Distorting Obama’s Views on Israel

Barack Obama has alienated key sectors of his progressive base with statements and policy proposals regarding Israel in which he allies himself with right-wing Republicans.

These have included: rejecting calls by human rights activists to condition military aid to Israel on an improvement in the government’s human rights record; defending Israel’s massive 2006 assault against Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, which killed more than 800 civilians; disputing findings by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights organizations citing Israeli violations of international humanitarian law; calling for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without supporting the right of the Palestinian-populated eastern half of the city to be the capital of a Palestinian state; making exaggerated claims about Iran’s threats towards Israel while refusing to express any concerns regarding Israel’s threats towards Iran; and bringing in Dennis Ross — a prominent supporter of Israeli government policies — as his principal Middle East advisor.

Nevertheless, the Republican Jewish Coalition has launched a series of ads in Washington Jewish Week, Detroit Jewish News, and other major Jewish newspapers across the United States claiming that the stridently pro-Israel Obama is actually “reckless,” “naïve,” and “dangerous” when it comes to Israel and its security. One ad not-so-subtly warns of “tragic outcomes for the Jewish people” in a headline over a photo of Obama speaking in Berlin.

Guilt by Association

One major point of the ads is to declare guilt-by-association. Many of these efforts are as tenuous as the Republican attacks regarding Obama’s connections with education professor and former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. One ad, for example, is dominated by a photograph of Obama next to a photograph of the right-wing political commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. The ad quotes the Anti-Defamation League as saying Buchanan “publicly espouses racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-immigrant views. Yet, Buchanan calls his views on Israel, Iran and the Palestinians the same as Obama’s.” In reality, Buchanan never claimed that the staunchly pro-Israel Obama has the same views as him. Instead, he has said that on certain specific questions — such as negotiating with Iran and recognizing the suffering of the Palestinians — he agrees with Obama more than McCain.

Another ad falsely claims that “Barack Obama surrounds himself with a number of individuals and advisors who are hostile to Israel and American Jews,” warning readers “You know a man by the company he keeps.” Every example given, however, either grossly misrepresents the political positions of the people in question and/or exaggerates their role in the campaign.

For example, former Democratic Congressman David Bonior, along with Middle East scholar and former peace negotiator Robert Malley, are labeled as “anti-Israel.” In reality, while they have been critical of Israel’s illegal colonization of occupied Arab territories and some conduct by Israeli officials in negotiations, both have steadfastly upheld Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and have emphasized that their support for a two-state solution is based in large part because it’s necessary for Israel’s survival.

Despite supporting tens of billions of dollars’ worth of unconditional military and economic aid to Israel while in House of Representatives, Bonior is labeled in one ad as “a stalwart opponent to Israel.” The ad also claims Bonior “refused to stand by Israel while in Congress, after repeated terrorist attacks.” In reality, Rep. Bonior strongly and consistently condemned terrorist attacks by Palestinian extremists. His refusal to “stand by Israel” was in reference to his opposition to a resolution introduced by right-wing House Republican leader Tom DeLay which defended Israel’s massive April 2002 military operations in the West Bank, which Amnesty International reported as appearing “as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians” through actions “which had no clear or obvious military necessity,” but which the resolution claimed were “aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure.”

Malley — who worked with President Bill Clinton at the 2000 Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat — is further attacked as “a Palestinian apologist” for pointing out that Israel shared the blame with the Palestinians for the breakdown of the peace talks. Ironically, Malley has had virtually no contact with the Obama campaign and whatever limited ties he did have were formally severed when it was learned that, as part of a conflict resolution initiative through the International Crisis Group, he had met with some civilian Hamas leaders.

The ad even goes after two of the more conservative members of the national security establishment who are allied with the Obama campaign, whom the ads also falsely claim are “anti-Israel.” Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski — that one ad, in citing his opposition to Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, refers to as having “an aggressive dislike for Israel” — has had only a very marginal advisory role and has apparently never talked with Obama about Israel. General Tony McPeak is attacked for having expressed concern back in 2003 over how right-wing American Jews had made it difficult for the United States to more aggressively pursue the peace process. Obama strongly denounced that statement. McPeak himself is actually a supporter of Israel and has developed close relationships with top Israeli security officials.

Another example of the alleged “company he keeps” is Obama’s now-estranged former pastor Jeremiah Wright, whom the ads refer to as an “an anti-Semite.” The Jerusalem Post has argued that the allegation is completely unsubstantiated, noting how, despite some statements critical of Israel, “Wright is not known to have targeted Jews and had friendly relations with Chicago Jewish groups.”

Ironically, the person who has emerged as Obama’s principal advisor on Middle East issues is Dennis Ross, a former top official in the senior Bush administration, an analyst for Fox News, and a fellow at the right-wing Washington Institute on Near East Policy. Ross, long a staunch defender of Israeli policies, was a leading supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and remains an outspoken hawk on Iran.

Misrepresenting Obama on Iran

Two of these ads in Jewish newspapers falsely claim that Obama said he would meet personally with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. In reality, Obama said he would meet with “Iranian leaders,” which is in reference not to the Iranian president — who does not wield much real political power — but to the less extremist Iranian clerical leadership, who actually run the country and control its military.

One of these ads misleadingly claims that “Obama is opposed to critical legislation labeling Iran’s revolutionary guard a terrorist organization.” This particular piece of legislation was a non-binding amendment, so it could hardly be considered “critical legislation.” Obama opposed it because other language in the amendment raised concerns that it effectively gave the Bush administration a green light to attack Iran.

More importantly, Obama actually has supported labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Ironically, this puts Obama to the right of the Bush administration, which has been unwilling to designate the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group. The government has instead correctly recognized that this would be an irresponsibly sweeping characterization of the largest branch of Iran’s armed forces. (The Bush administration only designated the al-Quds Force — a sub-unit of the Revolutionary Guards that has indeed engaged in terrorist operations, but doesn’t always operate with the full knowledge and consent of the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards or even Iran’s central government — as a terrorist group.) In short, these Republican ads are criticizing Obama for taking a position he actually opposes but which has actually been adopted by the Bush administration.

The ads quote out-of-context an Obama statement in which the Democratic nominee challenged the hyperbole regarding the Iranian threat by noting how less serious it was compared to the Soviet Union, which once possessed thousands of nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States. According to one ad, this shows that “Obama has not shown the wisdom, experience or strength to stand up to the people who would do us harm.”

Rather than being “soft on Iran,” Obama has taken increasingly hawkish positions. He has emphasized that any talks with Iran would be focused on ending Iran’s nuclear program and its support of terrorist groups and that such talks would serve as a step in building international support for imposing even tougher sanctions and other measures targeting Iran. He has sponsored legislation that would protect pensions that divest from companies dealing with Iran from lawsuits. And he has also refused to rule out unilateral military action against that country.

Misrepresenting Obama on Jerusalem

Another ad cited a speech in which Obama called for an undivided Jerusalem but claims that he shortly thereafter “changed his tune” as a result of “facing criticism from the Palestinian Authority and Arab nations” by then saying that the future of Jerusalem should be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. The ad declared that therefore “His shifting views on Jerusalem are reckless.”

The ad is misleading on several counts.

First of all, the main criticism he faced from his initial statement was from progressive Democratic Party activists — including prominent liberal Jews — concerned that he was endorsing Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian-populated occupied East Jerusalem. The annexation not only violates international law and a series of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions, but endorsing such a predetermined status precluding any Palestinian control would effectively end any hope of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

In addition, there is no contradiction in saying that a city should be physically undivided and that it could be under two sovereigns. Furthermore, the view that the future of Jerusalem would need to be decided through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has been U.S. policy under the Bush administration as well as previous administrations. Indeed, the United States is obligated to uphold this position as the guarantor of the 1993 Memorandum of Understanding between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Obama’s Hawkish Positions Not Helping

Despite the ad campaign and similar tactics, polls indicate American Jews support Obama by a more than 2:1 margin. However, even assuming an Obama victory with overwhelming Jewish support, by raising doubts within the Jewish community and beyond over Obama’s commitment to Israel’s legitimate security needs, it will make it all the more difficult politically for an Obama administration to take the necessary steps to apply the needed pressure to make a peace settlement possible. As a result, the dovish pro-Israel group J Street has mounted a campaign against the Republican attacks.

Apologists for Obama have insisted that his hard-line positions on issues related to Israel don’t indicate actual right-wing proclivities on his own part regarding foreign policy. Instead, it’s argued, they are simply a means of protecting himself from being targeted by the Republicans for being anti-Israel. However, Obama is being attacked for being “anti-Israel” anyway.

For example, Obama acknowledged last year how the Palestinians had suffered more than anybody as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Soon thereafter, he insisted that their suffering wasn’t because of the ethnic cleansing suffered at the hands of Israel in 1948 or the more than 40 years of Israeli occupation, colonization, and repression, but “from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognize Israel, to renounce violence, and to get serious about negotiating peace and security for the region.” Though Obama’s defenders have insisted that his “clarification” was necessary to prevent right-wing attacks, the original quote without the later clarification is still highlighted in this recent series of ads.

Rather than being necessary for getting him to the White House, Obama’s right-wing positions regarding Israel and its neighbors are actually hurting him. They have become a major target of Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney and independent candidate Ralph Nader, who correctly observe that their more evenhanded positions are supported by a majority of the American people, and have weakened his support within the peace and human rights community.

Meanwhile, as indicated by this recent series of Republican ads, they’ve done nothing to stop attacks from the Republicans.