Sarah Palin is a magnet for criticism and sometimes deserves it. But not always. Palin’s trip to Israel this week was, like everything else she does, interpreted as part of a pre-presidential candidacy tour. Thus, it was no surprise that her statements while in Israel and about it afterward generated the usual scorn that anything she says produces. An on-line discussion at Politico about her comments was headlined on its homepage as concerning “Palin’s idiotic comments about Israel.” So how “idiotic” were they? The correct answer is not very.
During an interview on FOX News’s Greta Van Susteren show Wednesday night, Palin criticized President Obama for not being sufficiently supportive of Israel: “I think there are many in Israel who would feel even more comfortable knowing that there is an even greater commitment from those who presently occupy the White House that they are there on Israel’s side, and that our most valuable ally in that region can count on us. Why is it in that the past, too often, the U.S. government has told Israel that they’re the ones, the Jewish community, that they need to back up, they need to back off or there will never be peace. Why aren’t we putting our foot down with the other side and telling the Palestinians, If you’re serious about peace, quit the shellacking and the shelling. Quit the bombing of innocent Israelis.”
Far from stupid, these remarks are actually very much to the point about the willingness of this administration, and some of its predecessors to pressure Israel to make concessions when the real obstacle to peace is what it always has been: the Palestinians unwillingness to make peace or to give up terrorism.
But to supposedly smart Americans, the really “stupid” thing she said was her criticism of Obama’s stands about Israel settlement building. “President Obama was inappropriate to intervene in a zoning issue in Israel. Let Israel decide their zoning issues themselves.”
Her reference to settlement building as a mere “zoning issue” is considered by some to be more evidence that Palin doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
It is true that the question of whether Jews have a right to live and build in parts of their ancient capital or the West Bank is a bit more complicated than the conventional disputes about building a parking lot, a business, or even a house of worship in a residential area that roil American cities and suburbs. The question of the legitimacy or the wisdom (and these are two separate issues) of settlements is not just a matter of “zoning;” it is an existential question that goes to the very heart of whether or not there ought to be a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.
But the scoffing at Palin is a bit overblown because, in the end, the question of where and where not to build is one that must be decided by Israel’s people. In that sense it is very much a local issue that the president was wrong to stick his nose into. If Palin thinks of it in terms of zoning, it may be because, unlike Obama, she takes it for granted that Jews have the right to be in their own country and build wherever it is legally permissible to do so. Twice in his first two years in office Obama picked very nasty and public fights with Israel’s government over the building of homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. These arguments were not only an unprecedented attack on Israel from an American president on the issue of Jerusalem. They were both unnecessary and had the effect of making peace negotiations with the Palestinians less likely.
So when you look at it from that perspective, maybe it’s Obama and not Palin who has been the “idiotic” one when it comes to Israeli building policies.