(updated below - Update II - Update III)
Last Sunday, Barack Obama gave a speech to a group of Jewish leaders in Cleveland, rejected the manipulative claim that one must "adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach" or else be deemed "soft or anti-Israel," and then (delicately) made this critical point regarding the range of acceptable debate in the U.S. with regard to Israel:
There was a very honest, thoughtful debate taking place inside Israel. All of you, I'm sure, have experienced this when you travel there. Understandably, because of the pressure that Israel is under, I think the U.S. pro-Israel community is sometimes a little more protective or concerned about opening up that conversation. But all I'm saying though is that actually ultimately should be our goal, to have that same clear-eyed view about how we approach these issues.
On virtually every issue concerning Israel, views that are held by substantial minorities or even majorities of Israelis themselves are deemed prohibited in the U.S., ones that inevitably subject the advocate to accusations of animus towards Israel or even anti-Semitism. There are very few issues in mainstream American political discourse with a narrower range of mandated orthodoxies than those which relate to Israel.
Underscoring that point rather vividly is the issue of negotiations with Hamas. Needless to say, isolating the democratically elected Hamas government and childishly pretending that they don't exist is a central prong of the Bush administration's policy, and few American politicians could ever get away with advocating that Israel attempt diplomatically to negotiate its conflicts with Hamas. Cascades of "anti-Israel," "soft-on-Terrorists" and other related accusations would pour down on any person suggesting such a thing.
But a new poll of actual Israelis -- the people who have to live with the consequences of their choices as opposed to those who can beat their neoconservative, protected chests from a safe distance -- reveals:
Sixty-four percent of Israelis say the government must hold direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza toward a cease-fire and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Less than one-third (28 percent) still opposes such talks.
The figures were obtained in a Haaretz-Dialog poll conducted Tuesday under the supervision of Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University.
According to the findings, Israelis are fed up with seven years of Qassam rockets falling on Sderot and the communities near Gaza, as well as the fact that Shalit has been held captive for more than a year and a half. An increasing number of public figures, including senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces' reserves, have expressed similar positions on talks with Hamas.
It now appears that this opinion is gaining traction in the wider public, which until recently vehemently rejected such negotiations.
The survey also showed that Likud voters are much more moderate than their Knesset representatives. About half (48 percent) support talks with Hamas.
In Kadima, 55 percent are for talks, while among Labor voters, the number jumps to 72 percent.
As these public opinion trends reflect, the mindless, simplistic belligerence that right-wing Jewish groups in the U.S. have been imposing as orthodoxies -- "it's appeasement to negotiate with the Terrorists" -- is anything but "pro-Israel," to say nothing of whether such militarism is "pro-U.S." While Israelis increasingly reject this sort of Manichean, war-seeking approach as counter-productive to their interests, neoconservative dogma remains the only choice in the U.S. for those who want to remain in the mainstream and avoid charges of being anti-Israel, as reflected by this sort of "thinking" from Condoleezza Rice:
Hamas is a little more than an enemy of the United States. Hamas, of course, is a terrorist organization -- listed by Europeans as a terrorist organization. And we saw what Hamas did in Gaza, when they threw people off of buildings and then knelt to pray. The violence in the Palestinian territories, and Gaza in particular, is directly related to Hamas activities. So to somehow engage Hamas and to reward that activity would make no sense. . . .
With Hamas, we certainly would not [negotiate]. They're a terrorist organization, and they're devoted to the destruction of Israel. There's not much to talk about.
How can that view be equated with being "pro-Israel" or "strongly supportive of Israel" if most Israelis think it's destructive to their interests? That's similar to the "reasoning" which has long claimed that we must continue to occupy Iraq for the good of the Iraqi people even though the vast majority of actual Iraqis have long favored a quick end to our occupation of their country. How can withdrawal from Iraq be deemed a betrayal of Iraqis when Iraqis themselves favor that? And how can views which many Israelis hold possibly be deemed "anti-Israel"?
The point here isn't that Israel should negotiate with Hamas but the perverse tools used to manipulate our political debate. With regard to virtually every issue, the right-wing American Jewish factions which act as arbiters for what views are "pro-Israel" and what views signify "anti-Israeli" animus or even anti-Semitism actually represent a minority -- often a small minority -- of Jews generally, and their views are sometimes even rejected by a majority of Israelis.
There are few things as consequential for America's interests as its inseparable attachment to right-wing factions in Israel. Paradoxically, there are, at the same time, few issues less amenable to open debate than that attachment. At the very least, Americans ought to be able to advocate views that are held by a substantial portion of Israelis without being subject to accusations that they are "anti-Israel" or "soft on Israel." Whatever else is true, America's foreign policies towards the Middle East over the last seven years have been an unmitigated disaster and every aspect of it ought to be open to serious reconsideration without debate-suffocating tactics being used to close off such discussion.
UPDATE: Here's a vivid reminder of how these debate-suffocating tactics operate, from an excellent 2003 Salon article by Michelle Goldberg detailing how Joe Lieberman and John Kerry sought to depict Howard Dean (whose campaign chairman was a former AIPAC Chairman, whose wife is Jewish and whose children were raised as Jews) as an Israel-hater due to the slightest (really indetectable) deviations from right-wing hawkish orthodoxy on Israel (and it's a sure sign of what is to be attemped if Obama is the nominee, as Tim Russert's repulsive behavior last night demonstrated):
Last Saturday, John Kerry gleefully predicted that Democratic rival Howard Dean was "imploding" over Israel. A meme was spreading in the Democratic Party that the former Vermont governor is insufficiently Zionist, that his views represent the antiwar fringe that's said to constitute his base. An Israeli newspaper had predicted that Jewish donors would shun him. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote him an admonitory letter. Political strategists waxed catastrophic.
What made the uproar so odd is that Dean's Israel policy hardly differs from that of Bush and his main Democratic challengers. His campaign is being co-chaired by Steven Grossman, who from 1992 to 1996 was president of AIPAC, America's most powerful pro-Israel lobby. . . ."His position on the Middle East is a right-of-center position," says Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. . . . Either way, Dean is seen as having deviated from the narrow parameters in which Israel can be discussed in American politics. That threatens to slow his momentum, dampen his fundraising and tarnish his political reputation.
Yet Dean has been cast as the left-of-center candidate, and the self-propelling narrative of the current campaign ensures that nearly everything he says will be interpreted according to that conventional wisdom. And few issues in American politics are as sensitive as Israel, making a mere hint of dissent from the AIPAC line politically hazardous, even for a candidate whose campaign is being run by an AIPAC vet.
As The Nation's John Nichols recounted back then, all of these attacks on Dean stemmed from his rather mild argument that the U.S. ought to be more "evenhanded" in attempting to forge peace in the Middle East, and Nichols noted:
Democrats who want to deny Howard Dean the party's 2004 presidential nomination have a new issue: They are complaining that the front-runner is insufficiently unequivocal in his support for Israel. But the criticisms have more to do with domestic politics than international affairs, and members of Congress who attack Dean's relatively moderate statements regarding relations between Israel and Palestine are signaling that it is no easier to debate Middle East policy in the Democratic Party than in George Bush's GOP.
As Jonathan Tobin noted in the journal Jewish Exponent, "the decision of Lieberman to use the Israel issue against Dean is interesting because it may be his best chance to rally Jewish voters to his flagging campaign." Nonetheless, after that wave of "controversy" erupted over his Israel statements, Dean -- as Goldberg put it -- "quickly backtracked, distancing himself from any damaging suggestion of evenhandedness."
Our political debate over Israel is suffocated by the bullying, manipulative tactics of the Joe Liebermans and Abe Foxmans -- as though they unilaterally determine what is "pro-Israel" -- even though they represent a minority, often even a fringe, of Jews and Israelis generally.
UPDATE II: There's no cheaper or more intellectually vapid device in political punditry than to point to some stray, anonymous friend and claim that he told you "X" as though that's proof that "X" is some sort of widespread or valid thought. Therefore, that's a favorite tactic of Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, and he uses it today as follows:
OBAMA WOOS THE JEWS: He'd better. One of my die-hard Democrat friends says he'd vote for McCain over Obama because he thinks Obama is anti-Israel.
On one level, this is just the standard, cowardly, passive-aggressive way that Reynolds spreads his bile: "I didn't say that Obama hates Israel; my anonymous die-hard Democratic friend said it, and I just innocently passed it along." But far more important than what it says about Reynolds is what it reflects about how anti-Israel and anti-Semitism accusations are endlessly exploited in our political discourse.
The article on "Pajamas Media" to which Reynolds links says that "Obama knew he needed to take a forceful stand to counteract the impact of the photograph of Obama in Muslim garb, and perhaps most troubling for his campaign, the unwelcome endorsement of National (sic) of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan." This is now a constant theme -- Obama is an angry black radical linked to the Jew-hating fringe. There are two certain ways to know that a toxic smear is bubbling up from the right-wing sewers -- it comes pouring out of Tim Russert's mouth and oozes onto Instapundit's blog, where it's deceitfully plugged. The indescribably baseless "Obama-hates- Israel" smear is well on its way.
UPDATE III: On a somewhat related note, I've written an article for Salon today on the death of William Buckley, with a focus on the severe split -- in both style and substance -- between him and today's conservative movement. The article is here.