Obama is blowing his legacy over Israel

Barack Obama
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
Barack Obama

Timing is everything. And President Obama has made a timing mistake that threatens to damage his legacy for many years to come.

This has already been the busiest and most tumultuous transition period in modern American history. Donald Trump has been uncharacteristically active for a President-elect, making deals with individual companies to keep jobs in the U.S., making several highly controversial cabinet choices, and continuing to tweet and speak out with brash regularity.

Of course, President Obama has been uncharacteristically active for an outgoing president too. He's breaking records for the sheer number of pardons and commuted sentences he's ordered, especially for Americans still imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. He's moving to block oil and other energy exploration in a massive swath of U.S. lands and waters. And now, the White House is announcing new sanctions and booting many Russian diplomats out of the country to retaliate against Moscow's alleged interference in the presidential election. Russia has already promised to respond with measures of its own.

This could get ugly, but each of the above actions are political positives for President Obama. They're all popular with most of the American public. As an added bonus for the Obama team and his fellow Democrats, the Russia story weakens Trump. That was clear even in the case of the usually unfiltered and sharp spoken President-elect Trump.

When asked Wednesday night about the Russian hacking and the impending Obama administration retaliation, Trump uncharacteristically couldn't say anything definitive and he almost mumbled limp responses like, "America should move on," and "Computers have complicated lives." Huh?

But here's the problem for President Obama: None of the above is going to really matter. Because none of these political point-scoring moves will stir up as much media attention, controversy, and brew such new animosity against President Obama and his administration as his decision to punish Israel at the United Nations when it allowed the Security Council to adopt a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. In short, President Obama is blowing a chance to go out of office on a popularity high.

"It's safe to say that for a tiny nation the size of New Jersey, Israel commands an unjustified amount of the world's attention. It can even be called an obsession."

Because while Putin and Russia are unpopular here, the United States remains home to the most ardent and vociferous pro-Israel supporters in the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has more positive poll numbers here than he does in Israel, and the enthusiastic response he received during his address to a Joint Session of Congress last year was no surprise.

Pro-Israel sentiment in the Republican Party has been soaring in recent decades, and while it's waning among Democrats, it's still very strong overall nationwide. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that 62 percent of Americans side with Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict, while just 15 percent side with the Palestinians.

And, most importantly, the same poll found that all major demographic and political subgroups of Americans lean toward Israel over the Palestinians. The entire U.N. affair has even convinced some vocal longtime Obama supporters to break with him publicly.

But for some reason, President Obama and his team put challenging Israel at the United Nations much higher on its list of priorities. And the White House must know that the Israel story will dominate the news cycle and the D.C. political discussion for days to come. This is a mistake that at least someone on the Obama team must have seen coming a mile away.

The losers here will be the American people, who overwhelmingly support Israel, and they remain some of the most passionate voters and campaign donors in this country. The White House's bad timing on this issue could leave Israel in a bad position and the Democratic Party in an even worse position in regions of the country where it needs to boost voter support and among major donors it needs to continue to cultivate.

It's safe to say that for a tiny nation the size of New Jersey, Israel commands an unjustified amount of the world's attention. It can even be called an obsession. It appears President Obama has made the same mistake by prioritizing his Israel policy when he could have left office with everyone remembering his furious work to free non-violent inmates, protect the environment, and hit back against an increasingly intruding Russia. But a week, a year, and even a decade from now, more people will likely remember this U.N. chicanery regarding Israel.

That's bad politics and a sure way to ruin a legacy. And no one serious thinks any of it will really advance the chances for peace in the Middle East. For President Obama and the soon-to-be former President Obama, this can't possibly have been worth it.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.