Friday, October 28, 2011

Israel as Political Issue

There's been a recent spurt of chatter around an ill-fated "civility pledge" promoted by the ADL and AJC that some conservative groups claim is an attempt to stifle criticism of President Obama's policies on Israel. The pledge worries about increased attempts to "politicize" the support of Israel.

Obviously, it is absolutely true that in a deliberative system, there must be free reign to criticize policies one finds disagreeable. Conservatives who have genuine concerns about the President's policies regarding Israel should of course be free to make their case -- if they think Obama is bad for Israel, they're entitled to say so. And of course, by the same token, if I think various conservative political leaders are bad for Israel, I have the right to say that too (this, of course, also goes for judgments on the advisability of Israeli policy positions too -- whether in the form of critiques of the Shalit deal or critiques of settlement expansion).

But there is something else going on here, related to the idea of politicization. In the arena of politics, many issues are taken not because one is firmly attached to a particular stance, but simply because they're the opposite of one's opponent. Say I'm a Democrat running for office against an incumbent Republican, and that incumbent gives a speech on foreign policy. I'm never going to come out and say "That was a really great speech. I think we're more or less on the same page on these issues -- good job, buddy!" That's not my job. My job is to try and defeat my opponent. So of course I'm going to try and create a narrative where the speech was bad and promised bad things for America or our allies.

This sort of politicization, though, is obviously a very bad thing, because it means significant portions of the public debate on Israel are not occurring because of genuine disagreements on the merits of our policies towards Israel, but rather are simply fig leaves for a political campaign against the President. With regards to politicians, it's probably unavoidable. But where we do have the right to vigorously police the line is on ostensibly "pro-Israel" organizations that are really just stalking horses for a given political party. The Emergency Committee for Israel clearly meets this description. When it releases a statement on Israel, it is not because it has made a considered judgment that a given action is in Israel or America's best interests. It makes its statement because it has made a political calculation that it can do damage to the President with it.

The problem with the ECI, in other words, isn't that they have disagreements with the Obama administration on Israel and the temerity to express them. The problem is that, in effect, they don't have disagreements with the Obama administration on Israel because they don't have a stable or coherent position on Israel at all. Israel is a tertiary concern for them; just a useful rhetorical tool for trying to secure a domestic political victory. And using Israel as that sort of political football is something that the Jewish and pro-Israel community absolutely should be opposing, vigorously.

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