Better Safe Than Sorry for Candidates on Israel

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
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Let’s play make-believe: Imagine that the candidates for the presidential nomination, Democrat and Republican, are asked for their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (So far, that hasn’t happened.) And imagine that in addition to the familiar formulas regarding Israel — America’s valuable ally, the only democracy in the Middle East, entitled to live in security, and so forth — they were to add that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank must end, that the illegal outposts must be removed, that all settlement expansion must end, that Israel should help rather than hinder the modernization of the Palestinian security apparatus, that the status quo is simply not acceptable.

Can you imagine that? If so, employment awaits you at the Fantasy Channel. As Howard Dean learned in September 2003, when he called for an “even-handed” American policy in the conflict, even so parve a phrase as “even-handed” crosses the no-no boundary. Dean’s call begat criticism from John Kerry, his principal rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, as also from Joe Lieberman, Nancy Pelosi and Abraham Foxman.

To the consternation of Steve Grossman, co-chair of the Dean campaign and a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, it generated accusations of apostasy that seriously challenged the campaign. (Dean, and his enemies, didn’t help his case when, several days later, trying to recover from his original no-no, he chose to defend Israel’s targeted killings in Gaza. His defense? “There is a war going on in the Middle East and members of Hamas are soldiers in that war, and, therefore, it seems to me, that they are going to be casualties if they are going to make war.” Soldiers? Howard Dean called Hamas terrorists soldiers? Aiming for redemption, he hit his foot instead.)

There are rules to America’s presidential campaign season. The Iowa caucus comes first and the New Hampshire primaries come next. The person with the most votes wins. And candidates, unless they are named Kucinich, Gravel or Paul, must stay put within the four walls of the house that Aipac built — that is, within the walls of pro-Israel orthodoxy.

Open a door to the outside of that house, and you’ll find yourself in never-never land, and not the fun kind either. Open just a window, and you will spend weeks, months, explaining, apologizing, repairing the damage. The Israeli-Arab conflict is to foreign policy what Social Security is to domestic policy — a third rail.

It is therefore of more than passing interest that all the suspect phrases listed in the first paragraph above were in fact spoken by President Bush during his trip to the region last week. And the sky did not fall in.

The firmness of the firmament may be attributable to the fact that no one was really and truly listening to what Bush was saying, or to the fact that he is rapidly approaching the end of his tenure. More likely, however, it is clear that the issues he raised and the points he made are by now beyond serious controversy, are part of the conventional wisdom.

Which raises the obvious question: If such implicitly critical remarks regarding Israel are part of the conventional wisdom, why do prospective nominees for the presidency avoid the subject as if it were avian flu?

Search the Web sites of the major candidates, and you will find that the only one who has anything at all to say about Israel is Mike Huckabee, the erstwhile Baptist minister who has visited Israel nine times. Search their speeches that touch on the subject, and you will find the candidates tumbling over one another to prove their superior devotion to Israel.

This troubles John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt greatly, as they made clear in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month: “…the presidential candidates are no friends of Israel. They are like most U.S. politicians, who reflexively mouth pro-Israel platitudes while continuing to endorse and subsidize policies that are in fact harmful to the Jewish state. A genuine friend would tell Israel that it was acting foolishly, and would do whatever he or she could to get Israel to change its misguided behavior.”

It is not that Mearsheimer and Walt are ignorant of the consequences of the kind of “true” friendship they champion. Their piece reviews those consequences in some detail. They mention the cautionary Dean precedent, and they acknowledge that “even well-intentioned criticism of Israel’s policies may lead [pro-Israel] groups to turn against them and back their opponents instead…. Israel’s friends in the media would take aim at the candidate, and campaign contributions from pro-Israel individuals and political action committees would go elsewhere.”

So they are aware of the hazards that await the candidate who violates the accepted ritual and speaks the truth to Israel — the very same truth spoken by Bush, who is widely regarded as genuinely sympathetic to Israel, who was hailed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in terms so glowing that press reports indicate Bush was embarrassed by the praise.

They must then be aware that no candidate will accept their advice. The ritual will be honored. And they and the rest of us can relax: Whoever prevails in the 2008 presidential elections will inherit the received wisdom on the conflict, the commitment to the very things of which Bush spoke — a two-state solution, a viable and independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory, an end to settlement expansion and all the rest.

Our task — that is, the task of those of us who seek a genuine resolution to the conflict — is to see to it that the urgings of such conventional wisdom do not themselves become a new and equally empty ritual.

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