“Tell President Obama: ENOUGH,” declared the full-page ad in Monday’s New York Times. Placed there by the Emergency Committee for Israel, its text was in keeping with their new New York-focused ad campaign that commenced earlier this month. “President Obama has built a record that is not pro-Israel,” it said. It also prominently features demands related to this week’s activities at the United Nations.
It’s the sort of piece of politicking that goes barely remarked upon. But instead, the American Jewish Committee released a scathing condemnation. “AJC is a strictly non-partisan advocacy organization. But we cannot be silent. This ad is highly objectionable, indeed counter-productive, to its stated aim of supporting Israel,” said executive director David Harris. “As the U.N. session begins and high diplomatic drama is expected, to choose this moment to assail the Obama administration, when it laudably has announced its intention, come what may, to block Palestinian ambitions in the Security Council and work against a Palestinian-initiated resolution in the General Assembly, makes us wonder what are the true goals of the sponsoring group.”
Yesterday, Harris confirmed to me that his statement was highly unusual: “This is not something AJC does in a matter of course. In fact, I can’t remember the last time we responded to a full-page ad in the New York Times, and I’ve been in this position for 21 years.”
Noah Pollak, of ECI, told JTA, “David Harris says that the AJC ‘endorses policies we agree with and opposes those we don’t.’ So we at ECI were curious which of our five suggestions for President Obama Mr. Harris opposes.”
Harris argued that his objection wasn’t to the policies advocated but the timing of the advocacy. “We have been very heavily involved for months in dealing with the challenges that have all bubbled up this week at the U.N. with the Palestinian unilateral strategy,” he said. “We knew and know the essential role being played by the United States in trying to forestall this. And consequently, when I saw the ad on Monday morning, I was shocked that precisely as this critical week begins, this group chooses exactly that time to air its more general grievances about the administration’s policy on Israel. I thought that the timing could not have been worse.” He added, “It was not about partisan politics. It was simply trying to shield the key issue of this month from what I thought was an ill-advised, ill-timed assault.”
Where would he locate Gov. Rick Perry’s prominent criticisms of the administration’s Israel policy, which the Republican candidate also chose to level this week? “I don’t want to get involved and be misunderstood in what’s becoming a very fierce partisan debate over Israel and policy toward Israel,” he said, emphasizing that the AJC does not endorse (or oppose) candidates. “I welcome every candidate’s support for Israel. But in the meantime, we’ve got one president at a time. And I simply must tell you, listening to the president’s speech at the General Assembly today, it was a fine speech, and I don’t think anyone could have asked for more from that speech.
So, timing aside, he is okay with the increasing politicization of the issue? “For me, the goal has always been to try to help ensure that the U.S.-Israel relationship is a core principle of both political parties,” he said. He noted that this would not be the first (nor, he predicted, the last) presidential election in which Israel was a factor. He observed that frequently it is the challenger who attempts to outflank the incumbent on the issue, as is happening in this cycle. “Issues like the American embassy [and moving it to Jerusalem, as Perry seemed to pledge he’d do] would almost inevitably become the campaign pledge of the challenger,” Harris remembered. “And then they have to govern!” (No president has moved the embassy from Tel Aviv.)
“Our goal is to try to ensure that the Israel relationship is a bedrock value of both political parties,” Harris added. “On the other side, I think it’s healthy that the Jewish vote is seen as a vote that candidates of both parties seek. The worst thing in the world would be obscurity.”
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.