Sunday, May 22, 2011

On Obama's Middle East Address re Israel's Borders

Peter Nicholas wrote an article in the May 22, 2011 Los Angeles Times, "GOP sees an opening on Israel policy."  He noted that Obama's comments in his Middle East policy address last week calling for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians based partly on boundaries in place before Israel's territorial gains in the 1967 war were surely going to be used against him by Republicans but not so much to peel Jewish voters from supporting Obama as to appeal to pro-Israel conservative Republicans in Republican primaries.  I agree with Peter's observations and offer some of my own on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute below in a copy of an email I wrote to him.

Dear Peter,

Thanks for your well written article in today's (May 22, 2011) Los Angeles Times, "GOP sees an opening on Israel policy."  I think you nailed it.

I am a 68 year old Jewish American who remains a liberal Democrat, albeit not as liberal as I was decades ago, and a supporter of President Obama.  I also lived in Tunisia in the late 1960's for a little less than two years while doing graduate work at Princeton University.

As usual, I find the Republicans hypocritical on their stance toward Obama's comments about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations being based on the pre-1967 borders.  And I wish journalists and other commentators took a broader and more historical view of things.  In my view, George H. W. Bush had no love of Israel or Jews, not that he was anti-Semitic.  He was what I'd call an old line Republican far more focused on oil and preserving America's interests in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia than in supporting Israel.  His son, George W. Bush, brought a more Christian evangelical perspective than his father to the Presidency and that contributed in part to his strong support of almost anything the Israeli government chose to do.  As well, George W. found the mantra of freedom and democracy overpowering, however inapplicable they were in many instances, and saw the world in black and white.  In that division, Israel had to be on the 'white' side.  But, as I recall, it was George W. who made explicit America's commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, not something that preceding U.S. Presidents had trumpeted anywhere near as loudly.  He was also obviously concerned about America's position in the Gulf but he nonetheless remained a very strong supporter of Israel.

Many American Jews are not in love with Israeli policy that continues to maintain settlements throughout the West Bank.  Many of us are far more critical of the Israeli government than evangelical Christians whose support is not rooted in any affection toward Jews but, rather, in their view of Biblical prophesy and the like.  Such friends can prove quite unreliable but Israeli governments have welcomed such support and I certainly do not reject it.  I just find it interesting and striking that Obama's statements about pre-1967 borders are more likely to give Republicans an election issue among Christians than among Jews, the central thesis of your article.  

I find it sad as well as it misses the larger issue that, at least in my view of things, time is not on Israel's side.  The demographics show far higher birth rates among Arabs than Jews, whether within Israel proper or within the region.  As well, over time Arab military strength has increased and Arab militias, most notably Hezbollah, have shown that they can develop discipline and savvy in their activities both within neighboring Arab countries and against Israel.  While Israel cannot and should not make concessions that will ultimately prove more costly than remaining on hostile relations with the Palestinians and other Arabs, there has to be more creative thinking and risk taking.  It is difficult to say exactly where the winds are blowing, but the so-called Arab Spring has given rise to voices of a younger generation of Arabs and many of them, filled with idealistic imagery and the like, are likely to be more rather than less hostile to Israel.  Then, too, the current turn away from more secular regimes to those with more of an Islamic basis, whether in Turkey (albeit not an Arab country), among Palestinians in the form of Hamas, or elsewhere, does not augur well for Israel.

As you noted in your article, many American Jews, myself included, do not believe that Obama is unfriendly toward Israel or wishes to undermine Israel's security in order to win support among Arabs.  I believe that he is trying to move the parties toward renewed negotiations, which may or may not happen regardless of what he does.  That the Palestinian Authority, or Fatah or whatever name its given, has agreed to some ill-defined coalition with Hamas, may doom negotiations.  Then, again, this may (and I stress may) be the beginning of some movement on the part of Hamas that the United States and Israel should be attentive to and seek to encourage.  There was a time when Arafat and the PLO were intransigent opponents of Israel's right to exist.  Over time Arafat moved politically.  While many question whether he truly changed his deepest feelings, I think it is fair to say that he and his organization did move toward moderation, as reflected in Abbas' positions on issues today.  Israel, with encouragement and support from the United States, must be willing to move as well.  While some might say that the abandonment by some right wing Israelis of a dream of Israel as encompassing Judea and Samaria constitutes a concession, I respectfully do not agree.  Israel needs to make concessions regarding the abandonment of its settlements and move toward further accommodations.  Perhaps the pre-1967 borders are indefensible.  Then that has to be negotiated.  But let's not fault President Obama for trying to get things moving by not entirely embracing one side's position or the other and by making explicit what seemingly has been American policy on the subject for decades.

Thanks again for your article.  Keep up the good work.