The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Third Rail of American Politics

Categories: Seek Peace and Pursue it

Justin Elliot, in Mother Jones, searched the transcripts of the past 11 presidential debates to see how often the situation in Gaza or the larger issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came up. (Hat tip to Phil Weiss for noticing this one). The skinny:

In nine of the 11 debates, the terms Israel, Palestinians, and Gaza were either never uttered or were mentioned once or twice peripherally…The two exceptions were the November 15 Democratic debate in Las Vegas, where Bill Richardson, unprompted, briefly outlined his ideas for a two-state solution, and the December 4 Democratic radio debate on NPR, in which moderator Robert Siegel posed the single question about Israel of the past 11 debates. Unfortunately, the query was effectively avoided. Excerpt of Edwards and Obama dodging, after the jump:

“When we do things that policymakers in Washington may think are rational, like very strong support of Israel, that also upsets a lot of those 1 billion Muslims you’ve described. How would you, Senator Edwards … answer the complaint that the U.S., in its support of Israel, is so pro-Israeli, it can’t be an evenhanded, honest broker of matters and is anti-Muslim?”

Edwards proceeds to ignore the question, makes a point about Ahmadinejad and says to improve relations with Muslims we must “help make education available to fight global poverty.” He makes no mention of Israel/Palestine. Siegel then turns to Obama. The senator says we need to close Guantanamo and talk not just to our friends but to our enemies. He, like Edwards, doesn’t touch the Israel issue.

So, once again, the third rail of American politics continues to be avoided, tip-toed around. No one tries to shut the current off and render it safe for candidates to step on. No candidate is brave enough to risk the infamous, shameful firestorm that greeted Howard Dean when he dared to convey support for even-handedness in 2003. Indeed, the current candidates’ fears of screwing up if they say anything at all about Israel, let alone anything helpful or interesting, are based in large part on the memory of what happened to Dean. There are a lot of people who share the blame for this problem. I want to tell a story about my people, my camp, the pro-Israel doves who have done precious little to address it.

In late October, 2003, I sat in a New York City boardroom with about twenty American Jews and listened to two of Howard Dean’s campaign aides explain that he had often bashed Hamas and was dedicated to Israel’s security needs. They had come to New York for a few meetings to trot out Dean’s pro-Israel credentials and shore up Jewish support during what they judged to be a major crisis in his Presidential campaign.

It’s worth reviewing precisely what Dean said, because there should have been nothing controversial about it. The intifadeh was raging. Yasser Arafat was holed up in his battered Presidential compound in Ramallah, besieged by the Israelis under Ariel Sharon, who refused to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority until it clamped down on terrorist cells. In early September, when asked if the U.S. should push for negotiations, Dean said, “I don’t believe stopping the terror has to be a prerequisite for talking…I don’t find it convenient to blame people. Nobody should have violence, ever. But they do, and it’s not our place to take sides.” The following week, he told the Washington Post that the U.S. should be “evenhanded.”

Dean got creamed by his Democratic rivals –Kerry and Lieberman–, by Democratic Members of Congress, by still unidentified people (probably Republican operatives) who jammed the phones and e-mails of Jewish organizational leaders with venomous messages, by the Republican Jewish Coalition and by a few right wing Jews like Dov Hikind. Their message: “Howard Dean advocates that the U.S. not always take Israel’s side, in each and every circumstance…How shocking!”

The meeting I attended included three or four board members and supporters of left-of-center American Jewish organizations along with a motley group that included other professionals, grad students and staffers from other Jewish groups. We were handed a document with pro-Israel, anti-terrorist statements that had been made by Dean over the years. We were reminded that he had said that his positions were actually closer to those of AIPAC than Americans for Peace Now.

The experience was unsettling, almost surreal, because I knew for a fact that at least a half dozen people in that room AGREED with Dean. They wanted the U.S. to be an honest broker and wanted the Bush Administration to persuade Israel to talk to the Palestinian Authority. Based on the Jews I’ve encountered in the NY Democratic establishment, I’m fairly certain that a good many other people in the room, most of whom I’d never met, also thought that Dean had spoken the truth.

Yet no one at the meeting expressed support for what Dean had said. No one lamented the treatment he had received, or discussed how Dean could make his case without alienating potential supporters. My recollection is that that they just asked polite questions about the candidate’s views on Arafat and Israel’s tough response to the intifadeh. They bought into the assumption that Dean’s only problem was that he had committed a terrible political blunder and needed to fix it, quickly. During the meeting and in conversations I overheard afterwards, no one was willing to imply or say that it was the political system that had blundered and needed to be fixed, that the prevailing rules of political rhetoric had to change so that politicians like Dean could say what the people in that room actually believed.

I wanted to point out that Dean was, in fact, conveying a message most American Jews agreed with, according to polls, but couldn’t get a word in before the aides had to leave.

There were different cliques in that room, and many of us were strangers to each other. So it is likely that one reason no one came to Dean’s defense was sheer me-too-ism, a worry about sticking necks out too far or being misunderstood. It is hardly unusual for mainstream American Jews to call for more balance in U.S. policies in the Middle East. But some of them are hesitant to do so unless they know their listeners or have had a chance to scope them out.

But it is time to stop being hesitant. It is the Israel-right-or-wrong crowd that continues to dictate the rules of the debate, the prevailing definitions of words that are deemed kosher for public figures to use about Israel and words that are unforgivable. Because they do, and because candidates are terrified of their reaction to any campaign rhetoric that has even a taint of moderation, we hear almost nothing about one of the most important foreign policy issues of our time during a vitally important election season.

But it is time for the rest of us in the American Jewish community to start wresting control of the conversation from the right wing language police, for Israel’s sake as well as America’s.

When Dean spoke out, he got almost no support from the organized American Jewish community. Israel Policy Forum, to its credit, sent him a letter expressing gratitude for his commitment to active American diplomacy in the Middle East. I don’t remember if APN or other left of center groups came to his defense, but if they did, they couldn’t cut through the clutter and get noticed. Mostly, the American Jewish groups were silent. It was the politicians and their supporters who made the biggest fuss about Dean.

Many Jewish Democratic donors and fundraisers who secretly agreed with Dean were backing Kerry and Lieberman, so it is understandable that they said nothing especially positive about Dean. But if American Jews who want to end one-sided diplomacy in the Middle East still practice timid self-censorship even amongst themselves, how can they expect America’s political elite to push for a different approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict? Political candidates should not be blamed for assuming that even slightly original statements about the conflict, even tepid endorsements of energetic American diplomacy, will cause a stir in the American Jewish community. They will continue to cling to this assumption until they get clear, and public, signals from more people in the community that it is not only OK to talk more candidly about Israel and advocate the policies briefly espoused by Dean; it is vitally important to do so.

Where to start? How about if more left-of-center Jewish leaders take a deep breath and start using the e-word, ‘even-handed,” or its equivalents, to describe the kind of American diplomacy they would like to see? It would be better if they stopped using innocuous euphemisms like “proactive diplomacy” or “energetic, creative American involvement.” It would be better still if more of them said, explicitly, that sometimes the U.S. needs to employ sticks as well as carrots when pressing Israel to stop taking steps that preclude peace.

Their rationale has always been that by not saying what they actually meant, by not advocating what they actually wanted to happen, they would avoid getting “too far out in front of the community,” and centrists would feel more comfortable associating with the Jewish peace camp.

It was a reasonable strategy. As Dean learned, among certain listeners, words like “evenhanded” and concepts like occasional U.S. pressure on Israel evoke primal fears and memories of a time when Israel faced hostile Arab armies on every border. But placating people who have those memories and fears hasn’t accomplished very much. It has not prompted throngs of mainstream American Jews to actively support Jewish peace groups here or in Israel. Instead, it has propped up the false perception in Washington that American Jews do not trust their government to challenge both Israelis and Palestinians to make difficult compromises.

The only way to start changing that perception is to start talking and writing as if old definitions no longer apply, and show that old code words are no longer frightening. Now, I am not saying that many politicians are likely to use the e-word, the p-word (“pressure”) or their equivalents any time soon. Of course they won’t. The rules of the game won’t change that dramatically. But by changng the meaning of code words, by clearly enunciating the need for America to lean on both parties to this conflict, perhaps we can at least create more rhetorical space for incumbents and candidates. Perhaps we can give them and their staffs a sense that American Jews want and expect them to discuss new approaches to the conflict. Perhaps they will start edging much closer to the third rail and eventually won’t be afraid to step on it.

To be evenhanded means to be fair, by definition. In this case, it can mean whatever we want it to mean. It should mean taking both sides’ needs and aspirations into account. It should mean being ready to chastise and reward each side, not just one side. It need not mean shoving agreements down the throats of Israeli leaders or the Israeli people. That would never happen, given the solid relationship between the U.S. and Israel. I think an evenhanded American foreign policy that helped to end the occupation would be pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-American.

An op-ed I wrote for the Forward on this topic in March, 2005 got a bit more specific:

Unless Palestinians have confidence that Washington is taking their needs and aspirations seriously, they will have no motivation to stay at the table. So, sometimes the United States will need to avoid passing judgment on either party’s position on matters such as specific borders…At other times, diplomatic atmospherics and longstanding American policy — such as objections to settlement expansion — will require the United States to publicly criticize both sides, not just the Palestinians.

That is what “evenhandedness” and “not taking sides” mean to me and other American Jews who want to help the Israeli majority that craves an end to the occupation.

It will be incredibly difficult to start changing the definitions and altering the language used by the American Jewish establishment to describe foreign policy priorities in the Middle East. It will be even more difficult to create the kind of atmosphere in which politicians will risk stepping on that third rail, as Howard Dean did for a few brave seconds.  Indeed, it might be easier to make peace in the Middle East.   But other progressive movements have managed to seize control of public rhetoric and the terms used to describe controversial topics. As a result, politicians felt that they had more freedom, and more rhetorical space, to endorse the goals of those movements. The “pro-choice” movement did it. The “fair trade” movement has begun to do it. Surely the American Jewish peace camp, which includes some mainstream organizational leaders and political donors to both parties, should start trying.

First published at Realistic Dove

About Dan Fleshler, Board Member

Dan Fleshler, a New York-based media and public affairs strategist, is a board member of Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation. His book, "Transforming America's Israel Lobby-The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change"(a new release from Potomac Books) published in May of 2009 has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. He blogs at Realistic Dove (
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