In calling for more candor about Israel from Presidential candidates in yesterday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof articulated the longstanding goals of at least some of us on the American Jewish left:
There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself…
…One reason is that American politicians have learned to muzzle themselves. In the run-up to the 2004 Democratic primaries, Howard Dean said he favored an `even-handed role’ for the U.S. –and was blasted for being hostile to Israel. Likewise, Barack Obama has been scolded for daring to say “Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.”
He stops short of identifying the conventional Israel lobby as the reason for this muzzling, but it’s clear that he believes AIPAC et. al. share part of the blame.
Cecilie Surasky opines that he “says everything that needs to be said about muzzling.”
But what he doesn’t say and doesn’t imply is that American Jews and others who want this kind of candor have not given adequate backing to candidates who do stray from conventional red-meat rhetoric about Israel.
As a result of this political vaccum, it wasn’t just right-wing American Jewish activists who castigated Howard Dean during the campaign in 2004; it was the other Democratic candidates, including Lieberman and Kerry. I have it on good authority that their Jewish backers and funders, some of whom were ardent backers of a two-state solution (yes, Lieberman had people like that in his camp) made no attempt to tell their candidates to refrain from joining the Dean-bashing.
At least as far as I can tell, Hillary Clinton hasn’t directly questioned Obama’s pro-Israel bona fides. If he dares to express sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians again, or calls for a more pro-active American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, let us hope she continues to lay off. Better yet, let us hope that she emulates him and says what she really believes about how to address the plight of both Palestinians and Israelis–instead of just holding her tongue. And let us hope for the same from John Edwards and the other candidates.
Last but not least, if candidates do start talking about Israel with at least a tiny bit of candor (which is all we can realistically expect), let us hope they get loud plaudits from American Jews who support Israel’s peace camp. Some careful, balanced, but honest conversation about Israel and the Middle East is desparately needed in the public arena.