Posted on May 29, 2000 in Washington Watch
Against the backdrop of dramatic developments unfolding in Lebanon and the West Bank, the two major U.S. presidential candidates appeared before the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
AIPAC, a creation of the major American Jewish organizations, is the United States’ largest pro-Israel lobby. In recent years, in large measure due to the intense debate created by the Middle East peace process, the American Jewish community has become quite politically divided on U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
Reflecting the same sharp divisions that shape the debate in Israel, a deep right-left (pro-Likud vs. pro-peace) split has emerged within the U.S. Jewish community.
On the right, groups like the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Americans for a Safe Israel and some groups allied with Israel’s settler movements, have taken a strident anti-peace stand.
In fact, a number of those groups were threatening to confront Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak with demonstrations decrying his proposed visit to the United States (it was canceled at the last minute due to the unrest in the West Bank and the dramatic situation in the south of Lebanon). These right wing groups were angered by Barak’s decision to cede full control of Abu Dis, Azzariya, and Sawahara to the Palestinian National Authority. What was disturbing to some observers was the fact that the rhetoric being used by some of these U.S.-based right-wing Jewish groups bore a striking resemblance to the harsh and inflammatory language they had previously used against Prime Minister Rabin, before he was assassinated in 1996.
On the pro-peace side, groups like the Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) have taken the lead in supporting a comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.
APN, like its counterpart in Israel (Peace Now), has been sharply critical of Israel’s settlement policy and does not hesitate to criticize Israeli actions which they see as frustrating the peace process.
Public opinion polls show that most American Jews support the peace effort. In fact, a majority of American Jews support the creation of a Palestinian State. Increasingly this pro-peace wing of the Jewish community has gained political prominence in the United States. For his part, President Clinton has encouraged and supported the growing influence of these groups.
In part due to this shift in Jewish public opinion and in the composition of the organized American Jewish community, there has been a shift in the way Middle East issues are discussed. Another factor contributing to this shift has been the developing relationship between the United States and the Arab world and the growing presence of Arab Americans on the U.S. political scene. As a result of all these factors combined, U.S. Middle East policy discussion are sometimes more nuanced and balanced than they have been in the past.
Unfortunately this is not always the case. And it was not the case last week at the AIPAC conference. The predictable pandering of both major presidential candidates and their framing of important issues in U.S. Middle East policy were, at times, anachronistic.
Both offered the usual excessive description of the U.S.-Israel relationship. For Bush it was “one of the most important and abiding relationships our great country shares with another…in fact it is more than a friendship. America and Israel are bothers and sisters in the family of democracy.
If this were not enough, Bush went on to suggest that “Israel offers an important reminder to Americans–a reminder that freedom is precious and that freedom’s enemies remain a threat.”
Not to be out done, Al Gore reminded his AIPAC audience of his long involvement what Israel. “Even if the world is turned upside down,” he said, “the United States and Israel will see eye to eye.” Gore continued, “the relationship between the United States and Israel rest on granite, on the rock of our common values, our common heritage and on our common dedication to freedom.”
To be safe, using almost identical language, both Bush and Gore reminded their audiences that there will be times when the United States and Israel will disagree–a situation that every U.S. administration has dealt with, some more effectively than others. Both went to great lengths to suggest that they opposed using any pressure against Israel.
For his part, Bush reserved his major criticism for President Clinton’s handling of the peace process. Specifically, Bush roundly condemned the President for pressuring Israel to make peace and for taking sides in the last Israeli election–i.e. in the defeat of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The United States is proud and respectful of the sacrifices Israel is making. Sacrifices that few nations are called upon to make. In recent times, Washington has tried to make Israel conform to its own plans and timetables. But this is not the path to peace. A clear and bad example was the administration’s attempt to take sides in the most recent Israeli election. America should not interfere in Israel’s democratic process, and America will not interfere in Israeli elections when I’m president.
Gore, of course, was a part of this Administration and supported its efforts. But he attempted to defend his record by observing that he and President Clinton “established a firm new rule–and we followed this rule faithfully–that we must not and would not in any way try to pressure Israel to agree to measure that they themselves did not see were in their own best interests.”
He went on to note how he had opposed efforts by the Reagan Administration in 1988 and the Bush Administration in 1991 to pressure Israel, into concession for peace.
Bush and Gore both spoke disapprovingly of the recent violence that rocked the West Bank and Lebanon. And both put the blame squarely on the Arab side. Both blamed the Palestinian police for the shootings in the West Bank, but Gore surprisingly singled out Syria and held it responsible for the situation in Lebanon. He observed that “As Israel proceeds to withdraw from Lebanon, in compliance with Resolution 425, President Assad can decide to let this happen without incident as a down payment for peace in the future, or by continuing to allow Hezbollah to harass Israel as her troops withdraw… he can signal that he is not interested in progress. Syria may not choose to pursue peace for now…. If peace does not come to this area, President Assad will bare a heavy responsibility…”
Bush went to great lengths to emphasize Israel’s sacrifices and Israel’s vulnerability, noting that “before the six-day war, Israel was only nine miles wide.” He then went on to describe the importance of providing Israel with a missile defense system, an idea also stressed by Gore in his remarks.
The last issue on which both candidates found agreement was the trial taking place in Iran where 13 Iranian Jews are being tried on charges of spying for Israel. The only difference between Bush and Gore’s handling of this matter was that while Bush faulted “anti-Semitism” as the reason of the trial, Gore saw it as part of the struggle between the forces of moderation and those who support a hard-line in Teheran.
Two other substantive differences remain to be noted. Bush repeated his pledge that “when I’m president: as soon as I take office I will begin the process of moving the U.S. ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital.”
Gore did not mention the embassy issue, but a Gore spokesperson criticized Bush’s pledge as “reckless” and irresponsible” and reiterated Gore’s view that this issue should be addressed in the Israeli and the Palestinian negotiations.
Finally Gore’s remarks concluded with a set of striking observations about the future of peace and the need for the United States to better understand and relate to the broader Muslim world. In many ways, this was the most interesting part of the entire speech, in that it moved beyond partisanship and politicking. He began with this vision:
I ask us for a moment here to lift our eyes and look beyond the ebb and flow of daily events, as compelling as they are, especially today. Despite all of the grave problems of the moment, all the real challenges to the prospect for peace, let us envision a Middle East as it can be 10 or 20 years from now, a Middle East at peace with itself, taking full advantage of all of its potential and the talent of all its people. And let us focus on the steps we can take to make that vision a reality. It is possible.
Even at difficult times, we must never lose hope. I believe there is progress. I believe that over time, there will be more. I believe we will succeed.
From there, Gore went on to discuss economic integration, regional cooperation in maximizing scarce resources and the need to develop a programmatic approach to combating poverty, illiteracy and disease.
Given the insecurity and fears that currently exist throughout the Middle East and given the region’s need for U.S. leadership that can place peace and the statesmanship necessary to achieve it above politics–remarks such as these closing observations by the Vice President can be a hopeful sign. They were, in fact, the only bright light in an otherwise dreary set of performances by both candidates.
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