Is it Mitchell v. Ross in the Obama administration Middle East shop?

 Laura Rozen has a fascinating blog in today’s Politico describing what she says as a “fierce debate on Israel” going on inside the Obama administration.

On one side is White House Mideast strategist Dennis Ross, who she says is stressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s precarious political position as head of a mostly right wing coalition and urging the administration to cut him some slack. On the other side: "forces aligned" with special envoy George Mitchell who want Washington to “hold firm in pressing Netanyahu for written commitments to avoid provocations that imperil Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to preserve the Obama administration’s credibility.”

Some officials, speaking off the record, told Rozen that Ross – whose last gig was at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy, a think tank created by the pro-Israel lobby – is “far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests.”

Whoa; that’s a pretty heavy duty charge. But tension with Ross as the focal point isn’t surprising; he’s the peace process veteran, going back to the George W. Bush administration, he has the best and longest standing connections with Israeli politicians – and no doubt that has made him a symbol of the old status quo in U.S. policy to administration officials who want to create a new peace process paradigm, and to the frustrated Mitchell.

What comes across clearly in Rozen’s item: there’s a lot of gut-level anger at Netanyahu, and it’s not all because of the perceived insult to Vice President Joe Biden. Netanyahu is simply regarded as untrustworthy, as someone who will say and do anything to avoid taking any real political chances to move the peace process forward.

That perception is what makes this diplomatic crisis worse than the ones that have rattled pro-Israel groups in recent years.

Meanwhile, numerous commentators have suggested President Obama’s hand in dealing with Netanyahu has been strengthened by this victory on health care reform.

That one rings pretty hollow to me.

Yes, Obama won a narrow victory on his centerpiece domestic legislation, but he’s heading toward congressional midterm elections in which the Democrats are still projected to lose a lot of their congressional clout. If he ratchets up the pressure on Israel, groups like AIPAC aren’t going to step back an inch from confronting the White House just because the president got his health care bill.

On the other hand, maybe this administration isn’t too worried about the response of the pro-Israel community.

This seems to be the first administration that understands the huge gap between the Jewish electorate, which continues to vote strongly Democratic and which doesn’t put Israel at the top of its list of political priorities, and the big pro-Israel groups, which can cause a lot of problems in Congress and make a lot of noise, but generally don’t seem to change the Jewish vote very much.

The administration is also getting that message from J Street, whose polls continue to put a spotlight on that gap.

The risk: most political scientists say Israel is still a “threshold” issue, meaning that most Jewish voters won’t really factor Israel into their political choices as long as candidates aren’t seen as “bad” on the issue.

Despite the accusations of the Jewish right, Obama did great with Jewish voters in 2008 because he met the minimum standard of being okay on the issue.

Is he now on a course that will change that perception? You’ll hear a million different theories out there in the blogosphere, but in reality nobody actually knows. It’s a new generation of Jews out there, and their political responses to crises may not be the same as their predecessors.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.