Several observers were surprised last night to see Weekly Standard editor and all-around Republican macher William Kristol offer positive words for President Obama’s stances on Israel and Iran—especially given that he is one of three founding board members of the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has published advertisements and released a video in the past year taking Obama to task for, in the words of one ad, “us[ing] Israel like a punching bag.” Reached today, Kristol clarified, “In my enthusiasm to illustrate just how ineffectual J Street has been, I may have exaggerated how much Obama is now in agreement with ECI! But in any case, in a second Obama term, all bets would be off.” In response, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami, his opponent in last night’s debate (held at B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and moderated by Forward editor-in-chief Jane Eisner), questioned whether ECI isn’t just “a Republican partisan attack machine.”
In the shtetlsphere this morning, the takeway from the debate was clear: Kristol had surprised by praising Obama. “I am happy to agree with Obama to a considerable degree,” Kristol said, according to Haaretz. The Forward’s Gal Beckerman agreed, reporting that Kristol also said Obama “moved back to the center” and is “sensible.”
Over email this afternoon, Kristol clarified last night’s remarks:
I was pointing out that Obama had moved away from his 2009 J-Street-like Cairo-speech approach to the Middle East towards a more traditional mushy-liberal-sort-of-supportive-of-Israel attitude in 2012. In my enthusiasm to illustrate just how ineffectual J Street has been, I may have exaggerated how much Obama is now in agreement with ECI! But in any case, in a second Obama term, all bets would be off. So while it’s true most American voters won’t vote on Israel in November, pro-Israel voters should of course prefer [Mitt] Romney to Obama. ECI will certainly continue to make that case.
He added, “And there are, don’t forget, lots of policy questions looming in 2012, and a whole bunch of Congressional elections. So plenty for ECI to do, even though J Street is now pretty irrelevant.”
Ben-Ami offered this comment about the alleged discrepancy between Kristol’s words last night and his group’s positions. “The question is really, do they [ECI] have a substantive objection to President Obama’s policies?” he asked. “If Bill Kristol is truly in favor of a Palestinian state, a two-state solution, does believe they should give up settlements, then what’s their objection? And if they don’t, then all they are is a Republican partisan attack machine, and they should stop masquerading as a group that is concerned with the future of Israel.”
Haaretz’ Chemi Shalev found last night’s debate (which I did not attend) “civil and even friendly.” Which might be proof that our problems could be solved by putting the opposing sides in the same room … and then keeping them there.
J Street’s Ben-Ami: ‘U.S. Congressmen Live in Fear of Pro-Israeli Intimidation’ [Haaretz West of Eden]
Who Took Over Bill Kristol’s Body Last Night? [Forward Thinking]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.