Hiding Israel

There are two ways to look at the Obama administration’s decision to exclude Israel from its global anti-terrorism initiative. If you recall, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul last month to convene the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the group of invitees included 29 countries and the European Union—but not Israel.

On the surface, this makes no sense: It’d be like having a global conference on social networking and not inviting Facebook. Seriously, is there any country in the world that has more experience fighting terrorism than Israel?

But if you listen to the U.S. State Department, this was all for Israel’s good.

In a calm and reasoned piece in Atlantic magazine, Zvika Krieger, senior vice president of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a Shalhevet alumni, writes: “The State Department found itself in a bind: Israel, one of the world’s foremost experts in fighting terrorism and a key U.S. ally on that front, would seem to be a natural candidate for participating in the forum. But organizers feared that Israel’s participation in the formative stages might have undermined the whole endeavor.”

He quotes a State Department official as saying: “The goal was to establish an apolitical and technical forum that included both our traditional [counterterrorism] partners and newer ones, a forum that could focus on practical issues of common concern rather than politics. We were concerned that if the central issue from the outset was whether or not Israel should be a member, that it would be difficult to pivot away from the politicized discussions happening at the U.N. and elsewhere.”

According to Krieger, the Obama administration “reasoned that the progress made by the organization would ultimately better serve Israel’s interests (not to mention those of the United States) than would the symbolic benefits of including it in a group that likely wouldn’t accomplish anything. They also concluded that once the organization was up and running, and its agenda was established, they could find ways to include Israel that would not be disruptive.”

In other words, the United States pretty much said to Israel and to its supporters: “Please don’t be offended if we consider Israel’s involvement in this forum disruptive. We have to deal with reality. Trust us: it’s better if you don’t make a big deal about this.”

It seems to be working. Krieger reports that according to his State Department source, “it is no coincidence that pro-Israel groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have been largely silent in public on the topic.”

But not everyone is keeping quiet. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wrote to me in an e-mail: “We did protest Israel’s exclusion from that conference. We met administration officials on it as well and spoke to numerous members of Congress.”

The Zionist Organization of America also released a statement strongly critical of the decision, while, as Krieger noted, U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Mark Kirk, both staunch defenders of Israel on Capitol Hill, wrote a letter to Clinton expressing their disappointment with Israel’s exclusion.

But I have not met anyone who is as upset about the decision as Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance.

“This is an absolute outrage, on so many levels,” he told me. “Just look at the precedent we are setting. Now, any country has permission to exclude Israel from any global forum in the future. All they have to say is: If America can do it, then we can do it.”

Hier and his staff have been on a relentless campaign to “get answers” from the Obama administration. He shared with me his letter of protest to Secretary of State Clinton and a response from a State Department official. “We can’t get a straight answer,” he told me.

Maybe the answer is simply this: The Obama administration is just not willing to stick its neck out as a matter of principle, and say to the world: “Our trusted ally Israel has enormous expertise in fighting terrorism. It’s important that countries put their personal sentiments aside and welcome Israel’s involvement, which will be critical to the success of this global initiative.”

Krieger himself, while expressing support for the U.S. decision, admits that Israel’s exclusion “could send the wrong message and have a ripple effect, with Israeli officials expressing concern that it could give an unintended U.S. imprimatur to the marginalization and de-legitimization that Israel is encountering elsewhere in the international community.”

So, when I read Edgar Bronfman in Haaretz telling us this week that President Barack Obama should be judged by his “real actions” for Israel, not by his words or his “swagger,” my immediate reaction is: “Please, Mr. President, show me some real action for Israel. Put your swagger where your mouth is.”

Israel doesn’t deserve to be treated like an ugly date that helps you with your homework but you wouldn’t dare ask to the prom. The movement to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state is itself a form of terror. A few words of swagger and support from the most powerful man in the world, not to mention a justified invitation to a prestigious global forum, are not just words—they are real, meaningful action.

Instead of hiding Israel, America should stand proudly next to her. That’s a better way to show friendship and fight terror.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.