[Editor's note: As a presidential aspirant, Hillary Clinton condemned “cowboy diplomacy” that alienated America’s allies; as secretary of state in the Obama administration, she has practiced it, leading the recent onslaught against Israel for its decision to construct housing in a city that it considers its rightful capital. For some perspective on the administration’s disproportionate response, Front Page is joined by Joel Pollak, a human rights lawyer and author from Skokie, Illinois. Pollak is currently the Republican nominee challenging Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky in Illinois’ 9th congressional district. Pollak discussed the radical shift in the administration’s policy toward Israel, why human rights law does not support the administration’s terrorist detention policies, and standing up to Rep. Barney Frank.]
FPM: The Obama administration’s recent row over Israel’s announcement of new settlements in Jerusalem seems much ado about nothing. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier announced a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction as a good-faith gesture, he specifically excluded Jerusalem, a position that has been held by all Israeli prime ministers in recent decades and which, initially at least, was not protested by the Obama administration. Moreover, as you’ve pointed out in these pages, Ramat Shlomo, the neighborhood where the 1,600 homes are to be built, is not some remote outpost; it is in a part of East Jerusalem that is almost certain to remain part of Israel in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. How then do you account for the severity of the Obama administration’s response – everyone from Vice President Biden to Secretary Clinton to presidential advisor David Axelrod has publically condemned Israel in the past few weeks – and the hard line it has taken against Israel?
Pollak: There are two reasons for the severity of the response. One is a radical shift in policy. This administration is abandoning the commitments of its predecessors to allow Israel defensible borders that would include some territory across the 1949 armistice line (the 1967 line, or Green Line). Instead, it is adopting the Arab (Saudi) peace initiative, which seeks complete withdrawal to the armistice line. The difference might not amount to much, in terms of total land area, but it is a radical and dangerous shift in the way we approach the conflict, and it has severe implications for the future of Jerusalem.
The second reason for the severity of the response is that this administration–even more than its predecessor–cannot admit its mistakes. It refuses, for example, to acknowledge that its first year of Mideast diplomacy, based entirely on Israeli and American concessions, has been a failure. So it has doubled down on Israeli concessions, much the way it has doubled down on unpopular domestic policies in the belief that people will eventually submit to exhortation by the president.
I also think there was a degree of blunder in the whole crisis–not just on the Israeli side. Vice-President Biden responded in a (sadly) characteristic way to a perceived slight. He insulted the U.S. more than Israel ever did by making a show of being humiliated. Great nations do not fly into hysterics over housing decisions by friendly foreign governments. Biden’s antics–and the administration’s follow-up–also made the U.S look weak by showing that we were not prepared to support our strongest ally. Even if we had truly been damaged by Israel’s housing announcement, the administration wasted whatever leverage it might have had by backing Israeli PM Netanyahu into a corner. For an administration that purports to believe in diplomacy, this was a poor example of it.
FPM: The Obama administration’s position seems to be that Israel’s settlement activity in East Jerusalem is sabotaging the “peace process” with the Palestinians and preventing negotiations from taking place. David Axelrod has put it in nearly those exact terms. What do you make of this argument?
Pollak: Settlements are not the problem. The Gaza disengagement in 2005, which uprooted all settlements and soldiers from the territory, was met with an escalation of terror. The fact that the Obama administration does not seem to remember that is very troubling.
FPM: It has been suggested that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the most strained that it has been in nearly four decades. How would you describe the current state of that relationship and what can both sides do to mend it?
Pollak: The relationship between the American people and the Israeli people is stronger than ever. The relationship between the two administrations is functional. But the relationship between the Israeli people and the American administration will not be repaired easily. What Israel can do to repair the relationship is to remain committed to its own defense. Self-reliance and strength breed respect. That is the basis on which the close relationship was built after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. What the U.S. can do to repair the relationship is to get serious about Iran. Announce that we will support a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran if the need arises. Indicate that we will target Iranian political institutions as well as military institutions if the nuclear program is not stopped. Offer real and active support to the Iranian democracy movement. I believe that would go a long way to restoring the trust of the Israeli public in the Obama administration. Also, recognizing Jewish claims in at least the Jewish parts of East Jerusalem would have some effect in moving both administrations past the most recent debacle.
FPM: Some have argued that the administration’s disproportionate condemnation of Israel will only embolden anti-Israel extremism in the Middle East – whether from Palestinians or from Iran. Do you agree and how big of a concern is that?
Pollak: I agree. It has already emboldened anti-Israel extremism elsewhere, including in the U.S. It is a huge concern because it makes diplomacy–the very diplomacy to which this administration is committed–far more difficult. It resets Palestinian and Iranian expectations at impossible levels, and encourages a culture of incitement against Israel. For example, Hamas used the Obama administration’s criticism of settlements to attack the re-construction of a centuries-old synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, which Jordan had destroyed after it occupied the area in 1948. They turned a housing issue into an international religious conflagration. It was a foreseeable outcome.
FPM: When Obama advisor David Axelrod recently went on cable news shows to condemn Israel, it highlighted the fact that some Americans Jews, particularly on the Left, have a vision of what it means to be supportive of Israel that is radically different from how most Jews would understand the concept. Another example might be J-Street, the self-styled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” activist group that, despite its claim of supporting Israel, nevertheless opposed Israel’s military campaign against Hamas. How do you explain the disconnect between the putatively pro-Israel aims of such people and groups and the actual implications of the positions they take?
Pollak: I think many well-meaning people on that side of the issue fail to understand the disconnect between sentiment on one hand and logic on the other. I met someone involved in J Street the other day, who told me he was opposed to a military option on Iran, partly because the Iraq war had gone badly. Fine–that is a defensible position, even if I don’t agree with it. He then went on to say he opposed sanctions against Iran as well. Now, if you oppose military action, and you oppose sanctions, what are you left with? Defeat and destruction. I think after a certain point, when idealism stands in bold defiance of reality, it ceases to be excusable. As Orwell argued during WWII, at some point the subjective impulse of pacifism crosses over into effective support for fascism. I think many of those folks don’t realize what they’re arguing, though some should by now.
FPM: You are a human rights lawyer and a graduate of Harvard Law School, so I am interested in how you see the Obama administration’s decision to close Guantanamo Bay and to hold civilian trials for terrorist detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. For instance, the administration has indicated that it may seek to transfer some of the detainees to Thompson prison in your home state of Illinois. Are such policies what human rights law prescribes, as the administration has repeatedly suggested?
Pollak: Human rights law, in my view, prescribes exactly the opposite–namely, that we maintain a separation between the military and civilian worlds. Granting war criminals access to the generous protections of the civilian court system may also encourage terrorists to attack civilian rather than military targets, especially since the administration still intends to try the bombers of the U.S.S. Cole in the military system. I believe there are better alternatives to holding all of our detainees at Guantanamo Bay–we could use several different military prisons overseas, for example–but until we find those alternatives, we should not rush to implement decisions made for political rather than security reasons. In my state, the majority of people do not want terror detainees captured on foreign battlefields to be brought to U.S. soil–neither to Illinois nor to any other state.
FPM: You first gained fame (or infamy, in some quarters) in 2008 when you asked Rep. Barney Frank during his appearance at Harvard how much responsibility he bore for the financial crisis. At the time, you didn’t get much of an answer. So, let me ask you: How much responsibility do politicians from both parties have for the financial crisis and how would you rate the government’s handling of that economic crisis to date?
Pollak: I believe they bear a great deal of responsibility. They weakened the principles of risk and reward that provide the foundation of our economy and our financial system. I think the government has not handled the crisis well at all. Both the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration seem to have made the problems worse, if they can be said to have addressed them at all. The massive spending and bailouts have placed this country’s future growth–its future solvency–in danger. To the extent that our economy has begun to show some positive signs, I believe credit is due to the persistence and faith of the American people, not to the self-interested interventions of politicians.
FPM: This past weekend, the Democrats finally passed the health care bill that they have been pushing for the past year, though they did so using procedural tactics that were controversial, to say the least. What do you make of the substance of the bill and did the Democrats’ ends in this instance justify the means?
Pollak: The bill prepares the way for the nationalization of health care in America. It does nothing to address the problem of cost, while placing the quality of care at risk. The goal–as Democrats stated openly on many occasions–was to show that radical change could be accomplished, in order to prepare the way for further radical changes and a massive redistribution of wealth. In the process, they undermined public faith in democracy by casting aside the ordinary rules of political deliberation. We need to start over–not just on health care, but on restoring the faith of the American people in our constitution and in our institutions of representative government. It took only one year to destroy what took many years to build: trust. It may take many more years to restore that trust. As difficult as that will be, and as long as it will take us, we have to begin today.
FPM: Joel Pollak, thanks very much for joining us.