Opinion | Opinion

On Israel, Obama brings Moynihan to mind

JERUSALEM (JTA)  — Those who view American-Israeli relations through a dualistic “are you pro-Israel or anti-Israel” lens must be confused. In one week, the United States stands virtually alone with Israel against the Palestinians’ upgrade of their status at the United Nations, then immediately condemns Israel’s settlement expansion. Similarly, despite Republican warnings that a reelected Barack Obama would “throw Israel under a bus,” the president backed Israel during the recent Gaza War.

Obama’s behavior fits the historic pattern. Arab attacks on Israel’s right to exist trigger America’s protective impulse even as Israeli doggedeness vexes American leaders. Arab attacks have often saved Israeli policymakers from American wrath.

This pattern emerged clearly as the U.S.-Israel friendship solidified following the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. After his indefatigable shuttle diplomacy pieced together a cease-fire, Henry Kissinger tried parlaying the war’s chaos into a lasting peace. Israel refused to relinquish critical strategic assets without “an overall settlement” or at least a non-belligerency pact, which Egypt rejected. As the negotiations dragged, as Kissinger became secretary of state and Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon as president, American frustrations mounted.

In March 1975, the Israelis proposed a two-week negotiation break. An “outraged” Kissinger accused Israel and America’s Jewish community of being “irresponsible,” of fomenting anti-Semitism. Oval Office transcripts chronicled Kissinger condemning Israel’s leaders as “a sick bunch” and “the world’s worst s—ts.”  At Kissinger’s insistence, Ford announced a “reassessment” that March, temporarily freezing relations with Israel. Six months later, on Sept. 1, 1975, Israel approved the Sinai accords.

During this nadir, an Arab-Soviet assault against Israel suddenly reminded Americans and Israelis of their deep friendship. Soviet and Third World delegates sought to expel Israel from the United Nations. America’s new U.N. ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — with Kissinger’s backing — said the U.S. would consider expulsion a severe breach. Backpedaling, the anti-American, anti-Zionist totalitarians chose a strategy that Moynihan realized could threaten Israel’s legitimacy even more — calling Zionism racism.

Moynihan, the iconoclastic Harvard professor and ubiquitous White House adviser, backed Israel to defend democracy and decency. He said Resolution 3379, with its perverse Soviet-orchestrated distortions of language and history, “reeked of the totalitarian mind, stank of the totalitarian state” — and sought to humiliate the U.S. and Israel.

Moynihan’s confrontational strategy initially left him feeling as lonely as Israel. His fury alienated America’s allies and adversaries, along with America’s foreign policy establishment, including Kissinger.

“We are conducting foreign policy,” phone transcripts chronicle Kissinger grumbling behind Moynihan’s back on Nov. 10, 1975, as Moynihan fought Resolution 3379. “This is not a synagogue.”

Yet Moynihan’s attack on the resolution made him an American pop star. At a moment of American despair, six months after Vietnam fell, with crime rising, inflation soaring and depression threatening, Americans found a hero. More than 26,000 letters cascaded into the U.S. mission of the U.N. cheering Moynihan, denouncing the U.N.’s anti-Semitic lynch mob and celebrating his politics of patriotic indignation. A year after his heroic stand, grateful New Yorkers sent Moynihan to the U.S. Senate.

This pure, passionate reaction reflected the popular ties and values overlap uniting Israel and America — –a deep-seeded, grass-roots expression sprouting naturally, not political Astroturf artificially tended by an “Israel lobby.”

Then as now, U.S.-Israel relations occur on two tracks, with the United States frequently acting like the annoyed older brother who ultimately has his kid brother’s back. When American leaders try solving the post-1967 disputes and managing the Middle East, relations with Israel are frequently fragile, occasionally explosive. The greatest tensions — after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, during the James Baker-George H.W. Bush loan-guarantee fight and during the first half of Obama’s first term — reflected American-Israeli disagreements regarding what Israel had to do, or not do, to get along with its neighbors.

But when the Arabs try refighting 1948, assailing Israel’s right to live, American loyalty to Israel shines through. The 1975 Zionism is racism assault returned the discussion to the basics, as did the Hamas rockets and the ugly rhetoic by Mahmoud Abbas accusing Israel of “racism” and “apartheid.” Such assaults shift the focus from whatever tensions the peace process stirs to a more fundamental fight for life.

These two tracks prove how impoverished the current vocabulary is. Few mainstream American leaders are anti-Israel — not Kissinger in the 1970s and not Obama today. Their anger, be it justified or not, is transactional not existential, passing not permanent, reflecting day-to-day tensions, not do-or-die fights. So let’s reserve the term “anti-Israel” for the fanatics who deserve it, understand that most American leaders are “pro-Israel” and stop echoing the delegitimizers’ all-or-nothing rhetoric about Israel.

Moreover, this enduring pattern in U.S.-Israel relations further illustrates how self-defeating the ongoing totalitarian Arab strategy of delegitimization has been. Demonizing Israel, attacking Israel’s right to existence and targeting Israeli civilians perpetuates the conflict, escalating it into a zero-sum, 1948-like existential struggle rather than a solvable post-1967 boundary dispute. It strengthens Israel’s maximalist peace-through-strength camp, demoralizing its more pliable land-for-peace camp. And it keeps reinforcing the genuine, deep but occasionally fraught U.S.-Israel friendship.

(Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book is “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism.”)