Yesterday’s news that UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization—approved the Palestinian Authority’s bid for full membership and that, in turn, the Obama Administration pulled its funding (more than 20 percent of the group’s total) as required by U.S. law, was the opposite of a surprise. All had been preordained. The vote on membership was not close. The U.S. reaction was automatic. The only thing that could not have been completely predicted was just how firmly the Obama Administration executed its responsibilities. A State Department spokesperson vowed the United States’ November funding would not be forthcoming. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already labeled the Palestinians’ application “inexplicable.” “Today’s vote to grant Palestinian membership in UNESCO is no substitute for direct negotiations, but it is deeply damaging to UNESCO,” declared U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. (And yes, it’s bad for UNESCO, which is bad for everyone: Here is a helpful accounting of the ways.)
If the administration’s precise response was not totally predictable, I was particularly intrigued by how the National Jewish Democratic Council responded to the news. I sensed something boastful in a blog post that reported the news; it was headlined: “Obama Admin. Shuts Down UNESCO Funding … .” The NJDC’s Twitter was even more obvious: Of Rice’s statement, it remarked, “Well said;” not only did President Obama halt UNESCO funding, it noted: “And fast, too.”
“It’s tragic news for UNESCO, it’s a disaster for them. I wish that their leadership had found some way out of this,” NJDC President David Harris told me yesterday. “But it’s just what the administration says, just what AIPAC says—the path to peace and security is not unilateral statehood through the United Nations. It’s a widely held belief across a pretty broad political spectrum.”
… This is what puzzled me. Arguably the NJDC’s main job for the next year is to persuade Jewish voters to re-elect Obama. But issues like UNESCO are actually deceptively difficult. The administration did exactly what a Republican president would do—which isn’t all that distinguishing. A Republican seeking Jewish votes can simply ignore these things and focus instead on the things Obama did that a Republican wouldn’t, like, say, being as condemnatory of settlement-building as the administration is. He can also argue that the fact that the UNESCO vote and defunding actually came to pass is a reflection of diminished U.S. power.
Harris argued that the administration didn’t act just as an average (replacement-level, to use a sports term) administration would. “An administration could slow-walk it,” Harris argued. “I’m sure if they were hellbent on it they could find some way around it, or get the next payment out and then do something. I’m sure there are myriad choices that they have. That’s not what they’re doing. They’re immediately honoring both the spirit and the letter of the law, and they sounded this warning early and clearly. And the minute it happened, Ambassador Rice found a microphone and said this. They chose to do it loudly and quickly.”
Harris is completely right, and he was able then to reel off the litany of ways the administration has strengthened the Israeli-American relationship—increased military cooperation, funding of Iron Dome, helping save the ambassador to Egypt—that will be familiar to regulars of this discussion. But I still can’t shake the feeling that, about a year away from Election Day, the Democrats need to do more to not just defend but distinguish Obama on Israel if they want to shore up Jewish support.