View From America: Misleading platform platitudes

Talk of more US "engagement" in the peace process sets up the next president for failure.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the conventions of the two major political parties were more than carefully orchestrated photo opportunities and pep rallies. The television networks have long since acceded to their audiences' wishes and ended the tradition of "gavel-to-gavel" coverage of these political jamborees. They are right to do so. Once the conventions stopped being news events and became endless partisan infomercials, there was no reason to treat them as being any different from any other garden-variety political rally. But that hasn't stopped the parties from continuing some of the time-honored traditions of the convention. One of these is drafting the party platform. No president has ever taken his party's platform seriously as a template for governing. Nor will many people, even political junkies, bother to read every stultifying page of either party's manifesto. But interest groups, if only behind the scenes, still lobby both the Democrats and the Republicans to have them accommodate their positions. And, as such, what emerges from the process can be evaluated as reflecting the strength of various ideas and their supporters within the political establishment. ON THAT score, the language of the draft that has been released of the 2008 Democratic Party platform on the Middle East speaks volumes. The document, much like the platforms of both parties for the last half century, bears witness to a commitment to Israel's security and well-being. Its language reflects a consensus shared across the political spectrum that is not the work of some furtive interest group, but the will of the majority of Americans. Given the length and the detail of the language in the platform, you would think that all those groups that call themselves "pro-Israel" would be pleased. But that would be far from true. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, one "pro-Israel group" is nonplussed. Why? Because the accompanying language about the peace process that calls for the US to "take an active role to help secure a lasting settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" was insufficient to suit the left-wing J Street's taste. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of J Street - the new lobbying group that seeks to be an alternative to the mainstream American Israel Public Affairs Committee - said that "it's not enough for the next president to commit again to trying." For him, the pro forma pledge to "engage" again in hands-on diplomacy alluded to in the Democratic platform isn't good enough. What he wants is for the next president "to muster the political will for an intensive effort that brings the parties together, hammers out their differences and brings about an agreement." That sounds fair and even high-minded. But a quick translation of that statement into plain English shows that what he wants is a president who will ignore the desires of both the people of Israel and the vast majority of Americans and beat Jerusalem into submission. A study of the history of the last 15 years of the peace process makes it perfectly clear who it is that will be "hammered" in any such process and what the outcome of any such effort will be. SADLY, THE marginal J Street is far from isolated on this issue. Its position was echoed by an August 18 New York Times editorial that called on President George W. Bush to engage in just the sort of hands-on pummeling of Israel in pursuit of appeasement of the Palestinians that J Street seems to think the Jewish state needs. Yet since the beginning of the Oslo process in 1993, it has been Israel that has made concession after concession on territory, settlements and empowerment of the terrorist groups that the Palestinians have chosen for their leaders. The response has been a strengthening of the most extreme elements in Palestinian society. Israel has traded land and legitimacy not for peace, but for more terror. The majority of Israelis have shown that they are ready for even more concessions, but not for more violence. If most think that further pullbacks are imprudent, it is because they now understand that the recent past has proven that the result will be more bloodshed. But, so the conventional wisdom of the day here runs, what is needed to revive a peace process that was slain by Yasser Arafat's refusal to take "yes" for an answer at Camp David in 2000 and by the terrorist bombing offensive he launched in response to Israeli initiatives, is an American president who will "hammer" the Israeli government and the Palestinians into doing what's right. This belief is fueled by the fact that for most of the last several years, the current president refused to engage in the sort of hands-on diplomacy that Bill Clinton attempted. Bush cut off relations with the PA in 2002 when he belatedly realized that Arafat was a terrorist, and didn't resume dealing with it until that criminal was dead and buried. And though Bush has pushed hard for aid to Mahmoud Abbas, the powerless successor to Arafat, he has refused to deal with Abbas's Hamas rivals - the true power in Palestinian society today. Though Bush foolishly restarted the Clintonian style of engagement last fall at Annapolis, the failure of this doomed gesture was attributed to Bush's late start, rather than the fact that Israel has no credible peace partner. But since in contemporary American politics, everything that the unpopular Bush does and has done is, by definition, wrong, that has led to a near-universal belief that more "engagement" in the Middle East is what is necessary. BUT WHATEVER your opinion might be of Bush, this is nonsense. The peace process has never been about the will of an American president to make peace. No one wanted an agreement more than Bill Clinton. The Camp David and Taba talks he engaged in did not fail because of lack of effort, but because the Americans and the Israelis wanted a Palestinian state more than the Palestinians. Had Bush or even Al Gore tried to restart Clinton's track in 2001 or thereafter, the notion that they would have succeeded with Arafat is farcical. The chances for real progress have always rested with the Palestinians - and the Arab world in general - to rise above the political culture of hate for Jews and the Jewish state that has dominated their existence for a century. With Hamas in control of Gaza and with a weak PA that is itself unable to give up the conflict with Israel, a US commitment to intensive talks will only set up the next president for a failure on the scale of Clinton's Camp David fiasco, which set the stage for more violence, not peace. The good news is that there's little doubt that anything that either platform says about engagement or anything else will be forgotten next year. The bad news is that the lobby for hammering Israel and its highly placed friends in the media will remain with us. Let's hope that whoever is elected in November has the sense to ignore them. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. [email protected]