Navigate to News section

Obama and Israel: Matt Duss

Obama’s record is strong, he says, but the president needs to sell it better

Marc Tracy
September 13, 2011
President Obama last week.(Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images)
President Obama last week.(Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images)

If you’re a Scroll regular, you’ll have noticed a pet theory of mine cropping up recently. Basically, it goes like this: Obama’s handling of Israel will be a not-insignificant issue in the presidential election, not exclusively among Jews (though certainly among them), nor exclusively among Jews and Zionist Christians (though their footprint is certainly an effective force multiplier), but among everyone. What will happen, I believe, is that the Republican candidate will point to Israel (partly because he or she won’t be able to point to experience, or Al Qaeda, or Iraq, or China, or Cuba) to paint President Obama in the same colors that every Republican has painted every Democrat since the Vietnam War: weak on America’s enemies, disloyal to America’s friends, and out-of-step with American values. That Obama has done a poor job convincing Jews otherwise—as we are soon to see when Democrat David Weprin either loses or barely wins his special election against Republican Bob Turner in large part for the sin of being in the same party as Obama—will be a crucial part of the proof the GOP candidate will build.

So this week seems like a good time to talk to a few people about this. At noon, we heard from Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of the Tablet Magazine article that predicted the contours of the Weprin-Turner race, right down to Ed Koch’s involvement. Now, we speak with Matt Duss, of the Center for American Progress.

Do you think we could see Israel becoming an electoral issue beyond the Jewish vote? That it will become something of a totem, or stand-in, for Obama’s values?
I think that’s true, and that probably more importantly it’s clear that the Republicans are pumping a lot of money into making that true. Groups like [the Emergency Committee for Israel] are one example. There’s been a concerted effort to attack Obama on the Israel issue—we saw this around Netanyahu’s visit in May–going after him for supposedly being not as supportive as past presidents have.

Is it working?
When you keep repeating these things—and I think the administration has been less energetic and timely in pushing back on it than they should have been–yeah, some of it is getting some traction. Now, once they start talking about the record–the military support, the intelligence cooperation, and Israelis themselves have acknowledged that it’s deeper than it’s ever been—what you’re left with is the settlement issue, this idea that by calling on Israel to follow up on obligations which it had already made—in the Quartet road map—on a settlement freeze, the idea that simply by calling for Israel to meet its already existing commitments is preposterous.

Does the Christian right’s fervent adoption of Israel as a cause play a role?
I think it does—the whole CUFI thing [Christians United for Israel]. Over the past couple decades, we’ve been seeing a relationship, Likudniks building bridges with these very right-wing evangelical groups. Hagee being the most famous.

So it makes sense that it would become a national issue.
For obvious reasons, it’s an issue that has specific weight and has obvious resonance among the American Jewish community, but it’s more broadly an American issue—they are an ally, a democracy. I think America should have relationships with democracies and support them. But Israeli policies impact American interests, and there’s no question about that. I think it’s an issue of U.S. foreign policy, full stop.

Is Israel the clearest instance of a foreign policy issue where the Republican nominee could gain real traction?
I think Iran is another main one, and there Israel provides an entry. It’s clear that Israel, for very understandable reasons, is very concerned about Iran. But again here we come back to the significant support that Obama has given to the Iran issue. Israelis and American defense officials will only smile at you, but it’s pretty clear Stuxnet was a cooperative effort. It’s just another way to slow and frustrate the development of the program.

Look at the Iran policy. If the engagement didn’t achieve an agreement, I think they should keep that option open, because it had demonstrable consequences—with the sanctions. The pressure track is most effective when it’s combined with an offer of diplomacy at the same time, and it brought a very significant level of international focus—you even had the Chinese pulling out of some deals!

What can Obama do to shore himself up here?
There are various tactical criticisms you could make about the way he went for the settlement freeze. One thing he just really failed to do is really make a concerted effort to reach out to Israelis. I think that’s very important. There is a relationship between the Israeli people and the American people. It is very real. It’s something I would have expected he would have done, and I was disappointed. Go there, introduce himself, explain himself. He didn’t really do that. I don’t know how much of that ground he can really make up.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.