Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Israel Must Live Up To Its Commitments If Israel's American Supporters Hope To Change Obama Policy

NOTE: First published as part of The Jerusalem Post blogging competition earlier today

It seems that every day I read an editorial piece in a right-leaning or overtly right-wing publication or blog about the deteriorating relations between the Obama administration and Israel. The President has been, without any doubt, increasing pressure on Israel to halt all construction over the green line including eastern Jerusalem. Those on the political right continually portray President Obama as hostile to Israel. For example, Anne Bayefsky, writing for National Review Online, characterized the administration's policies at the U.N. as "a new strategy for throwing Israel to the wolves."

It is becoming increasingly difficult for those on the political left to simply dismiss these comments as just so much more Republican or right-wing anti-Obama rhetoric. Many of us in the American Jewish community who voted for President Obama did so with real reservations about his commitment to Israel. Candidate Obama did all he could to reassure the American supporters of Israel: Jewish, Christian, and others, and for many of us it was sufficient to allow us to focus on other issues when we entered the voting booth. When President Obama did meet with Jewish leaders he chose to exclude those who did not agree with his policies, even though that meant excluding the largest Jewish and Zionist organizations in the United States. Rather than reassuring American supporters of Israel the President further alienated those with legitimate concerns about his policies.

Israeli Deputy Premier Dan Meridor, speaking to reporters on July 21, correctly pointed out that agreements between Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush regarding settlement construction should be binding on the two countries:

"We never had an agreement with the previous administration. We had an agreement with America. The agreement we had with the Americans is binding on us and them [...] They should keep to the agreement. [...] It was agreed that the Israelis can go on building within certain parameters. That's what happened, and no word was said against it in six years."

There is still plenty of support for Mr. Meridor's position among Democrats and those left of center in the United States. Support by political leaders of both parties, as demonstrated by the unanimous support for Israel in both houses of Congress during Operation Cast Lead, remains as strong as ever. Many Congressional Democrats have been quietly or not so quietly expressing concerns about the President's policies in the Middle East.

Mr. Meridor speaks about the U.S. keeping agreements. That means that Israel must do the same. The most obvious example of where the Netanyahu government and, indeed, prior Israeli governments have not done so, or at the very least have dragged their collective feet and moved as slowly as possible, is in meeting the commitment to remove illegal settler outposts. Oh, and before someone challenges my use of the word "illegal", I mean illegal under Israeli law. Prime Minister Sharon, Prime Minister Olmert, and now Prime Minister Netanyahu have all committed to building no new settlements and to removing unauthorized ones set up by far right settlers.

Yes, I am aware that two small outposts were evacuated in May. I am also aware that the IDF has denied there are plans to quickly evacuate the remaining 23 outposts. The Chinese news agency Xinhua is reporting that evacuations will take place in September, citing the Jerusalem Post as a source. However, I have repeatedly read of plans for evacuating all the illegal outposts over the years and it never seems to happen.

Obviously I would like to see Mr. Meridor's words taken to heart by Democrats who can influence the President and hopefully bring about a policy change. However, it will be difficult if not impossible to convince the President to honor American commitments if Israel does not honor similar commitments.

I will remind people who see no point in even trying to influence the Obama administration of a little history. Initially President Clinton was seen by some to be hostile towards Israel. Relations between the Clinton administration and the first Netanyahu government were rocky at first. In the end President Clinton's efforts at peacemaking failed. His view on Israel evolved during that process and he placed the blame for that failure where it belongs, squarely with the Palestinians. It didn't take long before President Clinton was seen as a friend of Israel.

Early in the Bush administration when Prime Minister Sharon visited the President pro-Israel voices in the press colorfully stated that the Prime Minister had been "bushwhacked." The Prime Minister then famously warned President Bush that Israel was not Czechoslovakia in 1938:
"We are currently in the midst of a complex and difficult diplomatic campaign. I turn to the western democracies, first and foremost the leader of the free world, the United States. Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938, when the enlightened democracies of Europe decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for the sake of a temporary, convenient solution. Don't try to appease the Arabs at our expense. We will not accept this."

After 9/11 President Bush found common cause with Prime Minister Sharon and relations improved to the point that some called the President the best friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.

Republicans and conservatives who see political gain in discrediting President Obama will always throw proverbial stones regardless of the policy. They will always find fault. It is in their political interest to do so. Democrats, liberals, and moderates are more interested in meaningful policy change. History argues that it may be possible to bring about that change and that it is far too early to judge President Obama's administration. However, if we are to insist on change in a meaningful way we can't ask of American what Israel itself fails to do. If commitments are to be met they must be met by both countries.

NOTE: You can rate this article or comment on it as part of the competition.

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