Banksy mural, Bethlehem

With the 2012 Presidential campaign already underway, conventional wisdom dictates that Barack Obama will steer clear of any controversy regarding Israel. Well, he certainly surprised us all this week. Obama himself has remained largely aloof from the Middle East. But key members of his administration have churned up a surprising amount of controversy.

It all began with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton decrying the ongoing attacks on democracy in Israel. In keeping with her preference to focus on women’s issues, Clinton criticized the gender segregation on some buses in Israel (actions which directly contravene a decision by the High Court in Israel) and the practice of religious Israeli soldiers boycotting or leaving events where women sing (something, one should note, that is popular among some conservative Muslims, but has no precedent in Judaism.)

But Clinton focused particularly on the Knesset bills seeking to limit funding to peace and human rights Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Israel. This was not a surprise, as she had also directed the US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, to deliver a message of concern about this matter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Next up was Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who told an audience at the Brookings Institution that Israel needs to “get to the damn table.” While Panetta was no doubt voicing the administration’s frustration at both sides over the lack of any discussions to prop up the comatose “peace process,” the statement was made in answer to “what should Israel do now?” and was clearly directed at Netanyahu.

The Israeli Prime Minister has repeatedly stated that Israel is ready to “commence talks with the Palestinians with no pre-conditions,” a mantra that sounds good, but is, in reality, the worst kind of doublespeak.

When Bibi says “no preconditions” he means that he is calling for the Palestinians to continue talking while settlements expand. That is something that both Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas did for years. However, it is no longer a politically viable option for the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu also means that any discussions will take place independently of all talks that have preceded them, and that the basis for the conversation, which has always been the provisional borders that existed around Israel before it captured the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in 1967, is gone. Those are, in fact, preconditions which Netanyahu can present as “no preconditions.”

Secretary Panetta was calling that out, and he was doing so at a forum held not only at the Saban Center in Washington, but hosted by Haim Saban, the wealthy benefactor who is a key Obama supporter, but whose support for Obama has come into question in the past year.

The last piece of this puzzle came to light over the weekend. Howard Gutman, the US Ambassador to Belgium, who is not only Jewish but also a key figure in both the American Jewish community and in President Obama’s political machine, came under fire for stating an obvious truth: that anti-Semitism is enflamed by the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Gutman’s words were badly distorted by the Israeli media outlet YNet (a distortion which the usually superior Haaretz cluelessly reprinted) and picked up by the usual charlatans on the right, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Orwellian-named Emergency Committee for Israel, and frightening Republican candidates for President, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Still, Ambassador Gutman knew very well he was making a controversial statement, as he opened his speech by preparing the crowd for what they did not expect to hear. He said that, while there remains classical anti-Semitism that uses Israel as cover for racism, there is also hatred of Jews that can be mitigated by resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict.

As The Forward’s JJ Goldberg pointed out, the Jewish People’s Policy Institute (created by the Jewish Agency) has long been stating this very same point, and the Israel Defense Ministry has been addressing this very question for at least two decades. Still, in the small-minded discourse that reigns supreme in the US, Gutman’s statement is seen as controversial, and he knew it would be.

What’s going on here? Panetta, Clinton and Gutman are all very well versed in the politics of Israel, and the US Jewish community. This cannot be explained as a gaffe from any of them, much less all three. This is election season. The incumbent, especially one who has seen his popularity plummet during his first term, isn’t supposed to stir up the Israel Lobby.

We may, at last, be witnessing the effects of the louder voice of the Jewish majority in the United States. Most Jews have never supported lockstep US support of any and all Israeli policies. Most US Jews have been distinctly uncomfortable with Operation Cast Lead, the ongoing siege of Gaza, the raid on the Mavi Marmara, the increasing attacks on Israel’s own peace and human rights groups, Netanyahu’s arrogant behavior to the United States, and his hostility to the peace process.

It seems that Barack Obama is taking a chance, and trying to court the majority opinion of American Jewry.The American leader is trying to discover whether that majority is really enough.On the one hand, despite the disappointment that most of Obama’s supporters in 2008 feel, the Republican frontrunners are not particularly strong candidates. Perhaps there is a little more boldness in the White House than we are accustomed to seeing.

On the other hand, the question has never been about the views of most US Jews, who generally dislike the Israeli settlement project, who believe the US ought to look out for its own interests before those of Israel, and who recognize that Palestinians are entitled to equal civil rights. It’s always been about the reactionary minority that puts their money into political action on Israel. Those folks just love Bibi, and his right-wing allies.

Or do they? It’s no small matter that Leon Panetta’s words were spoken in the presence of a key Obama supporter, Haim Saban. It is also noteworthy that President Obama will soon be speaking to a key audience of Reform Jews, and that the annual Hanukah gala at the White House is right around the corner. Barack Obama is trying to see if there is enough money and political clout in the US Jewish community to overcome the rightwing radicals who wrongly claim ownership of the Israel portfolio, and who have severely distorted US policy towards the Mideast.

It’s probably too late for a two-state solution. But maybe, just maybe, we’rere beginning to see a shift in American politics that might lead to a more productive peacemaking role for the United States. When it comes to US foreign policy, nothing is more overdue.

Photograph courtesy of Magne. Published under a Creative Commons license.