Laying the groundwork for a bold presidential bid, the young Democratic senator set up a meeting with a key leader of the Jewish community. He had won substantial Jewish support in his home state, but as a first termer, he was not yet well known nationally. Sitting down with a prominent Chicago developer, the senator averred that he hoped to make progress on the Palestinian refugee situation.

The rebuke to John F. Kennedy came instantly. Philip Klutznick told him, “If you are going to run for the presidency, and that is what you are going to say, count me out and count a lot of other people out too.” Kennedy counted Klutznick in, shortly thereafter giving a speech lavishly praising Israel and dropping the refugee question for the duration of his campaign.

Once elected, he did broach the issue during a state visit with David Ben-Gurion, and subsequently floated a plan that would allow some Palestinians to return home. The Israeli prime minister was not enthusiastic, calling the Kennedy proposal “a more serious danger to Israel’s existence than all the threats of the Arab dictators and kings.” Leaders in the American Jewish community campaigned vigorously against the initiative, which was quietly dropped. Disappointed in his effort to reach an entente with Egypt’s Nassar, Kennedy offered high-tech Hawk missiles to Israel, beginning the process of turning the United States into Israel’s chief arms supplier and laying the foundation for the present bilateral relationship.

Several wars and many billions of aid dollars later, the politics of Israel-Palestine are not exactly the same as 50 years ago but not that different either. Israel is more powerful and more dependent on American largesse. Americans are far more deeply engaged in the Middle East and for the most part are not happy about it. And American Jews still play a large, perhaps preponderant, role in Democratic Party fundraising.


On the surface, the tie between Barack Obama and Israel’s establishment supporters is warm and comfortable, as it would be for almost any major Democratic candidate. Last year the Illinois senator spoke at AIPAC’s annual conference—“a small group of friends” by his description—and described a recent trip to Israel, his ride in an IDF helicopter, the horror of Hezbollah rockets, the great threat to the United States and Israel posed by Iran. Israel was America’s “strongest ally” in the region. Obama mentioned the peace process, but assured his listeners that he would neither “drag” Israel to the negotiating table nor “dictate” what would be best for the Jewish state’s security. The speech, if not the paean to right-wing Zionism delivered by John Hagee or Dick Cheney, was still well received.

Nonetheless, there is a sense among the Jewish establishment that all is not as it seems—and if the view has not yet crystallized that Obama has a less Israelocentric perception of the Middle East than any major party nominee since Eisenhower, there is foreboding that the times are a-changin’.

That Obama has an Israel issue is not only being stressed by smear artists anonymously circulating emails that the senator is a “secret Muslim.” It’s also a worry percolating at the highest levels of the Jewish establishment. Listen to Malcolm Hoenlein, head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, at a press conference last month in Jerusalem: “All the talk about change, but without defining what the change should be, is an opening for all kinds of mischief.” It’s not Obama himself, Hoenlein assured. He has plenty of Jewish supporters and advisers. But, he added, “there is legitimate concern about the zeitgeist of the campaign.” Obama, he worried, had criticized Hillary for putting Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the list of terrorist organizations. Overall support for Israel is broad yet thin, he warned, adding that an increasing number of Americans see the Jewish state as a “dark and militaristic place.”

Israel’s former ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon added his concern, chastising Obama for failing to clarify how he would ensure Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” if elected. Abe Foxman of the Anti Defamation League called on Obama to either change the views of his pastor Jeremiah Wright (anti-Israel, Foxman says with apparent evidence) or leave his church. Thus far Obama has done neither. A confidential memo circulated inside the American Jewish Committee asserted that Obama’s Mideast views “raise questions.” Singled out as worry points were Obama’s call for diplomacy with Tehran and the fact that in 1998 he attended a dinner keynoted by the now deceased Columbia University professor Edward Said, a Palestinian whose prestige has long irritated neoconservatives. (On the Web one can find a photo of Obama, in a black shirt and sports jacket, chatting amiably with the more conventionally business-suited Columbia don.)

These sallies were couched in the always well-modulated language of the Jewish establishment, written by people inclined to persuade Obama, not criticize him. The tried and true Philip Klutznick method. Not so, however, the more polemical wings of the lobby. The neoconservative webzine American Thinker has turned unmasking what it deems Obama’s hostility to Israel into a central editorial focus. Editor Ed Lasky cautions readers not to make too much of Obama’s pro-Israel speeches. “I was there,” he wrote of the AIPAC address, “just a few yards in front of Barack Obama. His speech was desultory … lacking the spirit and energy that are … [his] trademark. He clearly seemed to be going through the motions.”

The root of the concern, echoed by The New Republic’s Marty Peretz and others, is that some members of Obama’s foreign-policy team are not full-fledged Israel partisans. Those most frequently cited are former top Carter aide Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samantha Power, and Robert Malley. The latter, who has at most a tangential tie to the campaign, was a member of Bill Clinton’s negotiating team at Camp David in 2000, who later claimed in a much-noted essay in the New York Review of Books that the famous best offer ever given to Yasser Arafat was flawed and was not even a solid offer. Power has become famous as the prize-winning author of a book on the Rwanda genocide and as an advocate of muscular “humanitarian” intervention. Brzezinski, in his late seventies, is still a Washington wise man and one of the few in the Beltway establishment to have come away from the Iraq debacle with an enhanced reputation. He and the Obama campaign say his role is minimal, though that has not stopped Alan Dershowitz from demanding that Zbig be dropped, counsel that Obama has ignored. Brzezinski draws fire because for three decades he has quietly advocated that the United States take the initiative in outlining its vision of a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, an arrangement more difficult to envision now, after Israel has moved 400,000 settlers into the West Bank, than when he first recommended it.

Malley and Brzezinski really do believe in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian mess—they aren’t merely, in the manner of the Bush administration, paying lip service to the idea while ignoring Israeli actions that effectively strangle Palestinian statehood in its cradle. Whether Obama would appoint people of like mind to key policy positions or listen to their advice is anyone’s guess. He probably has not thought much about it. Still, it is undeniable that he actually knows people who embrace the Palestinian cause: there is that dinner with Edward Said, and one of his colleagues at the University of Chicago was Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian scholar now at Columbia. This may be a first for a major party nominee.

These elements alone will probably ensure that if Obama is the nominee, Israel-Palestine will be a topic in the general election. Those already attacking his advisers—Marty Peretz, The American Thinker, the Commentary blog—will raise the volume on their efforts. Obama and his allies will initially try to deflect the blows but will eventually be forced to argue back. Jews who support a two-state-solution—who have long taken a backseat to AIPAC and the neoconservatives—will find their voices amplified through a major presidential campaign. So will Arab-Americans who support Obama. For the first time in a presidential race, the Israel-Palestine issue will consist of something other than two men squabbling over who will more rapidly overrule the State Department and absolutely positively move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A welcome corollary will be realization that there are different ways for Americans to be “pro-Israel” and push back against the view that being pro-Israel means supporting the right of the Jewish state to lord it over 5 million Palestinians in conditions increasingly seen as resembling South African apartheid. The alternative view won’t sweep the country, but it will migrate from its present home on university campuses and liberal Protestant churches into the wider body politic.

Finally will come recognition that the Israel lobby’s power to dominate the American debate is beginning to weaken. It remains considerable, but two of its pillars are cracked: the ability to successfully intimidate and the capacity to plausibly threaten a cut-off of campaign funds. Obama ignored requests of Messieurs Dershowitz and Foxman and the world didn’t stop. His internet fund-raising has already generated anxious murmurings. “It’s easier to get credit as a community if there’s a Jewish fundraising event or a bundler who is known to reach out to our community,” one Clinton backer told the Forward. “Online it’s harder.” Especially, one might add, when the new method is wildly outperforming the traditional approach.