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Democrats Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Criticize Israel in 2016

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

In a click-baitingly titled Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday, Michael Oren—the former historian and Israeli ambassador to the U.S., currently a member of the Israeli Knesset—accused President Obama of abandoning key tenets of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “While neither [President Obama nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] monopolized mistakes,” wrote Oren, “only one leader made them deliberately.” Guess which one?

The piece quickly generated a number of strong responses—see Peter Beinart, Jeremy Ben Ami, and J.J. Goldberg for three of the best—calling out its factual inaccuracies regarding longstanding U.S. policies, disingenuous rendering of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, and overall tendentiousness. But the op-ed, and presumably the memoir from which it’s drawn, should also be understood as part of a broader attempt by conservative forces in Israel, and their allies in the United States, to enforce a hard line against U.S. criticisms of Israeli policies, and to tamp down any discussion of the way that those policies undermine American interests and violate American values.

During his tenure as ambassador, Oren spent a great deal of time and effort playing up Israel’s strategic value to the United States, while also avoiding acknowledgement of, let along engagement with, arguments from top U.S. security officials that Israel’s ongoing occupation, and the illegal settlement enterprise that it sustains, creates security costs for its patron.

In his op-ed, Oren (now a member in the most right-wing Israeli government in history) takes this a step further: Not only should Israel be hailed as America’s greatest ally, but any public criticisms by American leaders should be seen as a betrayal of that alliance. This should be understood for what it is: not analysis, but an ideological argument. The goal here is to define Obama's presidency essentially as an anomaly, and his criticisms of Israeli policy as outside the boundaries both of normal diplomatic practice and of the U.S. political consensus on Israel.

On the former, Oren is clearly wrong. The amount of U.S. deference Oren is demanding is unique in the history of patron-client state relationships. On the latter—the U.S. consensus on Israel—Oren has a point, but not for the reason he thinks. That consensus is changing, slowly but unmistakably, and the Obama administration’s criticisms of Israeli policies are more a manifestation of that change than the cause. Tensions between Obama and Netanyahu shouldn’t simply be ascribed to personality differences. Both leaders represent genuine constituencies with markedly different worldviews. Just as Netanyahu’s race-baiting ultra-nationalism represents a real and growing trend in the Israeli electorate, so does Obama’s elevation of a values-based discourse with regard to the Israel’s continued rule over millions of Palestinians represents a real and growing trend in the American one.    

This discourse was very much in evidence when Obama addressed the Adas Israel congregation in Washington, D.C., to mark Jewish American History Month. In addition to affirming the enormous contribution that Jewish Americans have made to the country and articulating a very strong condemnation of anti-Semitism, Obama also laid down an important marker for progressives.

“[W]hen I hear some people say that disagreements over policy belie a general lack of support of Israel, I must object, and I object forcefully,” he said. “For us to paper over difficult questions, particularly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or about settlement policy, that’s not a true measure of friendship.”

This wasn’t the first time Obama staked out this position. During his 2008 campaign, he said, “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.” At Adas Israel, went a step further: “The rights I insist upon and now fight for, for all people here in the United States, compels me then to stand up for Israel and look out for the rights of the Jewish people,” he went on. “And the rights of the Jewish people then compel me to think about a Palestinian child in Ramallah that feels trapped without opportunity.” In other words, not only is it sometimes necessary for American leaders to criticize Israeli policies; those criticisms are based in the very same shared values the impel us to condemn anti-Semitic bigotry, support Israel’s security, and seek justice for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

This really shouldn’t be all that radical of an idea. But to some in Washington, it is. In another episode from the 2008 primary campaign, representatives of the Obama, McCain, and Clinton teams appeared at a Jewish community forum. Daniel Kurtzer, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, spoke for Obama, explaining that he wanted to see a “plurality of views” on Israel. Clinton adviser Ann Lewis responded that the United States should simply support Israeli policy, regardless of its content. “The role of the president of the United States is to support the decisions that are made by the people of Israel,” she said.

It was a pretty strange statement (is there any other country in the world to whose electorate anyone would similarly suggest outsourcing U.S. policy decisions?),  but it does accurately describe the operating theory upon which much of conservative pro-Israel advocacy in Washington is based. In the wake of the recent Israeli election, however, which led to the creation of Israeli government that openly rejects the creation of a Palestinian state, it’s clear that this position has become untenable for anyone claiming liberal values.

In a recent Washington Post interview, Naftali Bennett, an Israeli minister and Netanyahu’s rival for leadership of the Israeli right, explained his vision of perpetual Israeli rule over the Palestinians in the occupied territories, who will continue to have no vote and no meaningful legal protections while being contained within semi-autonomous enclaves surrounded by Israeli settlements—an arrangement unmistakably reminiscent of South Africa’s Bantustans. The idea that Americans should simply quietly defer to such policies is ridiculous. Yet this is what Oren demands.

Oren’s piece should also be seen, then, as a shot across the bow of Democratic politicians, particularly presidential candidates, and an effort to corral them within a “consensus” that brooks no criticism of Israeli policy and thus further empowers an ascendant Israeli right of which Oren is himself now a part.

Since Obama’s 2008 election, donors and activists on the hawkish Republican right have endeavored to capture Israel as a wedge issue for the right. There’s been a constant drumbeat of criticism, much of it extremely ugly and wildly dishonest, against politicians who don’t toe the line. At least in the GOP, they’ve had success: Views among Republican presidential candidates range from Senator Marco Rubio, who just doesn’t think the time is right yet for Palestinians to be granted their national rights, to Mike Huckabee, who thinks the Palestinians should simply be moved somewhere else.

Among Democrats however, a different shift has been taking place. During the 2012 Democratic National Convention, an a uproar arose on the convention floor when a controversial plank recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was removed, then re-inserted, into the party platform. And a February poll found that less than half of Democrats sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians.

Oren would clearly like to arrest this shift by presenting the Obama administration as a mere hiccup, after which the next president—Democrat or not—can return to an invented history of total acquiescence to Israeli policy. Democratic candidates will certainly be under a lot of pressure from donors to adopt this position. But the polling shows that they have some room to articulate a more reasoned and constructive policy than one usually hears during an American presidential election. The question is whether they’ll follow Obama’s lead by laying out a more genuinely liberal vision of the U.S.-Israel relationship for American voters.

This article has been updated.