The appointment of Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff lays to rest, for now, my concerns about Obama’s future support of Israel.
Emanuel is practically an Israeli himself. His father is a pediatrician who fought in the extremist group Irgun during Israel’s war for independence. (The father made a remark in an interview with The Jerusalem Post the other day showing that he has not gotten over his anti-Arab bigotry, and the Arab-American Anti-Defamation League has properly criticized him, but that is not something the son can do much about.)
There’s no doubt of his deep Israeli roots and strong Jewish commitments. His father took their family name from a fallen Jewish fighter killed by Arabs, and took Rahm’s first name from a slain Jewish extremist. Rahm had part of his elementary education in a Jewish day school, and he sends his kids to a day school today. They belong to a Modern Orthodox shul in Chicago whose rabbi says they are “a very involved Jewish family.” On Rosh Hashanah this year Emanuel supposedly asked the rabbi for permission before he stepped out of shul to take a conference call in the middle of the financial meltdown. On religious grounds that I have discussed (“Because of the Jewish Holiday”), he got the dispensation.
He had dual citizenship but relinquished his Israeli nationality at age 18, presumably to avoid army service. But during the 1991 Gulf War, as Israel was subjected to Saddam Hussein’s missiles, Rahm was volunteering on an IDF army base repairing truck brakes. Most importantly, he has the political track record that his boss lacks: not just saying the right things about Israel but voting for them and fighting for them again and again.
Rahm is a little scary. He once shouted out a list of his political enemies, brandishing a huge knife, yelling “Dead!” after each name while repeatedly stabbing the tabletop. I wouldn’t want him over for dinner, even for noodles with only chopsticks lying by. He’s not my kind of dinner companion. He’s a noisy and openly nasty version of Karl Rove. He’s a brilliant political strategist with a take-no-prisoners style, and he’s a complete sonofabitch. But he’s our sonofabitch, and by that I mean the Jews’ and the Democrats’.
Did I mention that he was once a ballet dancer, and that he now competes in triathlons? That he went into public service but resigned the Clinton administration to make $16 million as a banker during just a few years in the business, before running for Congress in 2002? That in high school he ignored the infected middle finger of his right hand (he’d cut it severely while working at Arby’s) until half of it had to be amputated?
Maybe this is why he feels he has to give everyone the finger—figuratively speaking.
All in all, he is quite a piece of work. As I said, I wouldn’t have him to dinner (not that he’d come), but as a half-genius, half-attack dog, and wholehearted Jew running Obama’s White House, I’ll take him. His appointment is Obama’s first real act (as apart from many words) that demonstrates his commitment to Israel and his respect for Jewish opinion.
Some Chicago Jews who have known Obama for years call him the first Jewish president, an oblique reference to Bill Clinton’s designation as “the first black president,” and a direct reference to Obama’s affinity for Jews and his debt to Jewish supporters. But Clinton was not the first black president, Obama is. And whatever Obama’s relationship to Jews, the first Jewish president is a distant dream. In any case it won’t be Rahmbo.
But if the Arab lobbies are uncomfortable with him, it is unlikely that he will warm the hearts of Jewish right-wingers. He was deeply involved in bringing about the 1993 peace agreements and the famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn. He is said to be very proud of that achievement.
But will he involve himself at this point in history in exerting undue pressure on Israel? I doubt it. Tzipi Livni, who I hope will be Israel’s next leader, is in New York attending a high-level meeting called by Saudi King Abdullah. She addressed the UJA of New York and told them that Israel is not a state that puts its problems on the American table when a new administration takes office. She appreciates what George W. Bush has tried to do in the Middle East and expects it to continue.
But she also appreciates his relatively hands-off approach, and she wants that to continue too. As she told the Quartet—the European Union, Russia, the U.S., and the U.N., meeting along with Palestinian and other Arab leaders–in Sharm-el-Sheikh last week, "We don't ask you to intervene. Please, this is bilateral. We don't want you to try to bridge gaps between us. Don't put new ideas on the table. We know what we are doing, we are responsible enough. We need your help just in supporting the process according to the parameters and the provisions we all set between us."
Let’s hope that Rahmbo controls his Rambo instincts and refrains from interfering with a delicate peace process. In appointing him, Obama is trying to lay to rest, with his very first move, any remaining Jewish doubts about his commitment to Israel’s survival. In the coming months we will see whom else he appoints, and whether appearances continue to become reality.
Meanwhile, a skirmish yesterday left several Hamas militants dead after they approached the Gaza border and were fired upon by Israeli troops. There were weapons and grenades on their bodies. Hamas followed up today with six rockets aimed at Ashkelon and other centers, fortunately an unsuccessful attack. A spokesman of the Hamas military wing said, "The anger of our people and our resistance will reach everybody, God willing, and our response to the enemy will be painful, and will spill the Zionists' blood."
I for one want the situation to remain in Israeli and Palestinian hands, just as Livni does. With Benjamin Netanyahu as the only alternative to her leadership, it’s the best we can do. And I think it will be pretty good, provided outsiders—including Rahmbo and the president he’ll be working for—can provide encouragement and keep their hands off.