Barack Obama, Israel, and Rahm Emanuel’s Father’s Intemperate Remarks

America’s relationship with the world’s Muslims will be a key test of the Obama presidency.

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Today's papers bring the news that Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago congressman named to serve as President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, has had to apologize to Arab-Americans for remarks made by his father to an Israeli reporter.

"Obviously he'll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn't he?" the elder Mr. Emanuel is quoted as saying. "What is he, an Arab? He's not going to be mopping floors at the White House."

Well, as JFK said once, everybody has fathers.

The controversy over the remarks, however, has focused on whether the senior Mr. Emanuel meant to contemptuously imply that Arabs are only good for mopping floors.

I find the contrary interpretation as disturbing. Remove the phrase "What is he, an Arab?" and you're left with the assurance, made by his father, that Rahm Emanuel will be using his considerable clout to tend to Israel, at the expense of its Muslim neighbors, and perhaps at the expense of American foreign policy interests. 

As someone with a longstanding affection for Israel (as a young guy I picked avocados on a kibbutz) and a veteran observer of New York, Boston, and Chicago tribal politics—and someone who was happy to write glowing stories in the Boston Globe about Bill Clinton's efforts to settle the conflict in Northern Ireland, despite the friction that caused with our ally Britain—I understand the impulses that prompted the elder Mr. Emanuel to say what he did.

But it is one thing for you and me and Rahm's dad to tilt for Ireland or Israel over the Brits or Saudis. And quite another thing for the White House chief of staff to do so.

Steering America's relationship with the world's billion Muslims will be one of the most important foreign policy challenges of the new administration. At the very least, that relationship is now more complicated.

Not a good start, at all. Let's hope the senior Mr. Emanuel was wrong, on all counts.

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