Monday, November 10th, 2008
So what, exactly, does it mean that Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the son of an Israeli who served in the Irgun, has been named White House chief of staff under President-elect Barack Obama?
It means a lot, in terms of White House management and policy; the hard-charging, experienced, hyper-aggressive Emanuel will undoubtedly keep the incoming administration organized, deal effectively with Congress and serve as an effective gatekeeper to a new president who will be besieged by those seeking influence and jobs.
Less clear is his impact on Jewish issues and the question of U.S. policy toward Israel.
Emanuel clearly identifies strongly as a Jew; his commitment to Israel will be as strong or stronger than any White House chief of staff in memory. He grew up speaking Hebrew and attends a modern Orthodox synagogue.
But he also won’t be afraid to recommend tough talk to Israeli leaders if he sees them as too cowed by their political fears to take the steps needed to get peace negotiations moving again. He is an independent thinker who doesn’t like to be pushed around – mostly, he likes to do the pushing. He can be expected to look with skepticism at appeals from major pro-Israel groups that some Democratic leaders have complained were too enthusiastic about the past eight years of GOP rule.
The Bush administration regards Olso as a dirty word; Emanuel was a supporter of the agreement and the process,although most observers expect he has a pragmatic understanding that things have changed since then.
Still, activists on the left who think AIPAC and the others will somehow get the boot are likely to be disappointed. Facing a grave economic emergency and foreign policy crises around the world, the last thing Obama wants is a fight with the pro-Israel lobby – especially since his Mideast advisers are likely to tell him that while diplomacy should be intensified in any event, conditions do not seem ripe for any big Israeli-Palestinian breakthroughs.
AIPAC and the Presidents Conference won’t have a warm admirer in the White House, but the activists groups and the new administration will likely find ways to live and work with each other.
Jewish peace groups will clearly enjoy greater access to the incoming administration after being largely frozen out for the past eight years. That includes the new J Street lobby and political action committee, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum.
But they’re likely to be frustrated by an administration that won’t move as quickly as they’d like – mostly because of the crush of other crises and the unpromising Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic climate.