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Going Rogue or Staying on Message?

Ambassador’s controversial comments raise questions about admin.

Marc Tracy
December 05, 2011
Ambassador Howard Gutman earlier this year.(Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images)
Ambassador Howard Gutman earlier this year.(Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images)

If you haven’t heard about it yet (some people try to get outdoors on the weekends, yes?), Howard Gutman, our man in Brussels, told a conference on anti-Semitism last week that there is a difference between, on one hand, “traditional anti-Semitism” and, on other, “Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.” These were prepared remarks. Gutman knew what he was doing: “I likely will not just say fully what you expected and or maybe hoped to hear,” he prefaced. While it’s not clear whom he blames for the failure to reach peace, it is very clear that he blames that failure for many European Muslims’ “significant anger and resentment and, yes, perhaps sometimes hatred.” This would be an undiplomatic thing to say even if he weren’t a diplomat; you couldn’t give me good enough odds to bet that Gutman will continue as ambassador much longer. (And yes, of course Gutman is Jewish.) Already the White House has responded, “We condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms,” adding, “there is never any justification for prejudice against the Jewish people or Israel.” And already many have pounced, arguing that Gutman’s words are actually a useful window into the administration.

They are making this case by pointing to comments Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made last Friday in Washington, in which he urged Israel to “get to the damn table”—negotiate with the Palestinians—and said, “unfortunately, over the past year, we have seen Israel’s isolation from its traditional security partners in the region grow, and the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace has effectively been put on hold.” While Panetta did not blame Israel for this situation totally, he did demand it take “bold action” to change things.

So now this is the “Blame Israel First Administration,” according to the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel, which predicates its case on both Gutman’s and Panetta’s words. (“Blame Israel First” is catchy enough, and is of good enough stock—it’s a play on neoconservative godmother Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s “Blame America First”—that it is surely coming soon to a billboard, newspaper, or television near you.) “Ambassador Gutman’s comments were not way out of line with Obama’s worldview,” insisted Bill Kristol, whose many hats include ECI chief. “What the events of recent days emphasize is that the problem is not with one ambassador or with one cabinet secretary. The problem is President Obama.”

There is nothing in Panetta’s comments that goes remotely as far as Gutman’s. Panetta was referring to security and diplomacy, geopolitics; Gutman was referring to ideas and sociology. And yet! I do think (and regular Scroll readers will know how much I hate typing this) that Kristol has a point.

Panetta called on Israel to “reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability,” including Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan. This is sloppy at best. And not at its best, it fails to recognize that, in Turkey’s case, Prime Minister Erdogan is more responsible for blowing up that alliance than any other individual, and that Egypt just elected some people whose anti-Semitism does not entirely derive from the failure of Middle East peace.

Moreover, Panetta’s words appear to be just one prong in a larger administration effort to presure Israel. U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro just chastised Israel over the proposed law that would affect foreign funding of non-governmental organizations. And over the weekend Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly made similar comments in an off-the-record session.

The point isn’t that she and Shapiro are wrong—in fact, they’re completely right. The bill is totally heinous; by its supporters’ own admission, it’s literally McCarthyist. That’s why bloggers like me publish lots of items saying so. But these are not bloggers, they are diplomats. And the bill is not nearly as bad as the violations of any number of countries where U.S. envoys tend to keep quiet about such matters, and besides I’m not sure of either the purpose or justification of raising the issue here. I fail to see how they think this push is going to help them get what they want, whether it’s Israel at the damn table (where’s the leverage? where’s the opportunity?) or it’s re-election stateside (you’re just making these people’s jobs easier).

I don’t think the substance of Ambassador Gutman’s spiel represents the administration’s substance. But I think its style—this faux-brave, off-the-cuff, lowbrow intellectualizing—is representative: it’s counterproductive, and the questions it invites about what is driving it are valid, particularly coming only weeks after Dennis Ross, long perceived as Israel’s strongest supporter in the White House, announced he was leaving.

A final caveat: Clinton’s lodestar has always been her strident feminism, and where she reportedly focused on Israeli women’s potential plight should the country become more religious, the realpolitik side of me cedes to the idealist side, and I applaud her. “Clinton … noted she was shocked at the fact that some Jerusalem buses have assigned separate seating areas for women. ‘It’s reminiscent of Rosa Parks,’ she said.” Tell me she’s wrong. You can’t.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.