.

The challenges in the Middle East won't be easily overcome. Huge obstacles stand in the way of progress. But, without a doubt, there’s a growing consensus behind the message J Street was created to deliver: it is time for the United States to provide the strong international leadership needed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a two-state solution.
Please join us right now -- and add your name to our message to the President in advance of this important speech. 

P.S. Click here to read J Street's recently released position paper on the settlement resolution in front of the United Nations.

[1] "White House seeks new ideas about Mideast peace," by Laura Rozen. Politico, January 13, 2011.

[2] "Reality Check," by Thomas Friedman. The New York Times, December 11, 2010.

[3] "What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?" by Jeffery Goldberg. The Atlantic, December 27, 2010.

[4] "Leapfrogging Barriers to a Two-State Deal," by Steve Clemons. The Washington Note, December 16, 2010.

[5] "New Yorker editor David Remnick to Yediot: ‘I can’t take the Occupation anymore," by Didi Remez. Coteret, December 26, 2010.

[6] "Former U.S. diplomats to Obama: Support UN draft condemning Israeli settlements," by Shlomo Shamir. Haaretz, January 11, 2011.

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