M.J. Rosenberg
Israel Policy Forum
July 28, 2008 - 4:23pm

Watching Barack Obama in Israel it became clear that he knows the Arab-Israeli issue well. Those who hoped he would make some gaffe that would hurt his candidacy were disappointed. He knows the ins and outs of the issue the way President Bill Clinton did. He feels no need to rely on sound bites about “our democratic ally” or Israel’s obvious “right to defend itself.” Maybe it’s because he is so close to the Chicago Jewish community, which has backed him since the start of his career, but he can talk about Israel with fluency and comfort. He does not have to memorize talking points.

The Israelis—not an easy group to impress—were impressed. Why wouldn’t they be? They have enough confidence in the rightness of their cause to assume that Obama’s knowledge of their country and its problems can only redound to their country’s benefit. They are not afraid that anyone who understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will automatically oppose them.

It is only here in the United States that pro-Israel advocates insist that politicians rely on canned talking points to show their devotion to Israel. It is as if they believe—and perhaps they do—that thinking about the Middle East can only lead to anti-Israel conclusions. They demand that politicians mouth pieties and, all too often, that demand is met.

There is a real irony here, one which most of us who deal with this issue in Washington confront daily. It is that the politicians who are most deft at spouting memorized “pro-Israel” talking points tend to care about Israel the least. The ones who speak from the heart and the head, who study the issue, and try to come up with ways to break out of the deadly status quo are the ones who care the most. This includes Jewish politicians, many of whom pretend that they care deeply but only discovered Israel when they decided that playing the Jewish card would help them politically.

Think about it. There is no political downside to simply going with the crowd on the Middle East. A politician knows that all they have to do is say that they are for Israel, and against the Palestinians, and they will be deemed a “staunch supporter” of Israel and the campaign money will flow their way.

In short, supporting the status quo is the path of least resistance. It is the default position for every politician, easy and risk-free. But it is also the one that only adds to Israel’s security problems—and America’s declining strategic position in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, many in the pro-Israel community seem not to understand this. They believe that the status quo—and specifically the last eight years—have been good for Israel when, in fact, they have been disastrous.

Eight years ago, as President Clinton was preparing to leave office, Israelis and Palestinians were closer to an agreement than ever before. Israel had experienced three years that were virtually terror-free, thanks to Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation. The Clinton-engineered peace treaty with Jordan had eliminated the threat from the east, especially given that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been neutralized and defanged by sanctions. The Syrians then, as now, were considering just how much peace and normalization they were willing to offer Israel in exchange for the Golan Heights, but the border itself was quiet.

The eight years that followed were some of the bloodiest in Israel’s history. A second intifada took over a thousand Israeli lives (and three times as many Palestinians). Following its conclusion, and the end of Arafat’s reign, the U.S. demand for elections in the West Bank and Gaza brought Hamas to power. With the United States abandoning the role of Middle East “honest broker,” Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were intermittent and fruitless. Today, in the summer of 2008, Israelis see a new frightening form of terrorism manifested by two attacks by bulldozer in the streets of Jerusalem. And then there is the utter destabilization produced by the Iraq War, which has moved Iraq into Iran’s orbit, facilitating Iranian trouble-making and making it more of a threat to Israel than ever before.

This is not a status quo anyone should seek to preserve, let alone celebrate. Politicians who endorse it serve neither America’s nor Israel’s interests. Pro-Israel? No way.

The next president, whether Obama or McCain, needs to get back to where negotiations left off in 2000 and help wrap up the deal. It is not going to happen without U.S. leadership and it’s up to the next president to provide it.

The problem he will face is that his political advisors are going to warn that it is way too risky to take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. They will argue against doing it in the first year of a new administration (“You don’t need that kind of fight in the first year”). They will warn against doing it in the second year (“What? In a Congressional election year?”) and certainly not in the third or fourth years when a president runs for re-election.

The cynics will always find an excuse not to touch this issue and it all comes down to political expediency. That is because there is no solid argument against U.S. leadership; the argument against it all comes down to the perception that it is politically dangerous to take on the status quo lobby.

This is no different than the arguments against doing anything about any of the major problems that confront the country. Name an issue and I’ll show you a special interest that wants to preserve the status quo. No matter if it’s immigration, health care, energy, the deteriorating economy, or whatever, the forces of inertia usually prevail. The path of least resistance, no matter what the issue, is doing nothing.

We’ve had enough of that.

The next president will confront an Israeli-Palestinian situation in which, unlike the days prior to the first Bush and Clinton administrations, mainstream Israelis and Palestinians are almost in full agreement about what peace will look like. If George W. Bush can repeatedly endorse “two states, living side by side in peace and security,” his successor can make it happen.

The best news that came out of Obama’s trip is when he said, repeatedly, that he will press for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement “starting from the minute I’m sworn into office.” Unlike Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and a host of other more complex issues, this is one that can be wrapped up quickly. All it takes is the will.


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