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Is the Obama Administration Trying to Silence Critics of its Middle East Policy?

 As readers of The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal know,  last week Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and World Jewish Congress head Ronald S. Lauder purchased full page ads challenging President Obama’s policies on the Middle East and Israel.

Lauder’s ad appeared on April 15th. “We are concerned,” Lauder began, “about the nuclear ambitions of an Iranian regime that brags about its genocidal intentions against Israel. We are concerned that the Jewish state is being isolated and delegitimized.” He continued:

Our concern grows to alarm as we consider some disturbing questions.  Why does the thrust of this Administration’s Middle East rhetoric seem to blame Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks? After all, it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who refuse to negotiate.

Israel has made unprecedented concessions.  It has enacted the most far reaching West Bank settlement moratorium in Israeli history. 

Israel has publicly declared support for a two-state solution.  Conversely, many Palestinians continue their refusal to even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. 

The conflict’s root cause has always been the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.  Every American President who has tried to broker a peace agreement has collided with that Palestinian intransigence, sooner or later.  Recall President Clinton’s anguish when his peace proposals were bluntly rejected by the Palestinians in 2000.  Settlements were not the key issue then. 

They are not the key issue now.

“Appeasement,” Lauder wrote the President, “does not work.” The real threat was not Israeli settlements, but “a nuclear armed Iran.”

One day later, Wiesel issued a statement to the press assuring them that his ad was not coordinated with Lauder’s WJC statement.  Wiesel said that Jerusalem must remain the spiritual capital of the world's Jews, and should serve as a symbol of faith and hope – not as a symbol of sorrow and bitterness. He wrote: "Jerusalem is the heart of our heart and the soul of our soul." Jerusalem, Wiesel said, “is above politics…It is mentioned more than 600 times in Scripture - and not a single time in the Quran... Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming."

He continued to point out that the old city of Jerusalem would still be Arab if Jordan had not joined Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.  Unlike when it was in their hands, however,  “for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims may all worship at their shrines…And contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims are allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city." He noted that while Jews would be willing to die for Jerusalem, they would not kill for it.

Both men are prominent leaders of the American Jewish community, with wide influence.  They are accustomed to speaking out when they feel the interests of world Jewry and Israel is being threatened. Yet, “unnamed” official representatives of the U.S. Government evidently released the following statement to both Haaretz and other news media: “United States administration officials have voiced harsh criticism over advertisements in favor of Israel's position on Jerusalem that appeared in the U.S. press with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's encouragement. ‘All these advertisements are not a wise move,’ one senior American official told Haaretz.”

Am I incorrect to think that this little item, buried at the end of a story in the Israeli paper Haaretz, is more than unusual? American citizens, a category that include both Lauder and Wiesel, have the right to speak out, and to exercise their First Amendment rights to disagree with administration policy, and even to spend their own money to advertise their views. What right does any unnamed official- one must ask whom they are- have to publicly chastise them and release a statement to that effect in Israel and to the world press?

In a matter of hours, the Haaretz story spread all over the world on the internet. We must ask what this says about the Obama administration, which seems to find any criticism extremely threatening. In acting to stifle those with the courage to take them on, the Obama team demeans itself, and again shows how it is seeking to tilt our traditional Middle East policy in a new direction.