Better Safe Than Sorry for Candidates on Israel

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.