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March 19, 2007

Israel, the Special Relationship, and 2008 (Part I)


The American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual meeting in Washington last week, hosting major politicians from Vice President Cheney to Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom were elected from states with large Jewish populations. What happened at that meeting, and what was reported about it, says a lot about the way Israel fits into U.S. politics, and how it will affect the 2008 presidential election.


Clinton, according to the New York Times, said that Israel deserves “every bit of our support.” Obama, in Chicago the previous week, had declared complete support for the Jewish state, invoking the Holocaust while denouncing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who would certainly like to cause another one. But at the Washington meeting, Sen. Obama shocked many in attendance by declaring that right now in the Middle East, "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.”


Obama’s comments provoked an angry response by a rabbi from California named Steven Silver (not to be confused with the author of this column), who declared them “odious and infelicitous.” And it set off yet another debate about who is right in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether or not Americans can truly speak their mind about the issue.


And even though Obama had never explicitly denounced Israel, and had just a few weeks earlier delivered a stirring defense of the Jewish state before a different subsidiary of the same organization, he was painted (both by the right and the Clintonites) as some sort of anti-Israel extremist.


Not long after, years-old photos emerged of the senator with the late Palestinian leader Edward Said - all of which fit in nicely with efforts to paint Obama either as a stealth Muslim, a black-separatist Christian, or both. Supporters of Obama, of course, fired back about Hillary and her famous kiss of Yassir Arafat’s wife Suha.


Elements of both political sides in the U.S. have a history of being extremely dishonest about the conflict and what the other side believes. The far left would have you believe that Israel (in the person of “the neocons”) pushed us into war in Iraq, and that neither party is nearly vigilant enough in denouncing Israel. The far right, meanwhile, wants us to think that the entire left (and indeed, the other Democratic Party) is uniformly opposed to Israel, and will sell the Jewish state down the river at the earliest opportunity.


Neither caricature, alas, contains the slightest bit of truth. Israel, since before the Iraq war, has been considerably more concerned about Iran, and its very real weapons of mass destruction, than Iraq. That position is consistent with the usual paranoid belief that one’s opponents are all-powerful and all-knowing.


Meanwhile, it’s nothing but madness to suggest that Democrats, as a party, are against Israel - unless you believe that Dennis Kucinich is the secret leader of the party. Indeed, I believe that Kucinich is probably the only 2008 candidate who is not a supporter of Israel.


When you consider that around three quarters of American Jews are Democrats, and Jewish elected officials lean even more blue than that, it’s a bit ridiculous to suggest the Jews will go red anytime soon – especially now that the most vocally Republican subset of Jews, the neoconservative movement, has suffered a discrediting of its views nearly unprecedented in recent U.S. politics.


To suggest that support of Israel is the province of one party, and that opposition to it is that of the other, is to be totally at odds with reality.


What’s most likely is that both nominees of the two parties in 2008 will be vocal supporters of the state of Israel, with the only difference likely to be the matter of degree in which they do so.


(Next week: Do the U.S. and Israel have a “special relationship”? Should they?)


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