What should have been said to AIPAC
Michael C. Desch
When politicians speak before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, they do so to burnish their credentials as friends of Israel.
As longtime State Department Middle East adviser Aaron David Miller reminds us in his new book, "The Much Too Promised Land," "it's hard to compete and be successful in American politics without being good on Israel." And so when the AIPAC annual conference coincides with a presidential election, as it did this year, these speeches become bidding wars to demonstrate the fervor of the candidates' support for the Jewish state. Sen. Barack Obama declared himself the "true friend of Israel." And Sen. John McCain set the late Sen. Henry Jackson's uncompromising pro-Israel stance as his "model of what an American statesman should be." For both, friendship with Israel means embracing the notion that the Jewish state faces dire threats that require unwavering American support.
But the mark of real friendship, as abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher put it, is "to speak painful truth through loving words." By that criterion, neither of the presidential candidates qualifies as Israel's true friend. Rather, it has been individuals like former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretaries of State James Baker and Henry Kissinger who have been Israel's real friends. As public officials, they had a realistic view of Israel's situation and were willing to criticize the Jewish state and push it at critical junctures in its history for it own good.
No doubt Israel faces threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. But Israel's security situation is by no means as perilous as the candidates imply. Israel has long-standing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. The Palestinian Authority is committed to a negotiated settlement based on a two-state solution, which the Arab League supports, holding out the prospect for even wider recognition of the Jewish state in the Middle East. And Syria has been willing since at least the late 1990s to make peace with Israel in return for getting back the Golan Heights.
Israel also has by far the strongest military in the region and the wartime track record to prove it. Its failure in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was the result of a misguided strategy—trying to defeat Hezbollah with air power alone—not military weakness. The candidates' fixation on Iran's nuclear program should not obscure the fact that Israel has its own robust nuclear deterrent, which means Iran would be committing suicide if it attacked Israel with nuclear weapons.
A true friend of Israel would acknowledge that Israel's security situation, while certainly not ideal, has improved significantly over the years, and advise as Baker did in his famous address to AIPAC in 1989 that "caution must never become paralysis."
A real friend would tell Israel the hard truth that Arab intransigence is not the only obstacle to peace in the region. You would never know it from the candidates' remarks, but Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which continue to grow, make it impossible for the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own.
Furthermore, Israel has been unwilling to return the Golan Heights to Syria, which is essential for ending the conflict between those two countries. And an agreement there would help weaken Hezbollah, which is heavily dependent on Syrian support. Someone who really cares about Israel would say to AIPAC, as Baker once did, "now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel."
Candid talk is absolutely essential because Israel's survival as a Jewish and democratic state is being undermined by its continuing occupation of the West Bank. Carter incurred the wrath of the pro-Israel community by making this very point in his book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." Despite having brokered the first Camp David peace accords, a major step bolstering the Jewish state's security, Carter was vilified by so-called friends of Israel. But he was only stating the obvious: If the occupation continues and there is no Palestinian state, Israel, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said, will "face a South-African style struggle." Other prominent Israelis, as well as South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, have warned that continuing the occupation will turn Israel into an apartheid state.
Another uncomfortable truth is that a major obstacle to withdrawing from the West Bank is Israel's political system, which allows small fringe groups like the settler's movement to undermine the peace process. Seventy percent of Israelis are willing to trade land for peace, but they have been thwarted by an uncompromising minority. The majority does not need reflexive, unthinking support from their friends in America for everything Israel does; rather, it needs backing against the extremists on both sides of the conflict.
McCain and Obama claim to be Israel's best friend and try to prove it by outdoing each other in their unqualified support for the Jewish state, as we just saw at the AIPAC conference. But the threats Israel faces hardly match the candidates' apocalyptic rhetoric and their unthinking support for almost every policy Israel adopts. This is not good for Israel, much less America. Although it is not clear who will win the race for the White House this fall, it is already clear that the winner will be no real friend of Israel.
Michael C. Desch holds the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at Texas A&M University.