Discard the Outmoded Taboo Against ‘Evenhandedness’
In responding to recent Republican ads that linked Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean to masked terrorists, Jewish Democratic leaders justifiably criticized gutter politics and cited pro-Israel statements from Dean. But they also should have refuted the assumption implicit in those ads — namely, that those who advocate that the United States not “take sides” on every issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Dean did for a few brave seconds in 2003, are hostile to the Jewish state.
The fact that Jewish operatives in both parties seem to accept this premise without reservation shows the anachronistic nature of our community’s political discourse. This nasty fracas should prompt Jews in both parties to redefine and take the sting out of words like “evenhandedness,” “not taking sides” and all of the other euphemisms for impartial, neutral American diplomacy. In fact, it will be in Israel’s and America’s interests for Washington to be evenhanded, at least sometimes, in the months ahead.
American supporters of Israel are often caught in linguistic and ideological time warps. Words and concepts are freighted with associations that are no longer relevant to political realities. In the late 1980s, mainstream Israel politicians and media were openly discussing the pros and cons of pursuing a demilitarized “Palestinians state.” But back then, it was taboo to say anything positive about that idea in American Jewish media and most synagogues. Now Ariel Sharon himself advocates such a state, and it is kosher to endorse it in most, if not all, Jewish settings. Something similar needs to happen to our attitude toward American diplomacy that is not automatically tilted toward Israel every time it disagrees with the Palestinians.
This idea is understandably worrisome to some American Jews who remember a time when Israel faced hostile Arab armies on every border, and necessary American support was not always guaranteed. Dean was naive to ignore those fears with an ill-considered phrase during a political campaign. But the campaign is over now, and it time to think about what is best for Israel and the United States — not just what is best for Republicans or Democrats.
Those anti-Dean ads propped up the false perception in Washington that American Jews do not trust their government to challenge both Israelis and Palestinians to make difficult compromises. During the Clinton administration, polls indicated that most American Jews wanted the United States to take this approach, if there was no other way to reach a settlement both parties could live with. We trusted that President Clinton would not ask Israel to compromise its security. We understood that when it came to nonnegotiable premises like Israel’s right to exist with defendable borders, a Jewish majority and a qualitative military edge, Clinton would stay in Israel’s corner. It’s hard to believe that we trust President Bush any less. Congress and the White House need to hear that.
Even in the unlikely event that the disengagement from Gaza goes smoothly, there are going to be bitter disputes between the Israelis and Palestinians on a host of issues. America will need to wade in and help bridge differences. And there will be times when the best way for the United States to help Israel is to avoid “taking sides.” This was true in previous administrations, and it is no less true today.
Unless Palestinians have confidence that Washington is taking their needs and aspirations seriously, they will have no motivation to stay at the table. So, sometimes the United States will need to avoid passing judgment on either party’s position on matters such as specific borders or the route of the separation barrier. At other times, diplomatic atmospherics and longstanding American policy — such as objections to settlement expansion — will require the United States to publicly criticize both sides, not just the Palestinians.
That is what “evenhandedness” and “not taking sides” mean to me and other American Jews who want to help the Israeli majority that craves an end to the occupation. The old definition of American evenhandedness equated it with being pro-Arab. To us, the “e-word” is pro-Israel.
I can’t entirely fault American politicians for assuming that this kind of Middle East diplomacy will alienate Jewish voters. They will cling to this assumption unless they get clear signals from our community that we have seized control of, and changed, the meaning of old code words and concepts. In particular, these signals need to be sent by people in leadership positions in mainstream Jewish organizations and by major donors to the Democrats and Republicans.
A good many of these leaders agree that the president needs the political leeway to differ occasionally with Israel when disputes arise with Palestinians. But when they are asked to sign letters to Foggy Bottom or ads in The New York Times about the appropriate American role in this conflict, they are often hesitant to endorse language that explicitly expresses what they believe. I don’t mean to be self-righteous; I have written or edited some of those documents, and plead guilty to employing punchless, innocuous, deliberately vague phrases like “pro-active American engagement” or “activist American diplomacy” to reassure signers that they were not getting too far ahead of the community.
It is time for more American Jews to stop pulling punches and worrying about violating outmoded taboos in communal discourse. It is time to show Washington that we clearly and unequivocally endorse the kind of diplomacy that will help Israelis and Palestinians get out of the fix they are in.
Dan Fleshler is a New York-based media and public affairs strategist.