Opinion // Obama’s Distorted Views on Israel

By | Nov 04, 2015
2015 November-December, Opinion

by Peter Berkowitz

The president’s quest for even-handedness is misguided and dangerous.

Speaking at Harvard University in October, Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that “a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years” has triggered “an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing.” In the effort to clarify Kerry’s remarks—since, in fact, the rate of construction has declined—State Department spokesman John Kirby advanced the old moral equivalence argument. “Frustration on both sides,” he said, has led to the current violence. To clarify his clarification, he added that “individuals on both sides” are “guilty of acts of terror.”

The Obama administration’s formulaic reactions to the recent outbreak of terror in Israel disguise the deeper causes of Palestinian attacks while obscuring the crucial long-term steps needed to build decent relations between Israel and the Palestinians. And they reflect the administration’s tendency to exaggerate Israel’s responsibility while underestimating that of the Arab world and Iran for the turmoil that has swept the region—a tendency that has helped worsen things all over the Middle East.

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To be sure, a few Israelis have perpetrated violence, but Israeli society has roundly denounced them; the army and the police have launched investigations; and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a stern warning against citizens taking the law into their own hands.

Meanwhile, between October 1 and October 20, Palestinians committed 40 stabbings, four shootings and five car rammings against Israeli Jews. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas encouraged them. In mid-September, he said Palestinians “won’t allow” Israelis to “desecrate” the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre “with their filthy feet.” Soon after, from the podium of the UN General Assembly, Abbas falsely charged that Israel was imposing a new scheme to govern access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque “in direct violation of the status quo since before 1967 and thereafter.”

Following Abbas’s inflammatory statements in September, the outbreak of violence in early October, and the obfuscatory even-handedness of the State Department response, President Obama weighed in at a White House press conference. While condemning “violence directed against innocent people” and upholding Israel’s right to defend itself, he effectively doubled down on the moral equivalence argument. He called on “both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli elected officials and President Abbas and other people in positions of power to try to tamp down rhetoric that may feed violence or anger or misunderstanding, and try to get all people in Israel and in the West Bank to recognize that this kind of random violence isn’t going to result in anything other than more hardship and more insecurity.”

An air of unreality hung over the president’s admonition, since Palestinian violence is not random—it is directed at Israeli Jews and is intended to spread terror. Netanyahu, moreover, has sought to restrict the Israeli use of force to lawful self-defense, while Abbas initially refused to condemn this latest surge of Palestinian terror and has shown little ability to contain it.

President Obama’s restraint in response to Abbas’s incitement stands in stark contrast to his apparent determination last March to interpret statements by Netanyahu in the worst possible light. A few days before the March 17 parliamentary elections, Netanyahu affirmed that a Palestinian state would not be established while he served as prime minister. On election day, he warned constituents that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.”

These coarse statements, uttered in the heat of a closely contested election, are defensible. Without abandoning the creation of a Palestinian state as the ultimate goal, Netanyahu had concluded that the spread of Islamic extremism throughout the region had rendered, in the near term, the creation of a Palestinian state inconsistent with Israeli security. And on election day, he wanted to communicate to his constituents that for him to prevail they would have to turn out in high numbers because Arab citizens, who tend to vote for the left, were doing likewise. Still, even after Netanyahu sought to walk back his comments after the election, Obama accused him of repudiating his commitment to a two-state solution and of calling into question the right of Arab citizens of Israel to vote.

Discounting or ignoring Palestinian incitement, while depicting crude characterizations of local political realities as Israeli assaults on democracy, may be motivated by a misguided quest for even-handedness. But such responses ill-serve the cause of peace.

Instead, the Obama administration should forcefully condemn PA incitement and the terrorism it helped launch. While insisting that the Israelis use proportionate force in self-defense, the administration should recognize the many steps the Israeli government has taken to fight Palestinian terror lawfully.

More important, the Obama administration should grasp the larger picture. It is true that Israel must restrict settlement building and do more to help Palestinians create the physical and political infrastructure of a state. The crucial factor in the making of Palestinian terrorists, however, is a system of Palestinian education—including schools, the media and the mosques—that sows hatred by demonizing Jews and denying Israel’s legitimacy. President Obama should demand that the Palestinian Authority remove incendiary textbooks and activists masquerading as teachers, rein in PA-controlled media and crack down on mosques that educate for terror. The United States should condition a portion of foreign aid on PA progress in implementing these vital measures.

Such educational reform could save coming generations of Palestinian children from growing up to be haters, and Israeli children from living with the violence that is hatred’s inevitable accompaniment. The Obama administration’s recourse to moral equivalence language encourages the opposite.

Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

2 thoughts on “Opinion // Obama’s Distorted Views on Israel

  1. doug brockman says:

    The conceit here is that westerners/americans/Israelis are at fault for everything and the poor and oppressed-Palestinians, muslims everywhere and inner city criminals are the dispossessed victims crying for justice.

    Hence the world would be better if the US just took its marbles and went home and the Israelis opened the borders and surrendered to the terrorists.

  2. Bruce Vandiver says:

    As for the recent Palestinian stabbings, I find it odd that Israel has implemented a policy to murder the perpetrators by firing 5 to 7 additional shots into their body after they have been shot and are lying on the ground. The reason this is suspicious is that a dead man can’t be interrogated. Israel’s complete lack of interest in interrogation of those Palestinians whom it has killed extrajudicially says a lot about Israel’s lack of commitment to prevention of additional stabbings.

    Getting to the point, the author would have us IGNORE the fact that Israel is by far the more powerful party to this conflict. Thus he would have us ignore the FACT that Israel controls the situation, as it has for the last 40+ years. If we ignore the fact that Israel CONTROLS the situation, then me might fall for his bullshit suggestion that the US position and reaction to the developing situation should be balanced.

    No. US policy MUST focus on the party in control of the situation. Otherwise it cannot possibly change the dynamic in a manner that could produce a real peace agreement producing two viable states for two peoples. Not focusing as strongly on Palestinian violence or incitement is not equivalent to approval, and the author cannot paint the USA as the cause of the problem simply because it doesn’t buy his argument.

    There are legal requirements and obligations in effect which apply to Israel (and to the Palestinians) and these things legally govern Israel’s actions as the occupying force. IF Israel had honored these requirements, none of the recent violence (and to be honest none of the suicide bombings of the second intifada) would have happened. When Israel violates these requirements and obligations, there MUST be a painful cost. Clearly the previous unofficial US policy of meeting Israel’s demands for diplomatic cover, endless financial support, and unilateral protection at the UNSC has only produced an arrogant, selfish, and psychopathic Israel that cannot bring itself to honor international law, Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter and UN resolutions, and obligations of existing peace agreements that Israel has already signed like Oslo and the Road Map.

    It is easy to find candid video of Bibi Netanyahu on youtube claiming personal credit for “stoppong Oslo” by dishonestly subverting it’s intent when he redefined the Jordan Valley as a military zone not subject to withdrawal. Google youtube “Netanyahu stopped Oslo”. This article reveals the author Peter Berkowitz is almost as disingenuous as history has proven Netanyahu to be. Count Bernadotte was the first person assassinated by Zionist interests (Lehi) to prevent a peace agreement. Yitzhak Rabin was the second. There are others. The author Peter Berkowitz must acknowledge Israel’s agenda has been clearly established by these assassinations, and the agenda is to prevent peace before Israel completes expansion of it’s territorial control to maximal biblical limits. Of course, such an agenda constitutes a clear and present danger to the region and to world civil order.

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