"Worst Israeli - Palestinian Clashes in a Year as Air and Ground Forces Enter Gaza," the front-page headline in the Sunday (March 2) New York Times read. That makes the conflict sound like a roughly even match. You had to read down a few paragraphs and do some math before learning that the suffering is hugely one-sided. Palestinian deaths this week outnumbered Israeli deaths by about 30 to 1, and the count of serious injuries is even more lopsided.
As usual in the U.S. mainstream media, there was no mention of the many Hamas calls for a cease-fire and immediate peace negotiations, all rejected or ignored by Israel. Are the media afraid that they'll bring down a firestorm of pro-Israeli rage on their heads if they even hint that Hamas might have the moral upper hand here?
Politicians in the U.S. certainly tread lightly when they talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Just a day before the "worst clashes" headline, the Times ran another front-page story: "Obama Walks a Difficult Path as He Courts Jewish Voters." According to that story, American Jews worry that Obama will not give sufficient support to Israel's hard-line policies. No matter how much Obama insists them that he will continue the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel -- which has always meant a green light from Washington for virtually every act of violence the Israelis perpetrate -- many Jews remain unconvinced, the article reports.
But who speaks for American Jews? Typically, it's the leaders of national Jewish organizations. They would have us believe that nothing matters more to Jews than Israel.
In fact, the leaders are increasingly out of step with the mass of Jewish voters. Look at the numbers from the American Jewish Committee's 2007 Annual Survey of Jewish Opinion. Asked to name their single most important issue when voting for president, only 6% said Israel. About one-quarter of Orthodox Jews named Israel as their main issue. That means, among the vast majority who are not Orthodox, the number who put Israel at the top of their list is so small as to be statistically insignificant.
So the Times misled us by suggesting that Obama's stand on Israel is a major problem for his campaign. If those who support the Israeli government look carefully at his position statements on the Middle East, they will find little to disagree with. Even those who don't look carefully, or remain suspicious, are unlikely to let that one issue dissuade them from voting for him.
This is not to say that U.S. Jews have anything like a progressive position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Only 46% favor establishing a Palestinian state. That's quite a bit lower than polls find among Israeli Jews. 63% agree that "the West and the Muslim world are engaged in a clash of civilizations." 82% agree that "the goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel." Numbers like these suggest that most Jews would accept the Israelis' justification for their current onslaught in Gaza -- although the number of Jews who stand against Israeli violence is growing rapidly.
If Israel were the number one issue for Jewish voters, any thoughtful candidate would face a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, any criticism of Israel might really harm the candidate's chances. On the other hand, it is obvious that when Israel perpetuates the cycle of violence -- killing Palestinians rather than accepting the Hamas call for truce and negotiations -- it endangers Americans as well as Israelis. Every Palestinian civilian that Israel kills is another recruiting poster for those who would like to do harm not only to Israel but to the U.S. An American president should feel obligated to do whatever it takes to stop that.
Any thoughtful candidate knows that Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas because most Israelis, like most U.S. Jews, believe Hamas is dead set on destroying Israel. So whatever Hamas leaders say, Israel discounts it as a devious trick. But this Israeli belief about Hamas is a leap of faith. There is no compelling evidence that requires a rational person to accept it.
On the contrary, a rational person would say, "Let's look at history." Twenty years ago, Israel insisted that the Palestine Liberation Organization, headed by the Fatah party, was determined to destroy Israel. All the assurances to the contrary given by its leader, Yassir Arafat, were rejected as cunning lies. Israel even made it illegal for any Israeli to talk to any representative of the PLO.
Then the Israeli government secretly broke its own law, negotiating an agreement with the PLO in Oslo that was supposed to lead to a two-state solution. The negotiations are still very rocky, at best. But Israeli leaders now seem to accept Fatah's good faith pursuit of a two-state solution, which means accepting Israel's permanent existence. In negotiations with Fatah, the legal question of acknowledging Israel's right to existence is simply ignored.
An American president who cared above all for national security, in Israel as well as the U.S., would insist that the Israelis treat Hamas the same way they treated Fatah and the PLO: Stop fighting, start talking, and accept de facto recognition as sufficient.
Yes, that position might be politically damaging for a presidential candidate -- if Jews voted on the basis of the candidate's approach to Israel. Fortunately for all the candidates, Israel is not the issue uppermost in Jews' minds when they go to vote. So the dilemma need not cause the candidates to lose too much sleep. Once a candidate becomes president, though, he or she should lose plenty of sleep worrying that bellicose Israeli leaders, deaf to Hamas appeals for negotiation, will endanger the security of Americans and Israelis alike.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. firstname.lastname@example.org