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03.18.10

Jewish Anger at Obama

A number of powerful American Jewish leaders are upset with the president over escalating tensions between the U.S. and Israel—and may take it out on the Democrats this fall.

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses some 7,500 delegates to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Washington policy conference on Monday morning, the moment will be fraught. It’s just possible that Clinton, accustomed to being love-bombed by the powerful pro-Israel lobby’s conventioneers whenever she spoke as New York’s junior senator, will be greeted with chilly silence or, worse, scattered boos—the AIPAC membership’s angry response to the frayed and apparently deteriorating relationship between Israel and the United States.

“Man, I wouldn’t want to be Hillary Clinton going there at this point in time,” says Manhattan billionaire James S. Tisch, chief executive of Loews Corp.—the hotel, insurance and oil exploration conglomerate—and a longtime activist in Jewish causes and philanthropies. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets a ‘cold’—a diplomatic sickness.”

“I think this could really be an important point of demarcation for Jewish public opinion of the president,” Tisch says.

Martina Indyk: How to Fix Jerusalem The 57-year-old Tisch, a big-money political donor who gives to both Democrats and Republicans and supported John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, is typical of wealthy Jewish supporters of Israel, especially in New York, who are bitterly opposed to President Obama’s Middle East policies and harshly critical of the officials who are carrying them out. Tisch was one of a number of Jewish leaders interviewed by the Daily Beast who were angry at Obama—so much so that they think the issue could affect Jewish donations to Democratic candidates this fall.

But Tisch is unusual in his willingness to air his indignation in public.

“I’m outraged, but not surprised,” Tisch says about the past week’s unpleasantness, in which Vice President Joe Biden was blindsided and embarrassed during his official visit to Israel, when housing authorities there suddenly announced plans for the expansion of U.S.-opposed residential construction in the disputed Arab quarter of East Jerusalem.

Gary Bauer blasts Obama for "segregation" in the MideastDespite Binyamin Netanyahu’s sheepish apology and Biden’s gracious acceptance, Secretary Clinton phoned the Israeli prime minister last Friday to scorch him for damaging the peace process and Israel’s relations with the United States, and demand that Israel immediately rescind the new construction plans. White House adviser David Axelrod continued the public thrashing of Israel on last Sunday’s Washington talk shows, condemning our historic ally’s construction announcement as “an affront” and “an insult” to the United States.

“I don’t think he’s pro-Israel,” Tisch says, voicing the suspicions of many. “I think the president comes to this from Jeremiah Wright’s church, and there’s no doubt in my mind that in Jeremiah Wright’s church, the Palestinians were portrayed as freedom fighters and not as terrorists.”

Tisch adds the flap is bound to influence the traditionally Democratic Jewish electorate, nearly 80 percent of which voted for Obama in 2008. “Now for the first time, there are a significant number of people in the organized Jewish community that feel that the president has gone too far,” Tisch says. It will be interesting to watch “what happens to the president’s approval rating among Jewish voters. I think this could really be an important point of demarcation for Jewish public opinion of the president.”

Other wealthy Jewish New Yorkers, who are active in the pro-Israel cause as well as Democratic Party politics, agree the issue could depress Jewish support for Democrats next November.

“Obama has done zero favors for the Democratic candidates in 2010,” says a prominent Democratic fundraiser who, like most of Jewish activists who spoke for this story, was unwilling to go on the record. “I know a lot of historical Democrats who are big check-writers and even bundlers, who have told me that until things settle down they have no interest in helping any Democrats.”

Another politically active Jewish billionaire confirms this assessment. “I think anyone writing a check now is doing it with shaking fingers,” this man says. "Not only is Obama changing the nature of our relationship with Israel, he is pushing through health care legislation that will cost everybody more money, he is demonizing Wall Street and the ‘big fat cats,’ attacking people who gave a lot of money to the Democrats and their candidates for Congress and the presidential race. So this latest thing is the third strike.”

A dovish minority approves of Obama’s taking Israel to the woodshed. “I am utterly supportive of the president here,” Democratic money man Orin Kramer tells The Daily Beast’s political reporter, Benjamin Sarlin. “I think the president is on the firmest possible ground.” Former California congressman Mel Levine, an AIPAC board member, seconds Kramer’s sentiment, adding that longtime Democrats will remain loyal. “I believe that the donors will overwhelmingly stay with Obama,” Levine says. “I fear that our Israeli friends are miscalculating the reaction in the U.S., including among American Jews.”

But Abraham Foxman, national director of the influential Anti-Defamation League, is among the Jewish leaders who in the past few days have issued harsh condemnations of the Obama White House. The ADL criticized Obama’s “gross overreaction to a point of policy difference among friends,” adding that “we are shocked and stunned at the administration’s tone and public dressing down of Israel.”

“The issue here, for 78 percent of the Jews who voted for Obama, is you condemn your ally and your friend,” Foxman says. “But when Syria spits in the president’s face by continuing to back Hezbollah, we don’t say anything? I think it’s nuts.” As for Hillary Clinton, once the darling of the pro-Israel community, “she is just an employee,” Foxman says disdainfully. “She is reflecting him.”

Los Angeles billionaire and entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who over the past two decades has given tens of millions of dollars to the Democratic Party, says such comments are counterproductive, and counsels all sides to zip their lips. “I think we should stop talking about this,” says Saban, an Egyptian-born Israeli who emigrated to the United States three decades ago. “It’s a crisis. It’s a family disagreement between two great friends. Let the powers that be address whatever issues that need to be addressed in private. Israel and the United States are two staunch allies and have been so for sixty-plus years. The relationship is bigger and stronger than any one disagreement or exchange.”

Clinton’s appointed replacement in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand—a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who irked some Jewish Democrats early last year when she seemed to support Obama’s use of tough measures to pressure Israel—this week issued a statement of strong support for the Jewish state and its “unbreakable” bond with America. Gillibrand is campaigning for election his year. But former Bush administration official Dan Senor, the co-author of a book-length paean to Israeli economic ingenuity, who’s been considering jumping into the race as a Republican, sees the current controversy as an opportunity to attract cross-over Democratic support.

James Tisch expresses skepticism that an Israel-focused Senate campaign would work. “If Dan Senor is going to hang his Senate race on this issue, he might as well save everybody the grief and trouble and not run in the first place,” Tisch says.

But Senor, who is expected soon to announce whether or not he’s a candidate, sees Israel as just one of host of issues on which to base a campaign—including health care, the economy, and taxes. “Obama’s Israel policy is symptomatic of a larger criticism of Obama’s foreign policy,” says a person familiar with Senor’s thinking. “And that is, the president is downgrading our historic alliances while reaching out to our adversaries.”

That was certainly not the impression Obama gave to Jewish organizations during the presidential campaign. As the Democratic primary season came to an end, that AIPAC members cheered Clinton when she vouched for Barack Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. When Obama followed her to the podium at the Washington Convention Center, he elicited whoops of joy as he declared the security of the Jewish state “sacrosanct” and “non-negotiable” and added in a burst of mutual adoration: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.”

James Tisch, for one, took it with a grain of salt—and indeed Obama’s campaign quickly softened and fuzzed up his red-meat vow to the AIPAC faithful. “I’m from the ‘don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do’ school of politics,” Tisch says. “It’s easy in a Senate race or a presidential race to say you’re for an undivided Jerusalem, and now Hillary Clinton is going in exactly the opposite direction. Pay close attention to the AIPAC conference. This is coming up at a truly hot time.”

Benjamin Sarlin contributed to this report.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.