Memo to Rick Perry: Israel is a Strategic Burden

Republican presidential wannabe Rick Perry has been huffing and puffing about President Obama’s “naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous” policy in the Middle East.

“We are indignant that certain Middle Eastern leaders have discarded the principle of direct negotiations between the sovereign nation of Israel and Palestinian leadership,” he told a clutch of Jewish supporters in New York today as a Palestinian delegation prepared to seek formal recognition of statehood at the U.N. General Assembly.

“We are equally indignant,” Perry went on, “of the Obama Administration and their Middle East policy of appeasement that has encouraged such an ominous act of bad faith. … It must be said first that Israel is our oldest and strongest ally in the Middle East; a democratic ally in the Middle East, and it has been for more than 60 years. The Obama policy of moral equivalency, which gives equal standing to the grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, including the orchestrators (sic) of terrorism, is a very dangerous insult.”

If you think that sounds a little bigoted, you’re not alone. And of course, all this has been said before. But what has changed — and this is important — is the political context in which this rhetoric is received, especially in the Middle East.

Perry may well have been addressing his remarks to a narrow audience of American Jewish voters, but in an international media environment, political posturing isn’t a local sport. And what sounds like music to the ears of American Jews is absolutely jarring to millions of Muslim youth fighting and dying for democracy and freedom in the Arab street.

In effect, Perry was saying, we ought to place Israel and its Jewish democracy above the aspirations of Palestinians seeking independent self-rule — even as millions across the Muslim world embrace the idea of popular sovereignty. That would make us and the Israelis the only obstacles to sovereignty and democracy in the symbolic heart of the Muslim world.

It’s a position that demonstrates a stunning tone-deafness to the changing realities on the ground in the Middle East.

Perry and the rest of his ilk should know that times have changed since the years of the Cold War, when the U.S. and Israel had a joint strategic interest in standing up to the aggression of Soviet-backed Arab states in the region. Indeed, this alliance against Soviet-backed regimes was precisely what President John F. Kennedy had in mind when he told Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir in 1962 that we had a “special relationship with Israel.”

In the post-9/11 world, this “special relationship” is a strategic burden, particularly as we try to align ourselves with the universal struggle for human rights in the Arab Middle East. Standing with an Israel led by what the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called “the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government” in its history is not in our best interests. After all, what’s the point of engaging with interlocutors who repeat the same uncompromising lines like wind-up talking dolls?

The Palestinians, Perry and others in his camp should know, are doing what they feel they must. And for this, let’s be honest, Israel has only itself to blame.

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