In Tablet magazine, Jacob Sugarman writes about the president’s efforts to appease an influential former New York mayor and staunch defender of Israel:
During a fundraiser earlier this month in New York, President Barack Obama gave an improbable shout-out: “To one of the finest mayors the city has ever seen,” he said to approximately 100 well-heeled and well-fed supporters at Daniel, Chef Daniel Boulud’s eponymous four-star restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. What made the salute both “special”—as Obama put it—and unexpected was not that the nation’s first African-American commander-in-chief had playfully appropriated urban slang to address an octogenarian, but that the octogenarian in question was Ed Koch.
Only six months before, Koch’s displeasure with the president had become a national news story. On July 25, 2011, the former mayor offered his official endorsement of Republican Bob Turner for Anthony Weiner’s vacated seat in the House of Representatives following the latter’s unceremonious resignation. Despite the fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans there nearly 3 to 1 and have held the office for more than a century, Turner won the 9th District of New York in a landslide. “I didn’t know Bob Turner,” Koch would later confess. “It pissed me off that [Obama] made a demand on Israel that it go back to the peace table and accept the pre-’67 borders.” How else could a self-professed liberal have offered his support of a Tea Party member whose campaign platform included such progressive policies as cutting federal spending by 35 percent, opposing same-sex marriage, and advocating intelligent design? Koch explained: “I perceived [Obama’s] stance on Israel to be hostile. I decided we would send a message.”
The message was received. On Sept. 21, 2011, hours after delivering a speech to the United Nations general assembly in which he denounced the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood and temporarily restored the faith of Israeli loyalists across the country, Obama brokered a détente of his own with one of the Jewish state’s staunchest defenders. Their conversation, held at the New York Public Library, was frank. “He said that my voice was heard outside of New York and that he needed me,” noted the former mayor from his Manhattan office. During their talk, Obama expressed his distress that the Jewish community had grown unhappy with him. “He was surprised because he thought he was doing what they wanted,” said Koch. “I said ‘No, you’re not.’ ” Less than a week after their kibitz, Koch committed to campaign on the president’s behalf in 2012. For a man whose trademark question “How’m I doin’?” has long since fossilized, it appears that flattery—steady and effusive—heals all wounds.
It’s easy to dismiss Obama’s overtures as lip service to one of the nation’s most recognizably Jewish politicians—the political equivalent of visiting your doddering grandfather in Boca. Still, Koch’s influence is irrefutable. Just last week, Beit Morasha, the Jerusalem-based educational center, honored him for his “public service, leadership and commitment to the State of Israel and the Jewish People” during a separate dinner event at Guastavino’s, a banquet hall under the 59th Street bridge that—essentially like Koch himself—has been declared a New York City landmark. The former mayor has proven he will defend Israel against any threat, real or imagined, even if it means cutting off the schnoz of the Democratic Party to spite its face. In the deep winter of his political career, it may be the only issue on which his famously nasal voice still resonates.