Ben Rhodes’s book about being President Obama’s trusted aide is out: “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.” And it’s got some juice on Israel and the lobby.
Obama wanted to talk in pretty stark and honest terms about the fact that, you know, this is an intolerable situation. And he wanted to use language
that American presidents didn’t always use, like calling the Israeli occupation an occupation. And, you know, that made certain advisers nervous, and we ended up, you know, kind of watering down language in different parts and how we talk about Israeli settlements.
Those nervous advisers prevailed, and the settlements never ended. In 2013, Obama visited Israel and flew to Ramallah, and got to see settlements choking off Palestinian villages in the West Bank. A Palestinian student confronted the president. From the Times of Israel coverage of Rhodes’s book.
The last student was visibly tense the whole way through, Rhodes recalls. And then, when his turn came, he said with force, “Mr. President, we are treated the same way the black people were treated in your country. Here, in this century.” He then paused, allowing a moment of silence to add some affect. “Funded by your government, Mr. President.”
Shortly thereafter, Obama told Rhodes, “It took a lot of guts for him to do that.”
“Well,” Rhodes said, “that makes our theory more necessary: Show Israelis you love them but also challenge them.”
Notice how neither the president nor Rhodes takes the direct lesson of that young man’s bravery. It’s just a great show.
Netanyahu, Rhodes explains, was remarkably shrewd at galvanizing the kind of pressure on Obama that made it politically unfeasible for the president to push forward on his peace plan. After Netanyahu’s Oval Office lecture to Obama in 2011, Rhodes writes that he was then “given a list of leading Jewish donors to call, to reassure them of Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides.”’
“It was far too painful to wade into these waters with no prospect of success,” he goes on, explaining the administration’s reluctance to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more of a central focus. “Netanyahu had mastered a certain kind of leverage: Using political pressure within the United States to demoralize any meaningful push for peace, just as he used settlements as a means of demoralizing Palestinians.”
Here’s a contemporary account of that famous White House lecture. Netanyahu warned Obama against pursuing peace “based on illusions.”
“While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible,” Netanyahu said, looking Obama squarely in the eye.
And the lecture worked. Again, from the Times of Israel:
the Israeli premier had used that moment, skillfully, to turn the American Jewish establishment against the American president.
“It was the perfect way to mobilize opposition to Obama among the leadership of the American Jewish community, which had internalized the vision of Israel constantly under attack,” Rhodes writes in his 422-page book.
Netanyahu used that pressure again in 2012. Obama’s most “annoyed” moment as president, Rhodes says, came when he was to speak to the Israel lobby group AIPAC. But Obama had to keep quiet about his own ideas for resolving the conflict, in order to make a “right wing” audience happy and fend off Mitt Romney’s charge that Obama had thrown Israel under the bus. Again, from the Times of Israel:
Obama asked Rhodes to edit the draft of his remarks, which was written by another speech writer on staff.
But Obama, Rhodes recalls, also wanted to vent. “This is as annoyed as I’ve been as president,” the president told him, perturbed by his inability to make his private positions public on four final-status issues in peace negations — borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees — and his need to placate the mostly right-wing crowd.
Based on the recommendation of his Middle East advisers Dennis Ross and Tom Donilon, Obama had decided to not take a public stance on the status of Jerusalem or how to resolve the refugee issue — to avoid any political fallout.
“It’s not on the level,” Rhodes said to the president of Netanyahu and AIPAC’s machinations, evoking a phrase he writes that the two used to describe “the dishonesty” they often felt they were surrounded by in Washington.
“It’s not on the level,” Obama repeated back to him. “Dealing with Bibi is like dealing with the Republicans.”
So Obama had to go right on Israel to counter Romney. Just as Bill Clinton ran to George H.W. Bush’s right on Israel and turned him into a one-term president.
And: Dennis Ross was in there pushing Obama. Ross has always been Israel’s lawyer; as Ross told an American Jewish audience, “We need to be advocates for Israel,” not for Palestinians.
We’ve said all this before. Remember that Obama demanded that the Democratic Party convention reinsert rightwing language into the platform about a Jewish Jerusalem in 2012. Convention chair Anthony Villaraigosa recalled:
The President was absolutely livid, the President wanted it back in immediately. My response to that was Great, but we got to whip it…. So I had to go up there and do what I did….
That also is about donors. Romney had just held a Sheldon Adelson fundraiser in Jerusalem and Netanyahu had virtually embraced Romney. Obama had to hold the Jewish establishment. And where were the liberals? Megadonor Haim Saban and David Cohen of Comcast holds fundraisers for the Israeli army. Gary Ginsberg of Time Warner was writing speeches for Netanyahu even as Netanyahu was leveraging the president.
(Israel’s state archivist Yaacov Lozowick demands to know whether Rhodes calls out the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese for being manipulative, and if not, why not? That’s a veiled accusation of self-hatred. Rhodes’s Jewish background is part of the book, he says his mother’s generation idealized Israel, as a focus of their Jewish identity.)