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Honey, I Shrunk the Jews!

Why did Obama send a lowly vice-presidential adviser to inform American Jewish leadership about his Iran deal?

Lee Smith
April 08, 2015
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at AIPAC, March, 2014 in Washington, DC.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at AIPAC, March, 2014 in Washington, DC.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Almost as soon as the White House reached the nuclear framework agreement with Iran, it began sending out senior administration officials to brief domestic allies and rivals in order to sell the deal. The president himself called Speaker of the House John Boehner, while National Security Adviser Susan Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power got other legislators on the phone. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz made the administration’s case for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement over the weekend on the Sunday talk shows. Guess who didn’t get briefed.

Well, not exactly. Key Jewish community leaders did get a briefing—not from the president or the secretary of state or the national security adviser, but from Joe Biden’s National Security Adviser Colin Kahl. One participant told CNN that the call went smoothly. “There were definitely pointed questions,” said the source, “but it was very respectful.”

Maybe CNN’s source was biting his tongue, or perhaps he just doesn’t get the joke. Kahl was the administration official who removed the recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel from the 2012 Democratic platform. And it was as a scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for New American Security that Kahl floated a 2013 trial balloon hinting that the administration’s policy was, contrary to President Barack Obama’s promises, not prevention of an Iranian nuclear bomb but containment and deterrence of it. As it turns out, this was the exact same policy Kahl outlined to American Jewish leaders last week, in what amounts in policy circles to a victory lap.

It’s a pretty nasty joke the White House played. But even if Kahl didn’t have a long personal history as the administration’s point man on the downgrade Israel beat, the fact that Obama sent the vice president’s aide to brief Jewish leaders on an issue of vital concern to them suggests how little the commander in chief now respects or fears the power of a community he once courted so assiduously. For instance, there was the famous 2009 conference call during which he told a gathering of community leaders that it was in the best interests of Israel as well as the United States to put some “daylight” between the White House and Jerusalem. Having been warned nearly six years ago, in person, it should hardly come as a surprise to those same American Jewish leaders that it’s now daytime.

The vanishing political import of the American Jewish community appears to have taken least some of its leaders—used to Oval Office sit-downs and plenty of concerned hand-holding—by surprise. But you can bet it didn’t take Obama six years to comprehend the political import of James Baker’s famous observation about the Jewish community’s voting patterns. If, as the former secretary of state once said, “F— the Jews; they don’t vote for us anyway,” Obama saw the flip-side of Baker’s crude insight: The president could stick it to the Jews, since they’d vote for Democrats no matter what.

Obama was able to hammer away at AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby largely because the liberal segments of the Jewish community found it convenient to believe that Obama’s target was just Benjamin Netanyahu, the stubborn and arrogant right-wing prime minister who drove decent people crazy. Sure, Bibi speaks proper English and went to MIT. But he built housing in settlements, he didn’t end the occupation, he stopped pretending to negotiate with a partner who also stopped being willing to pretend to negotiate, and then he made public his disagreement about Obama’s Iran deal, and spoke to Congress, to boot. Whatever stresses existed in the American-Israeli relationship were clearly Bibi’s fault. If he stopped being such a jerk, then good American Jewish liberals like themselves would all be eating latkes in the White House again.

What these community leaders seemed not to have fully understood is that American Jewish political power is linked not just to the financial power of Jewish donors or the influence of Jewish voters in a few key cities but more fundamentally to the strategic importance of the American-Israel relationship. What they certainly did not see is that tension with Bibi served Obama very nicely in a much bigger strategic move, which was the main aim of Obama’s Middle East policy since 2009: namely, to downgrade the U.S. alliance with Israel in order to make room for America’s new can-do regional partner, Iran.

The hardly coincidental byproduct of Obama’s dramatic and far-reaching Middle East realignment is that the American Jewish community is getting a down-grade. The irony of course is that the more distance the American Jewish community puts between themselves and the Jewish national homeland, the less they matter to anybody on either side of the American political divide or in Israel. That’s just basic political math. The fact that the American Jewish community flunked its political math test is why the White House sent Colin Kahl to deal with Jewish community leaders—as far as Obama is concerned, it’s addition by subtraction.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.