As the first and most prominent Democratic candidate for president to oppose a U.S. invasion of Iraq, the campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean hopes to gain the support of peace and human rights activists within the party. Originally planning to focus on his call for universal health care and fiscal responsibility, Dean’s anti-war message has received such an enthusiastic response it has become a major focus of his speeches on the campaign trail.
There is already talk of a repeat of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign, where thousands of anti-war college students campaigning door-to-door in New Hampshire and elsewhere enabled the Minnesota senator to drive incumbent president Lyndon Johnson out of the race.
However, a series of statements by Dean regarding U.S. policy towards Israel and Palestine have raised serious concerns within the peace and human rights community regarding his liberal credentials.
In his major foreign policy address to date, a February 17 speech at Drake University in Iowa, Dean blasted the Bush administration’s foreign policy regarding Iraq and several other areas, but – when it came to Israel and Palestine – the former Vermont governor declared that, while the United States should become more engaged, he did not have any fundamental objections with President George W. Bush’s policies. Dean called for an end to Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians, but he did not call for a cessation of Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians. Similarly, there was no call for an end of the Israeli occupation, for Israeli compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, or a withdrawal from Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied territories or even a freeze on the construction of new settlements.
The liberal wing of America’s Jewish community is represented in the views of Americans for Peace Now (APN), which supports negotiations with the Palestinians based upon the principle of land for peace, that is, Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in exchange for security guarantees. The conservative wing is represented by the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which supports the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government’s ongoing occupation and colonization of Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war, repression of the Palestinian population, and refusal to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership.
When asked by the Jewish newspaper Forward late last year as to whether he supported APN’s perspective, Governor Dean replied "No, my view is closer to AIPAC's view."
In November, Dean paid his first-ever visit to Israel on an excursion that was organized and paid for by AIPAC. He was apparently unperturbed at his sponsors’ close ties to a government that engages in a pattern of gross and systematic human rights violations and blatantly violates a series of UN Security Council resolutions and other international legal principles. During his visit, Dean did not meet with any Palestinian leaders or any Israeli moderates.
Dean also appears to reject the widespread consensus among Israeli peace activists and Middle East scholars that Palestinian terrorism is a direct outgrowth of the 35-year Israeli military occupation. Instead, Dean seems to argue that terrorism itself is the core issue. He also rejects calls by APN and other liberal Zionist groups that Israel’s requested $12 billion loan guarantee be linked to an Israeli freeze on constructing additional illegal settlements on confiscated Palestinian land, arguing that such aid should instead be unconditional. Pushing for such a dramatic and unconditional increase in financial support for the incumbent government just before Israelis went to the polls in January was widely seen as a not-too-subtle endorsement of Sharon’s re-election.
By the time Dean would become president, Israel could have a different prime minister. Despite his recent election victory, Sharon’s government is not likely to last very long and new Israeli elections could take place within a couple of years. Israeli opposition leader Amram Mitzna, who could become the next prime minister, takes a far more moderate position toward the Palestinians than does Dean. For example, Dean opposes Mitzna’s call for Israel to unconditionally return to peace talks with the Palestinians. One could therefore envision a situation where a President Dean, being even more anti-Palestinian than the Israeli government, would – instead of pushing both sides to compromise for peace – end up pressuring the Israelis to harden their position. Israeli peace activists fear that electing someone like Dean as president of the United States could end up sabotaging a renewed Middle East peace process.
Apologists for Dean claim that taking such a hard line position is necessary to win the "Jewish vote." However, according to a recent poll on attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 52 % of American Jews surveyed advocate viewpoints comparable to APN while only slightly more than 30% -- most of whom would probably vote Republican anyway – support the AIPAC position. Overall U.S. public opinion is closer to the APN position by a ratio of more than 3:1. In addition, it is doubtful that the legion of peace and human rights activists that the Dean campaign hopes will get out the vote for their candidate will emerge as long as he takes such a right-wing stance on this key foreign policy issue.
This has raised concerns within the peace and human rights camp that Dean’s apparent embrace of such a hawkish position comes not out of political expediency, but because he essentially supports the Sharon’s perspective that security comes from conquest and repression, not negotiation and compromise. In supporting Israel’s rightist government, so it is argued, Dean is taking the position that United Nations Security Council resolutions, human rights, and international legal principles like the Fourth Geneva Conventions can be ignored when they involved a strategic ally. And while he may not be as reckless as the other major Democratic contenders in supporting an invasion of Iraq, he clearly is not the progressive alternative to President Bush for whom so many are searching.
There are indications, however, that Dean’s position on Israel and Palestine is not firm. Aides of the candidate claim that the former governor – who has focused on domestic issues up to this point in his political career – is still in the process of developing his position on this and other foreign policy concerns and could still be swayed to take a more moderate stance. Whether or not he will hold on to his initial hard line position will depend in large part on whether peace and human rights activists will embrace him despite his apparent hawkish views or reject him as being too similar to Bush and the Republicans.
In the past, peace and human rights activists have embraced Democratic presidential contenders who have taken similarly hawkish positions toward Israel and Palestine, such as California senator Alan Cranston in 1984, Illinois senator Paul Simon in 1988 and Iowa senator Tom Harkin in 1992. Since it is extremely doubtful that these erstwhile liberal senators could have gotten that kind of support had they taken similar right-wing stances on Central America, Southern Africa or any other conflict region, this led to charges that the peace and human rights community was guilty of anti-Arab racism.
However, increased popular awareness in the United States in recent years – particularly among politically-active youth on college campuses – regarding the Israeli government’s policies of occupation, repression and colonization may make Dean’s apparent embrace of such a right-wing position untenable.
Liberal apologists for Dean point out that the other major Democratic candidates for the 2004 presidential nomination – Senators John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman and John Edwards and Congressman Dick Gephardt – take similar positions on Israel and Palestine as does the former Vermont governor. Given that all four of them voted this past October to give President Bush the authority to unilaterally invade Iraq and are therefore even worse, so goes this argument, Dean should be supported despite his backing of Sharon’s occupation policies.
Many in the peace and human rights community may conclude, however, that any endorsement of Dean’s candidacy must be withheld as a means of pressuring him to back away from his support for the rightist Israeli government. Failing that, we may see large numbers of peace and human rights activists give up on the Democrats altogether and throw their support to the Green Party.
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco and is the author of the recently released book Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (www.commoncouragepress.com).