What Emanuel’s Israeli-U.S. diplomacy means for Obama
BY LYNN SWEET Twitter: @lynnsweet September 20, 2012 9:58PM
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Chicago's City Hall, Sept. 20, 2012 (photo courtesy City of Chicago/Brooke Collins
Updated: October 22, 2012 6:27AM
WASHINGTON — Mayor Rahm Emanuel met Thursday with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who delivered a message, I’m told, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not attempting to interfere in the U.S. presidential election to benefit Mitt Romney.
Emanuel and Barak — friends for some 18 years — lunched in Chicago’s City Hall and the mayor presented him with a six-pack of Chicago’s Goose Island 312 beer.
Emanuel often meets with foreign dignitaries who are in Chicago. Mayoral spokesman Sarah Hamilton said Barak and Emanuel first tried to get together six months ago, but a meeting never took place until Thursday.
The son of an Israeli American — who spent summers in Israel as a youth — Emanuel is a logical conduit. Outside of Washington, Emanuel is the figure in the Obama orbit most familiar to the Israeli government — having served as a front-and-back channel while he was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff.
Barak is in the U.S. to attend the upcoming Clinton Global Initiative and the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Hamilton said Barak called the mayor to set up the meeting and it was an “official” visit.
That being said, Barak, a former Israeli Prime Minister, came to Chicago to see Emanuel as relations between Israel and the U.S. are tense and the November election is just weeks away.
Netanyahu is seen increasingly as making provocative statements raising questions about Obama’s commitment to preventing an Iranian nuclear strike — a theme picked up by Mitt Romney —even though Obama has pledged repeatedly to never let Iran be in a position to launch a nuclear missile toward Israel.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu was seen as pressuring Obama when he said — speaking in Jerusalem — “as Iran gets closer and closer to nuclear bombs. The world tells Israel to wait, there’s still time. And I say, wait for what? Wait until when?”
He added, “Those in the international community who refuse to put a red line before Iran don’t have the moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
A pro-Romney SuperPAC, Secure America, used a clip from that Netanyahu appearance in an ad running in South Florida — a section of a battleground state with a large number of Jewish voters.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent Netanyahu a scorching letter where she wrote she was “stunned” by his remarks.
“Are you suggesting that the United States is not Israel’s closest ally and does not stand by Israel? Are you saying that Israel, under President Obama, has not received more in annual security assistance from the United States than at any time in its history, including for the Iron Dome Missile Defense System?
“As other Israelis have said, it appears that you have injected politics into one of the most profound security challenges of our time — Iran’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons. I urge you to step back and clarify your remarks so that the world sees that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel,” Boxer wrote.
Obama won more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 — and while no one expects him to hit that number again — Jewish support overall remains strong.
Tensions escalated when the Netanyahu camp complained that Obama would not meet with the prime minister while he was in the U.S. for the U.N. meeting; the White House said the two men will not be in New York at the same time.
Netanyahu revived the notion he was meddling by his decision to appear on two influential U.S. shows last Sunday — NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CNN’s “State of the Union.”
While Netanyahu said he would not be dragged into the U.S. White House contest, his protestations only fueled stories that he favored Romney — an old friend from their days as consultants in Boston.
The Barak/Emanuel meeting made news in Israel.
Haaretz reported, “At their meeting, Barak told Emanuel that Netanyahu is unapologetic for his stance on Iran, but that he has absolutely no intention to support one presidential candidate or another or get involved in any other way in the elections.”
The Times of Israel said Barak met Emanuel “to deliver a message of rapprochement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency suggested that Barak may have had his own agenda with Emanuel. “There are somewhat conflicting reports as to what Barak’s exact message was and — as they say in Chicago — who sent him. Specifically, it is unclear whether he was looking to help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or trying to undercut him,” the JTA reported.
Emanuel earlier this month resigned as a co-chair of the Obama campaign in order to raise money for the SuperPAC supporting Obama. As a presidential confidant, Emanuel doesn’t need a title to send — or receive — a message. With polls trending Obama’s way, Netanyahu may simply want to hedge his bet.