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Khalidi: The Republicans' Latest Smear Against Obama

The latest in a series of guilt-by-association tactics by the GOP to make the staunchly pro-Israel Obama appear to be anti-Israel.
 
 
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The smear campaign by John McCain, Sarah Palin and their supporters reached a new low this past week with their attacks on Democratic nominee Barack Obama for his former ties with Palestinian American scholar Rashid Khalidi. This is just one of a series of desperate guilt-by-association tactics by the Republicans to make the staunchly pro-Israel Obama appear to be anti-Israel and may be designed less to harm the Democratic nominee's chances of election as to limit politically his options for addressing urgent matters of Israeli-Palestinian peace upon becoming president.

Unlike education professor and former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, Obama and Khalidi and their wives actually did have a social relationship back when they both taught at the University of Chicago and their kids attended the same lab school. It is ironic that Khalidi -- a U.S.-born graduate of Yale and Oxford who formerly served as president of the Middle East Studies Association -- has become the focal point of these attacks, however. Indeed, the political orientation of this highly regarded scholar, who currently has an endowed chair at Columbia University, has been absurdly mischaracterized.

Curiously, however, neither Obama nor his campaign has been willing to come to his defense.

Slandering a Noted Scholar

Both McCain and Palin have referred to Khalidi as a former "spokesman" for the Palestine Liberation Organization, citing his time in Beirut during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the then-exiled PLO was based there and some of its armed factions were still engaged in terrorism. Khalidi was never a spokesman for the organization, however, instead serving during that period as a fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies and as a professor at the American University in Beirut. (I first met Khalidi in the Lebanese capital back in 1981 and recall him as someone who clearly embraced an independent and moderate nationalist perspective.) Later, he served in an advisory capacity for the non-PLO Palestinian delegation to the 1991 Madrid peace talks.

Campaigning on Wednesday, Palin referred to Khalidi as "another radical professor from the neighborhood who spent a lot of time with Barack Obama going back several years." Fox News and scores of other pro-Republican news outlets have similarly accused Khalidi of being an "extremist" and a "supporter of terrorism."

In reality, rather than allying himself with anti-Israeli extremists, Khalidi is far more closely identified with Palestinian moderates and the Israeli peace camp. For example, he serves on the national advisory committee of the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, a highly regarded interfaith group advocating dialogue, education and peace advocacy.

Furthermore, while recognizing the international legal right for a people to resist uniformed foreign occupation forces, Khalidi has opposed terrorism and has explicitly stated that killing Israeli civilians is a "war crime" and "a violation of international law."

The apparent source of many of these misrepresentations of Khalidi come from a 2004 Washington Times article written by Asaf Romirowsky and by Jonathan Calt Harris of the right-wing Middle East Forum, which falsely accused Khalidi of "shilling for terrorists." In addition, despite Khalidi's well-known criticism of former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, the article was headlined "Arafat Minion as Professor." Neither the mainstream media nor the Obama campaign have bothered to cite Harris' notorious history of demonstrably false reporting and mischaracterizations of Khalidi and other Middle East scholars who have dared question Bush administration policy in the Middle East. (That same year, Harris wrote a widely circulated article for the National Review Online -- another source of a series false claims against Khalidi -- in which he manufactured an anti-Semitic remark that he claimed I had made as a speaker on a panel at the National Press Club in Washington sponsored by the American Committee on Jerusalem, a group for which Khalidi once served as president. Fortunately, the event was taped, so I succeeded in getting NRO to drop the fabricated quote from the article when I threatened legal action.)

Unfortunately, the Obama campaign has yet to defend Khalidi from any of the demonstrably false mischaracterizations of Khalidi's political positions, simply claiming that Obama "does not share Khalidi's views."

For example, when McCain demanded that the Los Angeles Times release a tape -- which it received on the condition that it not be made public -- of a social event Obama attended in honor of Khalidi, McCain declared, "If there was a tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit, I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different." Regretfully, the Obama campaign has yet to challenge the Republican nominee's unconscionable comparison of this respected Arab American scholar to neo-Nazis.

Indeed, instead of coming to Khalidi's defense against these and other racist and transparently false attacks against him, the Obama campaign has instead launched a counterattack, pointing out that the International Republican Institute, a government-funded foundation nominally headed by McCain, funded a project founded by Khalidi known as the Center for Palestine Research and Studies. The IRI has provided more than $800,000 to the group, which engages in polling and other survey research on Palestinian sociopolitical attitudes. It is unclear, however, what the Democrats find so objectionable about the center's work.

Both campaigns, then, are effectively buying into this myth that there are these far left academics who are unduly influencing our policy makers and/or squandering our tax dollars. In doing so, both McCain and Obama are thereby contributing to the growing anti-intellectualism and ongoing threats to academic freedom in this country.

More Guilt by Association

A major Republican ad campaign in the Jewish press attacking Obama is focused on similarly misrepresentative guilt by association. In some cases, it involves political figures who have nothing to do with Obama. One ad, for example, is dominated by a photograph of the Democratic nominee next to a photograph of the right-wing political commentator and former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. The ad quotes the Anti-Defamation League as saying Buchanan "publicly espouses racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-immigrant views. Yet, Buchanan calls his views on Israel, Iran and the Palestinians the same as Obama's." In reality, Buchanan never claimed that the staunchly pro-Israel Obama has the same views as him, only that on certain specific questions -- such as negotiating with Iran and recognizing the suffering of the Palestinians -- he agrees with Obama and is closer to his positions than those of McCain.

Another series of ads falsely claims that "Sen. Barack Obama surrounds himself with a number of individuals and advisers who are hostile to Israel and American Jews," warning readers, "You know a man by the company he keeps." Every example given, however, either grossly misrepresents the political positions of the men in question and/or exaggerates their role in the campaign.

For example, former Democratic Congressman David Bonior, along with Middle East scholar and former peace negotiator Robert Malley, are labeled as "anti-Israel." In reality, while they have been critical of Israel's colonization of occupied Arab territories and some conduct by Israeli officials in negotiations, both have steadfastly upheld Israel's right to exist in peace and security and have emphasized that their support for a two-state solution is based in large part because it is necessary for Israel's survival.

Despite supporting tens of billions of dollars worth of unconditional military and economic aid to Israel while in the House of Representatives, Bonior is labeled in one ad as "a stalwart opponent to Israel." The ad also claims Bonior "refused to stand by Israel while in Congress, after repeated terrorist attacks." In reality, Congressman Bonior strongly and consistently condemned terrorist attacks by Palestinian extremists. His alleged refusal to "stand by Israel" was in reference to his opposition to a resolution introduced by right-wing House Republican leader Tom DeLay that defended Israel's massive April 2002 military operations in the West Bank, which Amnesty International reported as appearing "as though the main aim was to punish all Palestinians" through actions "which had no clear or obvious military necessity," but which the resolution claimed were "aimed only at dismantling the terrorist infrastructure."

Malley -- who worked with President Bill Clinton at the 2000 Camp David summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat -- is further attacked as "a Palestinian apologist" for pointing out that Israel shared the blame with the Palestinians for the breakdown of the peace talks. Ironically, Malley had very little contact with the Obama campaign, and whatever limited ties he did have were formally severed when it was learned that -- as part of a conflict resolution initiative through the International Crisis Group -- he had met with some civilian Hamas leaders.

The ads even go after two of the more conservative members of the national security establishment who are allied with the Obama campaign, whom they also falsely claim are "anti-Israel." Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski -- which one ad, in citing his opposition to Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon, refers to him as having "an aggressive dislike for Israel" -- has had only a very marginal advisory role and has apparently never talked with Obama about Israel. General Tony McPeak is attacked for having expressed concern back in 2003 over how right-wing American Jews had made it difficult for the United States to more aggressively pursue the peace process, a statement later strongly denounced by Obama. McPeak himself is actually a supporter of Israel and has developed close relationships with top Israeli security officials.

Another example of the alleged "company he keeps" is Obama's now-estranged former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whom the ads refer to as an "an anti-Semite." An article in the Jerusalem Post -- which challenges the truthfulness of a number of these ads -- notes that this allegation is completely unsubstantiated, observing that, despite some statements critical of Israel, "Wright is not known to have targeted Jews and had friendly relations with Chicago Jewish groups."

Ironically, Obama's senior adviser on the Middle East is none other than Dennis Ross of the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In addition to being an outspoken supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a leading hawk on Iran, Ross has defended Israeli occupation policies and rejected calls for an end to Israel's illegal colonization of the West Bank or Israeli acceptance of outstanding UN Security Council resolutions and other international legal obligations.

Another Lie: Obama Defends Israeli Attacks on Civilians

One particularly bizarre attack line of the Republicans that goes from guilt by association to guilt by physical proximity is Obama's presence at a social event in Chicago at which at some point someone accused Israel of engaging in acts of terrorism. At a recent campaign event, Palin spoke of the incident as one in which "Israel was described there as the perpetrator of terrorism rather than the victim" but that "What we don't know is how Barack Obama responded to these slurs."

Actually, we do know how Obama responds to Israeli terrorism: He denies it. Rather than acknowledging the fact that Israel, like quite a number of other governments as well as irregular groups, has indeed engaged in wanton attacks against civilian targets for political goals (which is the common definition of terrorism), Obama has instead tried to cover up for such Israeli violations of international humanitarian law by blaming the victims.

For example, following the 2006 conflict between Israeli armed forces and the Hezbollah militia in which both sides committed war crimes by engaging in attacks against populated civilian areas, Obama defended Israel's actions and criticized Hezbollah only, even though Israel was actually responsible for far more civilian deaths. In an apparent attempt to justify Israeli bombing of civilian population centers, Obama claimed that Hezbollah had used "human shields." This charge directly challenged a series of reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that found that while Hezbollah did have some military equipment close to some civilian areas, it did not find evidence that Hezbollah had forced civilians to remain in or around military targets in order to deter Israel from attacking those targets, which is the legal definition of human shields.

I contacted Obama spokesperson Ben LaBolt, providing him with a copy of the exhaustive 249-page Human Rights Watch report titled "Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon During the 2006 War" and asked him if the senator had any empirical evidence that countered the HRW findings and other reports that appeared to counter Obama's claim. In response, LaBolt provided me with a copy of a report from a right-wing Israeli think tank with close ties to the Israeli government headed by the former head of the Mossad (the Israeli intelligence service that itself has engaged in gross and systematic human rights abuses). The report appears to use exclusively Israeli government sources, in contrast to the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports, which were based upon forensic evidence as well as multiple verified eyewitness accounts by both Lebanese living in the areas under attack and experienced monitors (unaffiliated with any government or political organization) on the ground. The report provided by the Obama spokesman also read like a propaganda piece: Unlike the AI and HRW reports, which were critical of both the Israeli government and Hezbollah, the report sent by LaBolt was totally uncritical of the actions of the Israeli government. Indeed, there were several parts of the study that directly contradicted the AI, HRW and UN reports as well as accounts by Western journalists without any specific empirical evidence to support its assertions.

I asked LaBolt if he could provide more credible evidence, such as those from sources without such close ties to the Israeli government, to support Obama's contention that AI and HRW were wrong and that Hezbollah indeed used human shields. I told him that unless he was able to provide such credible countervailing evidence, I would be forced to report that Obama trusts right-wing think tanks more than he does reputable human rights groups.

Despite several follow-up e-mails, LaBolt never got back to me, so I regretfully have to state the following: It appears that Obama, like George W. Bush, so rigidly supports Israeli policies that he is willing to trust ideologically driven right-wing think tanks more than he does reputable human rights groups.

The Root of the Attacks

The irony of these Republican attacks implying Obama's hostility toward Israel, therefore, is that Obama's hard-line support for Israeli government policies is probably the single issue that places him furthest to the right of rank-and-file Democrats. Indeed, the Democratic nominee has alienated key sectors of his progressive base of supporters by putting forward a whole series of statements and policy proposals regarding Israel and its neighbors in which he largely allies himself with right-wing Republicans.

In addition to disputing the findings of human rights organizations citing Israeli violations of international humanitarian law and defending Israel's massive 2006 assault against Lebanon's civilian infrastructure, these have included: rejecting calls by human rights activists to condition military aid to Israel to an improvement in the government's human rights record; calling for an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without supporting the right of the Palestinian-populated eastern half of the city to be the capital of a Palestinian state; and making exaggerated claims about Iran's threats toward Israel while refusing to express any concerns regarding Israel's threats toward Iran.

Apologists for Obama have insisted that his taking hard-line positions on issues related to Israel is not indicative of actual right-wing proclivities on his own part regarding foreign policy, but simply a means of protecting himself from being targeted by the Republicans for being anti-Israel. Such a defense appears to be disingenuous, however, since Obama is being attacked for being anti-Israel anyway.

Given Obama's hard-line support for Israeli policies, then, why has he been targeted for allegedly not supporting Israel enough?

A major component, of course, is that it is simply part of the desperate guilt-by-association tactics employed along the lines of the recent Republican obsession with Obama's acquaintance with Ayers.

Another possibility is that it is part of an effort to alienate Obama from Jewish voters, though polls indicate that American Jews are supporting Obama by more than a 2-to-1 margin and other polls show that most actually take positions on Israel more moderate than either McCain or Obama.

What may indeed be behind these right-wing campaigns is not derailing Obama's almost inevitable election as president, but limiting his policy options after he becomes president. For example, if people recognized that Obama is firmly committed to Israel's legitimate security needs and even takes a rather hawkish position vis-à-vis Israel and its neighbors, it would give his administration some political space in the event he decided to pressure Israel to make some of the necessary compromises for peace.

However, if a substantial number of Americans -- both Republicans and Democrats -- can get the impression that Obama is close to people who are anti-Israel and thereby might share some of their biases, it would make any kind of tough love stance regarding Israel's self-destructive occupation policies all the more difficult for him to pursue and, as a result, make peace impossible to achieve. An Israel at peace would be far less likely to be willing to continue to cooperate with American militarism in the Middle East than an Israel in a constant state of war and dependent on U.S. military, financial and diplomatic support.

This, then, may be the reason for this recent spate of guilt-by-association attacks against Barack Obama. And it also underscores why we must not only defend the Democratic nominee, but also defend Rashid Khalidi and anyone else falsely accused of support for terrorism and anti-Israel extremism.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and Middle East editor of Foreign Policy in Focus. He is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003).

 
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