I really don’t see anything in Obama’s past on Israel that would offer me similar reassurance. ~Philip Klein

Klein and I continue to go back and forth about the pressing question of whether Obama is “pro-Israel” enough.  My point in making the comparison with McCain’s aides and their connections to the firm that did work for the Burmese junta is that there seems to be a willingness to ignore what Obama says about his own views, while McCain’s public statements are taken much more seriously.  No one assumes that McCain’s associations with the employees of junta collaborators mean anything, because he has publicly and repeatedly denounced the junta.  Somehow when Obama categorically rejects negotiations with Hamas, and has co-sponsored legislation condemning Hamas and Hizbullah, that doesn’t count.  Perhaps if he brings Khaled Mashal’s head on a platter to the next AIPAC meeting, that may prove satisfactory, but even then he will probably be criticised for failing to send Mashal’s dismembered limbs to the four corners of the world as a warning to others. 

Obama was a co-sponsor of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 (passed by unanimous consent), but that doesn’t seem to matter.  If McCain has publicly denounced the Burmese junta or has proposed legislation against the Burmese rulers, that counts.  If Obama makes public statements offering unequivocal support of Israel and co-sponsors legislation backing Israel’s military response in Lebanon, among other things, we’re supposed to discount that because some advisor, 109th or so in the pecking order of informal advisors, met with Hamas officials in an entirely separate role.  There are different standards of evidence being applied, and Obama is being labeled as being insufficiently “pro-Israel” not because of anything he has said or done, but because of things his associates, however far removed from him, have said or done (which have, in some cases, been rather remarkably distorted or exaggerated in their own right).   

I should say a word about why I find this worth bothering about, since Obama is obviously not my preferred candidate and especially since, if I am right about him, I would tend to disagree with him to some extent on U.S. policy towards Israel.  What I find interesting is that those who are looking for greater “even-handedness” or even the most modest of changes in U.S. policy towards the conflict latch on to the same threads that Klein uses to argue the same line, and both are inclined to interpret these small episodes (e.g., speaking on behalf of Khalidi, remarks about Palestinian suffering, the dinner with Said, etc.) as significant.  I think they are not.  What I find troubling about this is that Obama’s entire public record in national office, brief as it is, gives no “pro-Israel” person the slightest reason for doubting his devotion to their view of things, but somehow he has to provide further “reassurance” above and beyond what he has already done.  If Obama is insufficiently “pro-Israel,” when he is perfectly in agreement with the consensus view shared by almost every elected official in Washington, what kind of heavy-handed, unfair treatment can critics of Israel expect?  If his obviously mainstream and “pro-Israel” advisors are suspected of being anti-Semites, what hope do any actual critics of Israel have of being heard?    

Something else that has been consistent in the episodes that Klein thinks represents a credibility gap for Obama: his stated positions are routinely to the “left” (as these things are defined) of the positions that some of his advisors, in other contexts, say he will actually pursue.  That suggests that, if anything, Obama will be even more “hawkish” and more “pro-Israel” in practice than his public remarks imply.  It seems entirely plausible to me that he is suckering progressives with honeyed words about settlements and ending the war in Iraq, only to adopt different positions once he has power.  The people who should be worried about Obama’s lack of credibility are those who have flocked to him out of the misguided notion that he represents meaningful change in U.S. foreign policy.  I can accept the idea that Obama may be misleading the public, but the idea that he will become more pro-Palestinian or more antiwar than he is right now seems very bizarre; since he isn’t pro-Palestinian at all at the present time, I truly can’t imagine how he would become more so in office.  Lame-duck efforts to “solve” the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians afflict all Presidents of both parties, and Obama might fall victim to the same temptation, but that would mean that he is as “anti-Israel” as George W. Bush, which, I hope Klein would agree, makes him pretty “pro-Israel” by his standards.

Klein says elsewhere in his response:

But what Obama actually said was, “nobody’s suffering more than the Palestinian people,” which suggests not merely that he wants to recognize that Palestinian people are suffering, but that he thinks that Palestinians are suffering more than Israelis. Israelis who have lost loved once to suicide bombings would disagree.

It doesn’t suggest that, but if it did we could go round and round about this.  Palestinians who have lost loved ones to Israeli missile strikes would also disagree that their suffering is any less, but that is a dead end.  The point is that this is not what Obama meant, and it doesn’t take much research to show this.  It is worth mentioning that he uttered this line in the context of criticising the Palestinian Authority and remarking on the effects of the stalled peace process, since he said shortly after this, “if we could get some movement among Palestinian leadership [bold mine-DL], what I’d like to see is a loosening up of some of the restrictions on providing aid directly to the Palestinian people.”  In other words, he was rebuking the Palestinian leadership for failing to serve the Palestinian people.  How had they failed?  They had not been pressing ahead with the peace process, and so “no one was suffering more than the Palestinian people” because of what the Palestinian Authority had done, or rather failed to do.  Whatever else you want to say about this view, this was clearly not a case of belittling Israeli suffering or suggesting that Palestinians had suffered more, on the whole, than Israelis.  It seems to me significant that Obama has used this line once and, so far as I know, never repeated it, and has since emphasised the mutual suffering of both sides.

As Klein acknowledges, ” I included in my article Obama’s clarification that he meant that nobody has suffered more from the failures of Palestinian leadership.”  So perhaps we can agree that the isolated line does not mean very much, and can be read in a way entirely consistent with conventional “pro-Israel” views? 

Klein asks:

Larison doesn’t think that it’s likely as president Obama would move in a more pro-Palestinian direction than he has signaled on the campaign trail. But why not?  

Two basic reasons: it’s not a popular move, for one thing, and for another Obama has never indicated that he intends to do any such things, and everything in his public record, including his pledge not to pressure the Israeli government into making any concessions, tells us that he will not.  I suppose anything’s possible.  McCain might withdraw all forces from Iraq in 90 days and dissolve NATO, but I’m not going to put any money on it.  The better question is why Klein thinks that it is even remotely likely that Obama would do this.

Klein is free to be as suspicious of Obama as he wants, but I hope we can agree that there is essentially nothing that Obama himself has actually said or done that should give him any concrete reason to have suspicions that Obama is lacking in support of Israel.

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