Former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes said he is disappointed in the Biden administration’s early support for pro-Israel policies but suggested that he does not think Biden officials are supportive of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a podcast conversation with anti-Zionist writer Peter Beinart posted Wednesday, Rhodes said the Biden administration is approaching Israel "in a defensive crouch," too beholden to pro-Israel forces in the United States.
"It feels like we’re in the defensive crouch," Rhodes said of the Biden administration, adding that "these issues are shaped and framed and defined from the right" and that "if you’re a mainstream Democrat not only are you expected to take a set of positions, but you are expected to apologize for the people to your left."
The Obama foreign policy hand also said he is troubled that Biden's nominee to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said she opposes the campaign to boycott Israel and supports a robust U.S.-Israel military alliance. But Rhodes and Beinart indicated the new administration—which is filled with many Obama White House veterans—may be inclined to become more adversarial with Israel over time because many of the foreign policy hands had witnessed Netanyahu's maliciousness firsthand.
"Come on, these guys were in with me, Netanyahu made our lives hell every day that he could and every one of those people in the Biden administration know that, that we were treated with no respect," Rhodes said.
He argued that Jewish advocacy organizations wage influence by withholding money to lawmakers they deem insufficiently pro-Israel, saying, "we’re never supposed to name the issue of money" due to its anti-Semitic connotations but that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation’s most influential pro-Israel group, wields influence by threatening lawmakers "that they’re going to cancel fundraisers."
The interview provides a new window into the Obama administration’s relationship with Israel and could forecast how Biden’s White House will build on those policies. The Biden administration has already pleased far-left elements of the Democratic Party by hiring Robert Malley, a longtime Israel critic who once held unauthorized negotiations with the Hamas terror group. The State Department is also rumored to be eyeing top Bernie Sanders aide Matt Duss for a job, drawing criticism from the pro-Israel community and Republicans who cite Duss's years of anti-Israel activism as troubling. Those selected for senior roles, however, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are seen as centrists who value the U.S.-Israel relationship and aim to keep it intact.
The mainstream Democratic Party’s fear of the pro-Israel community, Rhodes said, "allows this whole debate around Israel to be framed by Bibi Netanyahu, and [former Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo, and [Sen.] Tom Cotton." He expressed concerns that this "defensive crouch bleeds into" how the Biden administration approaches Iran and the Palestinians.
When negotiating the Iran deal, Rhodes said the issue of Jewish and pro-Israel money "became acute," a talking point often pushed by the anti-Israel left and those who believe Jews secretly control American foreign policy.
Rhodes said AIPAC threatened to withhold money and cancel fundraisers for Democratic lawmakers who voted for the deal. AIPAC does not donate to politicians and is officially registered as an advocacy group, not a political action committee that is permitted to funnel money to lawmakers. Critics of AIPAC routinely accuse it of leveraging Jewish and pro-Israel money to pressure lawmakers, a claim the group has denied and that others have called an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about Jewish control of politics, particularly foreign policy regarding Israel.
Rhodes also recalled that during an early Obama administration meeting about issues facing Israel, he looked around the table "and every single one of us in the meeting was Jewish or of some kind of Jewish origin like me."
"I don’t want to sound conspiratorial. I’m not trying to advance a trope," Rhodes said. "I just remember thinking, ‘What if everyone in this room was an Arab American.’"
Rhodes noted that in his meetings with outside pro-Israel advocacy groups, he would repeatedly see the same "10 to 20" individuals, whom he termed the "usual suspects."
"It’s not a conspiracy; it is what it is," he said. "They were usually coming in to represent what I already knew to be the Israeli government view in that circumstance."
Rhodes said he had a similar experience during his meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill when the Iran deal was being negotiated.
"You could tell—and again, it’s not a conspiracy because other groups do the same thing on their issues just not as effectively, frankly—but you could tell that somebody else had briefed them in most instances," Rhodes said. "Whether that was the Israeli government or their staff."