Liberals and Israel

Edward Kennedy understood the dilemmas Israel must face. We feel his loss acutely.

ted kennedy 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
ted kennedy 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, a quintessential liberal, reminds us that there was a time when liberalism and pro-Israelism were synonymous. Kennedy-style liberalism was rooted in optimism about human nature, trust in the good that government can do, and faith in the power of negotiations to resolve seemingly intractable problems. Kennedy made his first trip to Israel in 1962 as a prelude to his senatorial campaign. Though it was billed as a "private visit," Kennedy gave a "fervent Zionist address" before 2,000 Hebrew University students. A handful of local communists protested the appearance. In those days, liberals and communists were bitter enemies. As a freshman senator, Kennedy became chair of the subcommittee on international refugees. When he came to suspect that UNRWA money - largely contributed by US taxpayers - was being diverted to Ahmed Shukeiry, Yasser Arafat's predecessor, and his gunmen, he protested. After visiting Arab refugee camps in Lebanon and the Jordanian-occupied West Bank, Kennedy advocated rehabilitation and training programs to help those displaced by the 1948 war start new lives. Israeli leaders supported his efforts. But the Arabs insisted that the only just solution for the refugees was their return to their original homes and the dismantling of Israel. KENNEDY was by no means a knee-jerk supporter of this country. He opposed Israeli retaliatory raids against Arab fedayeen and called for third-party mediation. In 1966, he introduced his own plan for Middle East peace which advocated respect for the territorial integrity of all states in the region. The Arabs would have none of it. After the 1967 Six Day War, Kennedy remained a steadfast friend of Israel and said that on a personal basis, he did not object to Jerusalem remaining united under Israeli sovereignty. During the Nixon administration, he urged the sale of Phantom fighter planes to Israel, clashing with J.W. Fulbright, the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. By the early 1970s, he had became a key champion of the Soviet Jewry movement. In 1974, he irritated the Kremlin by meeting with Jewish refuseniks in Moscow. Throughout the Nixon and Ford years, Kennedy steadfastly championed military aid to Israel. When Jimmy Carter pushed a major arms package for Saudi Arabia, Kennedy voted against - though he honored a White House request not to lead the opposition to the deal. He also opposed Carter's occasional flirtations with the then-quarantined PLO. And when the Carter administration supported an Arab-inspired UN Security Council resolution calling for the removal of all Jewish settlements beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines, Kennedy called the US vote "shameful." He wanted to see the parties negotiate the issues - including settlements. He unsuccessfully challenged Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, while receiving strong support from Rabbi Alexander Schindler of the Reform movement and other liberal Jews. (Carter ultimately lost his bid for a second term to Ronald Reagan.) When Reagan sought to sell F-15s to Saudi Arabia in 1981, he too ran into opposition from Kennedy. And in the face of unbridled Reagan administration outrage over the Israeli attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility later that same year, Kennedy lambasted the administration as "profoundly wrong." THE PRO-ISRAEL liberalism embodied by Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jacob Javits seems archaic nowadays. Their generation knew first-hand that the Arabs' rejection of Israel's existence was at the root of the conflict. Today, calls for throwing the Jews into the sea have been replaced by reasonable-sounding Arab initiatives for a two-state solution. Only the fine print - pertaining to recognition, borders, militarization and refugees - suggests something else. Once there were no settlements, and still the Arabs sought Israel's destruction. Yet yesterday, a CNN primer of the conflict pointed to settlements as the stumbling block to peace. Maybe the old Kennedy liberals were really centrists, and today's progressives are really leftists. Or maybe, 60 years on, liberals have just grown uncomfortable and impatient - after Lebanon wars, intifadas, checkpoints, barriers and Gaza blockades. The liberal catechism is 1. All conflicts are soluble; 2. Israel is the stronger party; 3. And so it must take the greater risks for peace. Liberals are exasperated by Israel's failure to embrace these principles categorically. Yet we survive in this region because we don't. Edward Kennedy understood all this and more. Israel feels his loss acutely.