As preparations for 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.” With most 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 self-defense, 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 foes.
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 vice-versa.
Thus, on the existential level, the US is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. We should not succumb to the delegitimizers’ all-or-nothing language or recruit fence-sitters to the dark side. The terrorist-appeasing, Zionism-is-racism, Israel-is-an-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 established. 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. Lyndon Johnson 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 Zionism is racism resolution. Jimmy Carter supported 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. Bill Clinton wooed Yasir Arafat and bullied Israel into concessions but ultimately blamed Arafat for Oslo’s failure and the Palestinians’ return to terror. George 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.
Barack Obama’s approach to Israel, of pressuring on settlements and jousting with Prime Minister Benjamin 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-processor 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.
Certain philosophical divergences underlie the tactical clash. Obama is more of a global multilateralist, Bush a uniltateralist; Obama more of a neo-isolationist, Bush an interventionist. 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. Contrary 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. Re-packaging 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 crack about the “Jewish lobby” and recent claims -- which he denies - that he said in a 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 tensions.
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.
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