Stephen M. Walt

Kudos for Clemons

Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention ...

ROB ELLIOTT/AFP/Getty Images
ROB ELLIOTT/AFP/Getty Images

Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention to both.

Item No. 1: Steve and several of his associates have sponsored an important open letter, co-signed by an impressive list of former government officials, journalists, and academics. The letter calls for the United States government to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s continued efforts to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

The normal U.S. practice is to veto such resolutions, even though the official U.S. government position is that settlement construction is illegal and an obstacle to peace. Given that the peace process itself is going nowhere, however, supporting such a resolution would be an important symbolic act that would signal to the Netanyahu government that it cannot act with impunity. It would also remind the rest of the world that the Obama administration isn’t just a lap dog when it comes to these issues and that Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 wasn’t just empty rhetoric. 

More importantly, voting for this resolution is not an "anti-Israel" act, though it would undoubtedly be seen as such by most groups in the "status quo" lobby. The signatories to the letter were no doubt primarily concerned with advancing U.S. interests, but in this case the long-term interests of the United States and Israel are identical. As many Americans and Israelis now realize, the settlement enterprise has been a costly blunder for Israel. By making a two-state solution more difficult (and maybe impossible), it even threatens Israel’s long-term future. Although no government likes open criticism or Security Council censure, backing this resolution is an easy way for the United States to help Israel begin to rethink its present course and strengthen our tarnished credentials as an honest broker.

In short, Clemons and his colleagues deserve great credit for sponsoring this letter, and though I’m not confident that the Obama administration will heed their advice, it is also a clear sign of how opinion in Washington is beginning to shift.

Item No. 2: As one would expect, Clemons’s laudable efforts were immediately attacked by hard-right defenders of Israel. In particular, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post (and formerly of Commentary), promptly accused him (and the other signatories) of being "Israel-bashers." To his credit, Clemons immediately challenged this "short-cut sliming" on his blog, in a spirited response that is well worth reading. 

As someone with a certain amount of experience with this phenomenon, I think it was hugely important for Clemons to respond as he did. For some self-appointed defenders of Israel, it has long been standard practice to smear anyone who condemns Israel’s actions, writes critically about the Israel lobby, or questions the virtues of the U.S.-Israel "special relationship" by accusing them of some form of anti-Semitism, as in the label "Israel-basher." The purpose of such charges is to deter critics from voicing their concerns, to marginalize them in public discourse, to bar them from the policy arena, and to change the subject from the issue at hand.

This practice has at least two unfortunate effects. First, until relatively recently, it has had a chilling effect on public discourse about U.S. Middle East policy — especially in mainstream circles and inside the Beltway — which has made it much harder to have a serious discussion of the pros and cons of different policy approaches. But when states cannot debate foreign-policy options openly, they are more likely to blunder and prone to repeat the same mistakes. As noted above, this situation isn’t good for the United States, but it’s not good for Israel either.

Second, using the charge of anti-Semitism as an all-purpose weapon designed to silence any and all criticisms of Israeli policy makes it harder to deal with the dwindling number of genuine anti-Semites who still exist. Like all forms of ethnic or religious bigotry, anti-Semitism is a despicable phenomenon with a long and sordid history, and we should all remain vigilant against its resurgence and condemn it when it arises. But if a philo-Semite such as Steve Clemons (and many others like him) can get attacked in this way in a major newspaper like the Post, it starts to render the whole concept meaningless. Eventually people will stop paying attention when someone who is genuinely bigoted against Jews shows up and starts mouthing racist hatred.

So kudos to Steve for his efforts to build a broader consensus around a more sensible Middle East policy and for his spirited defense of a more open yet civilized discourse on this vital subject. Maybe his example will encourage more people to stand up for themselves too and not be intimidated by the fear of a baseless smear campaign.

P.S. I completed this post before watching the Al Jazeera report on the "Palestine Papers," a trove of leaked documents on the peace process from 2007 to 2010. The basic story seems to be that Palestinian negotiators repeatedly offered more far-reaching concessions than their public posture suggested, but got nowhere. You can read about it at the Guardian website here, or watch the reports on Al Jazeera English. The Palestinian Authority is reportedly denying the validity of the documents, which doesn’t strike me as very convincing. I’ll offer more extended comments on the leaks later this week.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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