Charles Freeman

March 13, 2009

The appointment and subsequent withdrawal of Charles Freeman from a senior national intelligence post this week is just the latest example of Israel policy as political football.

J Street stayed out of this fight.  First, we – probably like many of those who did comment – did not know enough about Freeman or his positions to really take a stand.  Further, on principle, we objected to making our government’s intelligence apparatus a political battlefield.  Remember, it was politicized intelligence that helped mislead the U.S. into Iraq.

Now, however, in the aftermath of the battle and Freeman’s withdrawal, many are interpreting the incident as a victory for those who would make their view of what it means to be pro-Israel a standard for service in the U.S. government.

To that I personally – and we at J Street – object.

The principle at stake here is critical: It cannot be a litmus test for service in the American government that you have never criticized Israel or its policies publicly.

This really isn’t about Charles Freeman or the statements he’s made. Again, we took no position on his nomination.

It’s about the kind of politics we practice when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.

Some are strutting proudly today at the personal destruction of someone who – in their view – is a real foe of Israel.  In their view, intimidating those who would otherwise speak their mind on Israel is the ultimate service to protect and defend the state of Israel.

They’re wrong. Israel’s no better off with only meek friends in positions of power in the United States. Frankly, all friends, Israel included, need to hear the hard truth sometimes.

Others are clamoring that the failed appointment is the death knell of hope that President Obama may engage in meaningful diplomacy and conflict resolution in the Middle East.

They’re wrong, too. President Obama has already shown his determination to bring about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He’s appointed George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and lived up to his promise to engage from Day One in resolving the conflict.

What is important to me is that the Obama team not draw the lesson from this episode that they simply need to be more careful vetting of appointees to make sure they’ve never criticized Israel.

I support Israel. I believe in its right to exist safely and securely, and I value the special relationship between the United States and Israel.  I also feel strongly that if I see Israel or the United States following a misguided path, it’s not simply my right, but my obligation to speak out.  Does that mean that I will never again be able to be in public service?

Neither Israel nor the United States is served when free discussion and debate about foreign policy is stifled because people fear for the impact on their career of speaking openly.

Presidents and our country are best served by public officials willing to look critically at all sides of an issue that impacts the United States.  In particular, those charged with gathering and sorting through intelligence to guide our foreign policy must be able to look at all sides of an issue.

I hope that the President and his team will ensure that subsequent choices for this and other sensitive intelligence and foreign policy positions have impeccable credentials and real independence. I further hope they choose people with the guts to speak truth to power and to force uncomfortable facts into foreign policy debates too often guided by political agendas.

Finally, I would say to friends of Israel that a litmus test for public service that rules out all those who have ever publicly questioned a policy or action of the government of Israel is of no service to the country you love.  Without a hard look at the facts and the clock, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic homeland, is at grave risk.