The stars were sparking over Gaza on the unforgettable night when Yasser Arafat kissed me — gently, tenderly, sincerely. I’ve rarely felt more relaxed or more comfortable with a world leader; he was kneading my shoulders and massaging my back at the time. As the tension of a hard day drained out of me, I looked wonderingly at our reflections in the window as he closed his sensitive and expressive eyes and bent down to kiss me on the crown of my head.
It had been a hard day; a long business lunch at a fish restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean, a quick dip in the water, and one meeting after another. In the afternoon I spent some time with Madame Arafat; she converted to Islam before marrying the leader of the Palestinian national movement, but had a beautiful, autographed biography of John Paul II on her coffee table. She was very excited; to help with the Palestinian struggle she had planned a benefit in Paris to help Palestinian hospitals and we passed an agreeable hour as she told me of her plans.
I bring up this tranquil, tender moment when two busy lives intersected because I’m about to do something that usually makes for trouble: while continuing to blog on a range of subjects over the next week to ten days I’ll put up some more posts on the reasons why the United States supports Israel as much as we do. I’ve touched on this subject before; my post on the “Israel Lobby Syndrome,” or ILS, that strikes some of our foreign policy specialists from time to time was not universally popular — anymore than Chairman Arafat was. You can look at the comments page or check here and here to see some interesting responses.
Now some of the trouble I brought on myself; ‘realist’ is a word that so many people use in so many senses that I should have understood that its use in this context would only confuse matters. I suppose I had in mind the misguided book written by two prominent ‘realist’ scholars that appeared a couple of years ago on this subject. (Here is a link to the review of the book I wrote at the time in Foreign Affairs.) It’s also true that some of the people whose bad advice led President Obama into the biggest and most costly foreign policy blunder of his administration so far are often called ‘realists.’ For those with short memories, these are the people who seem to have persuaded the President to issue a public demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity. This was based on a completely unrealistic understanding of America’s leverage over Israel. Israel rejected the President’s demand out of hand, and the rejection set President Obama’s hopes for progress toward peace in the region back by at least a year. This was bad for him, bad for the United States, bad for Israel and bad for the Palestinians.
I often hear self-described realists urging us to do completely unrealistic things when it comes to Israel, and the earlier post reflected that. I remain genuinely puzzled why people who in other contexts have quite interesting things to say manage to trip up in such foolish and self-defeating ways when the I-word comes up, but you can’t tar all realists with that brush, and to anybody out there who felt unfairly besmirched by the association — I’m sorry.
Blogging on US-Israel relations is a political nightmare; there is so much mistrust, wounded righteousness and ill feeling on all sides that it’s hard to strike the right tone and make your points clearly enough to avoid being misunderstood. The core points I want to make aren’t about whether American foreign policy toward Israel is a good thing or not, but this debate is so politicized that if you criticize the thesis that American policy toward Israel represents the power of American Jews people assume that you are part of the lobby. In fact, arguably the people who suffer the most from mistaking the political basis of America’s policy in the Middle East are those who want to change it. Those who don’t understand the American politics of this issue are never going to come up with effective strategies for change.
Frankly, those who think they can make substantive changes in American policy toward Israel by attacking the Jews and the Israel lobby remind of some bulls I once saw at the bull fights in Madrid. Bull after bull went for the red cape, not the matador. Bull after bull went down in the dust as the crowds cheered and threw flowers. That is pretty much what has happened to those who want to distance the US from Israel; they go for the highly visible and attractive target of the Israel lobby, and time after time they go down. I don’t think this is smart, but don’t let me stop anybody’s fun.
I’ll get into the reasons why I think the Israel lobby is more matador’s cape than matador going forward, but there’s one difficult subject that needs to be addressed up front, and that issue is anti-Semitism. This form of prejudice is as deeply embedded in western Christian history as racism is in American culture. As a native South Carolinian born back in the days of legally-enforced racial segregation, I have learned a lot about the subtle qualities and stubborn persistence of racist images and ideas that you take in unconsciously from the culture that shapes you. (more…)