One of my wittier friends commented that my recent exchange with Avi Shafran on President Obama’s Israel policy struck him as a mental health issue. “I mean its not like you and Avi are major players in the American foreign policy establishment, whose views are likely to have any impact of the Obama adminstration’s Israel policy,” he remarked.
I will confess I did not find any of the points made by defenders of the president’s foreign policy to be compelling or even very interesting — the defenders seemed far more eager to attribute low motivations to the president’s critics than to offer their own substantive defense. And I’m genuinely surprised that there were those who learned something new from Avi that they did not already know about Obama’s stance towards Israel. But I’m nevertheless delighted to find that the president has his defenders and that Orthodox Jews are not the victims of thought control or quite the automatons that we are caricacturized as being. Hopefully some of that independence of thought and multiplicity of viewpoints will reflect itself in communal debates, and not just in areas where our voices are not likely to have a major impact. In the meantime, it is always good to be reminded that no political party or politician embodies the Torah viewpoint or its opposite.
I do take to heart Avi’s admonitions about the difficulty of shaking oneself from settled views or even exposing oneself to counter viewpoints. All of us have a problem changing our minds once we have formed an opinion. That’s why we so badly need a chavrusah who is ever ready to contest our words and understandings with whom to learn Gemara. Similarly, any issue worth debating inevitably encompasses a number of perspectives. I’m therefore grateful that Avi has allowed himself to be pressed into service as my chavrusah on the Obama administration’s Mideast policy.
Avi now claims to have had a very modest goal in mind in his first piece on the subject: to provide readers with a few facts they may not have known about the actions of the Obama administration towards Israel. Had he done nothing other than point out some good things President Obama has done for Israel no one would have or could have disagreed, certainly not I. But his goal was larger than that. In his first piece, he only conceded that opprobrium towards the administration might be justified on fiscal issues, about which he professes to understand little. He did not concede any basis of criticism with respect to Middle East policy, about which, by contrast, he apparently considers himself to be sufficiently knowledgeable. I would respectfully submit it is Avi who has now gone far beyond his original “did you know these six things about President Obama and Israel” who is digging in his heals and putting forward a series of weak “terutzim” in response to my treatment of the major issues of the administration’s foreign policy, which found no place in his original piece.
Avi, for instance, accuses me of attempting to psychoanalyze the president and peer into the inner recesses of his mind when I wrote about Obama being thrall to the “liberal fallacy” of believing that all people are basically the same and just seek a slightly bigger piece of the pie for themselves. But I did nothing of the kind. I find nothing more destructive of serious policy debate than to reduce the ideas of one’s opponents to the realm of psychology — e.g. a fatherless childhood. What I was doing instead is something that political scientists and intellectual historians do all the time: discuss congeries of ideas and try to figure out the thread that joins them together.
The proof that Avi found lacking is simple. It lies in the president’s naïve belief that the time is ripe for achieving an overall solution. That belief betokens an unwillingness to take the Palestinians seriously – i.e., listen to what they actually say and consider the power of religious ideas on their stance. The optimism about finding a solution derives from the belief that the Palestinian-Israel dispute is primarily about drawing borders.
Avi professes to be untroubled by the Obama administration’s reneging on George W. Bush’s April 14 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon: That letter was not embodied in a formal treaty, says Avi, and is therefore not binding. I’m not sure that the administration will be happy to be defended on the grounds that its undertakings are worthless unless sealed in legally enforceable treaty obligations. The United States has not generally advertised itself to the world with a large sign called “Caveat Emptor” with respect to any of its undertakings. The assertion that Bush’s commitments were only valid upon the conclusion of a peace treaty is absurd because they dealt precisely with what Israel would not be asked to do to achieve such a peace treaty. And the letter was not given with respect to what Israel would subsequently do, but with respect to what Prime Minister Sharon had already done: commit to a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Elliot Abrams, the leading National Security Council figure handling the issue has written this many times. Finally, Avi strikes me as losing the forest for the trees, in his legal casuistry. The Obama administration not only refused to agree that Israel can be expected to maintain large settlement blocks in any future agreement, but has also placed the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem built since 1967 and housing hundreds of thousands of Jews on the same status as the settlements, something no previous administration has done.
Avi’s treatment of the July 2009 meeting between the president and leaders of 14 Jewish organizations, including J Street, which was invited for the first time to such a gathering by Obama, is equally cavalier. He cites some unnamed figures as having “warm things” to say about the powwow. We don’t learn who or what. Nor does Avi consider the possibility that responsible Jewish leaders might be just a little bit hesitant about telling reporters that the president’s attitude scared them to death. He does not deny the full account provided by Edward Klain and Richard Chesnoff, the former editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine and senior correspondent at U.S. News and World Report, respectively. They quote Abe Foxman of the ADL, who leans left on the peace process, as saying that Obama affirmed that he was pressuring only Israel. And in response to the suggestion that only an Israel that feels secure in its relationship with America will be able to make dramatic concessions for peace, the president said that Israel had such a friend in President George W. Bush and still didn’t make peace. That strikes me as a pretty clear statement of his belief that Israel is responsible for the lack of peace.
Avi neither denies nor even mentions the statements of Foxman and other top Jewish leaders after the meeting. They were taken aback by the degree all of Obama’s senior foreign policy officials have bought into “linkage” — the believe that all Middle East issues could be largely repaired by an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, and the corollary belief that achieving that result depends of the Obama administration proving that it can separate itself from Israel by taking a tough stance on settlements.
Avi moves on to justify the Obama administration’s dramatic break with previous American support for Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. I would concede that this approach may have more to do with the president’s general naivete about arms control than his attitudes about Israel — i.e., his failure to realize that fewer nuclear weapons per se has little to do with making the world safer or more stable. But the threat to Israel nevertheless remains. And it did not begin with the recent attempts to secure an agreement from the signatories to the Non-proliferation Treaty to a resolution against Iran. As early as May 2009, America’s leading nuclear negotiation urged Israel to sign the NPT.
Avi professes not to be bothered by the appointment of former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman to head the National Security Assessment because the appointment was made by the National Intelligence Director not the president. That only pushes off the question one level. How did the administration get stuck with a National Intelligence Director who could appoint such an outspoken critic of Israel and the Israel Lobby to head the extremely sensitive security assessment? It is at least suggestive of the atmospherics of the current administration.
Finally, Avi asks what purpose would have been served by the president mentioning the Jewish people’s connection to Israel in his Cairo speech. Should he have also cited the first Rashi in Chumash? he asks sarcastically. Well, in fact, a great deal would have been gained. It could have been a Sister Souljah moment for the president to tell the Palestinians and larger Arab world that peace cannot come unless it gives up its anti-Semitic narrative that there were never Jews in the Holy Land and that the First and Second Temples never existed. Instead he channeled the Arab narrative that the Jewish presence is an alien growth thrust upon helpless Arabs by Europeans after the Holocaust to assuage their own intense guilt feelings. Fueling dangerous fantasies is never helpful.
In his conclusion, Avi expressed the hope that he has at least “scored a single.” Unfortunately for him, one may hit a single without scoring. No quarter runs are given for a single. If you don’t manage to cross home plate, you are just a runner left stranded.