The rightward lurch can be explained by the Democrats’ reliance on pro-Israel money and the lack of political gain garnered from a fair position.
On August 2, Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) became the latest Democrat to accuse the Republicans and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney of “politicizing” Israel.
“I rise today out of disbelief with the rhetoric coming from Republicans and their presidential candidate concerning the U.S. relationship with Israel,” Lautenberg said on the Senate floor. “Frankly, it pains me to see that a political trip to Israel is carried with a message to scare the Israelis that President Obama and this administration are not as fast and as complete as they are…Republicans want to use our relationship with Israel as a political game, which is terrible for America’s national security and bad for Israel.”
At first blush, it might seem that the fraying of a bipartisan consensus around Israel might open up an opportunity for political action toward a change in policy. One might think that Democrats might be more open to ideas for promoting peace and Palestinian rights alongside Israeli security, in order to gain a major foreign policy advantage over the GOP. Alas, the opposite seems to be the case.
Democrats seem to be reacting to the Republican shift to the right by moving their own platforms toward a still more hawkish position. As an example, we can consider the words of outgoing Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY):
“Palestinians are well aware of the special relationship between America and Israel but they have always recognized that even though we are not impartial, that we were at least not hostile toward them as a people, or opposed to their legitimate aspirations for a state of their own.”
Ackerman thus speaks the truth that has been well-known for a long time, but has not been spoken before: the United States does not act as an honest broker in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. This has long been an understood reality, but it has always been stated that despite the US’ “special relationship” with Israel, the United States was a fair and balanced moderator between the two conflicting parties. That such blatant a statement–coming from a two-state solution supporter and a congressman who has, at times, spoken out vociferously against Israeli settlers–can now be spoken as conventional understanding is a strong indication of a sharp shift rightward.
It isn’t just the politicians, either. The National Jewish Democratic Council blasted Romney for considering Condoleezza Rice as his running mate in November because she had once compared the Palestinians’ situation to the civil rights struggle for African Americans.
“Governor Romney,” NJDC says on its Web site. “Are you actually vetting former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for vice president? How do you account for Rice’s much-criticized record on Israel? Are you comfortable with her comparison of Palestinians to African Americans fighting for civil rights in the 1960s? Do you agree with the way she pressured Israel to accept a peace treaty with Hezbollah before the Israeli military had a chance to complete its military operations?”
Losing all pretense of liberalism, this question reeks of the sort of dishonesty that characterizes neoconservative views on this issue. Indeed, the source NJDC links to on its Web site is a Tablet magazine article by neoconservative writer Lee Smith. Rice’s full quote, which Smith selectively plucked from a 2007 article in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, reporting on Rice’s meeting with a team of Arab and Israeli envoys, includes that bit of empathy with the Palestinians. But it is followed by this: “Like Israelis, I understand what it’s like to go to sleep not knowing if you will be hurt in an explosion, the feeling of terror walking around your own neighborhood, or walking to your house of prayer.”
NJDC not only cites a neoconservative writer, not only considers comparing discrimination, albeit quite oppressive, to a military occupation to be somehow unfair to the occupiers, but also completely misrepresents Rice’s actions at the end of the 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon. As Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf points out: “Secretary Rice did not pressure Israel to have a peace treaty with Hezbollah, but actually rescued the government from a disastrous campaign that ultimately cost the defense minister and (indirectly) the prime minister their jobs. As every Israeli knows, the Bush administration allowed Israel all the time it wanted ‘to complete the military operation,’ but the army simply failed, and after more than 30 days the government was desperate to find a way to end the war.” In fact, Rice followed Israel’s script in that event to a T.
One might well believe that this is much ado about nothing, that all of this pandering to the extreme-right wing government in Israel is simply par for the course in an election year. After all, in the United States, we have grown accustomed to watching, as every four years, presidential candidates and their party loyalists scramble to gather as much pro-Israel financing as they can get. Whatever point the peace process or any other Israeli-Arab issue might be at, diplomacy is shelved as politics and fundraising take center stage. So this could well be more of the same.
But there is reason to believe a more profound shift is occurring here. In January, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution that clearly stated Israel was not occupying any lands not its own, and called for “…a united Israel governed under one law for all people.” At the very least, this stands in stark contrast to long-held US policies, which have held that resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict over land issues be resolved between the parties. More than that, it seems to be calling for a single state under Israeli rule, with no mention of Palestinian rights, which certainly raises fears of institutionalized apartheid.
Republican Representative Joe Walsh clearly stated his opposition to a two-state solution, and drew no opprobrium from within his own party. Nor did Representative Allen West draw a rebuke when he took a similar stance, and blasted the centrist Jewish group J Street for supporting a two-state solution.
While Walsh and West are marginal figures in the House of Representatives on this issue, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is much more prominent. Despite complete consensus that US funding of the Palestinian Authority has been wildly successful in ensuring the PA would work to maintain security for Israeli civilians, Ros-Lehtinen has led efforts to stop that funding from getting to the Palestinians. The PA faced collapse as a result, and Israel, no less, applied for an International Monetary Fund loan on the PA’s behalf to keep it afloat.
All of this suggests that the GOP shift to a much more radical stance on the Israel-Palestine issue is more than mere election year jockeying. And, if so, the response from Democrats would indicate that, their protests about Republicans politicizing the Israel issue notwithstanding, the entire political debate on Capitol Hill is shifting even further to the right.
There are several factors that might be causing that shift. The most obvious is that the GOP, in the wake of the Tea Party’s ballooning influence, has moved to more radically right-wing positions on many issues. There is also the fact that Israel itself has been steadily drifting rightward and now has a government in power that is not only the most right-wing in its history, but also the most stable.
Moreover, Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is far more experienced than any of his predecessors with US politics and has very deep and close ties to prominent neoconservatives and wealthy right-wing Jews in the US. With the birth of super-PACs unleashing Sheldon Adelson and his ilk on this issue, the GOP’s love affair with Netanyahu can really flower.
Both the Israeli and American right wing seem to be much more inclined to believe that the Oslo process, and with it, the two-state solution, is dead and buried. And they seem to be forging ahead with creating their vision of a post-Oslo future. Thus, the idea is that what looks today like a radical stance would soon become mainstream, conservative thinking.
That explains the Republicans’ shift. Why, however, are the Democrats following them instead of trying to stake out some ground that could differentiate them, and perhaps even lead to diplomatic progress?
Democrats depend even more on pro-Israel contributions than Republicans. They always have, even before the Citizens United era began. And even if more pro-Israel money comes into GOP coffers now that the reins have been taken off the super-rich, Jewish donations count for a major chunk (anywhere from one-third to two-thirds, according to estimates cited by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency) of Democratic fundraising and, while polls consistently show Israel to be a very minor factor in Jewish voting preferences, politicians are loathe to take so big a risk.
It may well be a case of politicians simply taking the path of least resistance. Their donor base might not flee if they were perceived as less favorable toward Israel than the Republicans, but they see no political gain in taking the chance.
The dramatic shift to the right by the Republicans opens up an opportunity for a progressive movement to bring some change to US policy regarding Israel-Palestine. But until the various peace groups — from the centrist J Street to center-left groups like the Arab-American Institute to groups that lean further left on this issue like Jewish Voice for Peace– can more credibly influence the political campaign process, and not just the debate in the media, such opportunities will continue to slip away.
And the Democrats will continue to chase the Republicans on an ever-rightward track.
Mitchell Plitnick is the former director of the U.S. Office of B’Tselem and former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace.
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