Once again, as the presidential campaign season gets underway, the leading candidates are going to enormous lengths to demonstrate their devotion to the state of Israel and their steadfast commitment to its "special relationship" with the United States.
Each of the main contenders emphatically favors giving Israel extraordinary material and diplomatic support -- continuing the more than $3 billion in foreign aid each year to a country whose per capita income is now 29th in the world. They also believe that this aid should be given unconditionally. None of them criticizes Israel's conduct, even when its actions threaten U.S. interests, are at odds with American values or even when they are harmful to Israel itself. In short, the candidates believe that the U.S. should support Israel no matter what it does.
Such pandering is hardly surprising, because contenders for high office routinely court special interest groups, and Israel's staunchest supporters -- the Israel lobby, as we have termed it -- expect it. Politicians do not want to offend Jewish Americans or "Christian Zionists," two groups that are deeply engaged in the political process. Candidates fear, with some justification, that even well-intentioned criticism of Israel's policies may lead these groups to turn against them and back their opponents instead.
If this happened, trouble would arise on many fronts. Israel's friends in the media would take aim at the candidate, and campaign contributions from pro-Israel individuals and political action committees would go elsewhere. Moreover, most Jewish voters live in states with many electoral votes, which increases their weight in close elections (remember Florida in 2000?), and a candidate seen as insufficiently committed to Israel would lose some of their support. And no Republican would want to alienate the pro-Israel subset of the Christian evangelical movement, which is a significant part of the GOP base.
Indeed, even suggesting that the U.S. adopt a more impartial stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can get a candidate into serious trouble. When Howard Dean proposed during the 2004 campaign that the United States take a more "evenhanded" role in the peace process, he was severely criticized by prominent Democrats, and a rival for the nomination, Sen. Joe Lieberman, accused him of "selling Israel down the river" and said Dean's comments were "irresponsible."
Word quickly spread in the American Jewish community that Dean was hostile to Israel, even though his campaign co-chair was a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Dean had been strongly pro-Israel throughout his career. The candidates in the 2008 election surely want to avoid Dean's fate, so they are all trying to prove that they are Israel's best friend.
These candidates, however, are no friends of Israel. They are facilitating its pursuit of self-destructive policies that no true friend would favor.
The key issue here is the future of Gaza and the West Bank, which Israel conquered in 1967 and still controls. Israel faces a stark choice regarding these territories, which are home to roughly 3.8 million Palestinians. It can opt for a two-state solution, turning over almost all of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians and allowing them to create a viable state on those lands in return for a comprehensive peace agreement designed to allow Israel to live securely within its pre-1967 borders (with some minor modifications). Or it can retain control of the territories it occupies or surrounds, building more settlements and bypass roads and confining the Palestinians to a handful of impoverished enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel would control the borders around those enclaves and the air above them, thus severely restricting the Palestinians' freedom of movement.
But if Israel chooses this second option, it will lead to an apartheid state. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said as much when he recently proclaimed that if "the two-state solution collapses," Israel will "face a South African-style struggle." He went so far as to argue that "as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished." Similarly, Israel's deputy prime minister, Haim Ramon, said earlier this month that "the occupation is a threat to the existence of the state of Israel." Other Israelis, as well as Jimmy Carter and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have warned that continuing the occupation will turn Israel into an apartheid state. Nevertheless, Israel continues to expand its settlements on the West Bank while the plight of the Palestinians worsens.
Given this grim situation, one would expect the presidential candidates, who claim to care deeply about Israel, to be sounding the alarm and energetically championing a two-state solution. One would expect them to have encouraged President Bush to put significant pressure on both the Israelis and the Palestinians at the recent Annapolis conference and to keep the pressure on when he visits the region this week. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently observed, settling this conflict is also in America's interest, not to mention the Palestinians'.
One would certainly expect Hillary Clinton to be leading the charge here. After all, she wisely and bravely called for establishing a Palestinian state "that is on the same footing as other states" in 1998, when it was still politically incorrect to use the words "Palestinian state" openly. Moreover, her husband not only championed a two-state solution as president but he laid out the famous "Clinton parameters" in December 2000, which outline the only realistic deal for ending the conflict.
But what is Clinton saying now that she is a candidate? She said hardly anything about pushing the peace process forward at Annapolis, and remained silent when Rice criticized Israel's subsequent announcement that it planned to build more than 300 new housing units in East Jerusalem. More important, both she and GOP aspirant Rudy Giuliani recently proclaimed that Jerusalem must remain undivided, a position that is at odds with the Clinton parameters and virtually guarantees that there will be no Palestinian state.
Sen. Clinton's behavior is hardly unusual among the candidates for president. Barack Obama, who expressed some sympathy for the Palestinians before he set his sights on the White House, now has little to say about their plight, and he too said little about what should have been done at Annapolis to facilitate peace. The other major contenders are ardent in their declarations of support for Israel, and none of them apparently sees a two-state solution as so urgent that they should press both sides to reach an agreement. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security advisor and now a senior advisor to Obama, noted, "The presidential candidates don't see any payoff in addressing the Israel-Palestinian issue." But they do see a significant political payoff in backing Israel to the hilt, even when it is pursuing a policy -- colonizing the West Bank -- that is morally and strategically bankrupt.
In short, the presidential candidates are no friends of Israel. They are like most U.S. politicians, who reflexively mouth pro-Israel platitudes while continuing to endorse and subsidize policies that are in fact harmful to the Jewish state. A genuine friend would tell Israel that it was acting foolishly, and would do whatever he or she could to get Israel to change its misguided behavior. And that will require challenging the special interest groups whose hard-line views have been obstacles to peace for many years.
As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami argued in 2006, the American presidents who have made the greatest contribution to peace -- Carter and George H.W. Bush -- succeeded because they were "ready to confront Israel head-on and overlook the sensibilities of her friends in America." If the Democratic and Republican contenders were true friends of Israel, they would be warning it about the danger of becoming an apartheid state, just as Carter did.
Moreover, they would be calling for an end to the occupation and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. And they would be calling for the United States to act as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians so that Washington could pressure both sides to accept a solution based on the Clinton parameters. Implementing a final-status agreement will be difficult and take a number of years, but it is imperative that the two sides formally agree on the solution and then implement it in ways that protect each side.
But Israel's false friends cannot say any of these things, or even discuss the issue honestly. Why? Because they fear that speaking the truth would incur the wrath of the hard-liners who dominate the main organizations in the Israel lobby. So Israel will end up controlling Gaza and the West Bank for the foreseeable future, turning itself into an apartheid state in the process. And all of this will be done with the backing of its so-called friends, including the current presidential candidates. With friends like them, who needs enemies?