Walking that Fine Line: Obama and Israel

Now that both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have issued significant pronouncements on the prospects for (and path to) Middle East peace, American Jews are scrambling to figure out how to make sense of it all. We are, quite obviously, no longer dealing with an American president who will write Israel a “blank check” as regards its policies, a la George W. Bush. But many of the people I’ve spoken are struggling to figure out whether or not, in the words of the classic joke, this is good or bad for the Jews.

I listened closely to President Obama’s address, and read it through carefully afterwards… twice. As I said to my own congregation, there is Rashi to be written on it. There were more than a few places where I was tempted to say “yes, but…”, to flesh out his take on the situation with a greater sensitivity to our narrative. I also thought it was most unfortunate that he so closely linked Israel’s existential legitimacy to the Shoah. Genesis comes to mind, not to mention millennia of praying for a return to Jerusalem.

No, it wasn’t a perfect speech, and it was a little jarring to hear an American president speak so bluntly to Israel. But truth to tell, I thought he spoke with equal bluntness to the Arab world, in a way that was both respectful and chastising at the same time. He talked about true democracy, the rights of women, America’s unbreakable bond with Israel, and the need for the Arab countries to come to terms with Israel’s existence once and for all.

It seems to me that the biggest concerns in the Jewish community, at least as I have heard them, have to do with President Obama’s insistence that Israel cease to build new settlements or expand old ones, because they are an impediment to peace. Again, Rashi is called for. One could make a good case that much of the Arab world views Tel Aviv as a settlement, and that is as much an impediment to peace as anything else. I believe that to be true, and I am hardly alone.

But that said, I am hard pressed to understand the vociferous opposition- and real, tangible fear- that the Obama speech elicited in some quarters of the Jewish community because of what he said about the settlements.

Even if you don’t believe that Israeli settlements in conquered Arab territory are the root problem, it is not all that hard to understand that they most definitely will be obstacles to any future Arab-Israeli peace settlement, if there is to be one. I like my Rashi, and I believe in our narrative. But I am not so oblivious to the existence of the “other’s” narrative that I can’t see how those settlements look through different eyes.

And to take it one step further… even if Israeli settlements aren’t the root cause of this festering conflict, and the Arabs haven’t made their peace with Israel’s existence, are the Israeli settlements really accomplishing for Israel what Israel would want them to? Are they bringing her a greater sense of security, or is Israel able to see a time of peace coming closer because of their existence?

I don’t envision Israel ever going back to pre-1967 borders, and I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech was, for him, a painful pill to swallow. He is to be admired for taking a courageous step. But this moment in history is not about “buying time with Obama,” as I’ve heard it said. It’s about moving this moribund peace process out of the mire in which it is stuck, and trying to find a way to make some real progress so as to isolate the most extreme elements in the Islamic world that are bent on subverting that process- and, to be fair, the more extreme ultra-nationalist elements in Israel as well.

That will never happen without some kind of pushing of both sides by America. As a Jew and a Zionist, I would rather see that happen with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod counseling the American President that with James Baker and Zbigniew Brzezhinski counseling Bush I. That scared me. This doesn’t.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.