As the Obama administration presses Israel to cease settlement expansion as part of a renewed push for a Middle East peace deal—a course of action that many Israelis have interpreted as evidence of the president’s favoritism towards Palestinians—Israelis have increasingly focused their disappointment not on Obama, but rather on his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
An observant Jew with deep ties to Israel, Emanuel is viewed as something of a native son, his rise through the ranks of American politics celebrated by Israelis who reveled in details such as his childhood summers spent in Israel and his volunteer stint during the first Gulf War in an Israeli military program for civilians.
When Emanuel was tapped to be Obama’s chief of staff, a headline in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz kvelled “Obama's first pick: Israeli Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff,” while the Jewish news service JTA went with “Rahm Emanuel: attack dog, policy wonk, committed Jew.”
But in a dramatic emotional shift, Israelis have become increasingly disenchanted with Emanuel, and the disappointment is especially intense on the Israeli right, which supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his opposition to Obama’s call for ceasing settlement activity.
Israelis across the political spectrum were skeptical of Obama’s commitment to the Jewish homeland during the presidential campaign but many viewed Emanuel as a guarantor of their interests, the best hope for continuing the U.S. government’s favorable treatment of the Jewish state.
Today, however, widespread unhappiness with their treatment at the hands of the Obama administration has led to feelings of betrayal—and Emanuel is bearing the brunt of it.
In April, a hard-line Israeli Knesset member, Yaakov Katz, wrote Emanuel accusing him of “condescending” to Israelis and their leaders, and in May delivered a speech from the Knesset floor in which he blasted Obama’s demand that Israel cease settlement building. He also invited Emanuel—whom Katz has called “an Israeli Jew”—to “return to Israel” and to stay in the settlement Katz helped create.
Later, Haaretz reported that conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has feuded with Obama, has slurred both Emanuel and fellow senior adviser David Axelrod as “self-hating Jews.”
A Netanyahu spokesman denied the report, but an Israeli pollster interviewed by POLITICO said Netanyahu’s point of view is shared by many Israelis, and that resentment tends to focus more acutely on Emanuel—whose father is Israeli, and who friends and associates say maintains deep connections to the Jewish state—than Axelrod.
The hostility is not limited to the Israeli right. Haaretz—which is regarded as a more liberal newspaper and thus more likely to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt – last month caricatured Emanuel as a stern-faced, whip-bearing lion-tamer prodding the United States—represented by a compliant lion with its mouth open wide and teeth bared–to chomp on an unsuspecting Netanyahu (who appears to think the scene is part of a harmless circus trick).
Conservative Jerusalem-based blogger Ted Belman helped promote a protest of the administration’s Middle East policy two weeks ago in Chicago—the hometown of Obama, Emanuel and Axelrod—billing it as the “Rally for Israel against Rahm Emanuel and Obama's efforts to Divide Israel and Jerusalem,” with hardline Jerusalem Post editor Caroline Glickman as the keynote speaker.
At the heart of the disillusionment with Emanuel is the notion that he is both pushing the administration—and providing cover for it—to demand more concessions from Israel than from its Arab neighbors.
The very existence of that belief has been a bitter pill for the Emanuel family to swallow. The family changed its last name from “Auerbach” to “Emanuel” to honor an uncle who was killed in a clash with Arabs in pre-Israel Palestine. Emanuel’s own middle name is “Israel,” and he compiled a strong, though occasionally dovish, pro-Israel record during his three terms as a Democratic congressman.
Shortly after Obama selected Emanuel for his post, a story in the Israeli tabloid Maariv quoted his father, Benjamin Emanuel, asserting that his son "obviously … will influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."
That comment caused an outcry among Arab American groups and prompted an apology from his son.
But late last month, Benjamin Emanuel – a retired Chicago doctor who was born in Jerusalem and served in a pre-Israeli-state militant Zionist group known as the Irgun or Etzel – lashed out at Israeli treatment of his son.
"I'm simply surprised that in Israel they jump down his throat," he told a Haaretz reporter angrily—and in Hebrew.
"I love the country, my children are Zionists, they came to Israel every year, and I don't know why they're attacking Rahm. I support Netanyahu, I was a member of the Etzel," he is quoted as saying.
Asked about his comments, Benjamin Emanuel told a POLITICO reporter, “I don’t talk to journalists, I’m sorry.”
Rahm Emanuel’s office did not answer questions about the Israeli perceptions, his role in crafting Middle East policy or his connections to Israel. Instead, his spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg said in a statement, “Dr. and Mrs. Emanuel are private citizens. The Emanuel family would greatly appreciate it if reporters would respect their privacy and refrain from calling them at their home.”
There is a long history of Israeli “obsession with politicians and advisors to the U.S. presidents who are Jewish going back to Kissinger,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based pollster who during the presidential campaign conducted several surveys showing Israelis favoring Republican John McCain over Obama.
Channeling what he said are common Israeli sentiments, Barak said “we were proud that Rahm reached the top and we felt comfortable and secure that he was going to look after our interests. And now we find out that that’s not the case.”
Citing Obama’s call for Israel to cease building new settlements in Palestinian territory, Barak asserted Israelis think Emanuel “is giving Obama his Kosher stamp of approval to be tough on Israel, when they thought he was going to be there to explain our position.”
That sentiment is an unfair characterization and reflects a misunderstanding of Emanuel’s role, said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations under four presidents.
“On matters related to Israel and Middle East policy, Rahm will have a very strong voice, but he’s not the power behind the throne on foreign policy,” said Miller, who worked with Emanuel during the Clinton administration and is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The whole thing is inside Jewish baseball, and it’s not healthy. It’s symptomatic of a real dysfunction in the way some Israelis look at the world and look at America.”
Miller, who is also Jewish, is familiar with some of the pressures confronting Emanuel. In 1989, as a lead peace negotiator for then-Secretary of State James Baker, he was publicly lambasted in Israel along with two other Jewish diplomats as being “self-hating Jews.”
“This is different, though – it’s a complete misreading of Rahm. Rahm is a tough, pragmatic guy who has a real commitment to the security of Israel. His credentials on that are above reproach,” Miller said.
He attributed the Israeli scrutiny of Emanuel to widespread Israeli mistrust of Obama, differences between the two nations on how aggressively to address the Iranian nuclear threat, the president’s call for Israel to cease settlement growth and Netanyahu’s opposition to that call, combined with Emanuel’s Clinton-era experience with Netanyahu, whose aides reportedly first grew wary of Emanuel during their talks with the Palestinians at Wye Plantation in 1998 – in the midst of Netanyahu’s first stint as prime minister.
“All that has a created a perfect storm of suspicion—which has to be addressed if the administration is going to have success in the peace process—and Rahm seems to have emerged as the focal point,” Miller said.
Though presidential chiefs of staff typically have played only peripheral foreign policy roles, Emanuel is often viewed as something of a liaison between the administration and the Jewish community.
Emanuel was one of only a few aides—Axelrod was another—to attend an initially secret, closed-door meeting in the White House’s Roosevelt Room between Obama and American Jewish leaders meant to allay their growing concerns about his administration’s Israel policy.
One report of the meeting quoted Obama saying he relies on Emanuel to explain the complicated political nuances of settlement issues. Separate Israeli media reports have asserted that Emanuel, in a private conversation with an unnamed American Jewish leader in April and one with AIPAC donors in May suggested that U.S. efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions were contingent upon Israel’s willingness to make concessions in peace negotiations with Palestinians.
A White House aide suggested the reports were inaccurate, pointing to a post refuting them by staunchly pro-Israel blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, who had previously professed that he’s “known Rahm for a long time” and that his selection for the post “makes the entire Does Obama secretly hate Israel?’ conversation seem a bit ridiculous.”
In the White House-endorsed post, Goldberg wrote “I have it on good authority that Rahm told the [AIPAC] audience that Obama believes that it will be easier to enlist Arab allies in the confrontation with Iran if visible progress is made on the Palestinian front.”
That’s roughly the message that Obama delivered to the Jewish leaders at last month’s Roosevelt Room meeting, said Alan Solow, a longtime Obama ally from Chicago who attended the meeting as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Solow, who knows Emanuel from Chicago political circles, says he does not believe Emanuel will be particularly involved in crafting or advancing the administration’s Middle East policies.
The Israeli media’s characterizations of Emanuel’s role contain “a lot of speculation and opinion,” he cautioned. “That doesn’t always mean that it’s factually-based or accurate.”
Nonetheless, Solow conceded that Obama has a lot of work to do in winning over Israelis if he is to make any headway in the peace process, and he pointed to a June poll by the conservative Jerusalem Post newspaper that found only six percent of Jewish Israelis consider Obama’s views to be “pro-Israel.”
“I would doubt that Rahm would be the front person in making outreach to the Israeli citizenry,” Solow said, adding he and other American Jewish leaders urged Obama to appeal directly to Israelis much like he did to Muslims in his June address in Cairo.
Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz’s chief U.S. correspondent, said “Israel feels pretty vulnerable now” partly because of American pressure, and she conceded that Israelis may have a skewed impression of how much responsibility Emanuel bears for that pressure.
“Some of them probably get the feeling that's all he does—plotting all day against Netanyahu's government,” she said, explaining that her story late last month quoting Benjamin Emanuel puzzling over the Israeli backlash towards his son was an attempt “to try to broaden this perspective a bit” and get beyond the caricature of the White House chief of staff.
Most of the feedback after it ran from Israelis acknowledged a “better understanding of the complexity of this person,” Mozgovaya said.
But, she added, some also blasted him as a "Kapo Jew"—the name for Jewish police officers in Nazi concentration camps. “People wrote that, ‘If he wasn’t a Jew, he would be called an anti-Semite.’ So it's very personal.”