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Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Phillies, Obama and Israel

I became a Phillies fan when the Philadelphia Phillies were pretty much the worst team in baseball.

In 1972, the Phillies ended up in last place in their division. Their lineup consisted of forgettable players who I was enamored with, like Roger Freed and Denny Doyle in the starting lineup.

The Phillies' ugly 59-97 record is most remarkable because a full 27 of those wins were due to a single pitcher, Steve Carlton, who racked up an amazing 27-10 record that season with an inept team. If it wasn't for Carlton, this team may have indeed been the worst ever. (And I remember being incensed after the 1971 season when the Phillies traded my favorite pitcher, Rick Wise, to St. Louis for Carlton, now recognized as one of the most lopsided trades in history.)

It is easy to be a Phillies fan today, as they are leading the World Series. It was much harder to be a fan in the early 1970s.

It is likewise easy in today's political environment to be considered "pro-Israel." Forgetting the infamous "Israel lobby," any US politician can easily claim to be pro-Israel. This is because positions that would have been considered anti-Israel only a few years ago have morphed into Israeli policy under the Kadima banner.

The idea that a Palestinian Arab state would somehow automatically bring peace, the idea that Israel is the only party that needs to make permanent concessions, the idea that the Saudi "peace plan" is seriously worth considering, the idea that Israel must give up the strategic Golan Heights on the one border that has been the most peaceful since 1973, the idea that abandoning the Shebaa Farms will magically make Hezbollah love Israel, the idea of talking with Syria, the idea of dividing Jerusalem, the idea of willingly giving up almost all major Jewish shrines - all considered patently ridiculous by mainstream Israeli politicians of all persuasions in relatively recent times - are now considered sacrosanct. The ideas of Israel's loony left have been co-opted as mainstream by a government that has no mandate, no support, and utter disregard for the wishes of ordinary Israelis.

If the Government of Israel holds these positions, how can they be considered anti-Israeli?

Israel's government has adopted the worldview of the European Left that "occupation" is the primary evil in the region and that surrendering land will inevitably bring peace. Giving Gaza to Hamas brought unprecedented (albeit temporary) levels of support from Europe - and unprecedented numbers of rockets to Sderot. Israel's reclaiming of victim status boosted its popularity among those who feel that strength is inherently immoral.

In such an environment, it is easy to claim to be pro-Israel while advocating positions that would seriously erode Israel's security and virtually eliminate Jewish sovereignty over her own holiest sites.

But as in baseball, the true test of friendship is how one acts when the other party is not so popular.

Every poll for the past couple of years shows that Likud, not Kadima, would win a general election. And Likud is not considered a "winner" in the eyes of the world. On the contrary, the word "Likud" conjures up adjectives that the media has hammered into the world's consciousness - adjectives like "hard-line," "intransigent," and "hawkish." To be pro-Likud, according to conventional wisdom, is to be against peace.

The question isn't which candidate for president supports the Israeli policies that are designed to appeal to world public opinion. It is which candidate would support the Israeli policies that a democratic Israel would support.

The answer to this question is certainly not Barack Obama.

Obama started his political career as highly supportive of an "even-handed" policy between a democratic, peace-thirsty state and people who to this day overwhelmingly support terror attacks. His friendships with radical Palestinian Arab intellectuals are well documented. Only when Obama considered running for national office did his public positions tilt towards Israel. As the co-founder of Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah says:
Over the years since I first saw Obama speak I met him about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said was the keynote speaker. In 2000, when Obama unsuccessfully ran for Congress I heard him speak at a campaign fundraiser hosted by a University of Chicago professor. On that occasion and others Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. He was in the midst of a primary campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing.

As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the The Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, "Keep up the good work!"
In an unguarded moment, Obama stated what he felt about the Likud in February:
This is where I get to be honest and I hope I’m not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have a honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we’re not going to make progress. And frankly some of the commentary that I’ve seen which suggests guilt by association or the notion that unless we are never ever going to ask any difficult questions about how we move peace forward or secure Israel that is non military or non belligerent or doesn’t talk about just crushing the opposition that that somehow is being soft or anti-Israel, I think we’re going to have problems moving forward.
In this quote, Obama betrays his opinion that the Likud - the party that orchestrated the peace treaty with Egypt - is purely militaristic and warmongering.

How would he act towards a Likud government, a very real possibility? His statement indicates that his "pro-Israel" posture is one that conveniently follows the liberal ideas that the only obstacle to peace is Israeli reticence to give back more and more land.

Yes, it is easy to say that you are pro-Israel when the Israeli government has been acting out of the same fear of terrorism as the EU, but how will he act when an Israeli government returns to power that is willing to fight terrorism, despite the criticism of the media and liberals? When Obama reportedly said that "the Israelis must be crazy not to accept" the Saudi "peace plan" that would turn Israel back into a nine-mile wide strip of land, where Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv would be in Qassam rocket range, perhaps it may be considered "pro-Israel" in context of the reprehensible policies of Kadima, but is it pro-Israel according to the majority of Israel's citizens?

I have no problem with people rooting for the Phillies today who have hated them in the past, but I would not call those people "friends of the Phillies." They would just be considered opportunists, not friends. And that is how Barack Obama appears when it comes to Israel.