In politics, where you stand depends on where you sit.
That applies equally to pro-Israel advocacy.
For those who are driven, above all, by party affiliation, it’s usually pretty simple. If I’m a Republican, I believe my party is best for the U.S.-Israel relationship. And if I’m a Democrat, of course, the same thinking applies.
So if my party is in power, whether in the White House or Congress, I want to be sure it stays there. And if my party is out of power, I want to do my darndest to end its junior status. No fuss, no muss. It’s all pretty straightforward.
This predictable theater is played out every day.
Shortly after the Obama Administration took office, it was confronted with the issue of what to do about U.S. participation in the Durban Review Conference, scheduled for Geneva in April 2009.
The Bush Administration, which had laudably walked out of the original Durban gathering in 2001 because of its singling out of Israel, decided the call should be made by the Obama team, not have it imposed on them.
Shortly after taking office, the new administration invited five people to go to Geneva to study the issue, talk with key stakeholders, and present a recommendation. An AJC staff member was invited to participate. We readily agreed.
That unleashed a firestorm from some who detested the Obama Administration from the get-go. It didn’t matter what ensued. Indeed, even after the fact-finding group returned from Geneva, recommended the U.S. not participate, and Washington announced it would not go, the straightjacketed critics were unsatisfied. They could not offer even a grudging admission that the right decision had been made.
After all, to do so would have given the political “enemy” a measure of credit, and in the zero-sum game of politics, that’s rarely done.
Or fast forward to September 2011.
The Palestinians were expected to put in their bid for full UN membership on September 23. Washington indicated it would use its veto, if needed, to stop the effort dead in its tracks. That, however, didn’t dissuade the partisan foes from taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times that very week castigating President Obama for his allegedly anti-Israel policies.
In other words, the partisan approach becomes slash and burn, take no prisoners, and concede absolutely nothing.
Is this the most effective way to advocate for Israel?
Well, if, above all, I want my party to return to power, perhaps. But if I want to achieve goals that can’t wait for future elections and their unforeseeable outcomes, and that have real-life, real-time consequences, then it may be short-sighted in the extreme.
And that’s, perhaps, the core difference between partisanship and advocacy.
Those of us engaged in the latter are focused on the here and now, irrespective of who is in and who is out. The goal may be to encourage the U.S. to do the right thing and boycott the Durban process. Or to exercise the veto in the Security Council. Or to mobilize the international community to take more stringent measures in the face of Iran’s relentless nuclear quest.
For those kinds of things to happen, experience shows that it’s unwise to bet on one party or another being in the Oval Office, but rather to count on bipartisan support. One thing is a safe bet: Vital, even existential, issues affecting the Middle East are likely to arise in every presidential term. When both major parties see support for Israel as central to their world outlook, then everyone is better off.
That’s precisely our goal as advocates. It was the objective when President Bush was in office. It’s the same with President Obama.
That doesn’t, however, mean going along with everything said and done. Not at all.
For instance, President Bush was a great friend of Israel, but his administration pushed for the inclusion of Hamas in the 2006 elections, and that was no small error. The repercussions are felt to this day. It merited speaking out, but in a measured way that sought to persuade, not in an all-out assault that lambasted the president from here to eternity—closing doors in the process when they needed to be kept open.
And President Obama has brought the level of defense cooperation with Israel to new heights, but he allowed disagreements with Israel to become public early on, raising questions of confidence in Jerusalem and convincing Palestinians that the U.S. would do the heavy lifting for them. That, too, warranted criticism, but again, with an eye towards a course correction, not, as occurred, the launching of a full-scale, fight-to-the-death war of character assassination.
As an advocate, I’m fiercely nonpartisan. Always have been, always will be. Issues arise every day. We need to be able to count on access and friends. Without them, we’re talking to ourselves, and a lot of good that does!
I also understand fully the desirability, indeed necessity, of participation in political parties. Let the ranks of both parties be filled with energetic pro-Israel enthusiasts. Let both parties vie for the support of the pro-Israel community.
But always keep in mind the goal when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship – overwhelming support from both parties is crucial for a consistently pro-Israel American foreign policy.
Otherwise, for a sneak preview of what could happen, take a look at those European countries where one major party supports Israel and the other approaches it at arm’s length.
In any democratic country, sooner or later, the political pendulum swings. Could Israel afford to wait four, eight or twelve years for a friendly party to sit in the White House or Congress? The question answers itself.