Obama on Israel: Change We Can Believe In?

03/04/2008 11:08 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

During the debate in Ohio last Tuesday, Tim Russert asked Senator Obama whether he would "reject" the endorsement of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, because of some of the anti-Semitic comments Farrakhan had previous made, including his calling Judaism "gutter religion." In response, Senator Obama made it clear that he had strongly denounced Farrakhan's remarks, but he also rightly made the point that he cannot "reject" an endorsement, because an endorsement by nature is not an action that requires the consent of the receiving end. He later conceded the point to Senator Clinton who wanted him to denounce and reject.

It was certainly a legitimate question the answer to which, one can assume, millions of Jewish Americans were interested in hearing. But although Obama's denunciation would have been enough to convince any sensible person, the reach of his comments revealed the biggest change he has undergone ever since he began his campaign: his language on Israel.

It is critical to briefly put America's Israeli policy in context.

The 21st century is marked by serious international challenges, not the least of which is the rise of violent conflicts around the world. Following September 11, 2001, President Bush had the opportunity to address terrorism in a way that would have led to a clear definition of the term and identification of its real causes. But many neoconservatives made sure that the president did not begin to look at ways in which American policies may be responsible for some of the violence against us. This is because these neocons, as well as certain domestic lobbying groups, understood that any such approach would have led to a serious reassessment of our position as the sole unqualified and unconditional supporter of Israel to the detriment of Palestinians.

Ever since 1967 when Israel preemptively invaded its neighbors, it has not only maintained the longest military occupation in the twentieth century (going on longer than four decades now), but it has continuously demolished Palestinian homes in the West Bank and built settlements, all in direct violation of international law and Fourth Geneva Convention. In the meantime, the Jewish state has uprooted and deported millions of Palestinians out of their homes and now says that regardless of whether there is peace or war, the country is not going to respect refugees' right to return. And throughout the years, Israel has remained in ultimate panic mode, attacking neighbors militarily -- without regard to international law or the willingness to work through the U.N. -- including her strike on Syria last year and Lebanon in the summer of 2006, during which they used American cluster bombs to kill thousands of Lebanese civilians.

Israelis have done all of this with the help of 3 billion dollars of U.S. aid every year -- making them the biggest recipient of our aid in the world -- U.S. vetoes of just about every UN Security Council resolution that is passed against Israel and allowing them to have nuclear weapons without joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And we try to get Iran -- an NPT member -- to stop enriching uranium and expect not to sound outright hypocritical.

A lot of neocons like to justify Israel's blatant violations of international law and special relationship with us by mentioning the attacks against Israel. This reasoning is flawed for three reasons. First, are our policy-makers elected to office to protect America or Israel? The United States citizens should not be forced to fund this lavish giveaway with little transparency and virtually no accountability. Secondly, most terrorist attacks against Israel have to do with Israel's direct violations of human rights that have left millions of people desperate and without any alternative. Former Israeli Prime Minister Barak once admitted that if he was born a Palestinian, he "would have joined a terrorist organization" because of Israeli policies. Thirdly, Israel kills on average 300 Palestinians for every 1 Israeli that is killed by Hamas. The implication that there is some sort of even "conflict" where stone-throwing Palestinians and Hamas's small rockets are any match for Israeli tanks, air planes, cluster bombs and long-range missiles and the idea that whatever Israel does is justified just because it says it did so to defend itself is ridiculous. Did we say the same thing when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the name of national security in 1990? No, we did not.

The Bush administration recently claimed a lot of credit for the Annapolis meeting last year, even though as usual, Israel was given no incentive to pull back to the 1967 borders even with security guarantees. In fact, as soon as the Israelis went back, they announced plans to construct 370 additional homes in the Har Homa settlement in Occupied Palestine. "Now that's real statesmanship," Ambassador Edward Peck, the head of the White House Terrorism Task Force under Reagan wrote recently in a post on The Huffington Post, referring to the new settlements plans.

And what did Bush do in return? He went to Israel and gave a speech in which for the first time, he reserved the stated policy of the United States, saying settlements were now allowed. Of course settlements in occupied territories remain illegal and in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and our European allies still believe in it. The United States' contradiction of international law doesn't isolate Hamas or Hezbollah; it isolates and further damages the reputation of United States and Israel, not just in the Middle East, but throughout the world.

In this context, we need our next president to be someone who is willing to tell Israel not just what it wants to hear, but what it needs to hear. Barack Obama used to look more like the kind of a person who was willing to show Israel tough love by strongly supporting its existence and security, but also telling them that they can't get a free ride on U.S. taxpayers' money and the ever-thinning American diplomatic clout anymore. Once early last year, Obama rightly pointed out that "no one is suffering more than the Palestinians." Expectedly, neocons and AIPAC made a lot of noise and said how dare he say what was essentially a fact. But that was okay, because if Obama is serious about repairing the damage that has been done to our image, that involves making some tough choices and offending Dennis Ross and AIPAC in the process.

But unfortunately, shortly after the pistons of AIPAC noise machine went off, Obama caved and said that what he meant was that the Palestinians were suffering from the Palestinian leadership. Ever since that incident, Senator Obama has been worryingly uncritical of any Israeli actions and repeatedly mentions that he is a strong supporter of Israel. But the problem is that he sometimes does so even when there is no need and no question posed about Israel. During the debate last week, Obama could have once again highlighted his denunciations of the anti-Semitic remarks of Farrakhan and moved on.

But following his denunciation, he brought up Israel out of the blue and mentioned his strong support for Israel. He made a mistake of calling America's relationship with Israel "special" and the latter's security "sacrosanct." This blogger is a supporter of Senator Obama. But although Obama regularly reminds people that he is the kind of a person who would tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear, the kind of language that he has been increasingly using on Israel is not the kind of a language that either we or Israel need to hear. We cannot have a president who believes we have a holy duty to unconditionally protect Israel to our own detriment. This is not a theocracy and we're not electing a pastor. It is time Obama tones down religious references and address our Israeli policy based on merits. That means acknowledging that they are a friend and an ally, but that we are going to hold them to the same standard that we hold our other strong allies. It's an occupation; call it what it is, and say it must end.

What we need our next president to do is to show the confidence that he will not be intimated and cave to the demands of those who are quick to call any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. The question at the debate had to do with Jews and Judaism, not Israel. Obama does not need to bring up and intensify his support for Israel every time he is asked about some smear e-mail about his middle name or something that someone said about Jews. He needs to talk about Israel when he is asked about it. And when that question comes, he cannot constantly shift his position closer and closer to that of Likud just to make voters happy. That's not change we can believe in.

Some supporters of Hillary Clinton or John McCain may be quick to misuse this article to attack Obama. So let me underline my continued belief that Senator Obama is still the best choice in this campaign, and that includes the likelihood that he will approach America's position on Israel in ways that best reflect American interests of peace, justice and human rights.

Repairing the damage to our image around the world will be harder than it sounds, and it requires a courageous president who is willing to protect the interests of the United States. That includes the need for our government to take the lead in promoting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, but not by arranging meetings between the two groups only to then align with one side of the conflict against the other. Our government has been appropriately forceful in telling Hamas that they must stop attacks on Israel. But our demands should not and will not go far if we don't have a president who is also willing to also tell the Israelis what they need to hear, which is that we're not going to give them a blank check on everything they do, and if they violate international law, we aren't going to give them special treatment by vetoing UN resolutions against them. We cannot suffer any more damage to our image by disproportionately supporting an aggressor state that seems to have no incentive to make any sacrifice to promote the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state.

Protection of our interests and change we can believe in begins with having a president who is willing to stand his ground in support of a more even-handed policy in foreign conflicts, from Kosovo and Chechnya to Northern Ireland and Palestine, in the face of those who will try to intimate him into silence or submission.