Thomas Friedman misses the mark.
By Ted Belman
A number of people have asked me what I think of Tom Friedman’s piece Obama and the Jews in the New York Times. Underlying his opinion is the belief that forcing Israel to capitulate, will make America stronger. I beg to differ.
Pssst. Have you heard? I have. I heard that Barack Obama said that not only must Israel be secure, but that any peace agreement “must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people.” Yikes!
Pssst. Have you heard? I have. I heard that Barack Obama once said “the establishment of the state of Palestine is long overdue. The Palestinian people deserve it.” Yikes! Yikes! Yikes!
Those are the kind of rumors one can hear circulating among American Jews these days about whether Barack Obama harbors secret pro-Palestinian leanings. I confess: All of the above phrases are accurate. I did not make them up.
There’s just one thing: None of them were uttered by Barack Obama. They are all direct quotes from President George W. Bush in the last two years. Mr. Bush, long hailed as a true friend of Israel, said all those things.
What does that tell you? It tells me several things. The first is that America today has — rightly — a bipartisan approach to Arab-Israeli peace that is not going to change no matter who becomes our next president. America, whether under a Republican or Democratic administration, is now committed to a two-state solution in which the Palestinians get back the West Bank, Gaza and Arab parts of East Jerusalem, and Israel gives back most of the settlements in the West Bank, offsetting those it does not evacuate with land from Israel.
The notion that a President Barack Obama would have a desire or ability to walk away from this consensus American position is ludicrous. But given the simmering controversy over whether Mr. Obama is “good for Israel,” it’s worth exploring this question: What really makes a pro-Israel president?
In the broadest sense the American consensus favours a two-state solution. I agree that no candidate is thinking of departing from that position. But Obama would be more inclined to push Israel to make concessions. That’s what his entire foreign policy team wants and what J Street wants. Bush, and I believe McCain, hasn’t and won’t, respectively, pressure Israel to make concessions. In fact I don’t believe Bush ever took the peace process seriously and in fact is more concerned with stopping Iran then pushing Israel. He needs Israel to be strong to ally with the US in fighting Iran and its proxies.
Friedman asks what makes a pro-Israel president. J Street recently engaged this issue also and argued,
But unquestioning encouragement for short-sighted Israeli policies such as expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank isn’t real friendship. (Would a true friend not only let you drive home drunk but offer you their Porsche and a shot of tequila for the road?) Israel needs real friends, not enablers. And forging a healthy friendship with Israel requires bursting some myths about what it means to be pro-Israel.
The best gift that Israel’s friends here could give this gallant, embattled democracy on its milestone birthday would be returning the United States to its leading role in active diplomacy to end the conflicts in the Middle East — and help a secure, thriving Israel find a permanent, accepted home among the community of nations.
Since Bush did not press Israel to make concession and always took the position that he wouldn’t, “active diplomacy” means doing so even if the majority of Israelis and the Government of Israel doesn’t want the pressure. This is Obama’s definition of being pro-Israel. Obama will be tougher on and more demanding of Israel. He already has said that the settlements are a “constant sore”.
Personally, as an American Jew, I don’t vote for president on the basis of who will be the strongest supporter of Israel. I vote for who will make America strongest.
Obviously the Left and Right differ on what makes America stronger. The Left want America to make nice whereas the Right wants America to make war. The left wants Israel to make the necessary concessions for peace so it won’t be a drag on America. The right want Israel to make fewer concessions, if any, thereby viewing a strong ally as making America stronger. The Left views Israel’s “occupation” as the problem whereas the Right views Arab rejectionism as the problem
But what matters a lot more is that under Mr. Bush, America today is neither feared nor respected nor liked in the Middle East, and that his lack of an energy policy for seven years has left Israel’s enemies and America’s enemies — the petro-dictators and the terrorists they support — stronger than ever. The rise of Iran as a threat to Israel today is directly related to Mr. Bush’s failure to succeed in Iraq and to develop alternatives to oil.
This is absolutely true. Note, it has nothing to do with the Arab/Israel conflict or the settlement thereof.
Does that mean Mr. Obama would automatically do better? I don’t know. To me, U.S. presidents succeed or fail when it comes to Arab-Israeli diplomacy depending on two criteria that have little to do with what’s in their hearts.
The first, and most important, is the situation on the ground and the readiness of the parties themselves to take the lead, irrespective of what America is doing. Anwar Sadat’s heroic overture to Israel, and Menachem Begin’s response, made the Jimmy Carter-engineered Camp David peace treaty possible. The painful, post-1973 war stalemate between Israel and Egypt and Syria made Henry Kissinger’s disengagement agreements possible. The collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s defeat of Iraq in the first gulf war made possible James Baker’s success in putting the Madrid peace process together.
What all three of these U.S. statesmen had in common, though — and this is the second criterion — was that when history gave them an opening, they seized it, by being tough, cunning and fair with both sides.
Friedman is arguing that the US must force a settlement. Begin was forced to concede every inch and Shamir was forced to come to Madrid. In all cases going back to Eisenhower, the US has had a policy of shrinking Israel back to size. At least he acknowledges that the parties have to take the lead which at the moment is not happening. Had America taken the position that after the ’67 war that it was going to leave it to the parties to work it out or had not adopted Arafat as their own and saved him from Beirut and insisted he be returned to Judea and Samaria from Tunisia there would be peace today. Who says America knows best.
I don’t want a president who is just going to lean on Israel and not get in the Arabs’ face too, or one who, as the former Mideast negotiator Aaron D. Miller puts it, “loves Israel to death” — by not drawing red lines when Israel does reckless things that are also not in America’s interest, like building settlements all over the West Bank.
The day that America get’s “in the Arab face too” when it comes to the Palestinians will be the day indeed. There he goes, its the settlement thing again. The “occupation” is legal and the settlements are legal. Let’s start from there.
It’s a tricky business. But if Israel is your voting priority, then at least ask the right questions about Mr. Obama. Knock off the churlish whispering campaign about what’s in his heart on Israel (what was in Richard Nixon’s heart?) and focus first on what kind of America you think he’d build and second on whether you believe that as president he’d have the smarts, steel and cunning to seize a historic opportunity if it arises.
What “churlish whispering campaign”? What I see is a marshalling of the facts of Obama’s past associations, his current policy team and his words in order to assist in informed decision-making by the electorate.
Now Friedland has proceeded on the basis of what makes America strong also makes Israel strong. I say, it ain’t necessarily so, particularly, if America sacrifices Israel to become stronger. In my view, it is not a win -win situation. It is a lose-lose situation if Israel is sacrificed.
By the way, what America would he build? Obama doesn’t say, really.