It's a tough world out there for Obama administration officials seeking to speak candidly about Israel. From Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, efforts to strike an even-handed tone fell flat in the last few days in separate events concerning America's Middle Eastern ally.
Howard Gutman: In a nuanced discussion on the causes of anti-Semitism in the Middle East, U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman spoke to an association of Jewish lawyers in Brussels last week and is now being called on to resign by GOP presidential candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
According to a transcript published by the European Jewish Press, he said there is a distinction between traditional antisemitism, or basic hatred of Jews, and "hatred and indeed sometimes and all too growing intimidation and violence directed at Jews generally as a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories and other Arab neighbors in the Middle East." He added, "every new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry here in Europe."
On Sunday, the Romney campaign issued a statement urging President Obama to fire Gutman for "rationalizing and downplaying anti-Semitism and linking it to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians." In a tweet, Gingrich piled, on saying "Pres Obama should fire his ambassador to Brussels for being so wrong about anti-semitism." What many critics, including the New York Post's Benni Avni failed to mention is that Gutman is the Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor. That doesn't mean he's incapable of making insensitive remarks, but as Adam Serwer at Mother Jones points out, it's quite a stretch to suggest he was blaming Jews for anti-Semitism. "Gutman's suggestion that anti-Semitism would subside if a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be reached isn't the same as saying Israelis or Jews are 'responsible' for anti-Semitism."
Leon Panetta: On Friday, during a speech at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Panetta lamented Israel's growing isolation in the Middle East. While maintaining that U.S. support for Israel is "unshakable" and that Muslim states deserve a share of the blame, he said Israel could be doing more to forge friendly relations. "For example, Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability — countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan," he said. "This is not impossible. If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are. And that is exactly why Israel should pursue them." That comment sparked a response from the Anti-Defamation League saying his statements unfairly laid the blame on Israel. "We are deeply troubled by the message sent by Secretary Panetta at precisely a moment when the region is so volatile and uncertain." Simplifying his remarks, The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin said "Israel’s isolated, you see, and it’s Israel’s fault, according to the Obama administration’s world view." That's a pretty harsh response for merely stating that "increasing communication and cooperation" with neighboring countries can't hurt.