Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, addressed the General Assembly of the Jewish federations today, and the first thing he did when he took the podium was apologize for not being Obama, who canceled his scheduled appearance in order to attend a memorial for the victims of last week’s shooting at Fort Hood. The second thing Emanuel did was remind his audience that he was born in Chicago to an Israeli father, who fought in the militant Irgun movement for Israel’s establishment, and who made sure his sons grew up loving Israel.
He then gave a 20-minute address about the urgency of getting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving, quickly, before the latest “last, best chance” to reach a real settlement evaporates. Emanuel got warm rounds of applause for talking about America’s determination to ensure Israel’s security and guarantee its long-term future, and for calling on the Palestinians to recognize Israel’s right to exist and reject political violence. Ditto for his commendation of Israel’s efforts to promote economic development in the Palestinian territories, remove checkpoints, and support the establishment of Palestinian security forces—points that echoed yesterday’s speech by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
But the applause dropped off once he started talking about Obama’s insistence that Israel halt settlement construction and fell to scattered, at best, as he warned Israel against taking any unilateral actions—prompting Emanuel, who made an early crack about name-checking Chicago every time he wanted to generate cheers, to interrupt himself. “I’m getting weaker here, guys,” he chided the crowd, drawing grudging laughs.
It’s impossible to know how much of the speech was lifted from Obama’s planned address, or whether Obama, had he spoken himself, would have made more pointed demands, or appeals for support from America’s Jews. Given the news blackout surrounding the president’s White House meeting last night with Netanyahu, it’s also impossible to know whether whatever was said there had any bearing on the talk—though Emanuel did say the meeting had been “very positive,” echoing comments Netanyahu made to Israeli reporters traveling with him today that the encounter was “very open and very warm.” We figure it’s safe to assume that the kicker, though, was certainly Emanuel’s alone: he wound up the address by saying he and his super-agent brother, Ari, plan to take their sons to Israel next year to be bar mitzvahed, and quipped that he would accept $18 checks in lieu of cheers. The 3,000 delegates laughed and clapped anyway.