Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama's Mideast Speech -- a Followup

Ron Kampeas has a roundup of various Jewish groups' reactions to Obama's speech, which, as one might expect, range quite broadly. I do think it's important to push back against the notion that Obama outraged the Jewish or pro-Israel community -- as Kampeas notes, stalwarts like the ADL and the AJC were quite effusive in their praise of President Obama, and Abe Foxman came out hard against the claim by Mitt Romney and other Republicans that President Obama somehow "threw Israel under the bus."

Meanwhile, the dust being kicked up over 1967 frankly baffles me. I guess I'm not surprised at Netanyahu's intransigence, as Bibi lacks any coherent normative commitments beyond his short-term political interests -- exactly the sort of leadership trait Israel needs right now. Having Bibi Netanyahu as Prime Minister during a crisis for Israel offers historians a wonderful glimpse into how the United States would have managed the Civil War if James Buchanan had remained President. But basically anyone with a pulse already knew that 1967 borders, with swaps, would serve as the basis for any future agreement.

I'm not entirely sure what other basis for borders there could be -- I'm assuming whatever extra territory Bibi thinks he'll get by not "basing" a Palestinian state on 1967 lines he's not planning to compensate by ceding Israeli territory elsewhere, but the acreage of the land in question isn't large enough substantially deviate from 1967 and create an economically viable Palestinian state. In particular, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's statement calling 1967 lines "Auschwitz borders" is horrifically insensitive and trivializing to Holocaust victims, and they deserve to be raked over the coals for it. Meanwhile, as Jon Chait observes, the main existential threat to Israel for the foreseeable future isn't Jordanian tank columns rolling in, but rather not being able to extract themselves from an occupation that threatens to eviscerate their civil society and render the Zionist dream of a Jewish, democratic homeland a distant memory.

And that leads me to my final point. Jeffrey Goldberg sardonically asks why Republicans are misreading Obama's speech, a speech which, by any objective metric, should have been seen as "pro-Israel in a red-meat I-heart-Israel, damn-Hamas, Iran-can-go-to-hell, Israel is the eternal Jewish state sort of way." Goldberg, of course, recognizes that the question answers itself -- Republicans are mischaracterizing the speech because Obama was the one who gave it, and because they see a political advantage in trying to cast the hitherto centrist consensus that existed with respect to the resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict as an attack on Western Civilization.

For years, there has been a tacit agreement with respect to the pro-Israel community -- that while we might disagree about what policies are best for ensuring Israel's long-term viability, security, and liberalism, everyone coming from a genuine position of respect for the state of Israel and its legitimacy as homeland of the Jewish people would be accepted as part of the community. That doesn't include everyone, or every Jew -- there are those who oppose Israel's existence as a Jewish state, and they've always been ostracized (which I don't really mind). But the Zionist, pro-Israel community has always been a big tent, including groups like the modern ZOA, that don't even support a two-state solution, as well as more leftward, Peace Now types.

The conservative response to J Street's emergence has broken that agreement -- they haven't just disagreed with it with respect to policy, but they have engaged in a systematic campaign to declare it intrinsically "anti-Israel", anti-Zionist, and hostile to Israel's very existence. But if those are the new rules -- that a group or person shouldn't be pro-Israel if one honestly believes their policy prescriptions are bad for Israel's future survival -- then I see no reason to concede that folks like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Allen West are pro-Israel in any meaningful sense. The policies they lay out place Israel in mortal peril -- possible the gravest danger Israel has faced since 1973. And what's more, I don't think they care all that much about Israel. Yes, obviously, Mitt Romney would think it a bad thing if Israel disappeared tomorrow. But he'd view it as bad because it would represent some sort of lost Western fortress -- an instrumental failure, not something that effects him personally. It doesn't make his life any worse if Israel ceases to be the fulfillment of the Zionist liberal democratic dream. It makes my life worse, and it obviously makes the Israelis' lives worse. But for Mitt? Israel's little more than a symbol, and an expendable one at that.

Again, if the litmus test is a subjective self-assessment of thinking that one's acting in Israel's best interests, then Mitt Romney is precisely as pro-Israel as Barack Obama is. But if we're going to make this a substantive test -- what policies are best for ensuring Israel's continued survival as a Jewish democratic nation -- he fails utterly. And if he wants to start playing on that field, I'm happy to meet him there.

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