Commentary Magazine


A Response to Dershowitz’s Reply on Obama and Israel

Alan Dershowitz has replied to the critiques of his defense of the Obama administration’s attitude toward Israel that was published in the Wall Street Journal last week made by me and in Britain’s Spectator by the admirable Melanie Phillips. You can read his reply here.

Dershowitz claims that if Obama’s critics have their way, the bipartisan consensus in support of Israel will be destroyed. He says Phillips — and other conservatives like me who disagreed with his article — wants Israel to be a wedge issue between the parties here. He says this would replicate the situation in Britain, where only conservatives back the Jewish state while the liberal/left abhors it.

This is wrong because, to the best of my knowledge, the leadership of the British Conservative Party is no more reliable on Israel than that of Labor or the Social Democrats. If the reaction to the fighting in Gaza last winter is any indication, the only competition among the parties there seems to be over who is more anti-Israel and in a better position to gain the votes of a Muslim community more numerous than that of British Jewry.

He’s also wrong when he claims that holding Obama and other Democrats accountable for their positions on the Middle East is an attempt to make the pro-Israel cause the sole preserve of the GOP. In the last few elections, Jewish Republicans have attempted to increase their party’s share of the Jewish vote by pointing out that many on the Left have distanced themselves from Israel and that, by contrast, fervent support for the Jewish state on the part of the vast majority of American conservatives has become a political fact of life. For their pains, these GOP supporters were rewarded with minimal gains in terms of Jewish votes.

Indeed, by attacking Democrats with a broad brush as if Jimmy Carter represented the mainstream of that party, their ads only served to infuriate Jewish Dems rather than persuading them to vote Republican. In reply, Democratic partisans tried to make the same point as Dershowitz: i.e. that injecting the fate of Israel into political debates is bad policy since it undermines the bi-partisan consensus. This is mere partisan gamesmanship on the part of the Democrats because their goal is not consensus but rather maintaining their stranglehold on the Jewish vote by eliminating the one issue that works for Republicans.

If Jews were to take that advice and refrain from talking about Israel during political campaigns, that would hurt Israel’s cause, not help it. If, as Jewish Democrats urged, Israel were taken off the table as a political issue, then a drift away from Israel might be ignored or condoned. By forcing Democrats to speak up and avow that the Jimmy Carters in their party would continue to be marginalized, the GOP campaign served the community well even though it did little self-serving good. And that’s exactly what happened last year when Democrats like Dershowitz spent so much time and effort vouching for Barack Obama’s bona fides on the issue.

Dershowitz is right when he points out that most Jews remain liberal and are inclined to support the Democrats because of their positions on domestic issues. Though there were good reasons for suspecting that Obama’s campaign statements about Israel were insincere, his statements nevertheless proved sufficient in persuading the vast majority of Jewish Democrats who care about Israel (and though there are many Jews who may no longer care much about Israel, it is a mistake to assume that the majority do not) that he was acceptable on the issue. The problem is, the Barack Obama who stood up at the AIPAC conference in 2008 and said what the Jewish community wanted to hear is not the Barack Obama who currently sits in the Oval Office.

Dershowitz is also right in saying that in the past, some Republicans have been outspoken foes of Israel. But when the elder George Bush anticipated the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” thesis by challenging the right of AIPAC activists to lobby Congress on behalf of loan guarantees in 1991, Jewish Democrats and Republicans both roundly condemned the president. Though James Baker was right when he famously said that most Jews hadn’t voted for Bush in 1988, the Jewish vote for the Republicans actually declined precipitately in 1992. Indeed, since then no Republican candidate for president, including Bush’s extremely pro-Israel son, George W. Bush, has come close to the 32 percent of the Jewish vote that the elder Bush got in 1988.

But when faced with a Cairo speech troubling even for Dershowitz, a ginned-up dispute about settlements that ignores the reality of there being no Palestinian peace partner, Obama’s repudiation of past commitments to Israel made by previous administrations, and a presidential commitment to “engagement” on Iran that has all the earmarks of appeasement, Democrats like Dershowitz are still unwilling to hold Obama’s feet to the fire. This isn’t a matter of asking Democrats to become Republicans. If, as Dershowitz avows, pro-Israel Democrats have influence on the administration, then let them use it in the same way conservative evangelicals did in 2002 when statements by Secretary of State Colin Powell made it appear as if a Republican administration was taking a similarly “even-handed” approach to Israel’s attempts to defend itself against a Palestinian campaign of suicide attacks. They deluged the White House with calls for strong support for Israel and got results.

If the current trend towards a de-emphasis on the alliance with Israel continues without a strong negative reaction from Jewish Democrats, then we are entitled to ask why they are either silent or rationalizing a policy that they know is wrong. Rather than fending off critiques from those who want him to put his influence to work on behalf of Israel’s interests, what Dershowitz ought to do is use his considerable influence to lead his fellow Democrats in demanding that Obama keep his promises of solidarity with Israel.

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