In the immediate aftermath of the news about the appalling statements of Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, about Israel being to blame for anti-Semitism, there were those who assumed the envoy would soon be packing his bags for home. But a statement issued today by the State Department indicates that Gutman, who purchased his post by bundling more than half a million dollars in campaign contributions for President Obama, has nothing to worry about. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday Gutman would remain in his post and asserted that although Gutman’s appearance was in his official capacity, the views he expressed were his own. He also declined to say if the administration disagreed with those views.
Coming as it did in the same week in which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta blamed Israel for its isolation caused by the rise of Islamist groups in Turkey, Egypt and the refusal of the Palestinians to negotiate, Gutman’s survival sends a clear message about White House thinking about the Jewish state.
Gutman’s ability to hold onto his post despite a diplomatic gaffe of Olympic proportions that would have surely cost a career foreign service officer his job, may be the result of a number of factors.
First, and most obvious, is the fact that presidents do not like to make enemies out of people who help pay for their campaigns and inaugurations as Gutman did. Humiliating Gutman by sending him home might have made it more difficult for Republicans to make an issue of his remarks. But the president knows he will still be blamed for the incident and may figure the damage won’t be so bad–while the cost to the Democrats of losing the money contributed by the Washington superlawyer and his friends and family will hurt far more.
Second, is the fact that despite the egregious nature of Gutman’s offense, the mainstream press has largely ignored the story. Days after the news broke when it was first reported by the Israeli news site Ynet, the New York Times has yet to print a word about it. It is to be expected the Grey Lady will wait until it can publish a story leading with a defense of Gutman’s astonishing words and critics of Israel if it does one at all.
Third, the pushback against the obvious meaning of Gutman’s statement has already begun. Their line, that the ambassador did no more than state the obvious when he asserted that European anti-Semitism is being caused by Israel’s actions, is now starting to circulate on the left. Indeed, the leftist site Think Progress is claiming Gutman is being misquoted about saying there was a distinction to be drawn between “traditional” anti-Semitism and that caused by resentment against Israel. Zaid Jilani quotes two paragraphs that he says debunk the notion Gutman saw these two kinds of anti-Semitism as distinct. But immediately after the passage Jilani quotes, Gutman said this:
But this second problem [caused by Israel] is in my opinion different in many respects than the classic bigotry – hatred against those who are different and against minorities generally — the type of anti-Semitism that I discussed above. It is more complex and requiring much more thought and analysis. This second form of what is labeled “growing anti-Semitism” produces strange phenomena and results.
By drawing a distinction between “classic bigotry” and hatred that is supposedly rooted in Israeli policies, and thus, according to Gutman, could be dissipated by Israeli actions, the ambassador is clearly signaling he does see it as distinct and seemingly less serious than previous manifestations of Jew-hatred. But contrary to Gutman’s speech, all forms of hatred directed against Jews are the product, like all bigotry, of the prejudice of the haters, not the conduct of the victims.
Lost in the dispute about anti-Semitism is the fact that Gutman drew a moral equivalence between Israeli measures of self-defense and Palestinian terrorism. That alone would have caused a firestorm and should have resulted in a severe rebuke from Washington.
Finally, the reason why Gutman isn’t losing his job is because his opinion is widely held in this administration and by a president who sees Israel as more of a burden than an ally. Though Republicans rightly condemned Gutman’s views today, they are broadly consonant with Obama’s three years of picking fights with Israel and seeking to pressure it.