A major ongoing tragedy of American political culture is fear of the political consequences of even appearing to give equal weight to both Israeli and Palestinian concerns. Such fear always trumps advocacy of what is needed from both sides to create a lasting peace.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, describing the recent meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, provides a good example. With a tinge of ironic humor, Milbank writes that
A blue-and-white Israeli flag hung from Blair House. Across Pennsylvania Avenue, the Stars and Stripes was in its usual place atop the White House. But to capture the real significance of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit with President Obama, White House officials might have instead flown the white flag of surrender.
Milbank was referring to the Obama administration’s decision four months ago to condemn Israel over a new settlement.
The Israel lobby reared up, Netanyahu denounced the administration’s actions, Republican leaders sided with Netanyahu, and Democrats ran for cover. So on Tuesday, Obama, routed and humiliated by his Israeli counterpart, invited Netanyahu back to the White House for what might be called the Oil of Olay Summit: It was all about saving face.
The president, beaming in the Oval Office with a dour Netanyahu at his side, gushed about the “extraordinary friendship between our two countries.” He performed the Full Monty of pro-Israel pandering: “The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable” . . . “I commended Prime Minister Netanyahu” . . . “Our two countries are working cooperatively” . . . “unwavering in our commitment” . . . “our relationship has broadened” . . . “continuing to improve” . . . “We are committed to that special bond, and we are going to do what’s required to back that up.”
Milbank then targets the core problem, writing that
Obama came to office with an admirable hope of reviving Middle East peace efforts by appealing to the Arab world and positioning himself as more of an honest broker. But he has now learned the painful lesson that domestic politics won’t allow such a stand.
And that feeds the continuing tragedy – for the Israelis, the Palestinians, and for all of us. Our political leadership engages in one-sided political pandering, based largely on shoring up political support. In so doing, it fails to promote peace and reconciliation, which should be the aim. But doing the latter requires acknowledging that BOTH sides have engaged in destructive actions and atrocities, and that BOTH sides have legitimate, valid interests.
When one attempts to do so, however, one risks being labeled anti-Israeli, or even anti-semitic. Such was the fate of noted historian Tony Judt, author of Postwar, the seminal analysis of post-World War II Europe. A few years ago, two major Jewish organizations blocked Judt, who is Jewish and directs an institute at New York University that focuses on European issues, from speaking at an event at which he planned to argue that the Israeli lobby has often stifled debate.
As though to confirm his subject matter, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee objected, saying Judt was too critical of Israel and American Jewry. The groups persuaded the organization sponsoring the talk to cancel it.
Judt, who lost his family in the Holocaust, described this as “chilling,” and part of a larger pattern he and others have experienced.
Stifling debate – especially by those who seek solutions that promote a two-state solution – only furthers the endless killing, retaliation and horror for both sides. But some continue to argue strongly that one can be both pro-Israeli and pro-peace. Notable, here, is a new organization, J Street. It describes itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans to advocate for vigorous U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to broaden debate around Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community.” It argues that “ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.”
And, it emphasizes support for “Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own – two states living side-by-side in peace and security….diplomatic solutions over military ones, including in Iran; multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution; and dialogue over confrontation with a wide range of countries and actors when conflicts do arise.”
Such advocacy is both realistic and hopeful; an alternative to endless decades of more mutual destruction. It’s also helpful to experience the world of the less familiar from within the perspective of its members. A good example is the movie Paradise Now, that portrayed the psychological evolution of Palestinian suicide bombers, from within their point of view and life experiences.
The problem is that even President Obama, who came into office presenting himself as an even-handed broker for Middle East peace, found it necessary to backtrack quickly from that position. As Milbank wrote about the recent press conference, its conclusion found Obama
…feverishly rebuilding the U.S.-Israel relationship. The president’s opening statement in front of the cameras contained not a word of criticism of the Jewish state. “Well, I just completed an excellent one-on-one discussion with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” he began. For those tuning in late, he added at the end: “So I just want to say, once again, that I thought the discussion that we had was excellent.” Netanyahu was pleased with the pandering.