Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg made quite a splash with his column earlier this week in which he enticed some of his buddies in the Obama administration to dish on the world leader they most love to hate. Goldberg’s piece might not have added the term “chickenshit” to the American or international political lexicon but he gave it new meaning as some of the president’s minions trashed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a coward. We all knew the Obami despised Netanyahu and aren’t exactly in love with his country. But the brazen and childish nature of the insults exposed the nature of this unraveling alliance in a way that few other stories have. Yet instead of following up by concentrating on getting to the bottom of the administration’s anti-Netanyahu mania, Goldberg has chosen to act as its lawyer both in the original article and in a follow-up piece published today in which he seeks to justify the attack on the Israeli. In doing so, he shows that not only does he share the White House’s foolish obsession but also misses a larger point about the collapse of American foreign policy under Barack Obama.
Goldberg’s argument is that whatever one may think of the astonishing slurs slung at the prime minister, it is Israel that is to blame because Netanyahu’s politics are “disconnecting from reality.” Citing an editorial in the New York Jewish Week by Gary Rosenblatt, Goldberg claims that American Jews are abandoning their traditional support for Israel because of its government’s counterproductive policies. His point is that if the U.S.-Israel relationship is coming apart it’s not because of the clear personal animus of everyone in this administration from the very top down toward Netanyahu but because Israel’s moves in Jerusalem and the West Bank are making peace harder to envision and lowering its standing in the international community. Rather than focus on what the “senior administration officials” think about Israel, he thinks we should be concentrating our attention on just how out of touch Netanyahu is with both international opinion and that of American Jews.
There is a lot to unwrap here, but let’s start with Goldberg’s assumption that the widening divide between many American Jews and Israel is somehow the fault of the latter’s current government. This is a fallacy that, to be fair, Rosenblatt, whose editorial in the weekly’s current edition was clearly written before Goldberg’s chickensh*t hit the fan on Tuesday afternoon, isn’t trying to promote. Goldberg argues that Israel is making a mistake by asking American Jews to choose between a liberal Democratic president and policies that are viewed as “illiberal.” But the crackup of American Jewry has far more to do with demographic issues stemming from soaring intermarriage rates and assimilation that have led to a diminution of a sense of Jewish peoplehood, not a serious critique of the specific policies of an Israeli government.
Last year’s Pew Survey on American Jewry amply illustrated that the disconnect between American Jews and Israel had everything to do with the changes in the way non-Orthodox viewed issues of identity. If most American Jews have been disinclined to withdraw their support from the president despite his predilection for picking pointless fights with Israel, it has to do primarily with their lack of affection for his domestic opponents and increasing lack of interest in all parochial Jewish topics of which Israel is just one that has fallen by the wayside. The survey showed that the unaffiliated and Jews who no longer choose to label themselves as Jewish by religion are increasingly unsupportive of Israel, but that has more to do with them than anything Israel might be doing. As Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman noted at the time, the Jews who care about Israel still support it; those that don’t fall into a different category. Moreover, at a time when international attacks on Israel are being driven by what even the U.S. State Department has acknowledged is a rising tide of anti-Semitism, to claim that Netanyahu or settlements are the key issues is particularly obtuse.
But whatever problems Israel may be having in retaining Jewish support here (and I’ll go out on a limb and say that I doubt even most Jewish Democrats were particularly happy with the way Obama cut off arms supplies to Israel during the war with Hamas last summer or think his aides should be calling Netanyahu chickensh*t while hiding behind Goldberg’s pledge to protect anonymity), any discussion about the U.S.-Israel divide needs to start with the fact that most Israelis remain on their prime minister’s side in this fight. They may not love Netanyahu or be right-wing zealots but the majority understands that there is no Palestinian peace partner and that pressure from the international community on their government to make more concessions seems to stem from prejudice against Israel, not a sober assessment of the situation.
As Goldberg himself again acknowledges, a push to withdraw from the West Bank would be insane under the current circumstances since doing so would open up the possibility of replicating the Hamas terror state in Gaza in the larger and more strategic territory adjoining Israel’s main population centers. Nor do they think much of strictures on Jewish life in Jerusalem or even in the West Bank settlement blocs that everyone—even President Obama—agrees would remain within Israel in the event of a peace treaty. Goldberg’s rejoinder to this salient point is to claim that, “the Palestinians haven’t agreed to this” (the italics are Goldberg’s). Of course, they haven’t because even the so-called moderates like Mahmoud Abbas, whom Goldberg extols as the best hope for peace, have never agreed to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and have either turned down every peace offer of a Palestinian state that would include almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem or fled the negotiating table anytime peace might be in the offing.
Like President Obama and the rest of his crew that provide him with juicy quotes, Goldberg reiterates the left’s mantra that “the status quo is unsustainable” without providing a coherent alternative that also includes Israel’s survival. But as much as they don’t like the current situation, the majority of Israelis believe it is preferable to more trading land for terror as was the case with the Oslo Accords and Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. That’s why Netanyahu, with all his faults, is almost certain to win a third consecutive term in office the next time Israelis go to the polls and will likely have a better relationship with whomever it is that succeeds Obama, whether it is a Democrat or a Republican. Israel has shown it can sustain itself in the absence of a peace deal that Palestinians are not interested in.
Even more important, by joining his sources’ gang tackle of Netanyahu, Goldberg is ignoring the fact that it is the policies of Obama, and not the Israeli, that have led to chaos, instability, and violence in the Middle East. As he well knows, moderate Arab countries are far more worried about Obama’s appeasement of Iran and apparent desire to withdraw from the region than they are about Israeli settlements. That’s why they find themselves agreeing more with Netanyahu about Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the threat from ISIS than the president. They are deeply concerned about an administration that is more interested in stopping Israel from attacking Iran than in preventing Tehran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.
If the “chickensh*t” affair played so badly for the president, it’s because most Americans (the vast majority of whom are deeply supportive of Israel and critical of the Palestinians) think there is something off-putting about an administration that is angrier at its sole democratic ally in the Middle East than at an international terror sponsor like Iran. With polls showing the president’s disastrous conduct of foreign policy being one of his party’s distinct liabilities this fall, it is obvious that if anyone is disconnecting from reality, it is the lame duck Obama and his petulant aides, not Netanyahu.
Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at TobinCommentary.