high-profile critic

Obama divides Democrats by reinserting himself in the debate over Israel

Before Obama’s presidency, Democrats were largely unified in support of the Jewish state. His Iran policy created the first rift that continues to this day

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama speaks to attendees at the Obama Foundation Democracy Forum on November 03, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.

In recent weeks, former President Barack Obama has reemerged as a high-profile critic of the war between Israel and Hamas, issuing a series of increasingly pointed statements that have drawn scrutiny from pro-Israel leaders and other officials in Washington.

As he continues to speak out amid mounting Democratic divisions over Israel, Obama’s new comments are a reminder of how the tensions now roiling the party began to escalate during his time in the Oval Office — when the Iran nuclear deal became one of the most polarizing issues on Capitol Hill.

While Obama strongly condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack in a social media post two days after the massacre, he has since expressed growing skepticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza, warning in a lengthy Medium essay that “any Israeli military strategy that ignores the human costs could ultimately backfire.”

His statement, published weeks after the attack, also shared a list of suggested articles on the conflict, including a piece by his former national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, who is among a handful of former staffers publicly questioning President Joe Biden’s approach to the war.

In his most striking remarks to date, meanwhile, Obama said during a podcast interview with former White House staffers earlier this month in Chicago that the U.S. was “complicit” in perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If you want to solve the problem, then you have to take in the whole truth,” he claimed. “And you then have to admit nobody’s hands are clean, that all of us are complicit to some degree.”

Obama’s comments, which even Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, refrained from endorsing in a recent TV appearance, indicate that he is now seeking to reinsert himself into a conversation he has largely avoided since leaving office. In an email interview with Jewish Insider two years ago, for instance, Obama shied away from every question on Israel and the Middle East that had been posed to him.

It is unclear why Obama, whose office did not respond to a request for comment, has now chosen to weigh in on an issue that frequently bedeviled him and his administration. He has rarely spoken out on politically sensitive topics in the years after his presidency.

“My sense is that he’s horrified by the loss of life, under pressure from Democrats as more  progressive elements in the party press the administration to end the violence, and freer now to express views he couldn’t as president,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The thought experiment is this: If Obama were president, would his policy be as preternaturally pro-Israel as Biden’s?”

During his tenure, Middle East policy was a particularly fraught issue for Obama, who maintained a strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama’s effort to broker a nuclear agreement with Iran, a longtime backer of Hamas, was strenuously opposed by pro-Israel groups as well as leading Democratic lawmakers. In 2015, AIPAC launched a separate group, Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, to lobby exclusively against the “dangers” of the deal.

Obama maintained a hot-and-cold rapport with pro-Israel leaders who questioned his commitment to the Jewish state — even as he secured funding for Israel’s missile-defense system and signed an agreement guaranteeing $38 billion in military assistance over 10 years. “On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote,” Obama wrote in his 2021 memoir, “but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties.”

In a controversial sign-off at the end of his presidency, the Obama administration abstained from voting on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank that also referred to parts of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, as “occupied Palestinian territory.”

Biden, on the other hand, has enjoyed warmer relations with the pro-Israel community as well as Netanyahu, while facing backlash from the left over his unwavering support for Israel following Hamas’ attack.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, speculated that Obama — whose recent essay was reportedly vetted by White House aides before publication — might be engaging in a strategic effort to assist Biden as his administration urges caution amid Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

“I’m not sure why he would want to rush into this topic again, unless it’s to try to help Biden,” Ibish said in an email to JI, noting that Obama could be trying to push Biden “a little bit from the left to give him some cover as he moves the needle slightly on pressuring Israel.”

But former Obama administration staffers who are not wholly aligned with Biden’s positions may be driven by different motivations, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute. 

“Some of these former staffers believed that they were at the vanguard of some new way of thinking about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and saw the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as the pathway to creating a new equilibrium in the region and getting some of the countries to ‘share’ the region with Iran,” Katulis told JI. “What has transpired recently shows that those ideas were more delusional than realistic.”

On some level, he added, “this faction realizes that it failed to achieve some of its key goals on the Israeli-Palestinian front much in the same way that it failed to mount an effective U.S. policy response to other issues in the Middle East like Syria’s civil war, which claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.”

Speaking to former staffers in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, Obama voiced regret for his failure to resolve tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. “I look at this, and I think back, ‘What could I have done during my presidency to move this forward, as hard as I tried?’” he said. “But there’s a part of me that’s still saying, ‘Well, was there something else I could have done?’”

A pro-Israel strategist, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly, said that Obama’s approach to Israel suffered from a fundamental misunderstanding that ultimately undercut his efforts to make progress toward resolving the conflict.

“Creating distance between the United States and Israel serves the right in Israel and empowers the right in Israel — and the right uses that to to win elections,” the strategist told JI. “President Obama didn’t understand that. I think President Biden does understand that. That’s why he’s been so publicly supportive of Israel and has gotten a lot more from the Israelis than President Obama ever did.”

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