Obama at AIPAC, in the Capital of Nixonland

Gershom Gorenberg

I’ve just finished reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland , an impressive depressing portrait of my native country in the years just before I decided to move to South Jerusalem.

Perlstein’s portrayal of the relation between Nixon’s inner furies and the political furies of the 1960s and early ’70s bear out a thesis I’ve argued in the past : Some leaders succeed because their “…personal struggles resonated powerfully and subliminally with a wide public. It was the crippled Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, who could tell a crippled America there was nothing to fear.” Sometimes a leader can uplift for this reason; sometimes he or she can release a bitter flood. Menachem Begin saw himself as unjustly ostracized and excluded from power. His resentment was pitch perfect for those Israelis who felt the country’s elite had denied them respect. His politics deepened all the divisions in Israel, and we suffer for it till today.

Perlstein descibes Nixon in similar terms: Someone who from boyhood onward felt that the elite looked down on him, that he was out of fashion through no fault of his own, and who managed to fuse the anger of all the others who felt left out into a political movement. That was the emotional basis for Nixon’s ability to unite everyone who felt excluded by the exuberance and anger and hope of the ’60s, who felt assaulted and threatened by the changes. To that ability, of course, Nixon added a sociopathic disregard for truthfulness and legality that would make Ariel Sharon look like an honest man.

I hope to write more about the book later. For now I’ll note that while Nixon used a stunning arsenal of trickery to manipulate the 1972 campaign and ensure that the weakest Democrat would be his opponent, he wasn’t the only the only one ready to lie blatantly. Perlstein describes one of the desperate measures that Hubert Humphrey used to try to win the California primary that year: Pamphlets circulated that were signed by Jewish actor Lorne Greene:

“Senator McGovern, now you claim to support the state of Israel, but why, before this primary campaign, have you acted and voted against her?”

In fact, Perlstein explains,

… on the critical litmus tests – the sale of F-4 Phantom jets and moving America’s embassy to Jerusalem – their supports were pretty much identical, the same as Scoop Jackson’s. But… Humphrey was desperate.

As a 16-year-old I walked my parent’s precinct in the San Fernando Valley for McGovern that awful November. The voters consisted of two groups: registered Republicans and Jews. Nixon did well for a Republican among Jews that year, helped by Humphrey’s efforts. I’ve met Jews who told me that they felt themselves vindicated when Nixon helped Israel during the Yom Kippur War. In fact, Nixon and Dr. K were so busy with Vietnam, and so blinded by their Cold War orientation, that they failed to seize the opportunities for diplomacy that could have prevented the war. (More on this in my book, The Accidental Empire.) Voting Nixon for Israel’s sake was falling victim to one more political con.

Fast forward: I don’t know who’s responsible for the vicious emails about Barack Obama that circulate among Jews and that are believed by those Jews always willing to believe that Israel faces doom. I’ll leave it to historians to track down who hit the send button – Republicans or rival Democrats or both. But Obama’s performance at the Aipac convention in Washington suggests that he regards the rumor campaign as a danger to his chances. The text of his speech indicates that he’s navigating between his own belief in diplomacy and his perceived need to mouth “pro-Israel” cliches that are to the right of a none-too-leftist Israeli government. So he correctly argues that the war in Iraq empowered Iran and made Israel less secure. But he also asserts that in a two-state solution,

Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.

That’s exactly the line that made Hillary Clinton’s position paper on Israel surrealistic, as I’ve argued before. In most respects, Jerusalem is already a divided city, and recognizing this politically is the key to precisely the kind of agreement that Obama says he’d like to reach. Alas. “Yes, We Can” pander to Aipac.

As a voter I support Obama. As a journalist, I’m obligated to point out how foolish those words were. They harm his ability to conduct negotiations as president. To achieve an agreement, he will have to introduce proposals he now says he opposes – thereby feeding the cynicism about politics he hopes to overcome.

But much as he wants change – as much as he wants to use his own multiethnic biography to unite Americans – he is still running for president of Nixonland.

11 thoughts on “Obama at AIPAC, in the Capital of Nixonland”

  1. If this quote from Obama at the AIPAC convention is correct, then you have nothing to worry about. He said he would support Jerusalem being Israel’s capital and undivided. He didn’t say “undivided under Israeli rule”. This is the line the “J-streeters” and other so-called “progressives” use…the city will be politically divided (like Berlin after World War II) but “undivided”, i.e. not having barbed wire barriers, mine fields, anti-sniper walls and other such goodies that Jerusalem was familiar with before 1967 and which, until recently, was considered a situation that it was unthinkable to return to by the Israeli political echelons. This is the typical double-talk smooth-talking politicians indulge in.

    The question those who think the city can be divided politically (how did physically “undivided” Berlin fare during the years of the Cold War fare?) but not physically really need to face, due to the impossibility of such a situation really being implemented is this:
    Which do you prefer (1) the current imperfect but livable situation or (2) the pre-67 Jerusalem with the barbed wire, minefields, anti-sniper walls and random shooting into Jewish neighborhoods? These are the only two realistic options there are.
    Since we see in the south that the goverment is quite willing to have the country’s citizens bombarded endlessly (someone was killed today at Nir Oz), it is reasonable to think that Olmert, Barak and the rest would feel comfortable with situation 2 as well, after all, didn’t Olmert tell the Israel Policy Forum three years ago that Israel “can’t fight any more”?

  2. Thanks for posting, Gershom. I too was taken aback when he mentioned the above line about an “undivided Jerusalm”. Not only does this spit in the face of almost every international document that addresses this conflict, but it also gives any chance of future peace deals less viability. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as its capital, and will probably not agree to any agreement that promises otherwise. Since there is virtually no chance that Abbas, Olmert and Bush can come up with an acceptable comprehensive peace deal by 1/20/2009, it is clear that Bush’s successor will inherit an unresolved conflict.

    If that successor is Obama, which I still hope it is, this puts him in an untenable situation. His choices are: either anger the AIPAC community at large by going back on his words, or ultimately fail in delivering a workable Palestinian state. The second option, as most of us know, leads to a complete lack of longevity for Israel as a democratic Jewish State.

    Talk about a lose-lose situation!

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful article Gershom, and I have written a n article in reply, which can be summarized as follows. I think the situation may not be as stark as you suggest. Jerusalem isn’t inside the 50 states, right, so its not up to him. I think he is just saying that he won’t try to strong-arm any Israeli government against its better judgment on this issue, and maybe that is wise. It is really up to the people of Jerusalem–Israelis and Palestinians to come to their own conclusion on this one. Perhaps it makes sense to offer reassurance on this deeply symbolic issue and save the tough love to other areas.

  4. Y: Mr. Obama has much more pressing problems facing him on the home front.,than whats going on in Israel. I live in the most economicaly depressed state in the Union ” Michigan” The population is polarized, the welfare list is beyond budget constrains, the affluent young are facing “hard times”,industry that provided a decent standard of living is either going under or has left the state, only 23% of Detroit’s high school population graduates, suicide rates are climbing.food costs are going out of sight,and there is no end in sight. Yes we care what happens to Israel, but most of us look at the Near East as a pain in the a-ss and a minor distraction in our lives. There are those in the financial community who are concerned with possible revolt on the street;I don’t buy that. My parents, who raised me during the Great Depression, said that’s what they feared most not having enough to eat.They grew their own.

    Foreign policy is fine to talk about in the abstract and the AIPAC community is a small segment in a country of 320 million who most Americans have no idea who they are and what they stand for.As I have stated before the American adult population in majority is uninformed and is only cognizant of ” sound bites” like ” breaking news”but they know what they see on the street; no job, repossessed cars, foreclosed homes,no jobs available,hunger in this land of alledged plenty, runaway divorce rates, loved ones dying because of no health care and they really don’t give a crap about what’s happening between the Israeli and the Palistinians. The general concensus in my church’s senior men’s group when I showing them my “power point” show of Israel including pictures of the security walls was “those people have been killing each other for centuries ,we should keep our noses and money home let them wipe each other out”. I disagree but I”m in the small minority I still of the audacity of hope

  5. This speech occurred the day after Senator Clinton said that she was going to take her 18 million votes and “think things over” for a few days. With a significant chunk of the “woman vote” at risk, it’s unlikely that Senator Obama would take any chances with the Jewish vote. He stayed to a safe set of standard positions for the political mainstream in America.

    The real foreign policy will be unveiled after the election, and it’s tone will be set by the cabinet and advisors Obama picks for his administration. Until then I’m afraid it’s all just campaign talk and not really an indicator of what he could or would do, beyond his commitment to “change the course”.

    The neighborhoods that need some canvassing like Gershom used to do are among Florida democrats, too many of whom have bought the false rumor that Obama is a Muslim and bad for Israel.

    I’m not sure when promising to obliterate opponents became a criteria for being crowned “a supporter of Israel” in the United States, but that’s the political reality Senator Obama has to deal with.

  6. I’m nowhere near desirous of a war on Iran, but Hillary’s promise to obliterate that country was in reply to the hypothetical of its launching a nuclear attack on Israel. It seems reasonable for the aspiring President of the unipolar superpower, which is a liberal democracy and the key ally of the country in which the Jews ingathered after the Holocaust, to establish this as a baseline for dealing with Iran’s theocratic war party. This is not mere sabre-rattling against an “opponent” to pander to the Jewish vote, as John Sterns seems to believe, and should not be viewed as such by people of even vaguely liberal sentiment.

  7. Gershom,

    This is unrelated but related to a previous post of yours. The Times did a good article about immigration. This was buried in it.

    “They are citizens and parents of four American-born children, ages 2 to 16. They have lived in Santa Rosa County for more than a decade, founding a Baptist church here and working 16-hour days, six days a week to build two restaurants known for their affordable food and Christian atmosphere, which extends to a ban on alcohol.”

    No alcohol! My God! What next, burqas?

    Article here – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/09/us/09panhandle.html?pagewanted=3&_r=1&hp

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