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Many months of hard work by Democratic activists aiming to shore up Jewish support for U.S. President Barack Obama wasn’t undermined by arguments from his opponents. Instead, all it took was a cartoon drawing of a bomb.
Despite the campaign waged by Jewish Republicans to draw attention to the antagonism between Obama and the State of Israel, nothing the GOP produced illustrated the problem between the two nations better than the drawing held aloft by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month. Though in that address, Netanyahu was careful to thank the president for opposing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, the cartoon bomb he held aloft that resembled something Wile E. Coyote might have ordered from the Acme Company symbolized the rift that has grown up between Israel and the United States over the urgency of the issue. It also put an effective end to a yearlong effort by the administration to portray its relations with Israel as being a love-fest.
Tension between the two governments reached a turning point after the president’s May 2011 ambush of Netanyahu over the 1967 lines. That attempt to force Israel to accept those borders as the starting point for future negotiations with the Palestinians backfired on Obama when the prime minister publicly refuted him at a White House photo-op and then received the cheers of both Republicans and Democrats at a joint meeting of Congress. The fallout from the dispute, which built upon previous attacks on Israel’s position on Jerusalem and settlements, was quickly seen to have political repercussions for the president among Jewish voters.
What followed was a Jewish charm offensive that caused the administration to seem to drop all interest in supporting the Palestinians. This was a complete reversal in policy and tone from Obama’s earlier stands. Rather than singing from the J Street hymnbook about the need to pressure Israel, the president confined his remarks about the Middle East to the need to stop Iran. At the same time, his surrogates touted the continuation of existing funding of Israeli defense plans such as the Iron Dome anti-missile system as an Obama rather than a Bush initiative. The party line was that Obama was the greatest supporter of Israeli security to sit in the White House.
Though Republicans claimed these arguments were disingenuous, the Democratic talking points helped staunch some of the party’s losses and by the fall of 2012 polls showed Obama was not losing as many Jewish votes as some had thought likely.
But the charm offensive came to a screeching halt when Netanyahu asked the Americans to start acting as if they were prepared to do more than talk about the Iranian threat. Israelis are divided on whether a possible unilateral strike on Iran is wise and over how hard to push the Americans but there is a broad consensus on the need to stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu’s call for the United States to adopt red lines (which he symbolized with red marker on the drawing of the bomb) on Iran’s enrichment of uranium was the focus of a weeks-long argument between the two countries. The dispute centered on the president’s absolute refusal to recognize any limits to the amount of time the U.S. might continue to devote to dead-end diplomatic engagement with Iran. Without such a red line, the Iranians are clearly convinced that they can go on making progress toward a bomb without any concern that the U.S. will pull the plug on the charade of negotiations and act before it is too late to stop them.
Yet Obama reverted to his previous form with stern public rebukes of Israel’s stand on the issue. Rather than the two men meeting in New York at the annual opening of the UN’s fall session, Obama made it clear he had no interest in meeting with the Israeli, a snub that was so blatant that it aroused controversy in both countries.
The red line argument showed that even the needs of his re-election campaign are treated as secondary concerns when they conflict with the president’s abiding antagonism for Israel’s security concerns. The red lines spat showed that far from lasting into a second Obama term as some had hoped, the Jewish charm offensive was over long before Americans even had a chance to vote.