What does it mean to be anti-Israel? This is a question that arises in Washington. Republicans have argued for years that President Barack Obama is anti-Israel, and — just a wild guess here — we will hear this charge even more frequently as 2016 approaches.
A perennial goal of Republicans is to separate American Jews from the Democratic Party. I have no doubt that if Hillary Clinton runs, Republican strategists will argue that she a) carried water for the notoriously anti-Israel Obama and b) never really liked Israel anyway (expect the imminent resurrection of the once-famous photo of Clinton kissing Yasser Arafat’s wife).
My subject for the moment is not Clinton’s pro-Israel bona fides. (She made it clear to me in an interview this summer that she backed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his war against Hamas, which suggested, among other things, that she is worried about the status of her pro-Israel bona fides.) Rather, I want to focus on what it means to be anti-Israel in the context of the Obama administration’s Middle East policies.
My rule of thumb is simple: If you believe that the status quo in the Middle East is sustainable, which is to say, if you believe that Israel can maintain its settlements across the West Bank ad infinitum, and continue, into the indeterminate future, to subvert those Palestinians still working for a two-state solution, then Obama can plausibly be judged — rhetorically, at least — as anti-Israel.
If, however, you believe that the status quo is unsustainable — that Israel, for its own sake, should move expeditiously to disentangle itself from the lives of the Palestinians in advance of an eventual divorce, or else face a future in which it becomes a bi-national state or a country that legislates the permanent disenfranchisement of Palestinians (and therefore becomes a true global pariah) — then Obama can't plausibly be labeled anti-Israel. The reverse, in fact, is true: For Obama, like many Israeli politicians, and ex-generals and spy chiefs, to be pro-Israel is to be in favor of liberating the country from its occupation of Palestinians.
Obama's position on Israel’s future is analogous to that of the country's current finance minister, Yair Lapid, and justice minister, Tzipi Livni, as well as that of the leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog. These three understand that Israel is moving in a dangerous and self-destructive direction. Netanyahu himself has spoken about the impossibility of a bi-national state. It’s just that he doesn’t seem capable of doing anything to stop the coming crisis. (A brief pause in order to dismiss the notion of bi-nationalism: It is a concept that barely works in Belgium; why would anyone in his right mind believe that it could work in today’s merciless, all-against-all Middle East?)
Netanyahu’s unwillingness to argue for policies that would advance the cause of eventual Palestinian independence — and he has previously endorsed the two-state solution — is one of the main sources of the breakdown in his relationship with Obama.
Obama and his team have made several mistakes in their management of the now-comatose peace process. Most notably, the president came into office demanding a complete settlement freeze — including Israeli building in the suburbs of Jerusalem — without having a backup plan for the moment when Israel refused to accede to his demand. A settlement freeze, in particular in those parts of the West Bank already beyond the Israeli security barrier, is a sine qua non of progress in the effort to bring about a Palestinian state, but this demand put the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, in an awkward position: He had previously negotiated with Israel even while settlements were being built. But he could not be seen as being less hostile to settlements than the U.S. president.
But this is a question of tactics; on matters of strategy, Obama has been correct. Here is what he told me earlier this year about the unsustainability of Israel’s current path: “The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is not subject to periodic policy differences. That’s a rock-solid commitment, and it’s one that I’ve upheld proudly throughout my tenure. I think the affection that Americans feel for Israel, the bond that our people feel and the bipartisan support that people have for Israel is not going to be affected.”
He went on to say, though, that he believes that “if you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction — and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time — if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”
I asked him, at this point in the interview, “Willingness, or ability?”
He answered: “Not necessarily willingness, but ability to manage international fallout is going to be limited. And that has consequences.”
Like the center and center-left in Israel (and like much of the American Jewish community), Obama has taken note of the impending hard choices for Israel. He told me that he hadn't yet heard “a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.”
There is no credible scenario. An Israeli departure from even parts of the West Bank will be traumatic and potentially dangerous. The Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi has said that he has two nightmares about a Palestinian state: The first is that there won’t be one. The second is that there will be one.
I understand his second nightmare. The Palestinians have shown no particular interest in accepting as legitimate the idea that Jews are also from the land that they claim as their own. A Palestinian state might not bring about an end to the conflict. But the conflict certainly won’t end in the absence of a state. If Israel does not move soon to create conditions on the West Bank for a Palestinian state to one day emerge, then it will one day cease to be either a Jewish state or a democratic state. Barack Obama is not anti-Israel for noting this unfortunate truth.
To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.