In his final debate with Hillary Clinton in Cleveland, Obama reaffirmed America’s special relationship with Israel and denounced Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism yet again. Then he added, letting in more fresh air:
“You know, I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans, who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task in this process is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.”
None of this should obscure the novelty in Obama’s comments to the meeting in Cleveland last Sunday. He asked if we can hope to move peace forward or secure Israel if we cannot look for solutions that are “non-military or non-belligerent.” He said he admires the debate in Israel, he said, where views of the Palestinians are often “more nuanced” than in the US. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community,” Obama lamented, “that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, that you're anti-Israel. And that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”
YOU’D THINK OBAMA’S stance would be welcomed in Israel, and by the peace camp especially, but even the liberal Haaretz can’t hide its anxiety. The paper’s Washington correspondent, Shmuel Rosner, is exercised by Obama’s insinuation that he would, of all things, find it difficult to work with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whom most of the paper’s columnists otherwise revile. It could be interpreted “as meddling in Israel's internal politics,” Rosner wrote, immediately adding (and as if to add to the incoherence of his misgivings) that Bill Clinton had problems with Netanyahu, too, while Israelis have themselves meddled in American electoral politics.
But this reflects a more general disquiet, which is not simply about a suspect foreign policy team, or the allegedly tortured relations between African-Americans and Jewish Americans. For most Israelis, even liberal Israelis, things have always boiled down to a single question which their politicians and diplomats have posed since Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state over the objections of his Secretary of State, George Marshall. Is this American a friend of Israel?
THIS QUESTION IS meant in a particular way, reflecting how Israelis view the attitudes of gentiles more generally. Israeli political culture understandably preserves a memory of European anti-Semitism the way America preserves the king’s suppression of liberty. Israeli writers and journalists instinctively project a world in which American gentiles do not like Jews deep down, the way boardrooms do not like insurgents, and jocks do not like book-worms. (The fact that evangelicals say they “love” Jews is hardly reassuring on this score.)
Besides, Israel’s journey to political power was at least as “improbable” as Obama’s movement has been. Zionism, too, had to change Western minds in the shadow of unspeakable racism; some of Zionism’s gains meant losses to others. So Israelis take for granted that to sympathize with its dilemmas, one has to feel the justice of Israel’s founding in one’s gut. They assume that sympathy does not come naturally to others—especially not since 1967, and not to those who may have historical grievances of their own against Western prejudices.
Nevertheless, the question—are you a friend of Israel?—was never a particularly good one, and Obama is right not to be suckered by it. He did not quite say so, but he is shrewd to imply that if friendship means unconditional support it has become positively dangerous for Israelis and Palestinians both: it means, in effect, being a friend of the Israeli right. The more serious question for any incoming American president is, rather, are you a friend of peace? And are you prepared to act as if peace in the region is an American interest, which it inarguably is?
TO UNDERSTAND THE danger, you have to understand a peculiar dynamic in Israeli politics—something I have written about often before, but cannot be emphasized enough. First, although details still need to be worked out, the contours of a peace deal are not really mysterious. Bill Clinton’s bridging “parameters,” along with Arab League proposals of 2002, resolve the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, security guarantees, recognition, and refugees. Almost two-thirds of Israelis endorse this deal.
But, second, the Israeli right-wing that opposes the deal is deeply implicated in the settlement project, either as settlers, or as ideological supporters of Greater Israel, or as ultra-Orthodox acolytes of Jerusalem. The Jewish residents of Jerusalem are overwhelmingly in this camp. If a referendum on the deal were put to Israelis, it is likely that the vast majority of greater Tel Aviv would vote for it, while an even larger majority of greater Jerusalem would oppose it. It is widely understood that thousands of settlers would resort to violence, if necessary, to resist the kind of evacuation we saw in Gaza.
Third, Israelis understand this threat to their social fabric and are appalled by the prospect. Indeed, the same polls that show a majority for the peace deal, also show this majority collapsing when you have to split the country to get it. No Israeli prime minister will be accorded the personal authority to precipitate divisions of this kind. Imagine how much harder it will be for a political fixer like Olmert to stand up to his opposition for the sake of a Palestinian leadership that can so easily be discredited as insufficiently popular, or not trustworthy, or (in some cases) connected to past terror attacks.
WHICH BRINGS ME to the main point. The only way to get us out of this conundrum is to get American sponsorship for the deal itself. America (along with the EU) need to stop saying that they cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. America certainly needs peace between Israelis and Palestinians if it going to rebuild its relations with the Islamic world as it is exiting its misadventure in Iraq.
But just as important, if America shows itself first and foremost a friend of peace, it will actually strengthen the Israeli leadership. It should be clear to all Israelis that this is American policy, and that opponents of the deal are risking relations with Washington—that the risk of temporary disunity is less than the risk of ultimately alienating American public opinion.
If what you mean by being a friend of Israel, in other words, is that you remain reticent regarding what a just outcome looks like, or, say, refrain from putting pressure on the Israeli government to accept international forces in Palestine, then you really mean that you are a friend of the status quo, which will bring the Likud back to power. A president who is a friend of peace will also be a friend of the majority of Israelis who are trying, at last, to bring change. This is Obama’s promise, it seems, and long overdue.
*Cross-posted at BernardAvishai.com