Jeffrey Goldberg‘s interview with Barack Obama on Israel has drawn a lot of attention, with Republicans making an issue out of his statement, “I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy.” I actually wouldn’t make too much of that, because it’s clear from the context that he meant the Arab-Israeli conflict infects all our foreign policy, not the nation of Israel, but Michael Goldfarb is right that Obama’s statement, even giving him the benefit of the doubt.
But what I found particularly troubling were that his answers were bizarrely abstract to the point of being evasive. When asked, “Do you think that justice is still on Israel’s side?” It would have been easy for Obama to just say, “absolutely,” but instead, he said, “I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea…” The question was whether it was still just, and Obama couldn’t bring himself to say that justice is still on Israel’s side, instead he had to talk about the nation conceptually. Lest he offend liberals by even acknowledging in an abstract sense that the “idea” of Israel was just, Obama is sure to follow up with, “That does not mean that I would agree with every action of the state of Israel…” This suggests that he likes Israel in theory, but not in practice.
Later in the interview, Obama offers another bouquet to liberals when he says, “some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I’m not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that’s the safest ground politically.”
The problem is that without explaining what actions of Israel he doesn’t agree with, and what positions he considers too hawkish, his statements are pretty meaningless.
I also found the interview quite patronizing, when he starts mentioning the author Philip Roth, and utters the classic, “I’ve got all these Jewish friends.” His reaction to the Hamas endorsement was also quite bizarre, he understood why the endorsed him, and doesn’t seem particularly outraged by the idea that a terrorist group would get behind him. He also says, “I welcome the Muslim world’s accurate perception that I am interested in opening up dialogue and interested in moving away from the unilateral policies of George Bush but nobody should mistake that for a softer stance when it comes to terrorism or when it comes to protecting Israel’s security or making sure that the alliance is strong and firm.” So why should there be any surprise that Hamas thinks he is willing to deal with them once the dust clears?
With all of that said, my sense is that Obama will continue to have problems with the pro-Israel community, but will still win Jewish voters in general. The truth is that the issue of Israel is pretty low on the list of priorities for most Jews, especially younger Jews. Unfortunately, Jews are still overwhelmingly ideologically liberal, so to the extent that they do care about Israel, they can be bought off pretty easily with vague statements such as,”You will not see, under my presidency, any slackening in commitment to Israel’s security.” The only question for me is how much McCain can eat into the typical Democratic margin among Jews in Florida, who tend to be older, especially given his links to Jeremiah Wright, who is tight with Louis Farrakhan.