Obama and the Three D’s

By Noah Pollak

Commentary

April 21, 2015

In his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, the Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician Natan Sharansky argues that the West can win the long struggle with the Middle East’s authoritarian and Islamist states by promoting liberalism and freedom in the region’s closed societies. Sharansky and co-author Ron Dermer, now Israel’s ambassador to the United States, also address the role Israel plays in this conflict and the accusations and claims against the Jewish state that are intended to turn Western opinion against it. Sharansky and Dermer argue that the United States and Europe cannot help open up the “fear societies” of the Mideast if they accede to the warped and anti-Semitic claims they make about Israel, a fellow Western country. These claims constitute a significant part of the pathologies that consign those societies to violence and failure. Because some Western liberals have a tendency to give credence to these claims, and because their credence sows much moral and political confusion in the West, identifying and rejecting anti-Semitic attacks on Israel should be a central test of the larger struggle, argue Sharansky and Dermer.

They point out that “whereas classical anti-Semitism is aimed at the Jewish people and Jewish religion, the new anti-Semitism is aimed at the Jewish state.” Since this new anti-Semitism “is much more difficult to expose,” they propose a test. They call it the 3D test—the three D’s being demonization, double standards, and delegitimization. If a criticism of Israel checks all three boxes, it’s safe to say that it is anti-Semitic.

They characterize the first D, demonization, thus: “Are [Israel’s] actions being blown out of all sensible proportion?” When Israel is compared to Nazi Germany, when legitimate and scrupulous self-defense is portrayed as the stuff of war crimes, when Israel is held solely responsible for the lack of peace with the Palestinians, and when Israel is subjected to vicious bias in the media that is intended to sow hatred of the Jewish state—that is demonization.

For double standards, Sharansky and Dermer ask “whether criticism of Israel is being applied selectively,” because “a different yardstick means double standards, and double standards mean anti-Semitism.” Here the examples are almost endless, although most can be drawn from international organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, and many “human-rights” groups, whose focus on Israel’s conduct is obsessive while their criticism of real human-rights abusers and authoritarian regimes is either perfunctory or nonexistent.

Finally, by delegitimization, the authors refer to the denial of Israel’s very right to exist. “While criticism of an Israeli policy need not be anti-Semitic,” they write, “the denial of Israel’s right to exist is always anti-Semitic.”

The Sharansky-Dermer test for distinguishing legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism has become sadly, infuriatingly relevant again because over the past half-year—from around the time of the 2014 U.S. midterm elections through Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress, the Israeli election, and the Iran framework deal—the Obama administration has assumed something akin to a wartime footing, politically speaking, against Netanyahu and Israel.

The administration has methodically prosecuted a campaign of accusation and threat that has revealed a florid, aggressive contempt for Netanyahu and the millions of Israelis who have returned him for the fourth time to the premiership. Obama and his advisers have been quoted in the press as calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” a “coward,” and a “racist.” They have accused him of publicly spitting in Obama’s face, undermining Israeli democracy, and risking “chaos in the region.” They have warned that “there will be a price” to pay and have speculated that the price may include downgrading the U.S.-Israel alliance, rescinding the U.S. veto for anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations, and quietly encouraging the European Union and the Palestinians to wage diplomatic and economic war on the Jewish state.

The administration’s ongoing assault on Netanyahu and Israel raises a troubling question: Do the attacks violate the 3D test, and if they do not, how close do they get?

The Obama administration has engaged not in a hard demonization, but in a soft one, primarily through falsely portraying Israel as the guilty party in the administration’s failed quest to create a Palestinian state. It has been remarkable to observe the fastidiousness of the administration’s commitment never to single out the Palestinians for criticism. In May 2009, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl interviewed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and came away struck by Abbas’s confidence that the peace process under Obama would consist entirely of the United States’ extracting of concessions from Israel. The opening line of Diehl’s article: “Mahmoud Abbas says there is nothing for him to do.”

Obama, it quickly became clear, agreed. Abbas and Obama said that talks could start only once
Netanyahu endorsed Palestinian statehood and froze settlement construction. Netanyahu did both in late 2009—and yet Abbas still refused to negotiate. But for the duration of the 10-month settlement freeze, as the months ticked by and Abbas refused to talk, Obama never criticized him, just as Obama has never singled out Abbas, Fatah, or the PA for criticism over the many instances in which they have celebrated terrorism, engaged in anti-Semitic incitement, and promoted violence through official media. Obama has warned tepidly against these things, but always in the context of criticizing both sides. By contrast, the administration singles out Israel for condemnation regularly.

Explaining Obama’s refusal to single out the Palestinians for criticism is simple: He believes the conflict is Israel’s fault, or more precisely, he believes the world should view the conflict as Israel’s fault, and he wants Americans as well to believe this. Hence, Israel is blamed for things it hasn’t done, and the Palestinians are praised for things they haven’t done.

Two minor examples: Last year, Obama attacked Israel for adopting “more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement.” The opposite is true: Netanyahu’s government has reduced checkpoints in the West Bank by three-quarters, so that there are only 13 today. Obama claimed in the same interview that “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple of years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” This is a complete inversion of the reality: As Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot documented in an analysis of settlement growth in Foreign Affairs, the current government “has unilaterally reduced Israeli settlement construction and largely constrained it to a narrow segment of territory,” namely the blocs that will remain part of Israel under any future peace agreement. Obama, as with his claim about checkpoints, was simply making it up.

A major example: For the duration of Obama’s presidency, Abbas has never engaged seriously in peace talks with Israel, and yet Obama speaks of him glowingly as a peacemaker of historic proportions. “I think nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue,” the president said in March 2014. “I believe that President Abbas is sincere about his willingness to recognize Israel and its right to exist…to resolve these issues in a diplomatic fashion that meets the concerns of the people of Israel. And I think that this is a rare quality.”

What is especially remarkable about these comments is that they came just days after Abbas had rejected the administration’s framework proposal, a diplomatic document intended to keep alive the talks that Secretary of State John Kerry had spent the previous eight months feverishly negotiating. During this period, Israel had released close to one hundred convicted Palestinian terrorists from jail—a move that was extraordinarily controversial in Israel and caused intense bitterness toward Netanyahu. As with the settlement freeze, Israel once again had made a concrete concession just to keep the Palestinians in the talks and placate Obama. A few weeks later, in late March, Abbas reportedly told Obama to his face in the Oval Office that he rejected any recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, would never concede the so-called “right of return,” and rejected the idea that Palestinian statehood would mark the end of the conflict with Israel. The peace talks quickly collapsed. The next month Abbas formed a unity government with the terrorist group Hamas. The talks between Israel and the Palestinians have yet to be revived.

Obama’s response? He blamed Israel. As did Kerry and Martin Indyk, the administration’s special envoy to the peace process, in a campaign of leaks to the Israeli and American media. That fall, Fatah concocted a claim that Jews were “desecrating” the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and incited violence. Abbas called for a “Day of Rage.” Abbas celebrated a Palestinian who was killed after attempting to shoot an Israeli as a “heroic martyr” who “rose to heaven…after a gunfight with the forces of the Zionist occupation in Jerusalem.” The campaign of incitement culminated in a gruesome November attack on a Jerusalem synagogue in which Palestinians wielding axes butchered four rabbis, three of whom were Americans. Fatah media celebrated the attack.

Astonishingly, Obama blamed both sides: “Too many Israelis have died; too many Palestinians have died. At this difficult time I think it’s important for both Palestinians and Israelis to try to work together to lower tensions and reject violence,” he said.

To this day, the administration places the blame for the failure of the peace process squarely on Israel. When White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough spoke last month to the J street conference, he attacked Netanyahu and said nothing about the Palestinians:

Over the course of President Obama’s administration, most recently with the tireless efforts of Secretary Kerry, the United States has expended tremendous energy in pursuit of this goal. That is why the Prime Minister’s comments on the eve of the election—in which he first intimated and then made very clear in response to a follow up question that a Palestinian state will not be established while he is prime minister—were so troubling.

Netanyahu’s comments during the Israeli election, McDonough continued, “call into question his commitment to a two-state solution” and “raise questions about the Prime Minister’s commitment to achieving peace.” The onus, McDonough said, was on Israel to “demonstrate a genuine commitment” to peace.

No such words were spoken—indeed, no criticism was made at all—when Abbas refused to talk during the settlement freeze, or after prisoner releases, or when Abbas publicly celebrated the released terrorists as national heroes, or after Abbas flatly rejected Kerry’s framework proposal and told Obama he would never make peace. The administration’s attacks on Israel and silence on the Palestinians stand in such stark contrast that David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel and a political moderate who harshly and regularly criticizes Netanyahu, recently wrote in exasperation:

Has Obama spent the last few years telling the world, in light of Abbas’s alliance with Hamas, in light of Abbas’s failure to respond to Ehud Olmert’s peace offer, in light of Abbas’s despicable charge of genocide against Israel from the UN General Assembly podium, in light of Abbas’s repeated denial of Israel’s historic connection to the Temple Mount, and in light of the relentless encouragement of terrorism by Abbas’s Fatah group, that the U.S. will have to “evaluate what other options are available” because “it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible?”

Has he? Not that I’ve noticed.

Such criticism would interfere with the administration’s attempt to promote a narrative in which Israel plays the role of villain and the Palestinians play the role of victim. This is demonization—not demonization in its most virulent form, but demonization nonetheless, a lie knowingly spread not only to encourage Americans and the wider world to view Israel as the guilty party, but also to reverse the long-held belief in the West that Israel seeks peace. Yet this demonization is not just costly for Israel: The administration’s dedication to blaming Israel has been so strong that it has undermined the peace process itself, as Palestinian behavior has been shaped from the beginning by an understanding that Obama would simply never hold the Palestinians accountable. Obama’s hostility to Israel has helped prevent Obama from realizing his goal of Palestinian statehood.

Much of the administration’s demonization of Israel on the peace process could also be included in the double-standards part of the 3D test, but here it is worth bracketing the Palestinians to consider other cases. Does this administration judge Israel by a “different yardstick,” to use Sharansky’s phrase? The evidence is hard to dispute.

During Israel’s conflict with Hamas last summer, the Obama administration—from the president down to the State Department spokesman—repeatedly criticized the Jewish state over civilian casualties in Gaza. At one point in the conflict, Obama himself demanded an “immediate cease-fire” from Israel because of rising civilian casualties. Yet over the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has been waging a military campaign in Yemen in response to the country’s capture by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi airstrikes have reportedly killed hundreds of civilians, including large numbers of children, and international humanitarian organizations including the Red Cross have appealed for a pause in the fighting to deliver aid to civilians. The Obama administration has neither expressed criticism of Saudi Arabia nor called for a cease-fire.

Not egregious enough? In the past few years Turkey has begun hosting Hamas on its territory, including the Hamas official who directed the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers last summer. The new collaboration is not clandestine. In December, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu appeared on stage at a Party rally with Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, and pledged Turkish support for Hamas. If the Obama administration can constantly condemn Israel for building apartments in East Jerusalem, surely the administration would condemn a NATO member for providing material support to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization? The Obama administration has lodged no serious complaint.

The administration’s dramatic reaction to two events during the recent Israeli election shows more evidence of double standards. Just before election day, Netanyahu said in an interview that he didn’t think a Palestinian state could be created during his premiership, and on election day he warned on his Facebook page that “Arabs are coming out in droves to the polls”—an attempt at driving up Likud turnout, for which Netanyahu quickly apologized. The Obama administration’s reaction to both was swift and bordered on the hysterical. For days, Obama and senior officials attacked Netanyahu in the press. Obama told the Huffington Post that Netanyahu’s comment on Palestinian statehood risked causing “a chaotic situation in the region”—that is, violence. Senior officials told Peter Beinart that Netanyahu’s comment about Arab turnout was “racist,” that they believe Netanyahu had “sabotaged” Kerry’s peace efforts and then “rub[bed] it in their face,” and that the administration would now “reassess our options” on the U.S.-Israel relationship. Beinart described the administration officials as “enraged,” “fuming,” and experiencing “new levels of fury.”

One might expect an administration this sensitively tuned to the statements of leaders involved in the peace process to have reacted even more harshly to the constant promotion of anti-Semitism, violence, terror, and incitement by Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party. But no such outrage has ever been expressed, nor has it been expressed in response to the many anti-Semitic and anti-Israel outbursts by members of the Erdogan regime in Turkey. The administration doesn’t take umbrage at anti-Americanism, either. Last month, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for “Death to America,” the White House dismissed it as “intended for a domestic political audience.”

For the Obama administration, Abbas and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are free to rail against Israel and Iran is free to call for America’s destruction. But Netanyahu’s common-sense observation about Palestinian statehood is cause for an international crisis. These are glaring double standards. The Obama administration fails the second prong of the 3D test.

On the matter of delegitimization, the administration has been least awful in the 3D test—although even here, there is an important caveat. Obama has strongly and repeatedly defended Israel’s right to exist, including in front of Arab audiences, and has spoken with sympathy about Israel’s legitimacy and its significance to Jewish history and Jewish security. Yet there is one notion, an unfortunately common one for Obama, that is disturbing. The president articulated it bluntly in his March 2013 speech in Israel: “Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”

Or, as characterized by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last year after he interviewed Obama days before the Israeli prime minister was scheduled to arrive in Washington: “President Barack Obama will tell him that his country could face a bleak future—one of international isolation and demographic disaster—if he refuses to endorse a U.S.-drafted framework agreement for peace with the Palestinians. Obama will warn Netanyahu that time is running out for Israel as a Jewish-majority democracy.”

These have become standard formulations for those who seek to imbue the cause of Palestinian statehood with the urgency and importance they believe it warrants, while simultaneously robbing Israel of the leverage they think is too abundant. This is a clever pressure tactic. But it is also a dangerous and ugly one, for it proposes that Israel’s legitimacy and very existence depend on the outcome of events that, as the past 25 years have shown, are often beyond Israel’s control. It is also a message that encourages Palestinian intransigence, or, in other words: If Palestinians want to realize their long-term ambition of weakening and eventually defeating the Jewish state, all they have to do is continue refusing to form their own state.

On the substance, Obama is misguided. Israel fully withdrew from Gaza, which today exists as an independent territory controlled by Hamas. Gaza therefore does not figure into any demographic calculations, leaving only the 1.5 to 2.5 million Palestinians (depending on whose data one relies on) of the West Bank. There, the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population lives in cities that are designated as “Area A” under the Oslo Accords. Since the 1990s, Area A has been fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority; the only Israelis who ever enter the territory, and even then extremely rarely, are security forces to arrest terrorists planning attacks on Israel. The belief that Israel will cease being a Jewish and democratic state should these Palestinians not soon be living in their own state is merely a contrivance of those—such as, apparently, Barack Obama—who wish this to be true.

The Obama administration does not fail on delegitimization, but there is an asterisk.

President Obama’s ongoing campaign against Israel has not violated the 3D test—but it has tiptoed very close to the line. When it comes to the Jewish state, Obama is defined by everything he is not in the case of every other country. Instead of detachment, confrontation. Instead of coolness, anger and outrage. Instead of temporizing and deliberation, swift, decisive action. Far from being a tempestuous president who does not spare Israel his wrath, the Obama we see is a man of great equanimity who only ever seems to descend into fury when it comes to one subject: Israel.

Most troubling, Obama and his advisers appear to derive great satisfaction from attacking the Jewish state, and only the Jewish state, using words intended to demean and accusations intended to demonize. Past presidents have avoided needless crises with allies; this president instigates them constantly in the case of Israel. The worst of the abuse is always spoken on background to sympathetic liberal reporters, such as when a White House official accused Netanyahu of cowardice while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. If the president had ever found any of these comments inconsistent with his beliefs, he could have retracted them, or apologized for them, or fired the official who said them, or ordered his staff never to say such things again. He has done none of these things. It is hard not to conclude that he enjoys inflicting this harm despite his protestations, such as the one he made to Thomas L. Friedman in April, that “it has been personally difficult for me to hear” criticism that he is anti-Israel. We will know that he actually finds such criticism “personally difficult” when he stops levying accusations and slanders against Israel that come very close to crossing a horrifying line—in effect, if not in intent.