Obama talks Israel


Barack Obama spent plenty of time talking about Israel in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffery Goldberg. The New York Times has a story today, placing the interview in the context of Obama’s wider efforts to reach out to Jewish voters.

A few interesting points…

You may remember last year when Bob Kerrey, the Clinton backer and former Nebraska senator, drew a bunch of criticism from the Obama camp over this quote:

“It’s probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims and I think that experience is a big deal.”

Well, here’s Obama in his own words (is there any difference?):

It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, “This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he’s not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush,” and that’s something they’re hopeful about. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security.

Now let’s take a look at the politics-as-usual on the other side.

In this 2,300-word interview, Obama time and again expresses strong support and admiration for Israel, defends the policy of boycotting Hamas, strongly condemns former President Carter’s use of the word apartheid, and basically talks about how wonderful Jews are.

But Jewish Republicans have already managed to ignore all of that, in the hopes of mining some sort of “gotcha” quote out of what is best described as a Valentine to Israel and the Jews. The passage in question:

JG: Do you think that Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas?

BO: 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.

Well, here’s what the Republican Jewish Coalition had to say:

Washington, D.C. (May 12, 2008) – In response to Sen. Barack Obama’s interview in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, the Republican Jewish Coalition released the following statement today:

“Once again, Senator Obama demonstrates his questionable grasp of America’s foreign policy. Senator Obama manages to excuse the inexcusable actions of anti-American militant jihadists by putting the blame for their actions on America’s foreign policy. America stands with Israel because it is one of our strongest allies and the only democracy in the Middle East. Senator Obama naively believes that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will solve the global scourge of radical Islamic extremism. Yet Senator Obama never says how he will rein in Hamas’ daily onslaught on Israel or Iran’s scurrilous condemnations of Israel. Is it any wonder Hamas has endorsed him for president?”

It’s more than a stretch to suggest that Obama was attempting to blame American policy for Islamic terrorism. And he certainly didn’t say that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would “solve the global scourge of radical Islamic extremism.” And, while we’re on the topic of this press release, it seems a little chutzpadik for the RJC to charge Obama with having no plan on how to reign in Hamas’ daily onslaught on Israel, when in fact his position is essentially the same as John McCain’s and President Bush’s. It is true that Obama parts ways with Bush/McCain on whether to talk directly to the Iranians, but if the measure of success is whether a U.S. president succeeds in stopping Iran’s scurrilous condemnations of Israel, well, then, the Bush administration’s approach has failed.

The House’s only Jewish Republican member, Eric Cantor of Virginia, also came out with a statement slamming Obama’s comments:

“It is truly disappointing that Senator Obama called Israel a ‘constant wound,’ ‘constant sore,’ and that it ‘infect[s] all of our foreign policy.’ These sorts of words and characterizations are the words of a politician with a deep misunderstanding of the Middle East and an innate distrust of Israel,” said Congressman Eric Cantor (R-VA-07). …

“I hope Senator Obama corrects his remarks as I believe most Americans believe that a strong and secure Israel is without a doubt an advantage for America,” concluded Cantor.

As misleading as the RJC statement is, Cantor’s is worse. Obama was referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – not to Israel. And he has repeatedly stressed the need for America to safeguard Israel’s security.

Here’s the rest of the Obama quote (and it’s worth reading the entire interview):

I want to solve the problem, and so my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth and say if Israel is building settlements without any regard to the effects that this has on the peace process, then we’re going to be stuck in the same status quo that we’ve been stuck in for decades now, and that won’t lift that existential dread that David Grossman described in your article.

The notion that a vibrant, successful society with incredible economic growth and incredible cultural vitality is still plagued by this notion that this could all end at any moment – you know, I don’t know what that feels like, but I can use my imagination to understand it. I would not want to raise my children in those circumstances. I want to make sure that the people of Israel, when they kiss their kids and put them on that bus, feel at least no more existential dread than any parent does whenever their kids leave their sight. So that then becomes the question: is settlement policy conducive to relieving that over the long term, or is it just making the situation worse? That’s the question that has to be asked.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that in addition to Cantor’s statement, the Republican National Committee is circulating this one from House Majority Leader John Boehner:

“Israel is a critical American ally and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, not a ‘constant sore’ as Barack Obama claims. 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.’ It’s another sign that Obama is part of the broken Washington Americans are rejecting.”

As mentioned above, Obama did not call Israel a “constant sore,” and he did strongly rejected Carter’s use of the word apartheid in connection to Israel.

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