News & Politics

More 'Right' on Israel Than Bush

When it comes to toeing Ariel Sharon's line, the Democratic leadership and its anointed heirs put the White House to shame.
The moment images of Saddam Hussein's capture flashed across TV screens around the world, John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman jumped on the opportunity to lash out at Howard Dean for not supporting the war on Iraq, even as they congratulated the Bush White House for a job well done.

It was not, however, the first time that the two Democratic candidates have attacked the former Vermont governor for being too "liberal" on foreign policy. Nor is Iraq the only issue where the Democratic leadership -- and its anointed heirs -- have revealed an unmistakably rightwing agenda.

It is a less-known fact that when it comes to the Israel/Palestinian issue, the Democratic establishment is virtually indistinguishable from the Bush administration.

The less-than-moderate position was on blatant display back in September when Dean was attacked by two of his principal rivals as well as the House Democratic leadership for calling on the United States to take a more "even-handed role" as the chief mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Sept. 3, Dean declared that the United States should work to "bring the sides together" and "not point fingers" at who is to blame.

He was immediately attacked during a televised debate on Sept. 9 by Joe Lieberman, who described his comments as a move to "compromise our support for Israel," arguing that a more balanced position in the peace process was tantamount to "breaking commitments to longtime allies."

When Dean pointed out that Israel would have to remove an enormous number of settlements in the Occupied Territories to achieve peace, Senator Lieberman strongly objected, insisting that the number of settlements evacuated by Israel should be up to the parties in negotiations. In reality, despite eight years of peace talks in the '90s, throughout which Palestinians demanded that Israel withdraw from its settlements in the Occupied Territories or even just suspend construction of new ones, the number of settlements has nearly doubled. Sharon's insistence on incorporating most of these settlements into Israel is, in fact, one of the most important obstacles preventing the negotiation of a final peace agreement.

Senator Kerry, however, claimed just the opposite in his response to Dean's policy statement, declaring that if Dean called for a more even-handed approach as president, "it would throw this volatile region into even more turmoil."

Such desperate attacks by two presidential hopefuls who now see the upstart Dean surging ahead of them in public opinion polls should not be surprising. What is far more significant, however, is the decision of leading Democratic members of the House of Representatives to join the fray.

In an open letter dated Sept. 10, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Assistant Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez led dozens of other top Congressional Democrats criticized Dean for his statements. Other signatories included such Democratic stalwarts as Howard Berman, Gary Ackerman, Robert Matsui, Tom Lantos, Nita Lowey, Barney Frank, Patrick Kennedy, Edward Markey, Ellen Tauscher, Linda Sanchez, Jose Serrano, Harold Ford, and Shelley Berkley.

The letter characterized Dean's call for a more balanced approached by the U.S. government in the peace process as questioning Israel's right to exist in peace and security. In their letter, the House Democratic leadership also declared that U.S. policy must be "based on unequivocal support for Israel's right to exist and to be free from terror," even though Dean has never given even a hint of believing anything to the contrary.

Ignoring Governor Dean's repeated and categorical denunciation of Palestinian terrorism, the House Democratic leaders also declared that Americans must "raise our voices against all forms of terrorism" and that "this is not the time to be sending mixed messages."

To have virtually the entire Democratic House leadership openly criticize a policy statement made by their own front-runner is unprecedented. It is also indicative of Pelosi's determination to make clear that such voices of moderation have no place in the Democratic Party.

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are essentially pushing the age-old fallacy: support for Ariel Sharon equals support for the state of Israel.

In March, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders signed a letter to President Bush opposing the White House-endorsed Middle East "road map," which they perceived as being too lenient on the Palestinians. The authors insisted that the peace process must be based "above all" on the end of Palestinian violence and the establishment of a new Palestinian leadership. There was no mention of any reciprocal actions by the Israeli government. The letter also came out in opposition of any other government or other entity monitoring progress on the ground.

In response to widespread reports issued by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups charging Israeli occupation forces of committing human rights abuses during its military offensive in the West Bank last year, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders went on record declaring that the Israeli attacks were completely justifiable and were aimed "only at the terrorist infrastructure." Pelosi also praised President Bush's "leadership" in supporting Sharon, whom the president declared to be "a man of peace," In fact, in a speech before the AIPAC convention in April, Pelosi denounced President Bush for suggesting that Israel needed to freeze construction of new settlements in the Occupied Territories, claiming that it gave comfort to Israel's enemies.


The irony is that moderate Israelis have repeatedly called upon the Bush administration to take a more even-handed approach in the peace process, and to press Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to compromise on the settlements and other issues. Kerry, Lieberman, and the House Democratic leadership, however, demand that Dean should instead follow lock step in support of President Bush's strident backing of Israel's rightist government.


The Democratic establishment appear to have adopted the same logic of the Republicans, who insist that only by supporting Bush administration policies can one support America, or in this case, Israel.

Dean's background makes the charges of anti-Israeli sentiment even more far-fetched. His wife, Judith Steinberg Dean, is Jewish and has close connections with mainstream Zionist circles. Their children have been raised Jewish. His campaign co-chair, Steve Grossman, is the former president of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). His only trip to Israel, which took place last fall, was organized and paid for by AIPAC and he did not meet with any prominent Palestinians or Israeli peace activists. Dean has described his attachment to Israel as "visceral."

In fact, Dean is widely seen as a hawk on Israel and Palestine. He has stated that his position is closer to the right-wing AIPAC, which allies itself with Israel's ruling Likud Bloc, than it is to Americans for Peace Now, which identifies with the Israeli peace movement and the more liberal Israeli parties.

Much to the chagrin of peace and human rights advocates, Dean supported the Bush Administration's recent $9 billion loan guarantee to Sharon without adding conditions, such as freezing new settlement activity in the Occupied Territories. Dean has repeatedly stated his belief that the major issue in the conflict is Palestinian terrorism, not the Israeli occupation that has spawned it. He has told the Washington Post that Israel has every right to assassinate Hamas "terrorists" as "enemies in a war."

Such positions have led many Democrats concerned about peace and human rights in the Middle East to abandon Dean and back the campaign of Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who supports the position of the Israeli peace movement, and the Zionist Left.

Dean's perspective is essentially that of former President Clinton and his chief Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, which corresponded closely to that of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the hawkish wing of the Labor Party. While such a position proved inadequate in securing the peace and is well to the right of the Israeli peace movement, the Clinton/Ross/Barak position did at least accept in principle the idea that substantial Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories was necessary and desirable in order to end the violence and make Israel secure.

What is disconcerting about the Democratic leadership is not only that it has rejected the position of the Israeli left, but also that of Israeli centrists as articulated by Dean and other supporters of the Clinton administration.

It is unclear what political advantage the Democratic leadership can gain by attacking Dean's position on Israel. According to a poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland this May, a clear majority of Americans recognize that the Bush administration is biased towards Israel. Moreover, when asked about what position the United States should have, a full 73 percent stated that the United States should not take either side in the conflict.

In other words, Senators Kerry and Lieberman and the House Democratic leadership have gone on record supporting the policies of the Bush administration against the will of an overwhelming majority of the American people.

In many respects, Howard Dean is a quintessential centrist Democrat. However, he has been able to attract a following that, on average, is considerably to his left in large part because he had the common sense to oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq and to forcefully articulate the frustration and anger among rank-and-file Democrats against the Bush administration.

Perhaps that is why Kerry, Lieberman, and the Democratic Congressional leaders hope to use Israel to undermine Dean's extraordinary popularity, since his anti-war stance exposes their own shameless pandering to the Bush agenda.

It is unclear whether Israel as an issue will affect Dean's chances for the party's presidential nomination. But the attacks from his own party seem to have blunted his candor. In his first major foreign policy address on Dec. 15, Dean said little about Middle East peace, and took pains to straddle the fence: "Our alliance with Israel is and must remain unshakeable, and so will be my commitment every day of our administration to work with the parties for a solution that ends decades of blood and tears."

The flap over Israel does, however, make one simple fact painfully evident: when it comes to the Middle East, there is truly no difference between Democratic leadership and the White House.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco and the author of "Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2003)."