Paul Pillar

A New Low in Pandering to the Israeli Right

Just when one might have thought that the bowing of American politicians to the preferences of the current Israeli government—even those preferences destructive to Israel's own interests—could not go any lower, we get the disgusting and totally unjustified calls by Republican presidential candidates for the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, to be fired. The ambassador's offense was to say something—anything—that linked in any way the lack of a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to hostile feelings toward Jews.

Read Ambassador Gutman's speech. It is carefully crafted and entirely consistent with U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and with what supposedly is Israel's policy as well, in the sense of a negotiated settlement of the dispute being an accepted goal). It is diplomatic, inoffensive and appropriate for the forum at which it was delivered: a conference on fighting anti-Semitism in Europe. The ambassador, who is Jewish, devotes the first part of the speech to relating how his Polish-born father tried to join the anti-German resistance and spent the rest of World War II in hiding, emerging at the end of the war to discover that the Nazis had wiped out the entire town where he grew up. The main observation Ambassador Gutman offers later in the speech about anti-Semitism is that it has multiple sources. It includes traditional hatred against Jews and often other minorities, for the sake of hatred and for no other reason than that the minorities are different from those doing the hating. It also includes hatred that reflects tensions involving the unresolved conflict over Palestine. The ambassador goes on essentially to restate policy regarding the need for a negotiated settlement of that conflict—stating it in a meticulously even-handed way that avoids suggesting that there is any more responsibility on one side of the conflict than on the other.

All of this is plainly, unambiguously true, including the observation that tensions and resentments over the unresolved Palestinian issue help to feed animosity that in many places is translated not only into pointed opposition to Israeli policies but also into diffuse animosity against Jews. There are decades of evidence for that observation. But evidently any hint that the unresolved status of the Palestinian issue has wider untoward effects is not something that the Israeli government wants anyone to hear. And if the Israeli government doesn't want it to be heard, then American politicians will express manufactured outrage that anyone is saying such things.

So we get Mitt Romney stating: "President Obama must fire his ambassador to Belgium for rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism and linking it to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The ambassador's comments demonstrate the Obama administration's failure to understand the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel and its appalling penchant for undermining our close ally." Nothing in the ambassador's remarks even remotely resembles “rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism.” Nothing Romney says gives us any reason to ignore the voluminous indications that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians does contribute to present-day anti-Semitism. And if one is worried about delegitimization of Israel, what is currently contributing to that danger more than anything else is the linking, by the Israeli government and its supporters, of Israel itself to an unending occupation of conquered territory that most other people legitimately consider as illegitimate.

We also get Rick Perry saying, "Ambassador Gutman's troubling statement is part of a pattern of hostility on the part of the Obama administration toward Israel." There wasn't the slightest note of hostility toward Israel in anything the ambassador said. And we get Newt Gingrich saying on Twitter, "Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-semitism"—which only demonstrates how wrong Gingrich is about it.

We could just brush this off as more of the campaign nonsense that we hear so much of, putting it alongside things like the Romney ad that portrays an old Obama description of a McCain view as if it were Obama's own view. But there is more serious damage on this one. If a whole subject—a subject that involves so much conflict and so much damage to U.S. interests, as well as so much hatred and resentment on both sides—is out of bounds for any discussion, U.S. policy making is in trouble.

An irony is that a supposed basis for Israel being a “close ally” of the United States is that the two countries both cherish the freedoms of liberal democracy, including free and open discussion of public issues.