July 14, 2009
American Support for Israel Must Remain Bipartisan
Melanie Phillips has written a critique of me because I remain a Democrat and continue to support President Barack Obama, despite his recent statements regarding expansion of Israeli settlements and other matters relating to the Middle East conflict. Other conservative supporters of Israel, like Jonathan Tobin in Commentary, have joined her in attacking me as well.
“But just like the majority of American Jews, getting on for 80 percent of whom voted for Obama,” wrote Phillips, “he is a Democrat supporter who is incapable of acknowledging the truth about this President.”
She accuses me of being “blind” and says, “He doesn’t get it.”
Oh I get it all right. I just fundamentally disagree with her approach, especially when it comes to the United States.
Phillips, for all her good work in Great Britain on behalf of Israel, has absolutely no understanding of American politics. She would turn Israel into a wedge issue, in which Republicans were seen as the supporters of Israel and Democrats as its enemy. This is precisely what has happened, with disastrous results, throughout much of Europe. In most European countries, the left-wing political parties are anti-Israel, often virulently so. The right-wing political parties are generally more supportive of Israel, though not nearly as supportive as they should be in many instances. Because young people tend to be more liberal than their elders, support for Israel throughout Europe has also become a generational wedge issue, with younger people opposing Israel far more than older people.
This is precisely the situation American supporters of Israel want to avoid. We do not want to replicate the horrible situation that currently exists in Phillips’ Great Britain. We want Israel to remain a bipartisan issue and an issue that does not divide generations. During the Bush administration, Republican support for Israel — which they linked to their failed Iraq policy — alienated many younger and more liberal voters who despised Bush, Cheney and their policies.
Among the reasons that I supported Obama, having first supported Hillary Clinton, is because I believed, and continue to believe, that a young, extremely popular African American president who supports Israel, even if he disagrees with its policies regarding settlement expansion, would be far more influential with mainstream Americans and with people throughout the world than an old conservative Republican, who also supported Israel. That is why I gave, and continued to give, President Obama the benefit of the doubt in his dealings with Israel. I take him at his word that he seeks to bring about peace by means of a two-state solution pursuant to which all the Arab states recognize Israel’s right to thrive as a Jewish democracy, while agreeing that any Palestinian state must be demilitarized and incapable of waging war or terrorist attacks against Israel.
I also take him at his word when he says the United States will not accept a nuclear-armed Iran, and I believe he has a better chance of achieving that goal through diplomacy — including sanctions if necessary — than would a tough-talking and non-negotiating Republican administration.
I believe that although a military attack on Iran could have disastrous and far-reaching consequences, a nuclear-armed Iran would have far graver consequences. I do not know whether the Obama administration would, as a last resort, use military force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Nor do I know whether a Republican administration would have engaged in military action against Iran, especially in light of its failed war in Iraq. Neither do I know whether the Obama administration would try to prevent Israel from defending its civilians against an Iranian nuclear bomb by preventively attacking its nuclear facilities, as Israel did to Iraq in 1981. In a recent statement, Vice President Joe Biden strongly suggested he believes Israel should have the right to take military action to protect its citizens, if all other options fail. I believe Dennis Ross holds similar views. The Bush administration, on the other hand, refused to supply Israel with the weapons necessary to implement a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, and according to press reports, it was reluctant to give Israel the green light to attack on its own.
No one knows precisely what any administration would do under varying and unpredictable scenarios. As I have previously written, I would strongly oppose a United States policy of learning to live with an Iranian nuclear bomb, regardless of which administration supported such a dangerous approach.
Recall that it was the Bush administration that for the first time announced its support for a Palestinian state — a position with which I agree, so long as it is completely demilitarized and incapable of aggression against Israel. Recall as well that it was the Bush administration that insisted on a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank — a position with which I also agree, subject to humanitarian and pragmatic considerations. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read my writings, since I have opposed Israel’s civilian settlement policy since 1973. You can strongly support Israel’s right to defend itself without supporting its settlement policy.)
Let me say as well that there were parts of President Obama’s Cairo speech with which I disagreed, but there have also been parts of Republican speeches with which I have disagreed. I judge administrations by their actions more than by their words, though I wish President Obama had chosen some of his words more carefully.
The major difference between Melanie Phillips and me is that I want Jews to remain Democrats — if they support, as I do, liberal principles such as a women’s right to choose abortion, the rights of gays and lesbians to equal justice and other progressive policies. I also strongly support the separation of church and state, a constitutional principle that has allowed American Jews to be first-class citizens and to reach greater heights in this wonderful country than they ever have achieved in Europe or anywhere else in the world, except for Israel. Republicans, in general, seek to lower the wall of separation, which would endanger the status of Jews in this country.
I also want Jews who disagree with my liberal politics to remain Republicans, if they choose, and to exercise influence within the Republican Party. I want all supporters of Israel, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, to pressure their party and their government to protect Israel’s security and defend its right to continue to thrive as a Jewish democracy.
It was clear to all perceptive Americans that Obama was going to win this past election in a landslide victory. The vast majority of Jews were on the winning side, and that is good for Israel. Recall the Republican Secretary of State James Baker’s infamous remark: “F—- the Jews. They don’t vote for us anyway.” Recall as well that among Israel’s most virulent opponents are right-wingers such as Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak.
Let me conclude by saying that because American Jews voted Democrat by and large and because the Democrats won, we have far more influence with this administration than we would if the majority of American Jews followed Melanie Phillips’ advice and voted Republican. When it comes to American politics, it is she who truly “doesn’t get it.” She should not be trying to influence the voting patterns of American Jews. We have done quite well, thank you, in maintaining widespread American support for Israel, because we understand the dynamics of the American political system. Instead, she should be trying to change the terrible situation in Great Britain, where support for Israel has never been lower — in part because support for Israel has become a liberal versus conservative wedge issue. I wish there were more liberal supporters of Israel in Great Britain as there are among liberal political figures in the United States. So please stop lecturing us from your perch in Great Britain on who to vote for in the United States. We apparently “get it” over here a lot better than you do over there! The reality is we each have our problems and they must be addressed somewhat differently in different places.
So I will continue to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt, but if he does anything to weaken Israel’s security, I will do everything in my power to change his attitude and to use whatever influence we have in Congress and among the public to make sure that American never weakens its commitment to Israel’s security. That is my line in the sand — not the settlements.
Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is the author of 27 fiction and nonfiction works and has also published more than 100 articles in magazines and journals.