The last time Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu shared each other’s company, you could say that the encounter did not go well—if by “not well” you mean abysmally. This was on May 20, the day after Obama gave his big speech on the Arab Spring, in which he unleashed a tsunami of tsuris by endorsing the use of Israel’s 1967 borders “with mutually agreed [land] swaps” as the basis for a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Obama and Netanyahu were seated in the Oval Office for what was supposed to be one of those photo ops devoted to roasting rhetorical chestnuts about the solidity of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Instead, while Obama watched silently, looking poleaxed, Netanyahu lectured him—for seven and a half minutes, on live television—about the folly, the sheer absurdity, of suggesting Israel ever return to what he called the “indefensible” 1967 lines.
Obama was furious with Netanyahu, who in choosing to ignore the crucial qualifier about land swaps had twisted Obama’s words beyond recognition—the kind of mendacious misinterpretation that makes the presidential mental. The seniormost members of Obama’s team felt much the same. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Bill Daley, the former Mideast-peace envoy George Mitchell: All were apoplectic with the prime minister, whose behavior over the past two years had already tried their patience. “The collective view here is that he is a small-minded, fairly craven politician,” says an administration source deeply involved in its efforts to push the parties to the negotiating table. “And one who simply isn’t serious about making peace.”
But this week, when Barack and Bibi arrive in New York for the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly, they will not be going toe-to-toe but standing arm-in-arm. For months, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has been threatening to mount a bid for statehood recognition at the U.N. The Obama administration has been scrambling furiously to fashion a compromise with Abbas to forestall that application—at this writing, to no avail—and has pledged to veto the bid should it come before the Security Council.
For both Israel and the U.S., the timing could hardly be more miserable. With the Middle East apparently hurtling headlong into crisis, Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, beleaguered, and besieged: its embassy in Cairo invaded by Egyptian protesters, its relations with Turkey in tatters, its continued occupation of (and expansion of settlements within) the Palestinian territories the subject of wide international scorn. How wide? Wide enough that Abbas could credibly claim that 126 of the 193 U.N. member states support his statehood initiative. Yet despite the damage thwarting that bid might do to America’s standing in the region, the Obamans have never wavered in going balls-out for Israel.
And not for the first time, either. Again and again, when Israel has been embroiled in international dustups—over its attack last year on a flotilla filled with activists headed from Turkey to Gaza, to cite but one example—the White House has had Israel’s back. The security relationship between the countries, on everything from intelligence sharing to missile-defense development to access to top-shelf weapons, has never been more robust. And when the Cairo embassy was seized and Netanyahu called to ask for Obama’s help with rescuing the last six Israelis trapped inside the building, the president not only picked up the phone but leaned hard on the Egyptians to free those within. “It was a decisive moment,” Netanyahu recalled after the six had been freed. “Fateful, I would even say.”
All of which raises an interesting, perplexing, and suddenly quite pressing question: How, exactly, did Obama come to be portrayed, and perceived by many American Jews, as the most ardently anti-Israel president since Jimmy Carter?
This meme, of course, has been gathering steam for some time, peddled mainly by right-wing Likudophiles here and in the Holy Land. But last week, it took center stage in the special election in New York’s Ninth Congressional District, maybe the most Jewish district in the nation and one held by Democrats since 1923. When the smoke cleared, the Republican had won—and Matt Drudge was up with a headline blaring REVENGE OF THE JEWS.
Obama’s people deny up and down that the loss of a seat last occupied by Anthony Weiner portends, well, pretty much anything for 2012. But the truth is that they are worried, and worried they should be, for the signs of Obama’s slippage among Jewish voters are unmistakable. Last week, a new Gallup poll found that his approval rating in that cohort had fallen to 55 percent—a whopping 28-point drop since his inauguration. And among the high-dollar Jewish donors who were essential to fueling the great Obama money machine last time around, stories of dismay and disaffection are legion. “There’s no question,” says one of the president’s most prolific fund-raisers. “We have a big-time Jewish problem.”