It pays to be devious, at least in politics – and maybe in investment banking and advertising – but in politics there’s something special, the wedge issue. That’s a tangential issue you use to drive a wedge between your opponent and those who might naturally support him or her, even if it doesn’t have much to do with anything going on at the moment. In the 2004 election, in Ohio, the Republicans flooded selected urban markets, mostly black, with ads all about how the Democrats, led by John Kerry, were going to let gay people take over, or at least claim rights in the workplace and maybe even be allowed to form civil unions, which might even lead to gay marriage, and who knew what after that. Kerry and the Democrats had hardly even mentioned gay rights, or did so in passing. It didn’t seem a core issue, not that it mattered. Ohio was the one swing state that year and the idea was to drive a wedge between black voters, who always seem to vote for Democrats, and the Democratic Party. Someone had told Karl Rove that many black churches were led by pastors who had no use at all for gay people – something that was easy enough to verify – and that there was a subculture where raw masculinity was valued highly that could be turned to the Republicans’ advantage. It didn’t work that well – George Bush was still that goofy and kind of mean white guy in the cowboy boots – but it was worth a try. Maybe a few votes were turned, but no one will ever know. Ohio did ban civil unions, but now the issue has gone up in a puff of smoke. Rob Portman, the state’s Republican senator, now supports gay marriage, and polling shows the majority of Americans do too – and the young overwhelmingly. The black opposition also disappeared. That leaves angry older white evangelicals and every Republican politician who isn’t named Rob Portman – a tiny crowd. That wedge can never be used again. Republicans will have to find another way to peel off black votes. The alternative is to make voting so hard for them that the give up and just don’t show up at the polls. They’ve been working on that alternative for years now, in every state with a Republican governor and legislature.
They have the same problem with the Jewish vote, which always runs about seventy percent Democratic. There the wedge has been that Obama hates Israel, in spite of all Obama says and does, but then wedge issues don’t have to have much to do with anything going on at any particular moment. It might be possible to peel off a good number of Jewish votes if people do decide Obama hates Israel, and foolishly puts the interests of the United States ahead of the interests of Israel, when everyone knows they’re one in the same, and always have been and always will be.
That turned out to be a hard sell. Benjamin Netanyahu practically campaigned for Mitt Romney, which should have been a signal to every voter on the Upper West Side and down in Miami – real Jews vote for Romney. They didn’t. They seemed more concerned with American issues, like the economy, and Netanyahu was the jerk who wanted a new war in the Middle East, to wipe out Iran – with America doing his dirty work for him – and was turning Israel into a pretty nasty place as he worked to systematically humiliate and pretty much eliminate the Palestinians. Working things out with those folks would be nice, so Obama standing up to Netanyahu now and then was fine by them. The Republicans found out that wedge politics could be tricky.
They did try that wedge, as Stephen Silver recounts:
You’ve been hearing it since about 2007: Barack Obama doesn’t like Jews. He’s anti-Israel. He “snubbed” the prime minister of Israel. If he’s elected, or re-elected, he’ll “throw Israel under the bus.” And because of the continuing Obama presidency, the future of the Jewish state is in serious question.
These accusations don’t only come from forwarded emails from older relatives. In the past few years, there’s been a concerted effort…
This has been years in the making:
Even though Obama has long been surrounded by Jewish advisers and was known for being close with the Jewish community as a politician in Illinois, there were rumblings from almost the beginning of his career as a national politician that he might not be quite “kosher” on the issue. After all, Republicans have long sought to bring Jews into their tent – and, as journalist Jonathan Chait pointed out in 2011, Jewish Republicans tend to have an “unstated assumption … that any left-of-center black politician is an anti-Semite unless proven otherwise.”
There was the Indonesian Madrasah story (debunked) and the secret-Muslim stuff (also debunked). In the closing days of the 2008 campaign, 75,000 Jewish voters in Pennsylvania received a letter comparing Obama’s potential election with “the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s” that their European ancestors had failed to heed prior to the Holocaust.
As president, Obama has been pilloried for putting pressure on the Jewish state to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, for stating that a peace deal would be based on the 1967 borders plus land swaps, and for his often-frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s also been criticized for not visiting Israel as president.
But pushing for a two-state solution – based on the 1967 lines and swaps – has been U.S. policy for decades and the basis of negotiations since early in the Clinton administration. And while Obama and Netanyahu aren’t exactly best buds, that’s often the case when one leader is liberal and other conservative; numerous leaders across Israel’s political spectrum have pointed out that security cooperation between the nations is at its all-time highest point.
Obama has also stood up for the U.S. ally more than once, including in opposition to the Palestinian’s U.N. resolution for unilateral statehood. As for visiting, the President went to Israel while running in 2008. Ronald Reagan never set foot in Israel in his lifetime.
Sliver has much more, but the general idea is that the wedge here was based on nonsense – but Obama’s share of the Jewish vote actually dropped from 2008 to 2012, from around seventy-five percent to seventy. The wedge failed.
Ronald Reagan never set foot in Israel in his lifetime. Obama just did that very thing, although he had been warned, by Janine Zacharia, the former Jerusalem bureau chief of the Washington Post, now a visiting lecturer at Stanford, with this:
Iran is accelerating its nuclear program. Syria’s gruesome civil war is beginning to bleed across its borders. Two years after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt’s political transition is, at best, dicey. And yet according to deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, “more important” than all of that “in some respects” is that President Obama take this opportunity to “speak directly to the Israeli people.”
I get the logic of whoever dreamed up the president’s trip to Israel this week: Send Obama to reassure the Israelis he’s got their back on Iran. Demonstrate he doesn’t prefer the Arabs – an impression left in his first term when he visited Cairo but didn’t stop by Tel Aviv. Pay his respects at the graves of Israel’s fallen and acknowledge the historical artifacts that show Jews’ ties to the land. Let them know he really admires their technological prowess. Then maybe Israelis will feel more inclined to make peace with the Palestinians knowing the relationship with their most important ally is solid.
But this trip – the timing and the script – makes no sense. And even more than simply being a big waste of Obama’s time at a moment when he has little time to waste, it’s burning crucial American political capital that ought to be reserved for moments that truly warrant it.
Zacharia gives us the lay of the land:
The White House says the president is going to hear out what the newly appointed Israeli government has planned. Here’s a quick preview: Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon wants to bomb Iran and Housing Minister Uri Ariel wants to build new settlements. If Obama wants to talk about drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israel Defense Forces or the price of apartments in Tel Aviv, he’ll find an audience. Those relatively marginal issues are what dominated Israel’s recent election, not the future with the Palestinians.
There is no future with the Palestinians, and Zacharia offers much more detail, but there’s this to consider:
The anti-Obama peace-process skeptics can’t help but gloat. As Barry Rubin, a conservative, pro-Israel American pundit put it on his Facebook page: “I think we have just won a huge victory … Obama has admitted defeat on trying to bully, manipulate, or pressure Israel.”
The White House doesn’t want this trip to be about Netanyahu or his new government. That’s why Obama will address Israeli college students in a convention hall rather than speak to politicians in the Knesset. But when it comes to how this trip will be perceived in Israel, it will be all about Netanyahu and his political fortunes. Netanyahu will be seen as the victor in his battle with Obama, rewarded not only for defying – or standing strongly against, depending on one’s political perspective – an American president. And Netanyahu will learn one powerful lesson from Obama’s visit: I don’t have to do anything on the Palestinian issue. I can continue to expand settlements, focus solely on Iran, and insult the U.S. president, and he will still come and thank me with a two-day dog-and-pony show.
There’s only one reason to go, and it’s a longshot:
When he delivers his speech in Jerusalem on Thursday, he can remind Israelis that if they want their nation to be a nation like all others – one with internationally accepted borders, no longer targeted by divestment campaigns, and not facing a possible third Intifada – they need to stop saying they have no partner and make peace with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before it is too late. And if they can do that, he looks forward to coming back a second time as president – when they have a peace deal to sign.
That’s a tall order and the New York Times’ Rick Gladstone tells us how that went:
Laying out his case for a future Israel at peace with the Palestinians, President Obama delivered an enthusiastically welcomed speech on Thursday before an audience of youthful Israelis in Jerusalem, assuring them of America’s strong support but asking them to empathize with their Israeli-occupied neighbors and “look at the world through their eyes.”
In a carefully crafted address that was widely regarded as the centerpiece of his first trip to Israel as president, Mr. Obama spoke in lofty terms about Israel’s history and ideals, pointing out again and again how America had stood at its side and saying he remains unquestionably committed to Israel’s security. But the speech also seemed intended as an opportunity for Mr. Obama to appeal to a young generation of Israelis who do not necessarily share the hardened views of many of their elders, who are at best mistrustful of the Palestinians and wary of Mr. Obama himself.
That’s straightforward bland reporting. Haaretz’s Bradley Burston takes it up a notch:
For Barack Obama to come to Jerusalem, and speak to Israeli students and talk persuasively of the possibility of a secure and peaceful future, for him to do that and garner a roaring ovation of approval, he would have to have given one hell of a speech.
This was the speech that these young Israelis not only needed but wanted to hear. A speech that radically redefined centrism in Israel, bringing it down to extraordinary common denominators in directions Israelis have learned to think of as diametrically opposed.
He spoke of security and peace as inextricably and necessarily linked, not a narrow choice between options, but a conscious choice for both.
Ed Kilgore adds this:
“Radically redefined centrism in Israel…” Wow. Not bad for a speech during a trip widely expected to be at best a “reboot” effort at reengagement with the Middle East, and at worst a waste of everyone’s time.
It will be interesting to see if Israel’s self-proclaimed best friends in American conservative circles choose to inform those excited listeners in Jerusalem that Obama was just doing his rock-star, “The One” routine, or that they should be offended he was basically speaking over the Israeli government’s head to the country’s people.
Israel’s self-proclaimed best friends in American conservative circles have to make that decision, but what most galling must be that they just lost their wedge – as Obama kind of gave them an uncomfortable wedgie. Jeffery Goldberg was on the scene and does report on that split:
I spoke to several members of the audience, who confirmed my impression that Israelis just wanted to know that he liked them. It’s hard to understand this from the U.S., but the idea really did take hold here that Obama genuinely hated Israel. So this whole trip is a bit of a revelation for ordinary Israelis. On the other hand, I’ve run into people who were surprised President Obama took it too strong to Bibi (one conservative-leaning Israeli I just ran into suggested that Obama was interfering in Israeli politics as payback for Netanyahu’s alleged meddling in the American election).
That would be an Israeli Romney-voter perhaps, but Peter Beinart argues here that Obama’s gave “a great, even profound, speech” this time:
It was a great speech because Obama rejected the Jewish right’s endless rhetoric about Israel having “no partner.” He defended Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, and told Israelis what their own security officials know – that Palestinian leaders in the West Bank, at political risk to themselves, have in recent years helped save countless Israeli lives. It was a great speech because Obama asked Israelis to “look at the world” through the eyes of a Palestinian child who sees her parents controlled and humiliated by a foreign army. Contrast that to Benjamin Netanyahu, who when referring to the Palestinians’ “plight” and how much “they have suffered,” in his 2000 book, A Durable Peace, put those phrases in quotation marks, as if to suggest that real Palestinian suffering does not exist.
Obama told each of them that Palestinian suffering actually does exist and forget Netanyahu and be a mensch, although Yossi Klein Halevi says here that this was perhaps “the most passionate Zionist speech ever given by an American president” if you think about it:
Of course, his embrace had an explicit message for Israelis: Don’t give up on the dream of peace and don’t forget that the Palestinians deserve a state just as you do. But as the repeated ovations from the politically and culturally diverse audience revealed, these are messages that Israelis can hear when couched in affection and solidarity. After four years of missed signals, Obama finally realized that Israelis respond far more to love than to pressure.
Elliott Abrams was less impressed:
Obama was most persuasive when discussing American-Israeli bonds, and least persuasive in his descriptions of the Arab Middle East. In his remarks today he pictured an Arab world, and a Palestinian political system, yearning for peace with Israel through negotiated compromises. This ignores the vast ocean of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and the inculcation of hatred of Jews and Israel in generation after generation of Arabs – including Palestinians. And it ignores the rising tide of Islamism in the region, which threatens to engulf all those political figures who would really like a compromise peace. The Arab world Obama described is a place far more desirous of, and far closer to, peace with Israel than the one Israelis actually see around them.
Maybe so, but at least the Republican wedge is gone, and Jonathan Chait adds this:
Here is the progression of his speech. Having demonstrated empathy for Israel, Obama then asked Israelis to feel empathy for Palestinians. Of course there is only so much Obama can do. He can’t make Netanyahu negotiate peace, nor can he make Palestinians accept one. But as much as he could do with a speech, Obama did today. He probably wishes he gave it a long time ago.
That may be true, and there’s Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post with this:
Elvis Costello boycotts us; the Spanish don’t like us much. Yet we so want to be accepted, so want to be understood, so want to be loved. Given our history, who can blame us? Obama landed and showed us the love. Lots of it. The love we yearned to feel over the past four years, a period during which, at least in the beginning, the president seemed to feel that the way to move things forward in the Middle East was not by embracing Jerusalem, but by keeping it – us – at arm’s length.
Yes, even during that “it’s-okay-to-show-some-daylight-between-the-US-and-Israel” phase of his presidency, Obama continued to provide for our security in an unprecedented manner. But we were not fully, or even mostly, satisfied. Do children just want their parents to post watchmen at the doors of their house, or buy a great alarm system as they then go off and play poker with the neighborhood bullies? No, the children want their parents’ warmth, not only their provisions for security. The children need a hug.
Some will say this is a sign of Israeli immaturity – that the country needs to grow up and not yearn so for public displays of affection, that it should just be thrilled at the depth of the security ties. But Israel has a strong security relationship with other countries as well. It wants – needs – more than that from the US. What can you do – that’s who we are.
Living in a neighborhood, and even in a world, in which there are those who have not exactly accepted our right or legitimacy to be here, having the most powerful man in the world come and give us a public bear hug is very important.
And Obama gave us that.
That sort of thing drives Republicans crazy, but can be dismissed as silliness, but this can’t be dismissed:
President Obama was awarded Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction Thursday, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to receive the honor.
“This is an extraordinary honor, and I could not be more deeply moved,” Obama said at the ceremony, adding that he accepted the medal “on behalf of the American people.”
There goes the wedge. The ceremony was covered live on CNN and MSNBC. Fox News didn’t mention it. Why would they? Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it actually doesn’t pay to be devious. That wedge can turn into a wedgie.