While the right wing has been engaging in a shameful smear campaign against Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, the hard left has been slamming him for “kowtowing” to AIPAC.
I get a lot of e-mail, from all different points of view. I’m on a lot of lists. The words I’ve seen used to describe Obama include “maggot,” “toady,” “hypocrite,” “worm,” “traitor,” “opportunist,” and “supporter of war crimes.”
These were all from people on the so-called left.
One has to pause and wonder what planet these folks are living on. They have not forgiven Obama since he made his speech to the AIPAC convention a year ago. The intensity of their anger toward Obama has only increased as the pressure Obama has faced from AIPAC has increased. A recent Mother Jones article details the kind of heat the so-called “pro-Israel” community has been putting on Obama.
The left, apparently, would have preferred that Obama disqualify himself from the running by launching a broadside against Israeli policy. This is not about the alleged “omnipotence” of the “Israel Lobby” in the Walt-Mearsheimer vein. This is simply about realities in American politics.
AIPAC does not call the shots all by itself. The fact is that American public opinion is decisively with Israel, and to the extent that it isn’t, it is still not with the Palestinians. Consider this…
In August 2006, with the Lebanon War in full swing, with Israel having recently pounded Gaza, destroying the airport there and severely damaging its power plant, with Israel’s image taking some serious hits, Americans were asked whether they sympathized more with Israel or with the Palestinians. 52% said Israel, and only 11% said the Palestinians. These findings, from the Pew Research Center, also reflect a consistent pattern. Since 2003, support for Israel has fluctuated between 37% and 52% while that for the Palestinians between 9% and 13%.
That does mean that an awful lot of Americans don’t much care one way or the other. But where they do, they favor Israel decisively. Thus, there is nothing for a candidate to gain from anything less than agreement with the AIPAC line, and much to lose. AIPAC is a very effective lobby. The Jewish community is home to a good many major political donors, particularly to the Democrats. These are factors, to be sure, but in the end, they would amount to very little if the overwhelming majority of Americans were not either neutral or taking Israel’s side.
But the response of the mainstream Jewish community to the right-wing smear campaign against Obama is telling. A wide swath of groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, United Jewish Communities, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs issued an open letter decrying the campaign against Obama.
The issuing of the letter, in and of itself, is merely a reaction to the campaign. But the fact that the letter includes no qualification of the defense of Obama reflects the fact that the Illinois senator has a good deal of support in the Jewish community.
This was reflected in the Super Tuesday voting, where Obama and Hillary Clinton were very close among Jewish voters. Clinton won the Jewish vote going away in New York, but Obama won by a similarly significant margin in Connecticut, with the other four states with large Jewish populations that were examined showed very close results.
Lest too much of this be credited to “almighty AIPAC” it should be noted that, as reported in the Mother Jones article, “pro-Israel” PACs have contributed something like five times as much to Clinton as they have to Obama. Another blow to the populist and completely erroneous theory that AIPAC controls American elections, is the fact that, despite the disparity I just mentioned, Obama has been more successful raising funds overall than has Clinton, who was recently reported to have loaned her own campaign $5 million of her own money.
In fact, Obama’s handling of the issue of Israel has been skilled and bodes well for his behavior when and if he takes over the White House. His speech before the AIPAC convention, so widely criticized by the left, was in fact a master stroke. He completely blunted the tools any in that group hoped to use against him by establishing himself as a friend of Israel, yet he also made it clear that he recognized the need for relief for the Palestinians and the abject failure of the politics of force. While radicals would have preferred that Obama either shun AIPAC or declare war on it, it should be obvious that it is preferable to have someone in office who is going to repudiate the failed neo-conservative approach (something neither Clinton nor John McCain seem inclined to do) and who recognizes the suffering of the Palestinians than it is to have a marginal presidential candidate make such a statement.
Such is not obvious to the left, unfortunately. This explains something of why the radical right can so often find a candidate it can support while the radical left wrings it hands and whines about how the system ensures that no one they can support can emerge (we’ll leave aside the point that many on the left have, preposterously, embraced Ron Paul because of his intention to cut all foreign aid, including aid to Israel, despite the fact that his politics are strongly on the right wing side of libertarianism).
That Obama has surrounded himself with a wide range of advisors is also a good sign. His point person on Mideast issues is Dan Shapiro, a veteran political insider who had worked in the past for Rep. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and has strong ties to the Jewish community. Shapiro himself is a bit enigmatic, but he played a key role in Nelson’s activities around the Syrian Accountability Act and similar legislation that worked against peaceful resolutions to Mideast problems. Dennis Ross is also an advisor to Obama, and these two men go a long way toward reassuring Jews that Obama will not seek to harm Israel’s interests.
And well it should. As Daniel Levy points out, it is precisely the strong bond between Israel and the US that creates the possibility, which has not been exploited of late, of the US being able to convince Israel to compromise. The flip side is visible in the words of Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Israel: “…the US is not an even-handed mediator. We have our interests and allies, and Israel is an ally of the US. “ (From The Camp David Summit – What Went Wrong? edited by Shimon Shamir and Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, 2005, Sussex Academic Press, p. 103)
Having people like Shapiro and Ross around helps solidify Obama’s relationship with both the American Jewish community and with Israel. That he is also getting advice from people like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Clarke, Rob Malley and Samantha Power means there is a real possibility that Obama will work to find workable solutions, not futile ones that seek to maintain the status quo.
Whether he can or not will depend, as always, on the ability of reasonable and moderate forces in the US, and particularly in the Jewish community, to create the political space for him to do so. The Jewish support for Obama reflects a desire for change among Jews. Yes, a lot of that has to with domestic policies, but a lot of it is also based in a recognition for a new approach to foreign policy and that the recent American policies of following Israel’s lead rather than developing and executing its own policy in the Middle East have been disastrous for the US, for the Palestinians, for the Arab world and not least of all for the United States.
But Obama’s ability to change that will depend on more than simply answering polls, it will require the work in the grassroots and on Capitol Hill to create the space to allow him to take strong leadership in rectifying the mistakes of both the Bush and Clinton administrations. That means sensible peace forces must work to create that political pressure despite the obstacles that will be erected by the rejectionists on both the right and the left. The latter may prove even more dangerous, as it has in recent years.