Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Obama and Israel: Triangulating Between Pragmatism and Idealism, Gidon D. Remba

In a comment on my "The New Republican Jewish Obama Smear: Return of the Big Lie," Richard Silverstein of Tikkun Olam wrote that "some of Obama's statements about Israel have been shamefully one-sided leaving no room for a balanced view of the conflict. He needs to be called on that even by those like me who support him." This raises what for many of us in the progressive community is the most challenging question of the presidential campaign: how do you win an election while at the same time remaining true to your (progressive) principles? Richard, here's my response to your comment.

I’m not sure that we can have it both ways. You acknowledge that adopting a “more one-sided” pro-Israel position is “part of the price you pay for moving from local to national & presidential politics.” Just how much Obama has had to do so is of course precisely the bone of contention between the Obama camp and his right-wing critics. But let's grant, for the sake of argument, that he, like any presidential candidate, has had to do that to some measure.

Yet what positions on the conflict could Obama take, that he hasn’t taken, which would enable him to gain the support of a large majority of the American Jewish community while remaining faithful to a progressive political outlook? We know that a considerable portion of the American Jewish community supports many of the positions of the Israeli peace camp. But can you run a successful presidential race hewing to those positions more so than Obama has so far? Solving this problem requires a complex triangulation between pragmatism and idealism.

I agree that Obama has made a number of AIPAC-like policy pronouncements throughout the campaign, including those he made to AIPAC in Chicago last year. Yet in several key areas he has clearly deviated from AIPAC orthodoxy. I would say that he has probably succeeded in doing that more so than any Democratic presidential candidate thus far.

First, there’s his statement in favor of negotiations with Syria, which is wisely couched in pro-Israeli government terms. In this, Obama has followed the tack that I (and other American Jewish progressive Zionists) took in late 2006 and early 2007, in my case, in a column in the Jewish press which you discussed at Tikkun Olam, "Look Who's Pressuring Israel”, where I wrote: “In reality, the Bush Administration is pressuring the Israeli government to refuse peace talks with Syria, according to the testimony of Prime Minister Olmert, his advisors and cabinet ministers. AIPAC, and its allies in the organized Jewish community, who rush to loudly protest any time there is a whiff of US pressure on Israel in favor of a peace initiative, has absolutely nothing to say when the White House blocks Israel from talking with Syria.” Following this line, which had become a staple of progressive Zionist/Americans for Peace Now criticism of the Bush Administration—see "APN Slams Bush for Pressuring Israel to Avoid Peace Talks", Obama told AIPAC on March 2, 2007, in a twist on its own never-pressure-Israel dogma: “No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States.”

Second, Obama has violated AIPAC orthodoxy, which shuns unconditional direct talks with Iran, relying instead on sanctions and implied threats of preemptive war, by repeatedly calling for negotiations with Iran over the nuclear impasse and other issues.

Third, Obama just told a group of leading American Jews in Cleveland, Ohio, that “there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you're anti-Israel and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress." (A transcript of Obama's remarks, well worth reading, is here.) AIPAC has not always followed Likud policy of course, but it has often tended to hawkish positions, sometimes more so than the Israeli government itself (as I've discussed in several publications, including "Wanted: A Moderate Pro-Israel Lobby," and "AIPAC Hijack").

Fourth, Obama’s campaign strategist David Axelrod told the New York Times a few weeks ago that, in Roger Cohen’s paraphrase, “There would be no six-year time-outs on Israel-Palestine under an Obama presidency. ‘He’d be actively involved from day one,’ said Axelrod.” AIPAC was quite content to go along with the Bush Administration's policy of malign neglect towards peace efforts during its first six years.

Triangulating between the pragmatic imperatives of winning the Democratic primaries while remaining faithful to his principles, should Obama be criticizing Israeli settlements and occupation policies while running for the Democratic nomination? Should he now, or during the general election campaign, be condemning Israel’s harsh economic pressure on the population of Gaza in response to Qassam rocket attacks? Will that help him win the American Jewish vote and defeat John McCain in the general election? Do we want to turn him into a Ron Paul, a Ralph Nader or a Dennis Kucinich? How much more can he really be like any of them and not marginalize, and forfeit, his candidacy?

During the general election campaign against McCain there will be more opportunity for policy differences on the Middle East (beyond Iraq) to emerge. But I don’t think that the royal road to the White House would have Obama become much more of an advocate for Peace Now positions, or, lehavdil, for those of Jewish Voice for Peace (with whom I disagree on many issues). OK, maybe just a little. But the onus is on us progressive Zionists and other pro-Israel Jewish peaceniks to say precisely how.

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