Saturday, March 1, 2008

What Does It Mean To Be Pro-Israel? Response to a Critic on Obama's Middle East, Gidon D. Remba

In a letter response to my column “Would Obama’s Middle East be Good for the Jews?” from the Feb. 14 Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle (also reprinted in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle on Feb. 28), Howard Richman criticizes my testimony on the enthusiastic support which Illinois Senator Barack Obama has long enjoyed from the Chicago Jewish community by asking whether I realize “that the Chicago Palestinian-American community also supported him enthusiastically when he was a state senator.” Richman quotes an article which cites an anonymous source saying that Obama “often expressed general sympathy for the Palestinians — though I don’t recall him ever saying anything publicly.”

Setting aside the unreliability of “anonymous sources” whose statements can never be verified—I have an anonymous source who tells me that Mr. Richman is secretly married to Mike Huckabee—Mr. Richman seems to believe that the Palestinians, and the Palestinian American community, are the arch-enemy of the Jews. Why else would he imagine that for Senator Obama to have privately expressed sympathy for the Palestinians, if that’s what he did, while voting and acting in all respects in support of pro-Israel and Jewish interests, should be considered a threat to the Jewish community?

In fact, Palestinian Americans, like Arab and Muslim Americans, overwhelmingly support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, negotiations and peace with Israel. The same is true of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as the latest polls once again confirm. Even when Hamas won a plurality of votes in the last Palestinian election, defeating Fatah, opinion surveys showed that 73% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza believed that Hamas should “change its position on the elimination of the state of Israel,” while 84% favored a peace agreement with Israel.

When Mr. Richman and other fear-mongers bandy about reports of Obama’s private expressions of sympathy for the Palestinians as supposed proof of Obama’s “secret” anti-Israel bent, it is reminiscent of the shameful booing of then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz by some in a pro-Israel crowd in 2002. Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times about that incident: “Mr. Wolfowitz…is on the hawkish right of the Bush administration. He is a Jew whose father's family was wiped out in the Holocaust. Nonetheless, he was booed when he spoke on behalf of the president at the large pro-Israel rally held by American Jews in Washington last month. His transgression? During an encomium to Israel, he acknowledged aloud that ‘innocent Palestinians are suffering and dying in great numbers as well’ in the Middle East.” Mr. Richman panders to this same bigotry which infects parts of the Jewish community.

Moreover, if the Chicago Palestinian-American community enthusiastically supported Senator Obama during all these years while he was hewing scrupulously to strong pro-Israel positions in both the Illinois State Senate and the U.S. Senate, it clearly caused no concern in the Chicago Jewish community, in which I have been involved as an Israel activist and Jewish leader for three decades. If Obama has consistently acted as a rock-solid ally and friend of Israel and the Jewish community in his public life for many years, while expressing private sympathy for the Palestinians, we clearly have the answer to Mr. Richman’s question, “which Obama would show up during an Obama presidency”: the Obama who is staunchly pro-Israel in all his public acts and who expresses private sympathy for the Palestinians! And if a President Obama chooses to come out of the closet and risk publicly expressing sympathy for the Palestinians, as Paul Wolfowitz did, only the most intolerant and chauvinistic of Jews will find such statements evidence of anti-Israel betrayal.

Mr. Richman does cite one source who is not anonymous: Palestinian-American activist and Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah, a rabid Israel hater and anti-Zionist advocate for a “one-state solution.” Even the neoconservative Ed Lasky admitted in his anti-Obama screed in the American Thinker that Abunimah is “not the most reliable source.” But Mr. Richman is happy to invoke him if he can help sling some anti-Israel mud at Obama.

Finally, Mr. Richman’s letter highlights the real issue which lurks behind his objections to Obama: while there is virtual wall-to-wall agreement on many aspects of support for Israel among American Jews, such as continuing current levels of US military aid or increasing them if necessary, we differ in other ways on what it means to be “pro-Israel.” In a recent pair of columns, I cited former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh's statement that "he believed U.S. pressure on Israel was justified when Israel was not living up to its obligations to the U.S. ...Israelis would support or at least not object too strongly if the U.S. prodded Israel to keep the promises made in the road map." During President Bush’s recent visit to Israel he stated that “Israeli settlement expansion is…an impediment to” successful peace efforts, and insisted that "the unauthorized outposts…need to be dismantled, like the Israelis said they would do." Nonetheless, the over 100 illegal settlement outposts still remain, and the official settlements continue to build out onto more land intended for a future Palestinian state.

Perhaps Mr. Richman thinks it is pro-Israel for the President of the United States to be complicit, through inaction, in the hijacking of the Israeli government by a powerful minority on the messianic Jewish right. When this faction places obstacles in the way of a peaceful two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by continually expanding West Bank settlements and blocking the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces from removing illegal settlement outposts, I and many other American Jews do not consider it pro-Israel when the U.S. President fails to help an Israeli leader stand up to such obstruction.

After all, the pro-settlement Jewish right is acting to bring about the one-state solution which will foreclose for all time the possibility of a negotiated peace based on two states for Israelis and Palestinians. In such a "greater Israel" Jews will become the minority, Palestinians the majority, and Israel will lose either its democracy or its Jewish character. It would lose its democracy by depriving the Palestinian majority of full citizenship rights, becoming a pariah state reminiscent of apartheid South Africa, jeopardizing its remaining support in the rest of the world, as Prime Minister Olmert himself has warned. Or if Israel grants the Palestinian majority full citizenship rights, including the right to vote for representation in the Knesset, as democracy requires, it will lose its Jewish character, bringing the Zionist project to an end. Right-wing Jewish schemes which attempt to avoid impaling Israel on the horns of this dilemma are based on fantasy and have no chance whatsoever of happening in the real world.

Prime Minister Olmert said recently that if Israel cannot reach a two-state solution, dividing Israel from the great majority of the West Bank, then Israel, and the Zionist dream of a democratic Jewish state, is “finished.” A majority of Israelis who voted for political parties seeking to negotiate such a partition clearly agree with Prime Minister Olmert. It follows that those who are thwarting Israeli government efforts to bring about a secure two-state solution are acting against Israel’s most vital interests.

If, as Abunimah claims, Obama is privately “critical of U.S. bias toward Israel and lack of sensitivity to Arabs” and “very supportive of U.S. pressure on Israel,” and if a President Obama did indeed act to prod the Israeli government to freeze and then begin to roll back the West Bank settlements, he would at long last do the very thing that Israel needs most, which recent presidents have lacked the courage to do. It is precisely this failure of vision and will on the part of American leaders, especially President Bush, which has allowed Israel to fall deeper into a hopeless abyss in which it is increasingly difficult to work out a two-state deal with any credibility. Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Carter and G. H. W. Bush all had the chutzpah to press Israel to do what it needed, even if it was politically unpopular at the time. And each, with the exception of Eisenhower, contributed greatly to enhancing Israel’s security. (It goes without saying, as I have emphasized in many previous articles, that the U.S. must push its Arab and European allies to apply pressure on the Palestinian government as well to fulfill their obligations to stop incitement against Israel and to fight terror. These countries must also do much more to help the Abbas-Fayad government build up its security forces to enable it to fulfill those commitments.)

Israeli journalist Raanan Shaked has written in Yediot Ahronot what too few have been willing to admit but all too many know. Leading Israeli commentators, he notes, “repeatedly say that George W. Bush is Israel’s best friend and it would be best if he just stayed in the White House with all the other furniture. Well, you saw what happens when such a great friend of Israel is ruling Washington: Nothing. Any president who resides in the White House without aiming a double-barreled rifle to the heads of Israel and the Palestinians so that they get down on their knees and put their hands up is not quite a friend of Israel. Yes, there’s plenty of love there, but something gets screwed…. It is indeed possible that the rumors are right, and that [Obama] is not overly sentimental towards Israel. We can only hope. An over-abundance of sentimentality in Washington has been hindering us for decades.”

We can only hope that Barack Obama is the leader who will put an end to the indulgent friendship in which George W. Bush has bathed Israel. Good friends don’t let friends drink and drive. They take the keys and drive them home until they regain sobriety. Now that’s what true friendship is all about.

Gidon D. Remba is a veteran Israel activist and political analyst. He blogs at and can be reached at

Mr. Remba's commentaries on Israel, the Middle East and Jewish affairs have appeared widely in the Jewish and general press, including the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Chicago Sun Times, the Nation, Ha’aretz, the Forward, the Jerusalem Post, the Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, where he writes a monthly column on Israel.

Mr. Remba served as Senior Foreign Press Editor and Translator in the Israel Prime Minister's Office from 1977-1978 during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process. He translated the Knesset speeches of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, and Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, as well as Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and other Israeli leaders for the foreign press during the period from Egyptian President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem until the Camp David Peace Accords. He co-translated Sadat's Knesset speech into English for the world press.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your excellent blog, and for your previous informative posts in response to the right-wing smear campaign against Obama.

Your post for today is one of the best I've seen on what it means to be progressively pro-Israel--

Why is it that so many can't seem to move beyond the juvenile "us vs. them" mentality of thinking that to be pro-Israel you have to be anti-Palestinian??!!

Cheers for your writing!