Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and the Jews
Why does America’s Jewish community always condemn the presidents who save Israel?
Barack Obama is bad for Israel, especially after the Iran nuclear deal. That is a given for many American Jews. The only American president they despise more, arguably, is Jimmy Carter, who at age 90 announced last week that he has metastasized cancer. When the 39th president leaves us, he will receive the usual glowing eulogies afforded ex-American presidents, yet many Jewish-Americans will listen through gritted teeth, recalling their strong suspicion that Carter was an anti-Semite. After all, during his long post-presidency Carter stood up for Palestinian rights with unseemly zeal, especially in his heretical 2006 book Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid.
For many American Jews, it’s hard to recall that it was also Carter who—through vision, hard work and indomitable will—forged a singular agreement that allowed Israel to keep peace with its Arab neighbors for nearly four decades and, more importantly, to use that halcyon time to advance economically and transcend the Arab nations in military and technological strength, creating a world where today Israel no longer has to fear a traditional military attack by any Arab enemy. That agreement, Carter’s 1979 Camp David accord with Egypt—one of the great triumphs of American diplomacy in the 20th century—saved Israel from the main existential threat that had shadowed the Jewish state since its founding in 1948. Does that sound like the legacy of anti-Semite?
Barack Obama, whom some American Jews also suspect is anti-Semitic, may have just saved Israel’s existence again—and as profoundly as Carter did. However flawed, compromised and uncertain in its application, the Iran deal is the only thing in the past decade that has come close to stopping Tehran’s relentless march from a few hundred centrifuges to 20,000 and counting. That path would have led ultimately to Israel’s ultimate nightmare, a Mideast nuclear arms race that brings in not only Iran but rich Arab (and Israel-hating) countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Despite a lot of bluffing over recent years about an Israeli attack against Iran, Israeli security experts know a military solution would be a meager stopgap at best, setting Iran back by only a few years, and driving its nuclear program deeper underground. The evidence that many Israelis quietly realize this—despite the incessant caterwauling of Benjamin Netanyahu—is that key members of Israel’s security establishment, the ones who would know, have tentatively backed the Iran deal or at least conceded that Israel can live with it.
Among those experts, Ami Ayalon, former head of the Shin Bet, or Israel’s top domestic security agency, who told The Washington Post that the Vienna agreement was a useful way of curbing the Iranian threat. “When negotiations began, Iran was two months away from acquiring enough material for a [nuclear] bomb. Now it will be 12 months,” Ayalon said. That view was echoed by Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Israel, former head of the military’s weapons development and technology industry administration and current head of the Israeli Space Agency, who called it “a reasonable compromise” that “distances the Iranian nuclear threat for a very long time.”
But this is, however informed, a distinctly minority view among Israelis, as well as many American Jews. Though some polls appear to show many American Jews support the deal, the perception that it is very bad for Israel and that Jews in general oppose the deal has put it in jeopardy in Congress: Democratic senate minority-leader-in-waiting Charles Schumer of New York has announced that he would vote against the agreement, and so has another Jewish Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA). Both are precisely the sort of critical Democratic votes that Obama needs to avoid an override of his inevitable veto of congressional disapproval of the deal. Obama himself has raised the stakes, coming dangerously close to accusing AIPAC, the biggest and loudest Israel lobby, of funding the main opposition against the pact. But at American University last week the president was almost apologetic for upsetting the Israelis, saying it would “be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.”
The views of American Jewry are hardly monolithic; indeed despite the things being said about him by some conservative Jews Obama continues to have a higher approval rating among American Jews than he does among the public at large. Liberal Jewish groups like J Street have added to the debate, raising serious questions about Israel’s behavior. And yet many American Jews would concede there is a hard-line orthodoxy that prevails in Washington and demands total devotion to Israel. It is one that Netanyahu exploited in March when he spoke to thundering applause in Congress about Obama’s “very bad deal,” a deal that at that point didn’t even exist. It is this hard-line lobby that writer Peter Beinart found himself permanently at odds with after he dared to argue, in his essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” in The New York Review of Books in May 2010 and later in a book, that many young, liberal American Jews are disengaging from Zionism and the pro-Israel orthodoxy in this country because they cannot support much of what Israel does.
Obama is thus only sharing the fate of most modern U.S. presidents who have dared to cross official Israeli policy—and the American Jewish community. Somehow it seems that the ones who have worked hardest to preserve Israel have managed only to earn Israeli and Jewish mistrust and contempt.
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