On his first day as the presumptive Democratic candidate for
president earlier this month, Barack Obama committed a serious foreign policy
blunder. Reciting a litany of pro-Israeli positions at the annual meeting of
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), he avowed:
"Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain
In promising U.S. support of Israel's claims to all of
Jerusalem, Obama couldn't have picked a better way to offend the world's 325
million Arabs and 1.5 billion Muslims. Israel's 41-year stewardship of the Holy
City has alarmed Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia. Upon seizing East Jerusalem
in 1967, Israel razed the ancient Muslim Maghribi quarter to make room for
Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall. Since 1991, Israel has steadily
ratcheted down Palestinians' access to Muslim and Christian holy sites in
Jerusalem. Most West Bank Palestinians can no longer worship there.
Obama's unnecessary promise deviates from nearly six decades
of U.S. foreign policy that held Jerusalem to be occupied territory under
international law. This long tradition was first broken in 2004 when President
Bush acknowledged Israel's demands to keep its illegal West Bank settlements in
a final peace agreement, including those around Jerusalem. Thus Obama, a
Harvard-trained lawyer, would both scorn the international legal system's
foundational principle -- the inadmissibility of territorial acquisition by war
-- and echo President Bush, whose failed Middle East policies he has rightly
If Sen. Obama's Philadelphia speech on race was a model of
courage and nuance, his AIPAC talk was brimming with the pro-Israel orthodoxy
that typifies this year's presidential campaign. Like presumptive Republican
nominee Sen. John McCain, Obama also backed Israel's so-called right to exist
as a Jewish state.
How has it become an article of faith for U.S. politicians
to support a state's privileging of one ethno-religious group over others? For
what Israel seeks in recognition as a Jewish state is permission to permanently
discriminate against Palestinians. Israel is, by law, a Jewish state. Its
declaration of independence and basic law declare it to be so. But its
population, excluding the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is not exclusively Jewish:
20 percent of Israel's citizens are native Palestinians, and another 4 percent
are mostly immigrant non-Jews. Moreover, Jewish demographic predominance was
achieved through the expulsion by force or fear of about 750,000 Palestinians
in 1948. Israel denies Palestinian refugees -- with their offspring, about 5.5
million persons -- their internationally recognized right to return to their
homes and homeland in order to maintain a strong Jewish majority.
According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority
Rights in Israel, 20 Israeli laws explicitly favor Jews. Israel's law of
return, for example, grants rights of automatic citizenship to Jews no matter
where they are from, while Palestinian exiles still holding keys to their
family homes in Israel are denied this right. Religious parties play pivotal
roles in Israeli politics, and Orthodox Jewish rabbinical courts govern matters
of family law there.
Why should any American presidential aspirant promote
ethno-religious supremacy in Israel? Don't we see a "Christian state"
or a "Muslim state" as inherently discriminatory? Why don't we
recognize the same in Israel's quest to be ordained a "Jewish state?"
Like Israel, we are a nation that combines a sincere
commitment to democracy and a history that includes injustices. While we have
never fully atoned for our dispossession of Native Americans, in facing the
legacy of slavery, we have made an unyielding pledge to equal rights. A truly
visionary American president might respectfully press a similar commitment on
Israel, not endorse its urges for ethno-religious privilege. The terrible
suffering inflicted on European Jews in the Nazi holocaust does not entitle
Israel to subjugate Palestinians.
Barack Obama whiffed in his first major foreign policy
speech as the Democratic candidate. He may believe it necessary to pander to
Israel's U.S. supporters in order to gain office. But he narrowed future policy
options to those that would undermine international law, offend core American
values and diminish our standing in the vital Middle East.
Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco,
and writes frequently on law and politics in the