Posted on September 14, 1992 in Washington Watch

Pandering aside, the U.S. debate on Middle East policy has changed.

The historic events in the Middle East over the last four years have altered the consciousness of the American voter. As a result, the political equation
that now expresses the popular understanding of the Middle East is much more complex than in the past. In saying this it should be made clear that I am not speaking of the real geo-political or strategic situation in the Middle East, but rather of how that situation is understood in popular American political culture.

The highlights of the old equation went something like this: Israel was our only friend and ally in the region, Palestinians were demonized as “terrorists” while Arabs generally were dismissed as untrustworthy or ungrateful. In the Middle East, it was “us” (the United States and Israel, and to a lesser extent, Egypt as a silent and ineffectual partner) against “them” (the Soviet Union and other Arab states).

Today the Middle East political equation as it exists in the popular consciousness of the U.S. is much more complex. Israel is still sometimes thought of in the glowing terms of the past although its image is somewhat tarnished, but now other “allies” have emerged. A more respected Egypt and Saudi Arabia play prominent roles in the public’s understanding. While Syria is still seen as trouble for Israel, even it is no longer a demon in the eyes of U.S. public opinion; and Palestinians have emerged in a role as victims whose rights must be implemented as a matter of fairness and in the interests of regional peace.

There is no full comprehension of all of the details of this new equation. But there is no question that the equation has changed in the eyes of the American voter, and that change in perception has forced a change in political discourse about the Middle East.

An example of the new discourse came this week when President George Bush and his Democratic challenger Governor Bill Clinton both addressed the annual convention of B’nai B’rith in Washington, DC.

B’nai B’rith is the United States’ largest Jewish organization. Both candidates, therefore, used the occasion to speak about U.S. Middle East policy and to appeal for Jewish votes.

Obviously recognizing the nature and concerns of the audience, both Bush and Clinton spoke in highly exaggerated language in praise of Israel and the Jewish community, and each had strong words of criticism for the other.

To some extent, both speakers read from a similar script: strong praise for Israel’s democracy and the U.S.-Israeli special relationship based on “common values and a commitment to Israel’s security”; praise for the changes in Israel’s priorities and changes in the treatment of Palestinians that were brought about by the Rabin government; a call on the Arab nations to reciprocate by ending the economic embargo of Israel; a commitment to assist Israel’s assimilation and absorption of Soviet Jews; and condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism in the United States.

In short, each boasted of his commitment to Israel and, where possible, each attacked the other as being less committed.

While all of this might be discounted as more depressing politics as usual, a careful listener could also perceive real changes in the Middle East policy debate. For, in addition to the praise of Israel, there were other important points of common ground between the two presidential contenders. And these points, both spoken and unspoken, reflect profound changes that have taken place in the United States’ relationship with the broader Middle East and in the way politicians can speak about the region. It was a far cry from the way Michael Dukakis and George Bush addressed Middle East issues four years ago.

In 1988, the only time that Bush and Dukakis made major Middle East addresses was before that year’s B’nai B’rith conference. The rhetoric they used was harsh and filled with stark contrasts of black (Arabs) and white (Israel). This week’s debate was different in several ways.


First, there was bi-partisan support for the peace process launched by President Bush and Secretary Baker, not only for the process itself but for the important principles that serve as its foundation: United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and the principle of land for peace at their core.

It should be recalled that in one of his first important campaign addresses to a Jewish audience in late 1991, Governor Clinton spoke of a commitment to the land for peace concept. As the campaign wore on, especially during the contentious New York primary, Clinton modified some of his earlier views to appease some hard-line Jewish supporters. But try though they might, they were not successful in getting him to renounce his position on “land for peace.”

Rabin’s election has, as an indirect result, made the concept of “land for peace” more acceptable to those hard-liners. While Bush and Clinton both overplay their praise of Israel and underplay their earlier positions which may have antagonized some pro-Israel Jewish voters, neither has sought to undo the fundamental principles of the peace process.

In addition to the hard-line AIPAC supporters in his camp, Clinton also enjoys strong support from the `American Friends of Peace Now’ group. This group has been helpful in the attempt to secure Clinton’s commitment to “even-handedness” and a balanced approach to the peace process.

Second, the Gulf war has transformed U.S. perception of the Arab world and of the U.S.-Middle East relationship. Both candidates, therefore, spoke of Arab “allies” and made reference to their legitimate security concerns, as well as to the benefits that this relationship holds for U.S. interests. This is a marked departure from past campaigns. Both Clinton and Bush have expressed support for the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia—both because of the Kingdom’s defense needs and because the sale is seen as good for the U.S. economy.

(This is a clear indication that the Saudi Arabia-led grass-roots lobby campaign with American businesses and labor unions has had real success in reframing the debate on U.S.-Saudi military cooperation.)

Finally, there was a notable absence of Arab-bashing and, specifically, Palestinian-bashing. Syria is still a target for some vitriol, but only from Clinton and not so much for what it means to the United States but because of the threat it poses to Israel. Palestinians, on the other hand, have been transformed in the eyes of Americans and are therefore spoken of quite differently by this year’s candidates than those of four years ago.

After five years of the Palestinian intifada and five years of highly publicized Israeli repression, and after the remarkable performance of the Palestinian negotiators in Madrid, it is no longer fashionable or acceptable to demonize Palestinians or to speak of them as “terrorists.”

Both Bush and Clinton did state their objections to a Palestinian state; but recognizing widespread public support for Palestinian rights, they continue to seek other formulas to define Palestinian rights such as “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” and “full Palestinian autonomy.”

These are the points of common ground between the two campaigns. There are differences, to be sure, but they are primarily rhetorical, marginal, or at times just downright silly.

For example, Clinton attacked Bush for his September 12th 1991 rebuke of AIPAC, suggesting that it is an example of anti-semitism or was, at least, insensitive to the political rights and concerns of American Jews. Bush counters that Clinton’s sudden endorsement of the F-15 sale to Saudi Arabia—before the Bush Administration had even taken a position on the question—resulted from political concerns and did not emerge from proper consultation or take into account its implications. Both are typical of the pandering that takes place in U.S. political campaigns.

Each side has pandered to Jewish voters in order to establish its credentials in that camp as a “safe” choice. In his platform, Bush overstates his concern for Israel having already proven (he hopes) his bona fides with the Arabs as he helped to topple Shamir and bring in the more cooperative Rabin government.

Clinton, whose pro-Israel platform caused real concern among Arabs and Arab Americans, has had to take the opposite approach. On his behalf, former President Carter has been assuring Palestinians that a Clinton Administration would not only uphold the same principles in the peace process, but would also involve many of the old Middle east hands who were in his Administration. In response to an article I wrote in the Washington Post criticizing Clinton’s platform, two of his top Jewish advisors (one from the right and one from Peace Now) responded in the Post by noting that Clinton would not move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and would not act unilaterally to alter the status of the city, and that Clinton sought a “balanced” and “even-handed” approach to the Middle East.

Both campaigns have therefore done with the Middle East what they have done with a number of other issues this year—moved to the center in an attempt to eliminate the substantive differences between their positions and instead base their arguments with each other on matters of trust and style and approach.


A note in conclusion:
It is important to observe that the question of support for Israel, which had until 1984 been a staple in campaign political rhetoric, has since the 1988 campaigns become “ghetto-ized”—it is only subject for discussion before Jewish audiences. The behavior of Israelis towards Palestinians, disenchantment with foreign aid as a result of domestic economic troubles, the end of the Cold war and changes in the Middle East have diminished public tolerance for an Israel-centered Middle East policy. Support for that view, today, is only acceptable to segments of the American Jewish community.

During the New York primary, Clinton promised New York’s Jewish community that he would take his criticism of George Bush’s stand on Israel to the American people. Thus far, he has not done so. The reason, simply put, is that Clinton and his campaign know that there are no votes to be won from other Americans by appealing to them for stronger support for Israel and its policies.

A further example can be found in the dismay of Pro-Israel lobbyists that neither Clinton nor Gore, neither Bush nor Quayle, even spoke of Israel in their acceptance speeches at their respective conventions.

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