Finding Obama guilty of insufficient devotion to Israel
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
By Glenn Greenwald
(updated below - Update II - Update III)
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg conducted what he's calling an "interview" with Barack Obama regarding Israel, but it sounded much more like an inquisition. Goldberg repeatedly demanded that Obama swear his devotion to Israel and affirm prevailing orthodoxies ("I'm curious to hear you talk about the Zionist idea. Do you believe that it has justice on its side?"; "Go to the kishke question, the gut question: the idea that if Jews know that you love them, then you can say whatever you want about Israel, but if we don't know you –- Jim Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski –- then everything is suspect. There seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don’t feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it"; "Do you think that Israel is a drag on America's reputation overseas?"; "If you become President, will you denounce settlements publicly?"). Afterwards, Goldberg pronounced himself satisfied: "Obama expressed -- in twelve different ways -- his support for Israel to me."
Marty Peretz, after a telephone conversation with Obama devoted primarily to Israel, similarly clears Obama of any suspicions of disloyalty, approvingly noting that Obama "recognizes" that Israeli settlements of the West Bank are not "the core problem" for the conflict with the Palestinians (to Peretz, such settlements "are very much a side-issue"). Peretz further decrees that Obama's "exhilarating experience with American Jews and with their bonds to the dream and realities of Israel" was evident in both Goldberg's interview and in Obama's call with Peretz.
Needless to say, Obama's vows of devotion to Israel were not enough for the right-wing polemicists who endlessly play on the fears of American Jews and exploit Israel-related issues for political gain. GOP leaders in the House -- such as Minority Leader John Boehner -- issued highly inflammatory statements regarding Obama's interview with Goldberg, condemning Obama for describing Israel as a "constant sore" when, in fact, Obama used that term to describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- not Israel (that lie by Boehner and others was so severe that Goldberg, to his credit, embraced Andrew Sullivan's description of Boehner's statement as a "flat-out lie" and added that it was "mendacious, duplicitous, gross, and comically refutable").
But beyond the outright lying, right-wing condemnation of Obama's desperately pro-Israel remarks is highly revealing. David Frum complained yesterday that while Obama embraced the notion that "the Zionist idea has justice on its side," he followed that up with a "disclaimer." What was the "disclaimer" that so upset Frum? This:
OBAMA: That does not mean that I would agree with every action of the state of Israel, because it's a government and it has politicians, and as a politician myself I am deeply mindful that we are imperfect creatures and don’t always act with justice uppermost on our minds.
Hideous! We can't have an American President who reserves the right to do something other than "agree with every action of the state of Israel." Frum generously declares that Obama is not anti-semitic, but finds him guilty of being "cavalier with Israel's security" (this blogger pronounces Frum correct and adds this "condemnation" of Obama: "I do not believe that the man hates Israel, but he doesn't love it either").
All of this is grounded in the unexamined premise that failure to love Israel with sufficient passion or to be sufficiently devoted to its interests ought to be disqualifying by itself -- presumably since, as everyone knows, the Founders intended the first obligation of the U.S. President to be to preserve Israel's security, just as George Washington said in his farewell address:
In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.
As is typical for neoconservatives of Frum's strain, he pretends that he is some sort of spokesman for "pro-Israel" voters generally, notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of American Jews (and even large numbers of Israelis) reject Frum's core political beliefs about the Middle East. Says Frum:
Obama's declared position on Israel fails to reassure friends of Israel because it is so incongruous with the other things he says and thinks . . . He may consider himself Israel's friend. But he will be a dangerous friend -- made all the more dangerous by the reluctance of many in the pro-Israel community to ask searching questions of this supremely evasive politician.
Frum's conceit in thinking that he speaks for "friends of Israel" is manifest. A recent Gallup poll found that among American Jewish voters, Obama destroys McCain (61-32%), virtually the same margin by which they would favor Clinton over McCain (65-27%). The neoconservative views of Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, are representative only of a small minority of American Jews, just as they are representative only of a small minority of Americans generally. He doesn't speak in any way for "friends of Israel," and virtually nothing that he and his comrades favor have been "good for Israel" in any meaningful sense.
But what's most striking about the reaction is how explicit this strain of neocons has become about the fact that being "pro-Israel" is their overriding political concern. It also reveals, yet again, that there is no issue that permits less free debate than ones related to Israel.
Barack Obama runs around proclaiming his devotion to this other country; virtually wraps himself in its flag; vows to shun its enemies (who are not our enemies); is forced ritualistically to "express -- in twelve different ways -- his support for Israel" to the likes of Israel-centric war supporters like Jeffrey Goldberg and Marty Peretz; tells Palestinians to their faces that -- to use his words -- "if you're waiting for America to distance itself from Israel, you are delusional"; affirms every one-sided piety applied to Israel-related issues; has compiled large numbers of prominent Jewish supporters for whom Israel is a top, if not the top, issue; and still . . . the dominant narrative among neocons and in the establishment media is that, deep down in his heart, he may be insufficiently devoted to Israel to be President of the United States. Has there ever been another country to which American politicians were required to pledge their uncritical, absolute loyalty the way they are, now, with Israel?
UPDATE: As I noted recently, Dwight Eisenhower, when he was running for re-election in 1956 and simultaneously trying to contain growing instability in the Middle East as a result of tensions between Israel and its neighbors, wrote a letter to an adviser as follows:
Of course, nothing in the region would be so difficult to solve except for the underlying cause of the unrest and dissension that exists there -- that is, the Arab-Israel quarrel. This quarrel seems to have no limit in either intensity or in scope. Everybody in the Moslem and Jewish worlds is affected by it. It is so intense that the second any action is taken against one Arab state, by an outsider, all the other Arab and Moslem states seem to regard it as a Jewish plot and react violently. All this complicates the situation enormously.
As we began to uncover evidence that something was building up in Israel, we demanded pledges from Ben-Gurion that he would keep the peace. We realized that he might think he could take advantage of this country because of the approaching election and because of the importance that so many politicians in the past have attached to our Jewish vote. I gave strict orders to the State Department that they should inform Israel that we would handle our affairs exactly as though we didn't have a Jew in America. The welfare and best interests of our own country were to be the sole criteria on which we operated.
Back then, telling Israel that "the welfare and best interests of our own country were to be the sole criteria on which we operated" -- and that "we would handle our affairs exactly as though we didn't have a Jew in America" -- was likely an uncontroversial sentiment. Today, if an American politician said anything remotely like that -- that when formulating foreign policy in the Middle East, American interests would take precedence over Israel's -- how many seconds would elapse before the full-scale and permanent destruction of their political career was complete?
UPDATE II: As several commenters noted -- and as this 2003 Salon article by Michelle Goldberg and this 2003 Nation article by John Nichols document -- these "anti-Israel/anti-Jewish" slurs being hurled at Obama are quite reminiscent of similarly ugly slurs used to demonize Howard Dean. Dean's "anti-Israel" crimes were grounded in the slightest semantic deviations from neocon language codes (i.e., arguing that we should be "even-handed" in the Middle East and that West Bank settlements must be removed to achieve peace). From those symbolic rhetorical "transgressions," Dean was successfully depicted as "hostile" to Israel and suspicious to Jewish voters (despite the fact that his campaign chairman was a former AIPAC Chairman, his wife is Jewish and his children were raised as Jews).
What is most striking is that most of the Prohibited Views are held by the majority of the American public, which believes (.pdf), for instance, that the U.S. should withhold aid to Israel if it resists American pressure to resolve the Palestinian dispute (65%) and that the U.S. should not favor either side in the conflict (73%). As Pew's Andrew Kohut put it after surveying polling data: "average Americans see shades of gray in the Middle East conflict, and their sympathies notwithstanding, they favor a neutral role for the United States" (h/t M&W). Ample polling data from recent years supports similar conclusions about public opinion on these issues.
Yet no politician dares to express these majoritarian views. Right-wing neocons with clearly fringe views have succeeded in making the mainstream views -- the ones held by most Americans -- off-limits to mainstream political leaders, upon pain of being subjected to the sorts of toxic "anti-Israel" accusations of the kind now being baselessly directed at Obama.
UPDATE III: An email correspondent who is well-versed in all matters Israel writes to say that I'm being unduly harsh towards Goldberg (because he conducted a pro-Obama interview designed to elicit answers that would resolve these slurs) and towards Obama (because he actually made many arguments that deviated from standard AIPAC cant, albeit in a way that, as is Obama's wont, was politically shrewd). Those interested can read his thoughtful email here.
Just to be clear: I don't have any problem with Goldberg aggressively questioning Obama on Israel or any other topic of significance. But what Goldberg did struck me more as a ritualistic demand for fealty pledges than it did an actual "interview," but my email correspondent argues otherwise.
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