(December 12, 2011 / JNS)
“Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent,” says the deceived Claudio in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. However cynical it sounds, there are times when a maxim like this one rightly guides the affairs of diplomacy, just as it does the affairs of the heart. And if it encapsulates Israel’s current attitude to the prospect of peace negotiations, what fair-minded person—after two decades of frustrated exchanges, spurned offers and frequent, blood-curdling denunciations of Zionism across the Arab and Muslim worlds—could find this unreasonable?
The Obama Administration, apparently, does. Within the last fortnight, two top-level officials and one ambassador have, on three separate occasions, taken Israel to task for an extraordinary range of alleged misdeeds, including its hardline intransigence, its poor record on civil rights, and the way its policies have enabled the spread of anti-Semitism among Europe’s Muslim populations.
Item one: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta repeated the mantra about Israel’s increasing isolation in the context of the unprecedented regional upheavals still misleadingly referred to as the “Arab Spring.” Panetta’s lecture ended with a phrase that may well become his epitaph, at once a call to action and an admonition: “Return to the damn table!” That would be the negotiating table, a location that Panetta—in bewildering defiance of the actual record—insists Israel is avoiding like the proverbial plague.
Item two: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out at what she regards as the erosion of Israeli democracy. Specifically, she cited a Knesset bill that would limit foreign funding of Israel’s NGOs, segregated seating for women on certain buses in Jerusalem, and the decision of a group of male IDF soldiers to leave a ceremony where female soldiers were singing. The analogies which Clinton invoked to frame these issues could have been lifted from a J Street press release, or worse: the segregated seating was “reminiscent of Rosa Parks,” while the objection to the female chorus brought to mind no less than Iran.
Item three: The U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, told a Jewish conference that a distinction should be made between traditional anti-Semitism and its contemporary form, acutely visible among European Muslims, in which hatred of Israel transitions into general hatred of Jews. If Israel were to heed Panetta’s demand and return to the “damn table,” these malign attitudes would dissipate in the wake of a Middle East peace settlement.
There has been much speculation as to whether these statements were coordinated. In my view, it doesn’t really matter. The chief consideration is the degree to which they reflect the Obama Administration’s general worldview.
In distinguishing its Middle East policies from the previous George W. Bush Administration, the Obama White House has stressed its readiness to reach an accommodation with existing realities, rather than transforming them at the point of a gun. The most recent example is Obama’s commitment to a historic compromise with the region’s dominant current; those political forces who, in the Administration’s view, marry the vision of an Islamic state with the trappings of democracy. Islamists they may be, but of the moderate variety.
The problem, of course, is that this assessment is a fantasy. Any differences among Islamists are primarily about tactics, not ideas. When it comes to that old bugbear of the Jews, how does Al Qaeda differ meaningfully from the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties grabbing the reins of power in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt? Both are committed to wiping out the Jewish state, which essentially means, for Al Qaeda, wiping out all the Jews, and for the Muslim Brotherhood, all the Jews except for a small remnant of compliant anti-Zionist haredim.
What the Obama Administration refuses to even see, never mind take seriously, is the eliminationist project which lies at the core of the Islamist position towards Israel. To do so would undermine the image of these people as driven by a happy combination of legitimate grievances and limited expectations, thus making them eminently reasonable partners for dialogue.
It is these parameters that permit Hillary Clinton to traffic in the moral relativism that obscenely compares illiberal attitudes among one of Israel’s many demographics with the policies of Iran, a state in which Muslims who convert to Christianity face the death penalty. They permit Leon Panetta to defy established truths in a manner that would be instantly recognizable to the conspiracy-mongers in the Arab media. And they permit Howard Gutman to ignore centuries of homegrown Muslim anti-Semitism—one consequence of which was the wholesale expulsion of Jewish communities from Arab countries in the latter half of the last century—in order to push the falsehood that Israel lies at the beginning and the end of these myriad conflicts.
After years of endless barbs against the supposed myths and lies underlying the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, it’s time to train the spotlight on Obama.
This Administration’s policies in the Middle East should not just be of concern to Jews— although Jewish voters should be urged to express their disapproval at next year’s election. They should be a source of worry to anyone who understands that the spread of democratic values and practices is critical to America’s security and wellbeing.
For too long, we have endured these spiteful swipes against America’s most loyal ally in the Middle East, while elsewhere in the world, the Administration touches its forelock before some truly nasty regimes. Forget the Middle East—where was the Obama Administration this past weekend, as thousands of Russians protested Vladimir Putin’s rigging of this month’s elections? Why does Obama continue to pussyfoot around the Pakistani government, offering condolences for the deaths of Pakistani soldiers killed in a NATO airstrike who were openly assisting Taliban forces attacking American troops?
For all of its rhetorical attacks against Israel and its government, one truth will outlast this Administration. No matter who is in power in Israel—Labor, Kadima, Likud or some other permutation—that country’s foreign policy will always be anchored in loyalty to the United States. There are few other countries, whether inside or outside the Middle East, about which a similar judgment can be made.
Ben Cohen’s commentaries on international politics have been published by the New York Post, Fox News, Pajamas Media, The Huffington Post and several other prominent media outlets. Cohen is the President of The Ladder Group, a communications consultancy based in New York City.