Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, cautioned against becoming obsessed with the 2016 presidential election on Monday.
“The obsession, I have to say, with the presidential election is, to me, one of the most dangerous things that is happening,” Hoenlein remarked during a forum hosted by JP Updates and moderated by New York City Councilman David Greenfield in Brooklyn. “We have nine months still to go where these issues are going to be in play. People are not talking about it. They’re not thinking about it. All they are thinking about is watching the circus of the political realm.”
Instead, Hoenlein suggested, the American Jewish community should keep an eye on President Barack Obama as he may refocus his attention, during the final year of his presidency, on the failed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
According to Hoenlein, Obama is not going to end his presidency as a lame duck, rather as an activist president “who has made clear that he has a legacy agenda that he wants to implement.” In addition to improving relations with Cuba, Hoenlein sees the president aiming to “create the predicates” for the creation of a future Palestinian state.
“I’m telling you, we’re going to all look back in a few months and say, ‘How did all of these things happen?’ The government in Washington is not stopping. They’re going ahead, and on critical issues to our future,” he alerted the crowd of 40, consisting of many local Orthodox Jewish leaders. “These issues are not going to be decisions for years. They’re going to be things that will affect your grandchildren and their grandchildren. These are decisions of generations.”
Hoenlein also addressed the U.S.-Israel relationship over the past seven years, recalling comments he had made to President Obama about creating daylight in the relationship with Israel. (According to Hoenlein, the comments published in the NY Times were leaked by the White House). “There is an important message that when the relationship with Israel is bad, the Arabs look at this and take this as a measure of the confidence they can have in their relationship,” Hoenlein explained. “They say if Israel, with the Jewish lobby and all the Jewish support, can’t rely on America, what chance do we have?”
Comparing Obama to previous Republican presidents, Hoenlein said that while Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush and George W. Bush had their moments of tension with the Israeli government and the American pro-Israel community, “nobody doubted where they stood.” Whereas with Obama, “It’s just that there’s a lack of confidence; that people aren’t sure.”
On the Iran nuclear deal, Hoenlein maintained that the campaign against the deal did not go to waste despite the outcome. “The image is created that somehow we lost on the Iran deal. It’s a lie. We won,” he said. “In the Senate, 58 voted against it. What was the vote in the House? Overwhelmingly against it. Because the president was able to pull a parliamentary maneuver, it wasn’t because he won. A majority of Americans still say this is a bad deal. So the educational efforts and all the work that people put in, one should not think that it was in vain. It accomplished something.”
Hoenlein said the next president will have to push for tougher policies and sanctions on non-nuclear areas while enforcing the nuclear deal. He also advised the Israeli government and the administration to finalize negotiations and sign the 10-year “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) security package. “I think it’s much better to do it now than wait because you never know what will come next,” he said. “But I think it has to be on the right terms. Hopefully, the United States and Israel will work together, get it done, and be able to enact it.”
Hoenlein revealed that the Conference of Presidents had invited all of the 2016 presidential candidates to a forum focused on foreign affairs. He joked that if the presidential candidates were to follow through on their promises once they’re in office, “we would have had 47 embassies in Jerusalem.”