Don't Worry About Joe, Worry About Ehud

Undiplomatic Dispatch: TIME.com's Tony Karon argues that questions about how Lieberman's Judaism will sway U.S. Mideast policy are missing the point.

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So the New York Times wonders aloud whether Joe Lieberman's religion may impair his judgment as vice president when it comes to Middle East policy. Good morning, Grey Lady, wake up and smell the matzoh ball soup. Can it be that nobody at the Times noticed that President Clinton's entire national security team — Albright, Berger, Cohen — are of Jewish origin, as are many of the other key players in his Mideast policy, such as chief negotiator Dennis Ross and ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk? It's certainly a reality of which those in the Arab capitals who deal with Washington are more than aware.

It would be racist, of course, to imply that the ethnic makeup of President Clinton's Cabinet is what determines Washington's positions on Israel. Not only racist, but also false. After all, even when his national security team comprised Warren Christopher, Tony Lake and William Perry, President Clinton maintained the most fervently pro-Israel stance of any president in U.S. history. That stance may have more to do with his desire to court political and financial support from pro-Israel Americans, but our purpose here is not to explore the President's motivations. A simple answer to the New York Times' question about whether Lieberman's heritage might sway Mideast policy is this: It's hard to imagine how a U.S. administration could be made any more pro-Israel than this one already is.

Indeed, it's even worth asking how much good this really does Israel in the long run. Although the U.S. has taken on the role of mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it's hardly even pretending to be an honest broker. Just look at the Camp David breakdown: Yasser Arafat is pilloried for refusing to swallow the principle of Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem, while Ehud Barak is applauded for his "courage" in breaking an Israeli taboo by offering the Palestinians some form of municipal control in neighborhoods they effectively control, anyway. Yes, it's true that Barak moved more than Arafat from the initial offer he brought to Camp David. But nobody in the administration appears to have even been asking whether Israel's bottom line — Israeli sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem — is a reasonable or fair.

Fairness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and keeping the peace is an unsentimental business. But the perception of fairness may also make the difference between a peace that endures and one almost immediately imperiled by a lingering sense of injustice on either side.

The Palestinians are asking that the city be redivided, with Palestinian sovereignty prevailing over Palestinian neighborhoods and Israeli sovereignty prevailing over Jewish neighborhoods. But Israel has dismissed this solution as a non-starter, and Washington's "mediation" appears to have accepted that as a given — Israel is never going to give up those parts of the city it captured in 1967, so there's no point even trying to go there. Instead, the administration is trying to bully Arafat and his Arab backers into accepting the Israeli offer.

Concerns of fairness aside, that may be a dangerous course. Jerusalem is of fundamental religious importance throughout the Islamic world, which is precisely why Arafat couldn't accept Barak's offer without Arab backing. And for the Palestinians, the city also symbolizes their exile, as it once did for the Jews in whose prayers it figured prominently through the centuries of dispersion. Palestinians who've never lived there sing of returning to Jerusalem, just as Jews who'd never lived there did for centuries. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict arises not because of some age-old religious conflict, but because bringing the state of Israel into being in 1948 required the displacing of the Palestinians. There's no way of reversing that history now, but a lasting peace between the two peoples requires a reckoning with that past and a large dose of compromise on both sides.

To begin from the premise that Israel will never give back East Jerusalem is to simply underwrite a might-is-right solution. After all, the Jews wouldn't have ever given up Jerusalem until they were vanquished by the Romans, and the local Arab population would never have given up Jerusalem until the Crusaders arrived, and they in turn wouldn't have let go until Salah el Din and his troops arrived, while the Jordanians would never have given up East Jerusalem until the Israeli paratroopers arrived, and so on. Forcing a solution that will be interpreted by most Arabs and Palestinians as unjust and one-sided won't bring Israel peace; it may be even more likely to provoke new wars in the future.

The challenge for a Gore — or Bush — administration won't be about how much of a friend it is to Israel; it'll be determining what kind of a friend Israel needs. In the long run Israel may benefit more from a friendship in which it's encouraged and supported in doing difficult, even currently unthinkable, things to achieve peace for the next generation. And Joe Lieberman's qualifications to play a role in this important endeavor won't be determined by his ethnicity as much as by the depth of his wisdom, both Talmudic and secular.