It’s Obama Who Should Apologize

By Jonathan S. Tobin

Commentary Magazine

November 10, 2015

To outward appearances, President Obama appears willing to ease tensions with Israel’s government. Faced with a Middle East that is collapsing in front of him as ISIS dominates Syria and Iraq, with Iran already demonstrating that Obama’s hopes for détente with Tehran were without foundation and Russia seeking to re-establish the old Soviet empire, the last thing the U.S. needs is another fight with Israel. So, at least for the moment, the president’s guiding principle in Middle East relations — creating more daylight between the U.S. and Israel — is not dictating his conduct. Whether this is anything more than a respite or instead reflects a fundamental rethinking of his strategy remains to be seen. But though the president is at least temporarily standing down after seven years of sniping and picking fights with Netanyahu, his cheerleaders on the left have no such compunctions. Liberal animus for Israel and its government remains high and, as Dana Milbank’s column in the Washington Post shows, the left is in no mood to kiss and make up.

Milbank’s piece is interesting in that it gives us a clear view of how the left is abandoning Israel all the while claiming that it is the Jewish state and Netanyahu that are responsible for the breach in the alliance. He thinks the prime minister should have come back to Washington in a penitential frame of mind, asking pardon of Dear Leader for having had the gall to oppose his Iran nuclear deal. More to the point, Milbank is following White House talking points claiming that it was Netanyahu who destroyed bipartisan support for Israel

According to Milbank, Netanyahu’s defense of his country’s interests on a matter of life and death — Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons — drove “a deep wedge through America and the American Jewish community.” He then follows that accusation with an indictment listing Netanyahu’s comments about Arab incitement to terrorism and the fact that some members of his government and staff have said disagreeable things about Obama and the Temple Mount.

But Milbank is incensed that rather than arriving hat in hat begging for forgiveness, Netanyahu is not backing down on his opposition to the nuclear deal. Nor is he snubbing the conservatives that supported Israel’s stand. Though he spoke at the hostile liberal Center for American Progress (to the dismay of its staff), the fact that he also spoke to the American Enterprise Institute is, according to Jeffrey Goldberg (whom Milbank quoted approvingly) a case of him “deciding to troll Obama.”

Milbank is right that liberals and Democrats are not as supportive of Israel as they once were. But where he’s dead wrong is to place the blame on Netanyahu for this.

It should be recalled that a year ago there was a solid bipartisan consensus in Congress for increased sanctions on Iran and against a nuclear deal that would grant Tehran a path to a bomb. The breakdown of that consensus wasn’t the work of Netanyahu. It was President Obama who treated the Iran nuclear deal as a partisan litmus test and strong-armed the overwhelming majority of Democrats in both the House and the Senate to back it.

Netanyahu did walk right into the president’s trap when he decided to accept former House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress on Iran. But there was nothing unprecedented about doing so. What was new was the administration’s determination to make Democrats choose between loyalty to Obama and their campaign pledges to ensure Israel’s security.

Moreover, the polls that show Republicans far more likely to back Israel than Democrats have been trending in that direction since the 1990s and have nothing to do with the Obama-Netanyahu feud.

As for the prime minister’s other offenses, while he overstated the case about the Mufti of Jerusalem influencing Adolf Hitler, Milbank shows his own abysmal ignorance by merely putting Haj Amin al-Husseini as a “Palestinian cleric.” The Mufti was a close collaborator with the Nazis and his incitement of religious hatred toward Jews in the 1920s and 30s provides a direct precedent for current Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’s similar incitement in recent months that helped launch the current wave of Palestinian terror.

It’s true that some of the statements coming out of the Likud have been embarrassing for Netanyahu as he tries to manage relations with a hostile Obama administration. But he can start apologizing for everything his supporters say when the president asks forgiveness for the steady stream of insults and taunts emanating from the White House toward Netanyahu (“chickensh*t”) in the last few years.

Are many American Jews alienated from Netanyahu? Yes, they are. But the reason for that is the same explanation that applies to Democrats. Most liberal Jews put party loyalty to the Democrats over any affection for the Jewish state. That’s why so many meekly fell in line behind the president on Iran. That, like Milbank, they also blame Netanyahu for the lack of peace with the Palestinians is merely evidence of their disconnect from the reality of the Middle East. It is the Palestinians who have repeatedly turned down peace offers from Israeli governments, including the one run by Netanyahu. But just to show how detached he is from reality, Milbank cites the protests of far-left Israel-haters/anti-Semites like the ANSWER coalition and crackpot ultra-Orthodox Jews who represent no one but themselves as evidence that the pro-Israel coalition is falling apart on Netanyahu’s watch.

It is true that the gradual takeover of the Democrats by its left-wing base has undermined, though not destroyed support for Israel in the party. And the parallel trend that has led to nearly unanimous support for the Jewish state by Republicans is disconcerting for the left. But bipartisan political support for Zionism is baked deep into the political DNA of this country and not even as adept a politician as Obama is able to completely destroy it. Netanyahu knows that the next president is likely to be a better friend to Israel than the current one and he will patiently bide his time for the next 15 months hoping that Obama will be too overwhelmed by his foreign policy failures to pick another fight with Israel. But if that happens and Democrats again fall into line against Israel, that will be the work of Obama, not Netanyahu.

Apologies will be due for what happened in Washington in the last year. But given the reliance of the president and his apologists on Iran’s good behavior to vindicate their attacks on Israel and its leader, it is they who will, sooner or later, have to account to posterity for the fact that they have undermined America’s alliance with its sole democratic ally in the Middle East in the feckless pursuit of detente with Iran.