Under better circumstances, the joke about a Jewish merchant and an angry Taliban militant told last week at a Washington think tank by National Security Adviser General James Jones might have passed as a failed, mildly offensive attempt at humor and nothing more. The stereotypes are objectionable and the punch line not clever. But the joke, told at a moment of heightened tension and mutual suspicion in the delicate relationship between the governments of Israel and the U.S., runs the risk of reinforcing all the wrong elements of the troubled relationship.
Jones' joke isn't worth repeating; suffice it to say, the Taliban militant is angry, anti-Semitic and shortsighted, and the Jewish merchant is clever and successful, and gets the best of his opponent. The crowd at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where Jones gave a pro-Israel speech on national security, laughed heartily when Jones told it. The problem is that the U.S. and Israel are in what the Israeli ambassador to Washington is reported to have recently described as the worst crisis in 30 years, driven largely by substantive differences about how to pursue peace and amplified by public distrust.
On the Israeli side, public opinion is unified by one thing: the existential fear of a rising Iranian nuclear threat. The way many Israelis see it, the Obama Administration is making no headway in curbing Iran's progress toward the ability to create nuclear weapons. Instead, they say, President Barack Obama is pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make concessions aimed at restarting a hopeless peace process with a Palestinian leadership that can't deliver an end to the conflict. And they point to Obama's outreach to the Muslim world including his Cairo speech and deferential bowing to the Saudi king as evidence that priorities are skewed at Israel's expense.
It is commonplace in Israel these days, even among educated and worldly people, to hear Obama and his aides labeled as anti-Semites. These Israelis cite Obama's association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and what they consider to be his tough approach to Israel. Netanyahu's own brother-in-law recently called Obama an anti-Semite.
Jones, the President's top foreign policy aide, has become a target for right-wing Israelis. That's because the National Security Adviser has begun to champion the idea of breaking the deadlock between Israelis and Palestinians by introducing an American plan for a two-state solution an idea opposed by most Israeli leaders. Some are unwilling to make the territorial compromises envisaged in previous peace efforts; others say such a move would require Israel to cede control of territory without getting any firm promise of security in return. And the joke last week wasn't the first time that Jones' attempt at humor had gone badly. Then, as now, the White House declined to include the faux pas in the official transcript it released. Jones' future as National Security Adviser has been the subject of speculation; he was out of the loop on national-security issues in the first year, and he has been overridden on personnel appointments from the start.
The fact that Obama and every major member of his foreign policy team have repeatedly declared America's unshakable dedication to Israel's defense and have followed through with a robust military-to-military relationship that guarantees Israel's strategic advantage over its region has not assuaged Israeli fears over Obama's intentions. Indeed, one reason Jones went to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy was to try and reassure a dedicated pro-Israel audience of the Administration's fealty to the alliance. At the heart of his speech, Jones said, "Since there has been a lot of distortion and misrepresentation of our policy recently, let me take this opportunity to address our relationship with our ally Israel. Like any two nations, we will have our disagreements, but we will always resolve them as allies. And we will never forget that since the first minutes of Israeli independence, the United States has had a special relationship with Israel. And that will not change."
But that's not the message those who distrust Obama took from Jones' speech. Anti-Defamation League President Abe Foxman focused on the joke, telling ABC News that it was "inappropriate" and "stereotypic" and "about the worst kind of joke the head of the National Security Council could have told." Jones was left trying to repair the damage. "I wish that I had not made this off-the-cuff joke at the top of my remarks, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by it," he said in a statement on Monday. "It also distracted from the larger message I carried that day: that the United States' commitment to Israel's security is sacrosanct," Jones said. Regardless of his intention, however, his speech will have already been taken by many Israelis as yet another piece of evidence supporting the fallacious charge of anti-Semitism against the Administration.