Nicholas Kristoff, New York Times, OpEd Column
Talking About Israel
March 18, 2007
Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.
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.
Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper.
Three years ago, Israel’s minister of justice spoke publicly of photos of an elderly Palestinian woman beside the ruins of her home, after it had been destroyed by the Israeli army. He said that they reminded him of his own grandmother, who had been dispossessed by the Nazis. Can you imagine an American cabinet secretary ever saying such a thing?
One reason for the void 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.” In contrast, Hillary Rodham Clinton has safely refused to show an inch of daylight between herself and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
A second reason may be that American politicians just don’t get it. King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Congress this month and observed: “The wellspring of regional division, the source of resentment and frustration far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine.” Though widely criticized, King Abdullah was exactly right: from Morocco to Yemen to Sudan, the Palestinian cause arouses ordinary people in coffee shops more than almost anything else.
You can argue that Arabs pursue a double standard, focusing on repression by Israelis while ignoring greater human rights violations by fellow Arabs. But the suffering in Palestinian territories, while not remotely at the scale of brutality in Sudan or Iraq, is still tragically real.
B’Tselem, a respected Israeli human rights organization, reports that last year Palestinians killed 17 Israeli civilians (including one minor) and six Israeli soldiers. In the same period, B’Tselem said, Israeli forces killed 660 Palestinians, triple the number killed in 2005. Of the Palestinians killed in 2006, half were not taking part in hostilities at the time they were killed, and 141 were minors.
For more than half a century, the U.S. was an honest broker in the Middle East. Presidents Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan were warmer to Israel and Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush a bit cooler, but all sought a balance. George W. Bush has abandoned that tradition of balance.
Hard-line Israeli policies have profoundly harmed that country’s long-term security by adding vulnerable settlements, radicalizing young Palestinians, empowering Hamas and Hezbollah, isolating Israel in the world and nurturing another generation of terrorists in Lebanon. The Israeli right’s aggressive approach has only hurt Israeli security, just as President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ended up harming U.S. interests.
The best hope for Israel in the long run isn’t a better fence or more weaponry; they can provide a measure of security in the short run but will be of little help if terrorists turn, as they eventually will if the present trajectory continues, to chemical, biological or radiological weapons. Ultimately, security for Israel will emerge only from a peace agreement with Palestinians. We even know what that peace deal will look like: the Geneva accord, reached in 2003 by private Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum headlined a recent column, “Pandering Not Required.” He wisely called on American presidential candidates instead to prove their support for Israel by pledging: “If I am elected president, I will do everything in my power to bring about negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians with the goal of achieving peace and security for Israel and a secure state for the Palestinians.”
Last summer, after Hezbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others, Prime Minister Olmert invaded Lebanon and thus transformed Hezbollah into a heroic force in much of the Arab world. President Bush would have been a much better friend to Israel if he had tried to rein in Mr. Olmert. So let’s be better friends — and stop biting our tongues.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company