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Steve Sheffey

Steve Sheffey

Posted: January 13, 2010 11:03 PM

Obama's First Year: Pro-Israel

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Political pundits are like astrologers and psychics: They get away with making outlandish predictions and are remembered when lightning strikes and they guess right, but rarely are they called to account for a litany of missed calls that would put weather forecasters and stock market analysts to shame. We were told to be nervous about Barack Obama, but after one year in office, it should be clear to all but President Obama's most partisan critics that he has been good for Israel.

Prior to the 2006 election, our Republican friends bombarded us with emails about how terrible it would be for Israel if the Democrats regained control of Congress. But the Democrats did regain control of Congress, and Congress remains as pro-Israel as it has ever been, with many key committees chaired by staunchly pro-Israel members of Congress. Bi-partisan support for Israel in Congress is strong. The House of Representatives passed the Iran Refined Sanctions Petroleum Act by margin of 412-12 in December and passed the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act by a margin of 414-6 in October. For a comprehensive look at the 2009 achievements of the Democratic-controlled Congress from a pro-Israel perspective, click here.

However, rather than celebrate America's bi-partisan commitment to Israel, our Republican friends continue to use Israel as a partisan football. During the 2008 campaign, they returned to their tired old playbook and bombarded us with emails about how terrible it would be for Israel if the Democrats regained control of the White House. Most of us, or at least 80% of us, saw through those lies and voted for Obama.

Obama took office nearly a year ago. His record as President is as consistently strong on Israel as he and his supporters in the pro-Israel community promised it would be. Only last month, we learned that Israeli officials have been singing the praises of President Obama for his willingness to address their defense concerns and for actions taken by his administration to bolster Israel's qualitative military edge-- an edge eroded, according to Israel, during the final year of the George W. Bush presidency. (The Bush administration violated security related agreements with Israel in which the U.S. promised to preserve the IDF's qualitative edge over Arab armies.)

Prior to Obama's election, our Republican friends told us that we should ignore Obama's statements on Israel, ignore Obama's perfect record on Israel, ignore Obama's vigorous outreach to the Jewish community, and instead find him guilty by distant association. They told us that Obama was like the Manchurian Candidate, and once he was elected, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Rashid Khalidi and other fellow travelers would be running the country and dictating policy on Israel. They told us that Obama might not even be committed to Israel's survival (I may have missed the retraction when Obama told the Arab world that America's bond with Israel is "unbreakable"). They told us that Obama does not believe that Israel is a sovereign state (even though Obama espoused the same view of Israeli settlements that George Bush espoused).

We replied that the pro-Israel community had always judged candidates on words and deeds, not guilt by distant association. We replied that there is a bi-partisan consensus on Israel, and that while Obama had significant policy differences with Bush/Cheney and McCain/Palin, Israel was not one of those differences. Yes, the rhetoric probably would be more cerebral--how could it not be--but the policy would remain essentially the same.

So who was right? I'm sometimes asked what it would take for me to conclude that Obama was not pro-Israel. If Obama had forced Israel to withdraw from territory it justifiably held, if Obama had suspended arms sales to Israel , if Obama had backed UN resolutions condemning Israel, if Obama had honored the graves of Nazi soldiers , if Obama had used loan guarantees to pressure Israel , if Obama had denied Israel arms and airspace to attack Iran, if Obama had pressured Israel to allow Hamas to participate in Gaza elections, thus conferring on it a legitimacy it could never have otherwise earned , I'd be concerned. Previous Presidents have done exactly that (click on the links for details). But not Obama.

When we said that American policy toward Israel under Obama would remain essentially unchanged, we meant it. Many in the pro-Israel community, including me, have criticized American policy on settlements. Reasonable minds can differ, and I happen to believe that pressure on Israel regarding settlements is morally wrong and counterproductive. But that's been American policy since 1967.

Some say that Obama is different because he's put American policy on settlements front and center. Maybe what's really different is that Obama's critics have put American policy on settlements front and center for partisan gain. The reality is that for eight years, the Bush Administration was also at odds with Israel over settlements, including in Jerusalem and including natural growth.
It's ironic that many who rightly complain when Israel is held to a different standard hold Obama to a different standard. If you want to know what real pressure on Israel, look at what Eisenhower, Reagan (also here and here), Bush 41, and Bush 43 did.

So what has Obama done? Here is a partial list of his tangible accomplishments. It's long, but that's the point. It's an impressive record for less than one year in office. The next time you hear someone questioning Obama's pro-Israel bona fides, remind that person that Obama now has a record, and it's one we can be proud of. As you read this list, ask yourself if this is the record of a man whose views on Israel are informed by "radical Palestinian" activists.

  • No Administration in history has come into office with a Vice President, Secretary of State, and Chief of Staff with stronger pro-Israel credentials than this one.
  • Steve Rosen, AIPAC's director of executive branch relations for 23 years, wrote that Obama's appointments are no cause for concern from a pro-Israel perspective.
  • Rosen was very concerned about Chas Freeman, but that appointment by Dennis Blair was never final and was rescinded--exactly what we'd expect from a pro-Israel administration that listens to the pro-Israel community.
  • Obama fulfilled his campaign promise to boycott Durban II unless ALL of our conditions were met.
  • On May 1, Obama renewed sanctions against Syria because it posed a continuing threat to US interests. Obama, in a letter to Congress notifying it of his decision, accused Damascus of "supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq."
  • Obama was the first President to host a seder in the White House. To my right wing friends who try to read "signals" the way the ancients read animal entrails: What signal do you think Obama was sending to the world?
  • President Obama issued a proclamation deeming May Jewish American Heritage Month, the fourth year the president has issued such a proclamation since the House and Senate, spearheaded by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), passed resolutions urging that May be marked in such a manner.
  • Obama will fully fund the development and production of the Arrow 3 ballistic missile defense system. United States officials told Israel of its decision on May 20 during a strategic dialogue between the two countries. The Arrow 3 will be a longer-range version of the Arrow system that the IDF currently operates, capable of intercepting missiles at a farther distance and a higher altitude from the Jewish state.
  • The Obama administration reiterated that it will maintain the US policy of ambiguity on regarding Israel's nuclear weapons (5/21/09).
  • On June 4 in Cairo, President Obama told the Arab and Muslim world that America's bond with Israel is "unbreakable." He told the Arab and Muslim world, a world rife with Holocaust denial, that to deny the Holocaust is "baseless, ignorant, and hateful." He told them that threatening Israel with destruction is "deeply wrong." He said that "Palestinians must abandon violence" and that "it is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus." And he said that "Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel's right to exist."
  • Dennis Ross, a key pro-Israel advisor to Obama during the campaign, will be playing a major role in Middle East matters in the Obama administration, the Washington Post reported on June 24.
  • The Obama administration assured Israel it will continue defending Israel at the United Nations despite the allies' dispute over West Bank settlements, Israel's U.N. ambassador said on June 29.
  • On June 30, the United States reapproved loan guarantees with Israel.
  • On July 5, Vice President Biden said that the United States would not stand in Israel's way if Israel decided to attack Iran. Also here.. This is not a green light for Israel, but it's an improvement over the Bush administration's clear opposition to action by Israel.
  • On July 8, the House approved foreign aid to Israel. For the second time in three years, a majority of Republicans voted against the foreign aid bill, but the bill passed with Democrats voting in favor 242-9. The bill included more than just foreign aid. It also prohibited aid to a Palestinian unity government unless all ministers in the government publicly accept the Quartet conditions, while maintaining all current restrictions on aid to the West Bank and Gaza; prohibited the Export-Import Bank from using funds to guarantee, insure or extend credit for companies that supply Iran with refined petroleum resources; and required status reports from the State Department on sanctions against Iran and on the administration's diplomatic efforts with Iran regarding its nuclear program.
  • On July 13, President Obama met with 16 Jewish leaders from 14 key organizations and explained that forceful pressure is being applied to the Palestinians to move forward on the peace process and that he has been very specific with the Arab world on incitement, violence, commitments on accepting the reality of Israel and conveying that to their street.
  • In its meeting with Jewish leaders on July 13 and in Hillary Clinton's speech on July 15, the Obama administration left no doubt that it will do all that it can to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. • On July 31, Obama extended sanctions against Syria. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3754953,00.html
  • Obama is not the first President to host a Ramadan dinner at the White House--Bill Clinton started the tradition and George W. Bush continued it--but on Sept. 1, Obama became the first President to invite Israel's ambassador to the White House Ramadan dinner. To my right wing friends who try to read "signals" the way the ancients read animal entrails: What signal do you think Obama was sending to the world?
  • On Sept. 23, President Obama softened his insistence that Israel freeze settlements, stating that conditions will not be imposed on the parties.
  • On October 12, the U.S. pulled out of joint military exercises with Turkey after Turkey excluded Israel.
  • On October 21, 2009 the IDF and the U.S. military began a major joint air defense exercise, highlighting military ties between the two allies at a time of heightened tensions over Iran's nuclear program. The maneuver underlines the strong alliance between the US and Israel.
  • On October 22, Israel's ambassador to the United States said the Obama administration backs the Jewish state in opposing the Goldstone report.
  • On October 22, President Obama repealed the import tariffs on Israeli dairy products, making it easier for American consumers to purchase kosher dairy products. The tariffs still apply to most other countries.
  • On November 1, AIPAC applauded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's praise for Israel's "unprecedented" willingness to restrain settlement construction.
  • On November 23, senior Pentagon official Jon Schreiber said that the United States has offered to add Israeli systems and munitions to a new U.S.-built fighter jet, the F-35, and deliver it to Israel by 2015. Schreiber said that the United States is committed to maintaining Israel's "qualitative" military edge over any regional rival.
  • On December 16, The Forward reported that Israeli officials have been singing the praises of President Obama for his willingness to address their defense concerns and for actions taken by his administration to bolster Israel's qualitative military edge-- an edge eroded, according to Israel, during the final year of the George W. Bush presidency.
  • On December 21, President Obama signed a defense spending bill that includes202 million in funds for Israel's missile defense programs. "We are tremendously pleased with the ongoing cooperation between the United States and the State of Israel in the area of missile defense," an Israeli official said after Obama signed the bill.
  • On January 11, Ha'aretz reported that the U.S. Army will double the value of emergency military equipment it stockpiles on Israeli soil, and Israel will be allowed to use the U.S. ordnance in the event of a military emergency. An American defense official told Defense News that the U.S.-Israel agreement reflects the Obama administration's continued commitment to Israel's security. The agreement is expected to aid Israel in its effort to bolster its weapons stockpiles for use in an emergency. Israel's stores of aerial and artillery ammunition were depleted during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, nearly reaching levels the IDF considers dangerously low.


And for the record...

Rahm Emanuel never linked progress on Iran to Israel's willingness to create a Palestinian state.

The Obama administration did NOT spend $20 million on resettling Palestinians with ties to Hamas in the United States.

Obama has been clear that it is NOT his place to decide Israel's security needs and that no options are off the table regarding Iran.

Obama does NOT believe that the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering are morally equivalent.

Obama's position on settlements IS virtually identical to George W. Bush's.

Bush rejected Israel's request for arms needed to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.