Posted on April 03, 2007 in Washington Watch

After delivering two solidly pro-Israel speeches before AIPAC audiences (one in Illinois, and the other in Washington) Senator Barack Obama ran into a troublesome question a few weeks back while campaigning in Iowa.

In many ways, it was a classic Iowa moment – the kind that makes me glad that Iowa still stands alone as the first caucus state in the presidential election cycle.

The question to Senator Obama came from an Iowa peace activist. “On my trip to Israel and Palestine I found a very different reality on the ground for Christians and Muslims living in the West Bank than the Israel experience you shared with AIPAC last Friday,” began the woman’s thoughtful and direct question.

“As president, how would you address the human rights crisis that Palestinian Christians and Muslims must bear?”

Obama’s answer was also direct. He restated his belief in the centrality of the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship, and went on to agree, in part, with the questioner saying, “no one is suffering more than the Palestinian people.”

The senator suggested loosening up restrictions on Palestinian aid if there is “movement among the Palestinian leadership” and then made reference to the “heavy stones Israel must carry” if there is to be progress toward peace, noting specifically the settlement issue.

Other than his expression of some real concern for the suffering of the Palestinians, Obama’s observations weren’t novel, nor inconsistent with U.S. policy.

But the remark about Palestinian suffering prompted some hard-line supporters of Israel to demand a clarification. I believe this was an effort to teach a lesson to Obama – much as had been done in 2004 when Howard Dean called for a more balanced U.S. role in peacekeeping, and when John Kerry criticized Israel’s West Bank wall. The intent was to shut off debate by making it clear that this issue was off limits.

The story, however, did not end here, because this is Iowa, and Iowans take their politics seriously. Iowans are careful custodians of the nation’s first caucus, knowing that they will get the chance to raise the issues that the rest of America needs to have answered. And on most topics, Iowans have done their homework – including matters involving the Middle East.

In fact, for two decades, Iowa’s Democrats have overwhelmingly passed resolutions at their state conventions supporting a more balanced and compassionate U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As early as 1988, for example, beginning at their precinct caucuses and concluding with their state convention, Iowans passed a platform position supporting “the right of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to a homeland achieved through peaceful means, negotiated by representatives of their choosing.”

This practice has been repeated every four years up to the last presidential year convention in 2004, when Iowans passed a plank supporting efforts to achieve two separate and secure states, “giving equal consideration to the needs and positions of both Palestine and Israel, while holding both sides accountable for their actions.”

And so it is not surprising that this year a group of Iowans responded to the effort to intimidate Senator Obama with an open letter signed by activists across the state.

The letter, urging the senator to stand his ground, read in part: “We have noted with concern the harshness of criticism you have received…your compassion and support for the establishment of a Palestinian state and the security of Israel are consistent with the positions taken by Iowa citizens for many years.”

It would have been tragic if these Iowans had not written this letter, instead allowing the debate to be silenced, with no thoughtful discussion of the U.S.’s peace-making role in the Arab-Israeli conflict during this presidential contest. Given the deep frustration with U.S. policy that exists throughout the Middle East and given the clear need that both Israelis and Palestinians have in U.S. leadership providing a steady and balanced hand in peacemaking efforts, it is vital that this issue be discussed and candidates and voters be able to air their views.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, every U.S. president has had to expend significant political capital on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. It is therefore imperative that those who seek to lead the U.S. in the next four years be asked to engage in an open conversation with the American people about how they intend to conduct Middle East policy.

Finally, it is worth noting that, despite the hard-line and one-sided positions taken by some, polling conducted by the AAI indicates that most Americans, including most Jewish and Arab Americans, support a U.S. policy that recognizes the needs of both Israelis and Palestinians and works for a balanced resolution to their conflict.

My thanks, therefore, go to Iowa’s peace activists for challenging the candidates to talk about the Middle East and for sending a clear message that openness to engage in a respectful conversation about the Middle East is what is so desperately needed in this presidential race.

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