The sources of that problem are many. In a way, history has been cruel to Obama, forcing him to succeed the wrong Bush—the one whose support for Israel, unlike that of his father, was uncritical to the point of blindness. Obama’s team has made its share of errors in the conduct of its diplomacy and in allowing misperceptions to take hold: that its tough-love approach to Israel has been all the former and none of the latter; that its demands on the Palestinians have been either negligible or nonexistent. And many Jewish voters, like those Wall Street financiers (and, to be sure, the overlap between those groups isn’t trivial) who flocked to Obama and were then chagrined when he called them out as “fat cats,” have all too often focused more on the president’s words than his deeds—and come away with the impression that he doesn’t seem to “feel Israel” in his bones.
For Obama, such assessments would be funny if they weren’t so frustrating and absurd; and for the Jews who know him best, they are simply mystifying. In the last days of the 2008 campaign, the former federal judge, White House counsel, and Obama mentor Abner Mikva quipped, “When this all is over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” And while that prediction has so far proved to be wildly over-optimistic, there is more truth in it than meets the eye.
In attempting to apply tough love to Israel, Obama is trying to make a stalwart ally see that undertaking the painful and risky compromises necessary for peace with the Palestinians is the only way to preserve the Zionist dream—which is to say a future as a state both Jewish and democratic. His role here is not that of the callous assailant but of the caring and sober brother slapping his drunken sibling: The point is not to hurt the guy but to get him to sober up.
The suspicions regarding the bone-deepness of Obama’s bond with Israel were present from the start, and always rooted in a reading of his background that was as superficial as it was misguided. Yes, he was black. Yes, his middle name was Hussein. And yes, in his time in Hyde Park, his friends included Palestinian scholars and activists, notably the historian Rashid Khalidi. But far more crucial to Obama’s makeup and rise to prominence were his ties to Chicago’s Jewish milieu, whose players, from real-estate powerhouse Penny Pritzker to billionaire investor Lester Crown, were among his chief supporters and financial patrons. In 2008—after herculean efforts by his campaign to reassure the Jewish Establishment that he was, er, kosher and stamp out the sub-rosa proliferation of the lie that he is a Muslim—he won 78 percent of the Jewish vote, four points higher than John Kerry’s total four years earlier.
This background meant that, although Obama was hardly an old hand on Israel when he became president, he was well attuned to the Jewish community and its views. “With the kind of exposure he had to Jewish backers, Jewish thinkers, in Illinois,” says deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes, “he came into office with a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and Jewish thought than, I would argue, any president in recent memory.”
Like all those presidents, Obama placed a high priority on pursuing a deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where he departed from his predecessors was on a number of premises. When there were differences between America and Israel, Obama wanted to address them: “We’re not gonna be saying one thing in public and another in private,” he told his team. And in the effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table, pressure would be applied equally to both sides.
Obama also believed that it was critical to begin the process immediately; thus on his third day in office did he name Mitchell to his post. “Our view of Bush was, yeah, Annapolis was great, but he started in his last year in office, and that was just too late,” recalls former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. “So our theory coming in was that [Obama] was gonna put his foot on the gas from day one.”
The problem with that theory was the situation on the ground: During Obama’s transition, the Israelis and the Palestinians had been at war in Gaza. So Mitchell began traveling in the region, searching for a series of measures that might change the climate sufficiently to get the two sides talking again. What he heard uniformly from the Arab states was that a halt to the construction of Israeli settlements was key. “The idea came from the Palestinians first and the rest of the Arabs second—and I mean all of them,” says Jonathan Prince, a senior State Department aide who worked with Mitchell. “We were told it was the only way to give the Palestinians political cover to get them back to the negotiating table.”