In one of the relatively few policy differences that have brought serious fireworks to the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vermont governor Howard Dean has been 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.
Dean declared that the U.S. role should be to “bring the sides together” and “not point fingers” at who is to blame. “It means bringing them together in a constructive way.”
However, Senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman have denounced the former Vermont governor for his moderate stance. Senator Lieberman went as far as to claim that Dean was essentially calling on the United States to “compromise our support for Israel” and that taking a more balanced position was tantamount to “breaking commitments to longtime allies.”
Dean has dismissed such attacks, pointing out accurately that he is a strong supporter of Israel and that his position on Israeli-Palestinian issues is essentially the same as former President Bill Clinton.
For years, independent analysts -- including experts on negotiation and mediation -- have noted that the U.S. policy of supporting Israeli positions in the peace process regarding the extent of the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian land conquered in the 1967 war, the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, the status of Jerusalem, and other outstanding issues has made a negotiated settlement with even the more moderate Palestinian leadership impossible. The result has been that many Palestinians have given up on the peace process and have instead thrown their support to radical Islamic groups which have engaged in a series of horrific terrorist attacks against Israel.
However, Senator Kerry claims just the opposite, declaring that if Dean as president had made such a remark calling for a more even-handed approach, “it would throw this volatile region into even more turmoil.”
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. However, despite eight years of demands by the Palestinians at the peace talks during the 1990s that Israel withdraw from its settlements in the occupied territories or even just suspend construction of new ones, the number of settlements nearly doubled during that period. Sharon’s insistence on incorporating most of these settlements into Israel has made a final peace agreement impossible, since it would divide the West Bank into a series of non-contiguous units that would make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. Furthermore, the Fourth Geneva Convention -- to which both the United States and Israel are signatories -- categorically declares that transferring civilians onto lands seized by military force is illegal. UN Security Council resolutions 446, 452 and 465 explicitly call on Israel to withdraw from these settlements. Given that Lieberman declared that Iraqi violations of UN Security Council resolutions justified invading Iraq, overthrowing its government, and occupying the country for an indefinite period, it is ironic that he apparently now believes that such UN resolutions can be violated with impunity.
Fearing that Dean’s insurgent campaign, capitalizing on growing popular opposition to the policies of the Bush Administration, would expose their spineless acquiescence to President Bush’s disastrous foreign policy, leading Democratic members of the House of Representatives have joined the attack against the former Vermont governor. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, assistant minority leader Steny Hoyer, House Democratic Caucus chair Robert Menendez, and dozens of other top Congressional Democrats signed a letter last Wednesday addressed to Dean claiming that his call for more balance by the U.S. government in the peace process was somehow an attack against Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.
This is simply a repeat of the old canard that only by supporting the illegal, repressive and self-defeating policies of Israel’s rightist government can one support the state of Israel.
The House Democratic leadership also declared that since, in their view, it was the Palestinians alone that were responsible for the ongoing violence it was therefore “unacceptable” for Dean to suggest that Israel -- as the occupying power -- might also need to compromise. The letter went on to declare 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.
Similarly, despite Governor Dean’s repeated and categorical denunciation of Palestinian terrorism, the House Democratic leaders in their letter declared that Americans must “raise our voices against all forms of terrorism” and that “This is not the time to be sending mixed messages.”
The Democrats appear to have adopted the same twisted logic of the Republicans who insist that only by supporting Bush Administration policies can one support America and that any questioning U.S. foreign policy is indicative of being soft on terrorism.
In reality, 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 Sharon to compromise on the settlements and other issues. They recognize that the ongoing Israeli policies of repression and colonization only encourage terrorism and that Israel would be far safer by ending the occupation. 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.
Ironically, Dean has been widely seen as a hawk on Israel and Palestine. (See my article “Howard Dean: Hawk in Dove’s Clothing?” CommonDreams, Feb. 26.) He has stated that his position is closer to the right-wing American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which allies itself with Israel’s ruling Likud Bloc, than it is with 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 recent $9 billion loan guarantee to Sharon’s rightist government without conditions. He has repeatedly stated his belief that the major issue in the conflict is Palestinian terrorism, not the Israeli occupation that has spawned it.
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.
However, Dean is apparently not right wing enough for Kerry, Lieberman and the House Democratic leadership.
It is unclear what political advantage could be gained from this attack on Dean, the current front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. According to a nationwide public opinion poll this past May from the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, a clear majority of Americans not only recognized that the Bush Administration is biased towards Israel, but, when asked about what position the United States should have, a full 73% 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 overwhelming majority of the American people.
And then they wonder why so many former Democrats have joined the Green Party….
Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press.)