As preparations for President Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel
proceed, we need some conceptual and linguistic groundwork, not just the usual
itinerary generating, security planning and soporific statement-drafting. For
too long, the debate about American-Israeli relations has been too polarizing.
Let’s silence the sky-is-falling cries proclaiming crisis and predicting
disaster. Americans and Israelis should celebrate their deep, enduring
relationship, cemented by Obama’s foreign policy formula from his second
inaugural address: “Our interests and our conscience.”
Americans being “pro- Israel,” using the language of “pro- Israel” and
“anti-Israel” when discussing American politicians – including Obama and even
Chuck Hagel – is foolish and self-defeating.
The linguistic imprecision
reflects conceptual sloppiness. Using the phrase “pro-Israel” invites discussion
of its opposite, “anti-Israel.” But tagging someone who believes in a Jewish
state, who supports Israel’s right of selfdefense, who denounces attempts to
delegitimize Israel, as “anti-Israel” is insulting and alienating. Regarding
most Americans, such a characterization usually is an exaggeration. And
sometimes, harsh characterizations turn wavering friends into implacable
Since President Harry Truman recognized the State of Israel just
minutes after its establishment in 1948, the core American consensus has been
pro- Israel. Every president has championed the State of Israel while the
American people have been warm friends of the Israeli people – and
Thus, on the existential level, the US is overwhelmingly
pro-Israel. We should not succumb to the delegitimizers’ allor- nothing language
or recruit fence-sitters to the dark side. The terrorist appeasing,
Zionism-is-racism, Israel-isan- Apartheid-state forces have enough allies
without our help.
Nevertheless, while the US has remained pro-Israel
existentially, there have been numerous tensions on the transactional level, the
tactical level, regarding borders, weapon systems and the peace process. Harry
Truman dithered for weeks before deciding he would recognize Israel once
Dwight Eisenhower forced Israel’s 1956 Sinai withdrawal, but
defended Israel’s existence. John Kennedy opposed Israel’s nuclear research
program but initiated serious weapon sales to Israel.
pressured Israel not to strike pre-emptively in 1967, but supported Israel
generously after the war.
Richard Nixon successfully pressured Israel not
to strike pre-emptively in 1973 but compensated Israel with an essential
resupply once the war began.
Gerald Ford “reassessed” relations with
Israel then approved Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s eloquent denunciation of the UN’s
“Zionism is racism” resolution.
Jimmy Carter supported United Nations
Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli settlements but brokered the
peace treaty with Egypt. Ronald Reagan sold AWAC planes to Saudi Arabia and
denounced Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor but defended Israel against
UN attacks. George H.W. Bush lobbied against Israel’s settlements but also
lobbied the UN to repeal the Zionism is racism resolution.
wooed Yasser Arafat and bullied Israel into concessions but ultimately blamed
Arafat for Oslo’s failure and the Palestinians’ return to terror.
W. Bush initially criticized Israel’s defensive maneuvers against Palestinian
terror, only changing his approach after September 11 and after Arafat lied
about accepting the Karine-A Iranian arms shipments.
approach to Israel, of pressuring on settlements and jousting with Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu while supporting Israel militarily, fits this
historic pattern. It is inaccurate and self-defeating, therefore, to call the
president “anti-Israel.” Yet, we need language distinguishing Barack Obama’s
often wary approach from George W. Bush’s enthusiastic support of Israel’s
strategy and policies after 2002.
TAKING THE last two presidents as
archetypes, call Obama more dovish and Bush more hawkish on Israel. Say Obama is
more of a peace-processer and Bush was more security conscious. This does not
mean that Bush did not want peace nor that Obama does not care about security,
but it notes their different emphases. Obama is more the disciplinarian parent,
or a Jeremiah, occasionally using tough love, while Bush was more the
cheerleader or, speaking biblically, a Jonathan, trusting reassurance to yield
progress. This language affirms the core friendship while admitting the
differences, particularly regarding the Palestinians.
philosophical divergences underlie the tactical clash. Obama is more of a global
multilateralist, Bush a uniltateralist; Obama more of a neo-isolationist, Bush
Obama views America’s foreign policy track record
critically; Bush did not.
Using this prism clarifies Barack Obama’s
problematic nomination of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel.
to the White House spin, Hagel’s unconventionally dovish position on Iran and
Iraq, along with his hypercritical approach to Israeli policy, appealed to Obama
– that’s how they met, that’s why Hagel’s Republican colleagues resent him,
that’s why Obama nominated him and the Left loves him.
as a conventional thinker was dishonest. Hagel himself played that role badly
during his own nomination hearings. But liking Hagel, channeling his
inner-McGovern, does not make Obama anti-Israel.
Assessing Hagel is
tougher, because of his cracks about the “Jewish lobby” and his insulting line
from the recently uncovered 2007 Rutgers speech that “the State Department has
become adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s Office.”
But is our
vocabulary so limited that we must call him “anti-Semitic” or “anti-Israel”? Why
not just say: Chuck Hagel does not understand that the American-Israel
friendship is organic and mutually beneficial. He has been morally numb on
issues of terrorism and naive on Iran. His halting performance when testifying
for his own nomination embarrassed him and the administration. Clearly,
President Obama could do better, while senators like New York’s Charles Schumer,
who claim to appreciate the Middle East’s dangers, should show some backbone and
sabotage this unfortunate nomination.
Nevertheless, if Hagel, as
expected, is confirmed, the US-Israel relationship will remain strong. So, yes,
Barack Obama erred in nominating Hagel, but Obama is not anti-Israel. And yes,
Chuck Hagel has a distorted worldview but he, too, is not anti-Israel, just
wrong. And when Barack Obama visits Israel, we will all benefit by celebrating
the existential bonds rather than exaggerating the transactional
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a
Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book,
Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published
by Oxford University Press. Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment video.