Commentary Magazine


Obama Turned on Israel but Dershowitz Won’t Turn on Obama

The Obama administration’s decision to pick a quarrel with the Jewish state over settlements, Jerusalem, and how to deal with a nuclear Iran, are all light years away from the down-the-line support for Israel that candidate Obama and his Jewish surrogates articulated throughout the campaign. This leaves those Democrats who spent 2008 vouching for Barack Obama’s bona fides as a supporter of Israel, with, as they used to say on “I Love Lucy,” a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.

And none of them have as much to answer for as Harvard Law’s Alan Dershowitz who used his status as a celebrity author and personality to good effect on Obama’s behalf. It should be stipulated that while Dershowitz is, and always has been, a proud and loud liberal and though his sympathies have always similarly been with the Left of the Israeli political spectrum, there can be no questioning his long and honorable record of backing Israel. Few have been as articulate in making a principled stand on behalf of its right to self-defense against terrorism. Indeed, last year he argued that George W. Bush had earned the right to be considered a great friend of Israel (something most liberals would never admit to). But he nevertheless considered an Obama victory as a victory for Zionism, specifically because having a popular liberal president who cared about the Jewish state would be an improvement over a situation in which its greatest American champion was a deeply unpopular conservative Republican.

All of this makes Obama’s flipping on Israel issues during the last six months an acute embarrassment for Dershowitz, who tries to argue his way out of a corner in an unpersuasive op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Dershowtiz’s thesis is that the spat over settlements is a perennial issue and that Obama’s stand is no worse than that of previous administrations. On Iran, he claims there is no real change from Obama’s campaign stand that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Unfortunately, the prominent appeals specialist’s brief for Obama would be laughed out of any court in the land.

First, as even Dershowitz concedes, “Rhetorically, the Obama team has definitely taken a harsher approach toward Israel compared to its tone during the campaign.” For a president to adopt such a tone while at the same time going into overdrive in an effort to make nice with Israel’s Arab and Islamic foes, speaks volumes about his sympathies. Obama’s snub of Israel during his recent Mideast tour coupled with his profligate use of moral equivalencies between Israel and its would-be destroyers (i.e., the Holocaust equals the flight of Palestinians during the War of Independence) was the sort of thing that would have had Dershowitz on his hind legs screaming “bloody murder” had it been done by a president he didn’t campaign for.

Dershowitz is also wrong about the settlements spat, not only because it is significant that this administration made it their top foreign-policy priority early on but also because they have sought to escalate the dispute rather than resolve it. The calls by Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for an absolute freeze on any settlement building, including those the Bush administration conceded would stay with Israel in any peace settlement, was a blow to the alliance between the two countries. While Dershowitz is right that most American Jews are not fans of the settlements, the State Department’s statement that such a freeze applies even to the city of Jerusalem is something that only left-wing extremists within the Jewish community would countenance. It was also an effort to raise the stakes in a showdown between the Obama team and that of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that no friend of Israel could regard with anything but trepidation.

On Iran, the situation is also far worse than Dershowitz lets on. Though he rightly acknowledges that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s statements attempting to link a settlements freeze with U.S. action on Iran is ill considered and must be repudiated by the administration, he fails to note how Obama’s much ballyhooed attempt to “engage” Iran undermined efforts to rally the nation to more awareness of the existential threat that Tehran’s nuclear program poses to Israel. Up until the last week when the election fiasco and crackdown on dissents forced Obama to toughen his stand on the regime, the administration gave every indication that it was prepared to live with a nuclear Iran, a position switch that Dershowitz admits would justify Jewish supporters’ repudiation of the president. The best he can offer us is a hope that Iran’s behavior will strengthen Obama’s will to resist. However, the talk in Washington about resuming engagement after a “decent interval” makes this nothing but a wish upon a Democratic star. His faith in veteran peace processor Dennis Ross as a bulwark against appeasement of Iran is a weak reed upon which to base a defense of Obama.

Dershowitz understands that the fears about Obama’s betrayal of his pro-Israel supporters are real. He even goes so far as to say that “there may be coming changes in the Obama administration’s policies that do weaken the security of the Jewish state … with Iran’s burgeoning nuclear threat, it’s important to be vigilant for any signs of weakening support for Israel’s security — and to criticize forcefully any such change.” He’s right about that. But he’s wrong when he tries in vain to pretend that such a moment didn’t arrive months ago.

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