Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Barack Obama on Zionism and Hamas

This interview shows Obama's sincere concern for the welfare of Israel and his commitment to work on Israel's behalf. I'm getting a bit tired of the over-the-top attacks on this issue coming from the right. At a certain point, those who cynically manipulate public opinion with deliberate distortions and inflated rhetoric risk delegitimizing our legitimate concerns about Israel and the threat of Islamist terror.

Read the interview, and the comments of John Kerry posted below it, and let me know what you think. I'd like to hear from my readers on this one.

from The Atlantic: Jeffrey Goldberg (May 12, 2008) - Obama on Zionism and Hamas

The Hamas leader Ahmed Yousef did Barack Obama no favor recently when he said: “We like Mr. Obama and we hope that he will win the election.” John McCain jumped on this statement, calling it a “legitimate point of discussion,” and tied it to Obama’s putative softness on Iran, whose ever-charming president last week called Israel a “stinking corpse” and predicted its “annihilation.”

The Hamas episode won’t help Obama’s attempts to win over Jewish voters, particularly those in such places as –- to pull an example from the air –- Palm Beach County, Florida, whose Jewish residents tend to appreciate robust American support for Israel, and worry about whether presidential candidates feel the importance of Israel in their kishkes, or guts.

Obama and I spoke over the weekend about Hamas, about Jimmy Carter, and about the future of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. He seemed eager to talk about his ties to the Jewish community, and about the influence Jews have had on his life. Among other things, he told me that he learned the art of moral anguish from Jews. We spoke as well about my Atlantic cover story on Israel’s future. He mentioned his interest in the opinions of the writer David Grossman, who is featured in the article. “I remember reading The Yellow Wind when it came out, and reading about Grossman now is powerful, painful stuff.” And, speaking in a kind of code Jews readily understand, Obama also made sure to mention that he was fond of the writer Leon Uris, the author of Exodus.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: I’m curious to hear you talk about the Zionist idea. Do you believe that it has justice on its side?

BARACK OBAMA: You know, when I think about the Zionist idea, I think about how my feelings about Israel were shaped as a young man -- as a child, in fact. I had a camp counselor when I was in sixth grade who was Jewish-American but who had spent time in Israel, and during the course of this two-week camp he shared with me the idea of returning to a homeland and what that meant for people who had suffered from the Holocaust, and he talked about the idea of preserving a culture when a people had been uprooted with the view of eventually returning home. There was something so powerful and compelling for me, maybe because I was a kid who never entirely felt like he was rooted. That was part of my upbringing, to be traveling and always having a sense of values and culture but wanting a place. So that is my first memory of thinking about Israel.

And then that mixed with a great affinity for the idea of social justice that was embodied in the early Zionist movement and the kibbutz, and the notion that not only do you find a place but you also have this opportunity to start over and to repair the breaches of the past. I found this very appealing.

JG: You’ve talked about the role of Jews in the development of your thinking

BO: I always joke that my intellectual formation was through Jewish scholars and writers, even though I didn’t know it at the time. Whether it was theologians or Philip Roth who helped shape my sensibility, or some of the more popular writers like Leon Uris. So when I became more politically conscious, my starting point when I think about the Middle East is this enormous emotional attachment and sympathy for Israel, mindful of its history, mindful of the hardship and pain and suffering that the Jewish people have undergone, but also mindful of the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.

One of the things that is frustrating about the recent conversations on Israel is the loss of what I think is the natural affinity between the African-American community and the Jewish community, one that was deeply understood by Jewish and black leaders in the early civil-rights movement but has been estranged for a whole host of reasons that you and I don’t need to elaborate.

JG: Do you think that justice is still on Israel’s side?

BO: I think that the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism, the potential vulnerability that the Jewish people could still experience. I know that that there are those who would argue that in some ways America has become a safe refuge for the Jewish people, but if you’ve gone through the Holocaust, then that does not offer the same sense of confidence and security as the idea that the Jewish people can take care of themselves no matter what happens. That makes it a fundamentally just idea.

That does not mean that I would agree with every action of the state of Israel, because it’s a government and it has politicians, and as a politician myself I am deeply mindful that we are imperfect creatures and don’t always act with justice uppermost on our minds. But the fundamental premise of Israel and the need to preserve a Jewish state that is secure is, I think, a just idea and one that should be supported here in the United States and around the world.

JG: Go to the kishke question, the gut question: the idea that if Jews know that you love them, then you can say whatever you want about Israel, but if we don’t know you –- Jim Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski –- then everything is suspect. There seems to be in some quarters, in Florida and other places, a sense that you don’t feel Jewish worry the way a senator from New York would feel it.

BO: I find that really interesting. I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what’s been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they’re asking themselves moral questions.

Sometimes I’m attacked in the press for maybe being too deliberative. My staff teases me sometimes about anguishing over moral questions. I think I learned that partly from Jewish thought, that your actions have consequences and that they matter and that we have moral imperatives. The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it’s more than political expediency. When it comes to the gut issue, I have such ardent defenders among my Jewish friends in Chicago. I don’t think people have noticed how fiercely they defend me, and how central they are to my success, because they’ve interacted with me long enough to know that I've got it in my gut. During the Wright episode, they didn’t flinch for a minute, because they know me and trust me, and they’ve seen me operate in difficult political situations.

The other irony in this whole process is that in my early political life in Chicago, one of the raps against me in the black community is that I was too close to the Jews. When I ran against Bobby Rush [for Congress], the perception was that I was Hyde Park, I’m University of Chicago, I’ve got all these Jewish friends. When I started organizing, the two fellow organizers in Chicago were Jews, and I was attacked for associating with them. So I’ve been in the foxhole with my Jewish friends, so when I find on the national level my commitment being questioned, it’s curious.

JG: Why do you think Ahmed Yousef of Hamas said what he said about you?

BO: My position on Hamas is indistinguishable from the position of Hillary Clinton or John McCain. I said they are a terrorist organization and I’ve repeatedly condemned them. I’ve repeatedly said, and I mean what I say: since they are a terrorist organization, we should not be dealing with them until they recognize Israel, renounce terrorism, and abide by previous agreements.

JG: Were you flummoxed by it?

BO: I wasn’t flummoxed. I think what is going on there is the same reason why there are some suspicions of me in the Jewish community. Look, we don’t do nuance well in politics and especially don’t do it well on Middle East policy. We look at things as black and white, and not gray. It’s conceivable that there are those in the Arab world who say to themselves, “This is a guy who spent some time in the Muslim world, has a middle name of Hussein, and appears more worldly and has called for talks with people, and so he’s not going to be engaging in the same sort of cowboy diplomacy as George Bush,” and that’s something they’re hopeful about. I think that’s a perfectly legitimate perception as long as they’re not confused about my unyielding support for Israel’s security.

When I visited Ramallah, among a group of Palestinian students, one of the things that I said to those students was: “Look, I am sympathetic to you and the need for you guys to have a country that can function, but understand this: if you’re waiting for America to distance itself from Israel, you are delusional. Because my commitment, our commitment, to Israel’s security is non-negotiable.” I’ve said this in front of audiences where, if there were any doubts about my position, that’d be a place where you’d hear it.

When Israel invaded Lebanon two summers ago, I was in South Africa, a place where, obviously, when you get outside the United States, you can hear much more critical commentary about Israel’s actions, and I was asked about this in a press conference, and that time, and for the entire summer, I was very adamant about Israel’s right to defend itself. I said that there’s not a nation-state on Earth that would tolerate having two of its soldiers kidnapped and just let it go. So I welcome the Muslim world’s accurate perception that I am interested in opening up dialogue and interested in moving away from the unilateral policies of George Bush, but nobody should mistake that for a softer stance when it comes to terrorism or when it comes to protecting Israel’s security or making sure that the alliance is strong and firm. You will not see, under my presidency, any slackening in commitment to Israel’s security.

JG: What do you make of Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that Israel resembles an apartheid state?

BO: I strongly reject the characterization. Israel is a vibrant democracy, the only one in the Middle East, and there’s no doubt that Israel and the Palestinians have tough issues to work out to get to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, but injecting a term like apartheid into the discussion doesn’t advance that goal. It’s emotionally loaded, historically inaccurate, and it’s not what I believe.

JG: If you become President, will you denounce settlements publicly?

BO: What I will say is what I’ve said previously. Settlements at this juncture are not helpful. Look, my interest is in solving this problem not only for Israel but for the United States.

JG: Do you think that Israel is a drag on America’s reputation overseas?

BO: No, no, no. But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable. I am absolutely convinced of that, and some of the tensions that might arise between me and some of the more hawkish elements in the Jewish community in the United States might stem from the fact that I’m not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that’s the safest ground politically.

I want to solve the problem, and so my job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth and say if Israel is building settlements without any regard to the effects that this has on the peace process, then we’re going to be stuck in the same status quo that we’ve been stuck in for decades now, and that won’t lift that existential dread that David Grossman described in your article.

The notion that a vibrant, successful society with incredible economic growth and incredible cultural vitality is still plagued by this notion that this could all end at any moment -- you know, I don’t know what that feels like, but I can use my imagination to understand it. I would not want to raise my children in those circumstances. I want to make sure that the people of Israel, when they kiss their kids and put them on that bus, feel at least no more existential dread than any parent does whenever their kids leave their sight. So that then becomes the question: is settlement policy conducive to relieving that over the long term, or is it just making the situation worse? That’s the question that has to be asked.
Here's John Kerry's commentary on the above from the Huffington Post: Barack Obama and Israel: More GOP Lies

Look, I've been around politics long enough to know that it's a contact sport. Words will be abused. Phrases will be taken out of context.

But the latest distortion from the GOP, frankly, shouldn't give us all pause -- it should spring us into action.

Here's the story, if you haven't heard - yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg published a very interesting and engaging interview with Barack Obama, where they spoke at length about Barack's ties to the Jewish community in Chicago and his views on the Middle East peace process. When speaking about the decades old violence that has threatened our ally Israel, Barack said:

But what I think is that this constant wound, that this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy. The lack of a resolution to this problem provides an excuse for anti-American militant jihadists to engage in inexcusable actions, and so we have a national-security interest in solving this, and I also believe that Israel has a security interest in solving this because I believe that the status quo is unsustainable.

Does anyone seriously dispute that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant, open wound in the Middle East -- exploited by those who would like to see Israel and the United States driven out of the region? Of course not.

It's simply undeniable that the conflict affects all of our Middle Eastern foreign policy. For decades, these have been bi-partisan views:

There remain enemies of this peace, extremists on both sides who feel threatened by the peace and will be tempted once again to kill it with violence. We can defeat that kind of threat by building a genuine Israeli-Palestinian partnership that will stand the test of time -- Bill Clinton
Only through the process of negotiation can all the nations of the Middle East achieve a secure peace. -- Ronald Reagan

Even George W. Bush has said:

For the sake of all humanity, things must change in the Middle East.


It is untenable for Israeli citizens to live in terror. It is untenable for Palestinians to live in squalor and occupation. [...]

Permanent occupation threatens Israel's identity and democracy. A stable, peaceful Palestinian state is necessary to achieve the security that Israel longs for.

But of course, today, rather than seriously disputing that, or, even better, offering a vision of their own on how to find peace in the Middle East and security for Israel, Rep. John Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor - senior leadership in the House GOP -- decided to ignore the actual meaning of English words and simply invent something Barack Obama didn't say. Here is what they said

Israel is a critical American ally and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, not a 'constant sore' as Barack Obama claims. -- John Boehner

It is truly disappointing that Senator Obama called Israel a 'constant wound,' 'constant sore,' and that it 'infect[s] all of our foreign policy.' These sorts of words and characterizations are the words of a politician with a deep misunderstanding of the Middle East and an innate distrust of Israel -- Eric Cantor

This is so mendacious that the objective journalist Jeffrey Goldberg himself felt compelled to reply. He writes:

I have no doubt that Mr. Boehner will issue a correction to his press release in which he states the obvious, which is that Obama expressed -- in twelve different ways -- his support for Israel to me.


If he doesn't, however, I would, sadly, have to agree with my colleague, the less-forgiving Andrew Sullivan, who called Boehner's statement a "flat-out lie." In fact, I would add to Andrew's post, by calling Boehner's statement mendacious, duplicitous, gross, and comically refutable. So Mr. Boehner, do the right thing, and correct the record. I'll be happy to post the correction right here.

These statements by Representatives Boehner and Cantor are so bad they rise to the level of a danger to our foreign policy. America's allegiance to Israel has always been bi-partisan and unshakeable. It still is, with either Sen. McCain, Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton as President. But how can we actually have a debate on foreign policy, if the other side simply makes up statements on which to base phony, contrived outrage?

No, people need to hear the truth -- now.

Here's what Barack said about his personal feelings about Israel in the very same interview:

I think the idea of Israel and the reality of Israel is one that I find important to me personally. Because it speaks to my history of being uprooted, it speaks to the African-American story of exodus, it describes the history of overcoming great odds and a courage and a commitment to carving out a democracy and prosperity in the midst of hardscrabble land. One of the things I loved about Israel when I went there is that the land itself is a metaphor for rebirth, for what's been accomplished. What I also love about Israel is the fact that people argue about these issues, and that they're asking themselves moral questions.

In other words, he said exactly the opposite of what Boehner and Cantor scurrilously allege. The Washington Post gave both Boehner and Cantor multiple Pinocchios for their performance.

Barack Obama has spoken time and time again on the importance of our alliance with Israel, and on how important Israel is to him personally. He has spoken movingly about the inspiration he draws from Israel's historic struggle for independence and its current struggle for security, as well as his deep resolve to continue working to strengthen security for all of Israel's people. He has called America's commitment to Israel's security "unshakeable," a commitment built on the bedrock of the deep friendship between the two nations.

But the Republican Party insists on twisting his words so far they resort to actually lying about their meaning.

We have a foreign policy mess in the Middle East. The Bush administration's Iraq debacle has weakened our diplomatic standing in the region and limited our options in working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No wonder all Representatives Boehner and Cantor can do is to create imaginary strawmen to knock down in self-righteous indignation.

I'm not alone in condemning this remark. Here's the statement from Rep. Robert Wexler:

In his dishonest and ridiculous distortion, John Boehner has shown us the new depths that a truly desperate Republican leadership will sink to in its attempt to smear Barack Obama's strong and unshakeable record of support for Israel. This absurd parsing would be laughable if it wasn't so sad to see the U.S.-Israel relationship used as a political wedge instead of a cause to unite all Americans around a common purpose.

And here's Rep. Rahm Emanuel:

On the eve of Israel's 60th anniversary, Congressman Boehner should remember that Israel enjoys bipartisan support and commitment to its security. Nothing could be worse for Israel at this time than for it to become a proxy for Congressman Boehner's political games. Senator Obama's record is clear when it comes to Israel's security and friendship with the United States.

The politics of character assassination from Republicans on the important issues needs to stop. Playing games to drive political wedges as part of some political strategy does great disservice to our country. We need to talk about how to chart a new course, not spread these kinds of distortions.

We deserve better in this country, but we won't get it from the GOP in this election. Already we've seen John McCain trying to describe Barack Obama as Hamas' candidate. That's beneath the John McCain I used to know. But -- sadly -- that is the only way these Republicans have to try and win an election

We deserve better. We need to have an honest and important conversation about how to reorient our foreign policy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

What we don't need are lies, distortions, and rhetoric designed only to whip up fear. That's part of what got us into this mess, and it won't get us out.

Call Sen. McCain's office at 202-224-2235 and ask him to condemn these statements from his supporters.

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