Update From Israel

Since my 10 ½ year term as Governor or Arkansas ended in January 2007, I have not held any public office or represented our government in any capacity. This past week I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Israel for the eleventh time since 1973, and am already planning my next visit this coming January. As one of the more than half a million American tourists who visit Israel each year, I went purely as a private citizen, representing no government or business interests.

Yet for some reason I can’t understand, my tourist jaunt is being compared to Nancy Pelosi’s diplomatic mission to Syria in April of 2007. The two trips couldn’t be more different.

First, there is our difference in status. Speaker Pelosi visited as a sitting government official, and not just any old member of Congress, but as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. The Speaker is one of the highest-ranking leaders of our country and is second in line to assume the presidency. So there is a world of difference between my traveling as a private citizen and Nancy Pelosi’s traveling in her official capacity as Speaker.

Second, there is the stark contrast between the countries visited. Syria is one of our most implacable enemies and is on the State Department’s list as a state sponsor of terror. The State Department made it clear to Speaker Pelosi before her trip that they did not want her to go. Israeli officials were described as “shocked” by her visit to Syria. By contrast, Israel is one of our closest allies and friends. No one in the Obama Administration asked me not to go. Frankly, I don’t think anybody cared that I was going, and I see no reason why they should.

Third, there is the difference in the purpose of the trips. Speaker Pelosi went specifically to hold formal talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. I did not meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I did not negotiate with anybody about anything –I didn’t even negotiate over the price of a few souvenirs because I did not shop.

As a private citizen, I have commented on what I have seen based on my past experiences. When I visited Israel in the 1970’s and 1980’s I had no problem visiting Nablus. But this time, I couldn’t go because I was with Israelis, and they cannot enter Nablus or Bethlehem or Ramallah. I commented on this because I thought it was remarkable that there are places Israelis can’t go in their own country.

Just as I believe that Israelis should be able to travel to all parts of their country, I believe they should be able to live wherever they want in that country, and that the U. S. government should not tell an Israeli family that they can’t add a nursery to their house when they welcome a new baby, or tell an Israeli village that they can’t add a classroom to their schoolhouse. As a private citizen, I disagree, and I have a right to disagree, with President Obama’s demand for a freeze on Israel’s building new settlements, and with his further demand for a freeze on expansion of existing settlements, despite the natural growth that a community experiences. His call for such a complete freeze contradicts the policy not just of President Bush, but of President Clinton, indeed of all our presidents since Israel’s victory in the 1967 war.

President Obama’s unprecedented stance toward Israel doesn’t just contravene the past forty years of American policy, it contravenes his own statements as a presidential candidate.

I visited a planned housing development in East Jerusalem that President Obama is insisting not be built because he seems to anticipate that Jerusalem will be divided and this area will go to the Palestinians. Yet in June 2008, candidate Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (“AIPAC”) that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.”

In 2007, then-Senator Obama assured AIPAC that “we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests. No Israeli Prime Minister should ever feel dragged to or blocked from the negotiating table by the United States. We must be partners….” And in 2008, he promised AIPAC that “We will also use all elements of American power to pressure Iran.” But when President Obama announced his new settlement policy, he coupled it with an implied threat that unless the Israelis capitulated, he might retaliate by not doing as much as he could to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He sounded ominously like Tony Soprano.

In 2008 President Obama also told AIPAC that he was “a true friend of Israel.” He emphasized his “strong commitment to make sure that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow and forever.” He said that “as president, I will work with you to ensure that this bond is strengthened. … I will bring to the White House an unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security.” When he said that Israel “can advance the cause of peace” by not “building new settlements” if that was “consistent with its security,” he said nothing about expanding existing settlements, and, more importantly, he spoke as if settlement policy was entirely up to the Israeli government, not the U. S. government.

As a candidate President Obama never told the American people that if he was elected, he would order a draconian freeze on all settlement activity with no exceptions. He never told the American people that he would move U. S. policy backward by reneging on the understanding by Presidents Clinton and Bush that Israel would never give up all settlements, but would keep some close to the 1949 armistice line by swapping land.

But after a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in May, President Obama announced that, “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” With whom are the Israelis supposed to move forward? With the Hamas terrorists of the Gaza Strip? With Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas who barely controls the sidewalk in front of his office in the West Bank? Yet President Obama took the ball out of the Palestinians’ court and said that it wasn’t their wanton destruction of life and property that was holding back the peace process, no, it was Israeli construction. Nothing about the Palestinians’ recognizing Israel’s basic right to exist or renouncing terror to move the process forward, no, it was all the fault of those pesky settlements.

In case the Arab world didn’t get that message of “blame the victim” loud and clear, President Obama reiterated it in his major address in Cairo on June 4: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” Interesting use of the word “legitimacy” to a group of people who don’t accept the legitimacy of Israel herself. A little wink and nod there.

Not only isn’t President Obama helping the peace process, he is hurting it by telling the Palestinians that there is no reason for them to do anything but wait for Israel to make unilateral concessions under American pressure. Such pressure must be contrasted with the partnership we’ve always had with Israel, the one he pledged to continue when he was looking for American votes, not Arab approval.

cross posted on Huck PAC.

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