What Does It Mean To Be the Pro-Israel Candidate?

For the record, Rudy Giuliani gives me the very deep creeps, relieved only by his current poor electoral prospects. I mention this because some people think he is the most pro-Israel of candidates. If so, may God protect Israel from its friends.

Giuliani, with Norman (World War IV) Podhoretz and Daniel Pipes among his foreign policy advisers, is only important as the most extreme example. Every presidential candidate who might get more than 3 percent of the vote in a primary anywhere seeks the "pro-Israel label," peculiarly defined by policies incongruent with Israeli political realities. Barack Obama gave a speech to AIPAC last year implying that he supported the way Israel prosecuted its 2006 war in Lebanon. (An Israeli inquiry report on decision-making in that war, due out soon, could end Prime Minister Olmert's career.) As I've noted previously, Hillary Clinton supports "an undivided Jerusalem" as Israel's capital. (Olmert insists on negotiating Jerusalem's future, even though it just cost him a right-wing coalition partner.)

The main reason that Democratic candidates are less frightening to a progressive Israeli worrying about his country's future, as my progressive friends in Washington remind me, is that the Democrats may be jiving. That is, because they are sensible folks otherwise, we can assume they don’t really mean this stuff. They even hide small hints of moderation in their rhetoric. The Republicans' sincerity is truly scary.

I suggest that it's time to talk about what "pro-Israel" should mean. Not because the discussion will change campaign rhetoric: The candidates will stick to cliches. But after the election, one will have to govern. Members of Congress will need to decide how to vote on the usual strident resolutions backed by AIPAC. Debate now on what it means to support Israel might mean that a year from now, elected leaders will be able to refer to publicly recognized ideas to justify acting more sensibly.

Start here: Being pro-Israel does not require backing the most bellicose possible Israeli position, anymore than being "pro-American" requires backing the war in Iraq. To be "pro" means to support, to want a country to survive and flourish. Supporting an ill-considered war (Iraq, Lebanon) is like encouraging a friend to leap into a barroom brawl: a poor form of friendship.

To be pro-Israel certainly doesn't mean basing foreign policy on the alleged conflict of civilizations; the whole West locked in combat with the Islamic world. The perception that the United States is at war with Islam leaves Israel dangerously exposed on the front lines. It is in Israel's interest to get along at least tolerably with as many of its Muslim neighbors as possible.

A pro-Israel policy does not mean refusal to talk to Iran. An Iranian bomb is certainly a serious danger to Israel. Refusing to negotiate with Teheran means giving up in advance on possible ways to reduce the threat. There are hard-nosed strategic analysts in Israel who advocate a diplomatic quid pro quo: U.S. acceptance of the Iranian regime in return for an end to uranium enrichment and support for terror groups. If America resorts to military means, it will further destabilize the Middle East, doubling the damage caused by the war in Iraq.

Being pro-Israel certainly doesn't mean standing in the way of peace negotiations with Syria, as the Bush administration has consistently done. Negotiations might not succeed. If they do, they will probably produce a cold peace-- which is much better than the current reality of cold war, in which Damascus uses Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies to bleed Israel. (If one reads Obama's statement to AIPAC very closely, he said that, "No Israel prime minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States." I'd like to believe the "or blocked from" is a hint at ending the veto on peace talks with Syria.)

Most critically, support for Israel does not mean support for West Bank settlement, for the Whole Land of Israel, for endless occupation. The sane, mainstream Zionist vision was and is of a democratic state with a Jewish majority, with full rights for all citizens, a country living at peace with its neighbors. (That's what the country's declaration of independence says.) Rule over the disenfranchised Palestinians of the West Bank undermines democracy. Every additional settler makes withdrawal more difficult.

Many moderate Palestinians who only recently supported a two-state solution are despairing of the possibility of partition and are talking about demanding political rights in a single state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. One reason for the Palestinian despair is that the Bush administration talks about two states, but has done close to nothing to push that program. A one-state "solution" means the end of Israel. The conflict between the two national groups within one state is likely to look more like Bosnia in the 1990s than Belgium today.

Israel's most basic strategic interest is a peace agreement and a withdrawal. Avoiding a situation in which the only way out is a one-state solution is also a U.S. interest. Right now, Israel is the one country in the Mideast that can be depended on to stay pro-American. This would not be true of a single state with an inevitable Palestinian majority and a built-in communal conflict. Acting much more energetically to reach a two-state agreement is therefore both pro-Israel and an expression of U.S. self-interest.

Further, a pro-Israel policy requires using both incentives and pressures to get to an agreement. As one Israeli ex-general pointed out to me recently, sometimes U.S. pressure serves an Israeli government that needs to make a change in course. Right now, he pointed out, Israel needs economic growth in the West Bank, which would help the pro-agreement Fatah government there. Growth requires removing roadblocks, a move that involves a certain security risk and makes the army brass unhappy. The counterweight of U.S. pressure would make it easier for the government to move. The government needs to take down illegal settlement outposts, but fears paying the domestic price of confrontation with thousands of rightist youth. U.S. pressure would actually help the government, showing the public that inaction has its own price. Right now the Israeli public has no idea what the settlement budget is. American insistence on financial transparency as a condition for current aid levels would serve Israeli democracy and boost domestic support for a pullback. On the incentive side, an offer of U.S. funding for relocating settlers inside Israel could also increase political support. (Irritating as it may be to pay Israel to correct its mistakes, the policy goal of a peace agreement is more important.)

Can one apply pressure and be "pro"? Yes. The Carter Administration pushed and yanked Israel and Egypt toward a full peace agreement -- an agreement that was the greatest American contribution to the security of both countries. Which underlines another point: Being pro-Israel does not mean being anti-Arab.

For an American administration to be pro-Israel does not mean adopting the apocalyptic foreign policy of John Hagee's Christians United for Israel. (Mike Huckabee gave his pre-Christmas sermon at Hagee's San Antonio church). It does not mean outdoing Bush in finding neo-con advisers (see again: Giuliani). It does mean a considerably different policy than what the Democratic candidates have yet advocated. Maybe if we can define "pro" more sensibly, the policy next January will also be productive.

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