Republicans twist Obama's statements about Israel

In an interview, Barack Obama referred to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a "constant sore," and GOP leaders took that out of context.

Published May 13, 2008 2:34PM (EDT)

On Monday, the Atlantic's Web site published excerpts from an interview the magazine's Jeffrey Goldberg had done with Barack Obama a couple of days before. The published sections focused entirely on Israel, which has been a sensitive issue for Obama because of some perceptions in the Jewish community and elsewhere that he's anti-Israel. But over the course of the interview, Obama repeatedly made his support for the country clear. That, apparently, didn't satisfy House Republican leaders, who took one statement out of context to make it seem as if Obama had in fact slurred Israel.

Despite what Republicans said, Obama had made his real position evident. At one point during the interview, he told Goldberg:

I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism, the potential vulnerability that the Jewish people could still experience ...

That does not mean that I would agree with every action of the state of Israel, because it's a government and it has politicians, and as a politician myself I am deeply mindful that we are imperfect creatures and don't always act with justice uppermost on our minds. But the fundamental premise of Israel and the need to preserve a Jewish state that is secure is, I think, a just idea and one that should be supported here in the United States and around the world ...

I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what's been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they're asking themselves moral questions.

Later in the interview, Goldberg asked Obama, "Do you think that Israel is a drag on America's reputation overseas?" Obama responded:

No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable. I am absolutely convinced of that, and some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I'm not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that's the safest ground politically.

In a statement, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, seized upon the "constant sore" part of Obama's answer. "Israel is a critical American ally and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, not a 'constant sore' as Barack Obama claims," Boehner said. "Obama's latest remark, and his commitment to 'opening a dialogue' with sponsors of terrorism, echoes past statements by Jimmy Carter, who once called Israel an 'apartheid state.'"

Boehner has been roundly criticized for his distortion of Obama's comments. Goldberg himself penned a response in which he wrote:

Mr. Boehner, I'm sure, is a terribly busy man, with many burdensome responsibilities, so I have to assume that he simply didn't have time to read the entire Obama interview, or even the entire paragraph, or even a single clause. If he had, of course, he would have seen that Obama was clearly calling the Middle East conflict, and not Israel, a sore. Why, there's no one who would disagree that the Middle East conflict is a "sore," is there?

I have no doubt that Mr. Boehner will issue a correction to his press release in which he states the obvious, which is that Obama expressed -- in twelve different ways -- his support for Israel to me.

If he doesn't, however, I would, sadly, have to agree with my colleague, the less-forgiving Andrew Sullivan, who called Boehner's statement a "flat-out lie." In fact, I would add to Andrew's post, by calling Boehner's statement mendacious, duplicitous, gross, and comically refutable. So Mr. Boehner, do the right thing, and correct the record. I'll be happy to post the correction right here.

ABC News' Jake Tapper pointed out that even Boehner's attempted link of Obama to Carter's description of Israel is faulty, as Obama specifically rejected that characterization at one point during the interview.

Even the Weekly Standard has come down on Boehner. On the magazine's blog, Michael Goldfarb wrote, "There are a lot of problems with Obama's comments to Goldberg, but he wasn't calling Israel a 'constant sore.' It's pretty clear he meant that the conflict was a 'constant sore.' He's also quite explicit in denouncing Carter's labeling of Israel as an apartheid state."

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Boehner R-ohio Middle East