Commentary Magazine


Balaam's Asses

In a bizarre reversal of the Biblical tale of Balaam—the Gentile prophet who found himself singing the praises of the Hebrews rather than cursing them as his king had commanded—senior officials and diplomats serving the Obama Administration find words critical of and hostile to Israel spilling from their mouths when every practical impulse surely tells them to hold their tongues.

What possible good could it have served Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in a speech at the Saban Center in December, to place the onus on Israel for opening up talks with Palestinians, Arabs in general, and Turkey—in a setting where many listeners are sympathetic to Israel and believe correctly that the political changes in the Arab world since January have only placed the Jewish state in a more fragile position?

Israel needs to “lean forward” for peace, Panetta said, evidently auditioning for a post-administration job hosting a talk show on MSNBC. What is it Israel should do, in Panetta’s view? “Just get them to the damn table,” he said, as though such a thing were simply in Israel’s power to will. The Palestinians are busy negotiating with themselves, and until Hamas and Fatah come up with a deal, there is no one to negotiate with.

As for Egypt, once again, with whom exactly should Israel negotiate? The military regime that is soon to be sharing uneasy political space with the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom it agrees on very little except that Israel is evil? And Turkey? The hostility between Israel and Turkey is entirely on Turkey’s part.

Panetta’s speech was not designed to curry favor with Egypt, Turkey, and the Palestinians. It was written for an American and Israeli audience, and a complex one; for while the Saban Center is run by the Australian-American diplomat Martin Indyk, who never saw a Likud government he didn’t try to destroy, it is named for the billionaire entertainment mogul Haim Saban, who recounted the following anecdote about himself and Obama in the New Yorker last year: “I told friends of mine in the White House, ‘He goes to Saudi Arabia, he goes to Cairo, he doesn’t even make a stop in Jerusalem?’ If he thinks that having a Seder at the White House is going to mitigate that—no, it’s not.”

Panetta is not an impolitic man; he was for decades a very successful politician and political operative. But these were impolitic words. He knows that the administration he serves, and which he would presumably want to see through to a second term, is having trouble demonstrating even to major Democratic donors such as Saban that the White House is a friend to Israel. So why the reverse-Balaam?

Then Hillary Clinton, who was Saban’s favored candidate in 2008, pulled a reverse-Balaam at the Saban Center a day after Panetta—claiming to fear for the future of democracy in Israel itself, thanks to a controversial piece of Knesset legislation regarding the funding of non-governmental organizations inside Israel.

That a secretary of state can watch the Muslim Brotherhood emerging as the power center in Egypt and concern herself instead with the ins and outs of legislative decisions in one of the most raucous and responsive democracies in the world suggests that something odd is at work.

And consider the actions of Howard Gutman, a successful lawyer and the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, who used the occasion of a conference on anti-Semitism in Europe to offer his view that traditional anti-Semitism is of a different order from anti-Jewish feeling arising from the Israeli-Palestinian struggle—effectively suggesting Israel’s behavior was the cause of Arab anti-Semitism.

All Gutman did by uttering those stupid and noxious and inexcusable words was cause for yet another round of “is Obama a friend or an antagonist” conversations, which are supremely unhelpful to the president.

Why can’t the Obamaites hold their tongues on a sensitive issue and keep themselves from standing at cross purposes with their own donors and the American people, who are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel?

Simple: They just can’t help themselves. When it comes to Israel’s perilous position in the Middle East, the conviction that Israel is at fault for the peril it faces simply cannot be stilled.

It’s what they believe.
It’s what he believes.

About the Author

John Podhoretz is editor of COMMENTARY.




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