Addressing a Feb. 22 gathering in Princeton, an editor of Commentary magazine outlined the six-year history of discord between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, but concluded that the personal enmity between the president and the Israeli prime minister has not endangered the deep relationship between their two countries.
“The infrastructure of the alliance is strong and deep in Congress — and bipartisan,” said Jonathan Tobin, senior on-line editor of the right-leaning magazine. “Support for Zionism and Israel are deeply embedded in the DNA of this country.”
As an example, he described the security cooperation between the two countries: Even as the United States was criticizing Israel during last summer’s Gaza war, the U.S. Defense Department was automatically supplying Israel with the ammunition it needed.
Tobin opened his talk at The Jewish Center by tracing the difficult relationship between two strong-minded men, neither of whom, he said, likes heeding his advisers.
Noting real disagreements over such issues as Israel’s right to build in Jerusalem neighborhoods, Tobin told the 80 attendees that the alliance between the countries they represent remains strong.
In accepting an invitation to speak to Congress on Iran sanctions on May 3 without first consulting the White House, Netanyahu made an “egregious mistake,” said Tobin.
“It allowed the Obama administration to let Netanyahu walk into a trap,” he said. By spinning Netanyahu’s address to Congress as an insult to Obama and a breach of protocol, the White House could then turn the discussion away from what Tobin called “the indefensible position of the administration against sanctions.”
Obama, he suggested, has moved far from his campaign pledge that any deal would result in the end of Iran’s nuclear program. Obama, Tobin suggested, sees the Iran negotiations “as a genuine opportunity of talking Iran out of building a bomb — but to create a new detente. He wants to bring Iran into the circle of nations.”
In the November 2013 interim agreement with Iran, Tobin said, the United States agreed to let Iran “keep its nuclear program in place, tacitly recognizing its right to enrich uranium.” The United States offered to let Iran keep several thousand centrifuges, he said.
The idea was that the restrictions put on the Iranians meant it would take them a year “to convert their program into making nuclear weapons” and that “U.S. intelligence is good enough that then sanctions or force can be applied.”
The bipartisan nature of the Iran debate, said Tobin, can be seen in the support for a congressional sanctions bill, over Obama’s objections, by NJ Sen. Robert Menendez.
“Bob Menendez thinks this is crazy — because the Iranians can’t be trusted, and our intelligence is not good in Iran,” said Tobin.
Furthermore, Tobin said, the choice to reach out to Iran is dismaying Israel’s allies, including Arab countries afraid of Iran.
Audience members expressed continuing concern about the U.S.-Israel relationship, including fear that public discussion of Israel will have a negative impact on the non-Jewish population in America.
Tobin said he regularly gets questions reflecting the worry “that non-Jews are going to wake up one day and not support Israel.” But he doesn’t see the current friction between Obama and Netanyahu as affecting the general population’s support of Israel.
“The fact is, the fissure line in terms of support of Israel is not in the non-Jewish community; it is in the Jewish community,” he said, asserting that American Jewry today has less of a sense of peoplehood and, as a result, the importance of Israel among Jews is less than it once was.
Another audience member asked about the role of the left-leaning J Street in regard to the relationship between the two countries. Labeling it “a sort of pro-Obama cheering section within the Jewish community…aligned with the political Left in Israel,” Tobin said J Street has been largely irrelevant. At the same time, he said, “I’m not from the school of thought that says J Street is the enemy. I take them at their word that they are pro-peace and pro-Israel.”
Toward the end of his talk, Tobin said his message to American Jews is that Israel still needs their help.
“Israel has real enemies,” he said. “Hamas is in control of Gaza and is still shooting missiles. Iran is still threatening Israel with annihilation.
“It’s easy to reduce the issue to two men who don’t like each other, two political parties at odds with each other,” Tobin concluded. “We need to avoid partisan traps but focus on what the issues are.”