THE BLOG

Obama: Still Pro-Israel

As much as we may be disappointed in the Administration's behavior during the past two weeks, we need to keep the situation in perspective. If Benjamin Netanyahu can rise above it, so can we.

If our goal is peace, the Administration should be pressuring the Palestinians, not Israel. As Netanyahu recently pointed out, Israel

has removed hundreds of roadblocks, barriers and checkpoints facilitating Palestinian movement. As a result, we have helped spur a fantastic boom in the Palestinian economy (coffee Shops, restaurants, businesses, even multiplex theaters). And we announced an unprecedented moratorium on new Israeli construction in Judea and Samaria...

[The Palestinian Authority] has placed preconditions on peace talks, waged a relentless international campaign to undermine Israel's legitimacy, and promoted the notorious Goldstone report that falsely accuses Israel of war crimes...A public square near Ramallah was [recently] named after a terrorist who murdered 37 Israeli civilians, including 13 children. The Palestinian Authority did nothing to prevent it.

Israel has always favored peace over land. There has never been an Arab country of "Palestine," and the notion of an Arab "Palestinian" people is a 20th century phenomenon. Yet when the UN voted to create a Jewish state that included none of Jersusalem, Judea, or Samaria, the Jews accepted. The Arabs rejected the UN resolution and attacked Israel, and when the fighting stopped, Israel controlled half of Jerusalem (the half without the holy places). Jordan then destroyed some 58 synagogues in the portion of Jerusalem that it controlled. Israel now controls all of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria because Jordan attacked Israel in 1967 and Israel won.

So why do we favor a two-state solution? Because Israel wants and needs peace. Long-term population trends will eventually force Israel to choose between being a democracy, being Jewish, and retaining land that it won in a defensive war. Israel can have any two of the three, but not all three.

Yet Israel cannot be expected to commit suicide. Israel's reward for unilateral withdrawal from all of Lebanon was not peace, but rocket attacks. Israel's reward for unilateral withdrawal from all of Gaza was not peace, but rocket attacks. Israelis are understandably nervous about ceding Judea and Samaria and leaving their entire population vulnerable to rocket attacks.

Every government of Israel since the Six Day War has regarded Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital, and every government of the United States since the Six Day War has refused to recognize this fact (that's why the U.S. embassy is not in Jerusalem). A two-state solution may ultimately involve shared sovereignty in parts of Jerusalem, but that's for Israel to decide, not for the United States to dictate.

Israel made a mistake, probably inadvertent, in announcing new building during Vice President Biden's visit, thus forcing a response from Biden. But the United States overreacted. Pressure on Israel removes incentives for the Arabs to negotiate in good faith. Why should they make concessions when they believe that the U.S. will force concessions? That's why the U.S. and Israel should refrain from airing their differences publicly.

More important, pressure on Israel removes incentives for Israel to negotiate. Israel cannot afford to lose even one war. Israel's existence is literally at stake. Without the knowledge that the U.S. is firmly behind it, Israel simply cannot afford to take short-term risks for peace, even if those risks may serve its long-term interests. That's why U.S. pressure on Israel is counterproductive.

Think of the emotions we saw during the health care debate. The Democrats control the White House and Congress, and they could still barely get it through. Imagine if the debate were about the existence of our country and if the government was shared among several political parties. That's what is happening in Israel. We need to remember that for the U.S., peace is a policy objective. For Israel, it is literally life and death.

Israel has already taken extraordinary steps for peace. The United States should enable Israel to move forward, not impede the peace process by making Israel feel less secure. None of us know what happened behind closed doors, but we sensed animosity between Obama and Netanyahu. That too is cause for concern, and yet David Axelrod could not have been clearer on Sunday morning that no snub was intended.

Does all of this mean that Obama is not pro-Israel? Let's keep this serious situation in perspective. Our support for Israel transcends any particular American or Israeli government, but part of the tension stems from the instability of Netanyahu's government and the difficult balancing act he is forced to maintain to preserve his center-right government. This is a complex situation.

Thus far, Obama has compartmentalized this disagreement and it is not affecting other aspects of the strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Last week, for example, Reuters and Haaretz reported that U.S.-Israel defense cooperation is flourishing. Israel continues to build in disputed parts of Jerusalem, and this Administration is not taking action to stop that building or threatening to withhold U.S. assistance or cooperation in other areas, as befits a disagreement between allies.

The current disagreement pales in both tone and substance to previous disagreements between the U.S. and Israel, such as when Eisenhower forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai after the Suez crisis, such as when Ford threatened to "reassesss" U.S-Israel relations, such as when Reagan suspended arms shipments to Israel and supported a UN resolution condemning Israel after Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor, and such as when Bush 41 threatened to withhold loan guarantees because of Israeli settlement activity. Reagan, who many consider pro-Israel, visited Bitburg, where Nazi war dead were buried, but never visited Israel.

All presidents have been a mixture of good and bad, and no president has condoned settlements or recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The current disagreement is noteworthy because of the tone and publicity; the underlying polices have not changed on either side. As the Bush Administration said in 2008, "the United States doesn't make a distinction between settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the West Bank and Israel's road map obligations, which include a building freeze, relate to 'settlement activity generally'."

Obama fulfilled his campaign promise to boycott Durban II unless all of our conditions were met, he renewed sanctions against Syria, he fully funded the development and production of the Arrow 3 ballistic missile system, he reapproved loan guarantees to Israel, he pulled out of military exercises with Turkey after Turkey excluded Israel, he repealed import tariffs on Israeli dairy products, he supported foreign aid to Israel, and he has enhanced and strengthened military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel. He has also had an uncomfortable public disagreement with Israel about Jerusalem where I think he erred in so strongly reiterating U.S. policy in that area. No one can predict the future, but based only on what we've seen to date, the Obama administration is pro-Israel. Not perfect, but pro-Israel.

This is not a Democratic or a Republican issue. Some Republicans can be counted on to oppose anything Obama does, and some Democrats can be counted on to support anything Obama does. But Israel remains one of the few issues on which there is bipartisan consensus. As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said at the AIPAC conference,

If you want to know how wide and deep the support for Israel runs, I'm a Baptist Republican from South Carolina; the next speaker, is a Jewish senator from New York, Chuck Schumer -- that's as wide as it gets. You can put the whole planet in the middle... it's good to be here tonight to celebrate something that we all agree on, and that's our support for Israel. Tonight is a celebration. Tonight is not about healthcare; it's not about immigration. It's about our national security. It's about our best friend in the world, the State of Israel. It's about those things that unite us.

Or as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said on March 23, "we in Congress stand by Israel; in Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel."

So if you are a pro-Israel Republican, vote for Republicans with a clear conscience. But if you are a pro-Israel Democrat or independent, you may hear that you have to choose between support for Israel and your other values. You don't. Support for Israel is strong in both parties. Don't let anyone trivialize Israel by turning it into a partisan football. We are Democrats for good reasons.

Let's keep our legitimate concerns about the current state of U.S.-Israel relations in perspective. The #1 goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and we should be pressing all parties to do whatever they can to make progress on Iran. The rest is commentary.