US-Israeli relations will likely be featured during the rest of the presidential campaign this fall. The challenger for the presidency will of course have less experience than an incumbent, who, after all, has just spent four years as the commander of U.S. forces. America's relationship with Israel is a tense subject this year, as decades of international disputes over territorial legitimacy are overshadowed by the alarming threat of a nuclear Iran, and what that might mean for Israel and her allies.
With the awkward moments over removing passages allowing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the Democratic platform, Republicans are likely to build their foreign policy case around support for Israel and the Democrats' coldness to the longtime ally. Recent rumors that President Obama snubbed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this week do nothing to help the Democrats' cause.
Though Obama almost always meets with Netanyahu when the Israeli prime minister visits the U.S., reports that the president denied Netanyahu's request for a meeting are swirling around the White House. Others report that the scheduling conflict is just that — an unfortunate lack of time — or that Netanyahu actually never asked for a meeting at all. Regardless, it is common knowledge that the two men have often butted heads.
The left's antipathy to Israel isn't a myth invented by the Republicans; it mostly consists of the international community's argument over what to do about the Palestinians.
Last year, Bill Clinton (who seems to be following in the Carter tradition of ex-presidents) pinned the blame for the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on Netanyahu. Though Clinton recognized that Yasser Arafat had rejected the 2000 Camp David peace deals, he asserted that the Palestinians would accept those same terms if they were offered again.
Only, according to Clinton, Netanyahu will never offer them. Cliton cited "demographic changes" in Israel that refected a newer, more European immigrant population which does not care about the peace process because they are "not encumbered by the historical record."
This reasoning reveals some of the fundamental problems present when modern presidents try to assign blame on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Wilsonian principle of self-determination, upon which much modern foreign policy rests, asserts that each ethnic group has the right to choose its own government.
This sounds good, but tends only to perpetuate hereditary hatreds — see Eastern Europe. So progressives should approve of Israel, because it's a safe-hold for a historically threatened ethnic and religious minority, right?
The trouble is, progressives have painted themselves into a corner.
The UN asserts that acquisition of territory by conquest is illegitimate, and it considers the 1948 foundation of the State of Israel a conquest. Israel's founding was consummated in war, though it was part of the Partition Plan which divvyed up the shreds of the fallen Ottoman Empire. (Oddly enough, nobody really seems to have a problem with the Kingdom of Jordan, which has almost an identical founding story, complete with wars of consolidation and territory acquisition.)
Here is the contradiction: the Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants are Arab. There are 20 ethnically Arab states in the Middle East.
Yet, a cornerstone of Western liberal foreign policy from Carter through Obama has always been an independent Palestinian homeland. These people have been kept as refugees for generations so that the Arab world can use them to haunt Israel and question its legitimacy.
I don't pretend to have the answer to peace in the Middle East, and neither presidential candidate will be able to change these deep-seated hatreds as much as they pretend they will be able to. But it is important to realize that American ambiguity toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arises from schizophrenic foreign policy born in the twentieth century.