President Barack Obama's relationship with Israel is garnering a warm assessment from an unlikely source: William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard who just two years ago started a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel.
“I've been mostly supportive of the Obama administration in the last couple of years,” Kristol told an audience at a synogogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side on Tuesday evening. He said since the first months of the Obama presidency, the administration has “toughened up” and moved to the center.
“I think President Obama has moved sufficiently on these issues from the Cairo speech in 2009 to the AIPAC speech of two months ago, that the difference between the parties is less than it was,” Kristol said. “I don't think, practically speaking, in this election campaign it's going to be that big an issue."
This, from the man whose group released a 30-minute internet video in March, complete with attack ad motifs of gray-shaded close-ups and a booming narrator. It's called Daylight: The Story of Obama and Israel, and the YouTube cutline reads simply: “Barack Obama ran for president as a pro-Israel candidate — but his record tells a different story.”
On Tuesday, Kristol noted that the video was produced before the president's speech at AIPAC that he now praises, and if he had it to do again, “we might acknowledge the movement” from the president.
Kristol appeared in Manhattan to debate Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton administration advisor and the president of J Street, a group founded in 2008 as an alternative lobby for supporters of a two-state solution who advocate a more critical stance on Israeli policy.
“It's time for us as an international community to call the bluff of both sides and say if you are really serious about bringing an end to this conflict, we all know what it takes. We all know what a two-state solution looks like,” Ben-Ami told the audience. “That's the kind of active diplomatic leadership I would like to see the president of the United States take.”
Upon hearing Kristol's praise for the president, Ben-Ami asked whether Kristol's group would commit to not running critical ads of the president's position on Israel. Kristol declined, but he told WNYC that the group may just concentrate its spending in races further down the ticket.
“We're trying to decide,” Kristol said. “We've put out a fair amount on President Obama and some of the mistakes that we think he's made in the past, but it may be that we focus on Congressional races.”
The Emergency Committee for Israel ran ads in the final days of the midterm elections, targeting Democratic incumbent Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Senate candidate Joe Sestak. Ben-Ami said those and other ads like them have a chilling effect on debate in Washington.
“We have won the war. Ninety-nine percent of the members of the Senate and the House believe deeply in the U.S.-Israel relationship. That has been established,” Ben-Ami said. “But when it comes to a sensible, nuanced, rational discussion of what is actually in the United States' best interest and Israel's best interest, many members of Congress and the Senate do keep quiet because are worried about what the ramifications will be of speaking out.”
Kristol defended his group's tactics, in elections and in response to groups like J Street, and he took some credit for shifting the debate about Middle East policy back his way.
“They circulate letters which they get some members of Congress to sign, and we criticize those members of Congress for signing those letters,” he said. “I think we have done some good in actually energizing the pro-Israel community, and in not making it seem like all the momentum was on one side, that the entire Jewish committee and other parts of the American political community more broadly were all moving in the direction of the J Street point of view.”
Kristol called J Street's efforts “impressive," but he ended his praise with this wish: “I hope the organization continues to flourish and to have no effect on actual U.S. policy”