President Obama's support among American Jews has dropped 28 percentage points since his inauguration, and his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "started off scratchy — and went downhill from there," says John Heilemann in New York Magazine. Obama's political team is rightly worried — and a bit perplexed. Going all-out for Israel at the United Nations this week (the president has threatened a U.S. veto of a U.N.-recognized Palestinian state), "Obama is the best friend Israel has right now." Indeed, since his first day in office, Obama has been "every bit as pro-Israel as the country's own prime minister — and, if you look from the proper angle, maybe even more so." Here, an excerpt.
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... 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. ...
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. ...
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."
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