Sunday, September 9, 2012

Jerusalem: Risks and Asterisks

“Jerusalem – that birthplace of all our dreams and graveyard of all our hopes” 
                                                                                - Christopher Hitchens

My uncle is one of those Jewish conservatives who is firmly convinced that Barack Obama is an anti-Semite who has it in for Israel. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, this unshakable article of faith – Obama is a Jew hater – is a favorite hobbyhorse of the Right. They have somehow managed to convince themselves that more Jews would vote Republican (and for Mitt Romney) if only they removed their blinders and recognized Obama’s obvious antipathy toward Israel.  It’s so obvious to them that it requires no evidence or explanation.  But they try anyway.  Four years ago, they insisted that President Obama was secret Muslim who was born in Kenya and was taught to hate Jews by militant leftists in places like Columbia University and Trinity Church in Chicago. That didn't work so well.  In the 2008 Presidential election, 78% of Jewish Americans voted for Obama. This time around, those same conservatives are still looking for something…anything, to back up Romney’s assertion that Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus.”   Seek and ye shall find.

For many Jewish Americans - religious or secular, republican or democrat - the security and plight of Israel is deeply important. Has the Obama administration been a strong supporter of Israel?  By any reasonable measure, it has. Since his election, Obama has provided Israel with unprecedented military aid and his administration has voted with Israel in the United Nations 100% of the time.  What about the threat of Iran, the nation posing the greatest threat to Israeli, security?  According to AIPAC Director Howard Kohrs, Obama has done more than any U.S. administration in history to pressure Tehran and keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.  But these facts don’t impress people like my uncle.  As far as they are concerned, Obama revealed his true anti-Semitic colors last Tuesday when the Democratic Party issued their official 2012 Platform on Foreign Policy.

According to one conservative commentator, the Platform was “the most radically unsupportive statement of policy on Israel by any major party since the founding of the state of Israel.”  Strong stuff!  Let’s have a look:

“President Obama and the Democratic Party maintain an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. A strong and secure Israel is vital to the United States not simply because we share strategic interests, but also because we share common values. For this reason, despite budgetary constraints, the President has worked with Congress to increase security assistance to Israel every single year since taking office, providing nearly $10 billion in the past three years. The administration has also worked to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. And we have deepened defense cooperation — including funding the Iron Dome system — to help Israel address its most pressing threats, including the growing danger posed by rockets and missiles emanating from the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. The President’s consistent support for Israel’s right to defend itself and his steadfast opposition to any attempt to delegitimize Israel on the world stage are further evidence of our enduring commitment to Israel’s security.

It is precisely because of this commitment that President Obama and the Democratic Party seek peace between Israelis and Palestinians. A just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian accord, producing two states for two peoples, would contribute to regional stability and help sustain Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. At the same time, the President has made clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met. President Obama will continue to press Arab states to reach out to Israel. We will continue to support Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have been pillars of peace and stability in the region for many years. And even as the President and the Democratic Party continue to encourage all parties to be resolute in the pursuit of peace, we will insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to existing agreements.”

Did you catch the “radically unsupportive” parts?  Me neither
But the game is a subtle one. To find the evidence of Obama’s contempt for the Jewish State, you have to read between the lines and focus on what’s NOT in theplatform.  In 2008, the Democratic Platform specifically recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital:

Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel. The parties have agreed that Jerusalem is a matter for final status negotiations. It should remain an undivided city accessible to people of all faiths

The 2012 statement, however, included no mention of Jerusalem as capital.  The Republicans pounced and their outrage machine went into overdrive.  Romney found the omission “shameful.”  Paul Ryan called it “tragic.”

Why is this omission a big deal?  Well the status of Jerusalem is certainly a big deal for Israelis. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel but is not recognized as such by the International community.  This issue has also been one of the major stumbling blocks in negotiations with Palestinians, who also claim Jerusalem as their capital.

But the show of outrage on the part of Romney and Ryan is both hypocritical and absurd for several reasons:

  • As a matter of official policy, the United States does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.  The language contained in party platforms has never made an iota of difference.  Every U.S. administration since Truman has reiterated the same position:   The final status of Jerusalem must be arrived at through negotiation.

  •  Although U.S. candidates for President frequently pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by moving its embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, no U.S. president has ever taken steps to do so.  (Despite his own promises, President Bush signed waivers 16 times to avoid moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem)

  • In 2008, the GOP platform stated:  “We support Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”  But in 2012, the  GOP abandoned this language.   Now there nothing about Jerusalem being “undivided.”   The pledge to move the embassy to Jerusalem is gone.   By weakening the language, aren’t the Republicans distancing themselves from supporting Israel?  Aren’t they undercutting Israel’s bargaining power?  Where is the outrage?    

And never missing an opportunity to overplay their hand, Republicans also complained that the 2012 Platform omitted a 2008 provision stating that Palestinian refugees should be compensated (rather than returned to Israel).  Apparently, they were unaware that in 2012, the GOP Platform also dropped this provision.

But it's not only Republicans who were upset by the Jerusalem omission. The changes to the party platform also made pro-Israel Democrats uncomfortable.  Harvard Law Professor, Alan Dershowitz, a strong supporter of both Israel and Barack Obama, found the changes to the Democratic Platform “deeply troubling.”  Significantly, what Dershowitz found troubling was not the Platform itself or anything to do with foreign policy or Obama’s support for Israel. It was the fact that omission would be exploited for partisan purposes.  In other words, it’s all about perception. Not reality.  But in the game of political theater, perception is reality.

And so, the Democrats back-pedaled.  They owned up to the faux pas and, reportedly at President Obama’s insistence, quickly restored the provision recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  Everyone happy now? Hardly
The Republicans now have even more ammunition.  They will charge the Democrats with flip-flopping.  They will say that the omission and subsequent inclusion show Obama’s support for Israel is tentative and mere pandering.  They will point out that there were democrats booing at the convention when the language was reinstated. And they will ask the question. “Why was the Jerusalem recognition taken out in the first place?”  Finally, a fair question.

But I also think there’s an easy answer.  And the answer is not that Obama is a crypto-Muslim who is out to compromise the security of Israel.  It’s the fact that the previous language, while perhaps satisfying to U.S. voters, was contradictory and incoherent.  Essentially, the position was:  “We recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital for eternity but… not really since that’s an issue to be decided by final negotiations.”   It’s nonsensical.  Since Obama is not moving the embassy to Jerusalem anytime soon (nor would Romney if elected) he may well have found repeating the same false promises to be a bad idea.  Perhaps some fool drafting the 2012 platform got the crazy idea that the platform ought to make sense for a change.   Never mind that there haven’t been any meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians for years anyway.  Palestinian militants continue to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel.  The Israelis will justifiably retaliate. Israelis and Palestinians will continue to suffer. 

But here at political conventions, we fight over the wording of promises that no one means to keep.  It's silliness.  But this is political theater and the show must go on.


1 comment:

jwharding28 said...

"As if freedom was a question of might,
As if loyalty was black and white,
You hear people say it all the time,
'my country, wrong or right."
-Jackson Browne

It's well known to anyone who pays attention to these things (I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I'm one of them) that the platforms often don't mean all that much.

I remember one particular episode in which Bob Dole actually claimed to have not read the platform document produced by his convention in 1996. What's more, there's a good chance that it was a true statement. Often, the platform is used as a sop to one faction within the party or another. I don't usually sweat these matters.

The fact that the GOP "weakened," or perhaps we can simply say, changed, their language in similar ways points to a larger, more pernicious fact. In light of Paul Ryan's rhetoric blasting Obama for ignoring a report that Ryan himself voted against, we see yet another instance in which the Republican Party has cast their own actions in a negative light when the other party has done the same, while trying to ignore their own embrace of such ideas.

Beyond the new level of cynicism achieved, if this trend continues into areas beyond a party platform, it's counterproductive. Should they manage to win the election, will the Romney Administration be able to put into action ideas that they have made less popular through their public self-rebuke?

To return to the original point of your post, the vitriol Obama elicits is impressive. Amongst many conservatives, and further, amongst many moderate Jews in my acquaitance and my circle of friends, the idea has taken root that Bibi Netanyahu speaks for all Jewry, and is to be followed. Any break from the Likud Party Line is cast as Anti-Israeli, and downright Anti-Semitic.

What does this make Shimon Peres? Or Ehud Barak? They're not Likudniks. What does this make the majority of Israelis, who according to polls think that Bibi is in too much of a rush to confront Iran militarily? Right or wrong, they're surely not all raving Anti-Semites, are they? George W. Bush's fealty to Likud did great harm to Israel's security. I have no doubt that Bush's intentions were to help, but I remain firmly convinced that it was a terrible strategic error.

But that's what's missing from today's rhetoric. Too many who find Obama's subtlety and measured responses to be misguided also assign evil intent to these policies and approaches.

Rather than accepting a simple disagreement as just that, rather than considering the possibility that Obama simply feels that announcing "red lines" publicly might be counterproductive, rather than considering the possibility that he may be relatively moderate in public but offering much stronger warnings to Iran in private, rather than accepting the policy difference as just that, and firmly supporting his opponent and leaving it at that, many, many people, including a neighbor of mine earlier today, feel it necessary and proper to denounce the President as one who, "hates Jews."

Such is the state of our political rhetoric. Thanks alot, Fox News and MSNBC...