The president’s views on Israel were forged during his time in Chicago, when he became friendly with a group of prominent Jewish Democrats that included Lester Crown, a Chicago-based industrialist, the federal judge Abner J. Mikva, and Newton N. Minow, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He came to share their approach to Israel, which involved staunch support for the Jewish state coupled with a willingness to criticize its policies.
Years later as he campaigned for president, Mr. Obama would tell a group of Jewish leaders in Cleveland that a person did not have to be pro-Likud — a conservative and hawkish party in Israel — to be pro-Israel. At a White House meeting during his first year in office, he questioned whether a stance that put “no daylight” between the United States and Israel was productive, telling a group of Jewish leaders that it had yielded no progress during the previous administration.
At the same time, Mr. Obama has sought close ties with Jewish communities during his time in office, has provided substantial military assistance to Israel and has selected Jews to serve in prominent posts in his administration, including his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now the mayor of Chicago, and Jacob J. Lew, now Treasury secretary. He was the first president to host a Passover Seder at the White House, now an annual custom. In his re-election in 2012, Mr. Obama received 70 percent of the Jewish vote.
But Mr. Obama’s decision to go to Cairo early on in his tenure — before he made a presidential visit to Jerusalem, where he had traveled as a candidate — and speak in stark terms about the pain and daily humiliations Palestinians had suffered was an indication to his critics that he would be biased against Israel in his attempts to promote a two-state solution. That sense has deepened as Mr. Obama has clashed bitterly and openly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel over the Iran accord and other issues, and as conservative Jews have increasingly lavished campaign contributions on Republicans.
Supporters of Mr. Obama say his critics have long misunderstood his views on Israel.
Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Obama Stresses Support for Israel, but Leaves Room for Dissent”, The New York Times (23 May 2015), A13.