Columns about Israel and the geopolitics of the Middle East are a sure way to get passions to flare and, sometimes, attract hate mail. The conflicting positions of Zionism and antisemitism are typically used as the default for all commentary on the subject; the middle ground has no appeal in a win at all costs culture. Hatred, however, has far less power than the alternative (as the picture shows). These are the challenges that cross my mind as I reflect on President Obama’s calculated decision to include the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations in his speech on the Arab Spring.
The question of Israel isn’t a simple one, even for Jews. Philip Roth, in his interesting historical fiction, The Plot Against America, expressed a sentiment I have heard in some quarters: “…the poor old man who…seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations. I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays…Our homeland was America.” But it isn’t that simple either; driven out of Palestine by the Romans 19 centuries ago, the idea and reality of a Jewish Israel is powerful. And it needs to be noted that synagogues are really just an acceptable, temporary, replacement for the Temple to an observant Jew.
The question of Israel cannot, however, be boiled down to a two thousand year old land dispute; certainly not by a nation which exists on the back of a whole history of contested land grabs (that would be America friends). When we address a person, or a nation, we must accept that forces both positive and negative have played roles in theirs or its formation. Israel has her warts, as does America. Islam has its flaws, as does Christianity and Judaism; all endeavors of humanity are so cursed. The question of Israel must be settled in the here and now, with as little thought given to the sins of our fathers as possible.
In President Obama’s speech, he made public and explicit the commonly expressed position of the United States for some time: a negotiated settlement should be constructed using the 1967 boundaries and the principles of land swaps to reflect changed demographics. But, leaving aside the inflammatory politics of the United States, the timing and reality of the statement represent lemon juice in an open wound. In September, Israel is faced with a vote in the United Nations which has a good chance of passing in favor of the recognition of Palestine as a formal nation. Such a move would isolate Israel, and pave the way for forced concessions.
President Obama told the AIPAC conference that the border issue needed to be brought into the open; he felt that negotiations must be restarted to enable the United States to effectively work in the Security Council to circumvent the vote. The President may have a point, but it doesn’t take the sting away. Most of Western Europe has publicly shifted its support away from Israel in the context of its dealings with the Palestinians, a departure by the United States would be catastrophic.
The question of Israel now, is whether President Obama is still committed to supporting the nation, and under what conditions. To answer that question, we the people must deal with a sticky and uncomfortable problem. Can we have a rational discussion about Israeli security and Palestinian dignity without resorting to the default cry of the over-emotional and intellectually lazy; racism? Can we serve the process without falling into the very real trap of human emotion and preconceptions that is racism?
Is anything less than 100% support for the most aggressive negotiating positions of the Israeli Likud Party antisemitic? Is support for the concept and reality of a nation of Israel, as a limited democracy, necessarily anti-democratic or anti-Palestinian? If you are placed, by policy beliefs or punditry, on one side of the fence or another, are you a devil to half the crowd?
American politics don’t help the matter. Mitt Romney and other Republicans saw President Obama’s speech as an opportunity to undercut him on foreign policy. Sarah Palin saw the moment as a chance to prove to the world that she reads something. The Wall Street Journal, once again forgetting its admonishment against undercutting the President (when that President is a Republican), chose to highlight Bibi Netanyahu’s “rebuke” of Mr. Obama (how dare the President of the United States chart foreign policy without the approval of the leader of Israel).
None of this helps the issue. Better is the writing by the excellent conservative commentator David Frum, and the harsh points (reasonably stated) by writer and rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Both approach the President’s position critically (Rabbi Boteach compares the President to Jackie Mason); both approach it reasonably. Neither argument, however, convinces me that President Obama’s timing or approach was wrong, because the arguments need to be made. What has gone unsaid and undiscussed must be brought into the light of day. What has only been argued by warmongers or the ideologically constrained must be passionately discussed by the reasonable.
The question of Israel is a question of humanity. The United States has been committed to the concept and reality of the Jewish homeland. It remains committed to theses ideals, but it also stands as the champion of human rights and democracy. Perhaps Mr. Obama charted a poor course through these waters; time will tell. But his speech on the Arab Spring tried to embrace Israel and humanity, democracy and faith. Speeches such as that are, perhaps, naive and overly ambitious. But how evil really, is the ambition of peace or the naivete that leads to its accomplishment?
The Rational Middle is listening…