On Wednesday, attending the celebration of the Supreme Court decisions in front of the Stonewall Inn, former congresman and current mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner denied that there is an occupation of the West Bank. To the question, “Do you still believe the West Bank is not occupied?” he answered with a clear and forceful, “Yes, I do” (there is video). Indeed, as the questioner knew, Weiner has a history of demagoguing this issue.
First things first: this is wrong and shameless. Weiner must know that there has been an Israeli military occupation of the West Bank since the 1967 Six Day War. (Just one piece of evidence is that the West Bank is administered in part under Israeli military law.) Yes, the West Bank is disputed territory; yes, you can make arguments justifying the occupation (although I would argue you can make better ones against its strategic wisdom, legality, and morality); yes, the final status of the West Bank—the definition of which is, as Weiner said, itself somewhat disputed—is still up in the air and ideally will be subject to negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But: dude.
Ali Gharib, who broke the story for The Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog, opines, “Whether Weiner’s falsehood was borne of cynicism or ignorance”—I vote cynicism!—“it reveals a sad truth about the politics of Israel in America: there’s no downside to trashing Palestinians, to saying they don’t exist, to saying they ought to be denied basic rights in perpetuity.” I think that is a very fair summary of what Weiner said, but I don’t agree that Weiner’s decision to double-down here is indicative of a rot in American politics writ large.
The New York City mayoral contest is unique in terms of Israel politics: There is probably no combination of political job and political issue in the country in which the gap is so wide between how much the political issue matters to the election and how little it matters to the job. The city is about 13 percent Jewish (whatta town!), with a large and growing segment of that population conservative, Russian, and/or Haredi Jews, the last of whom tend to vote in blocs, making them an enticing political prize. At the same time, except for the odd joint Cornell-Technion campus on Roosevelt Island, the mayor has no impact on U.S. policy toward Israel, what with him being the mayor and all. So there is unusually little cost to saying outrageously right-wing things about Israel, especially if you are a Democrat: it may win you votes; when push comes to shove—when you are facing a Republican in the general—it probably will not lose you many votes; you don’t have to follow through in any meaningful way; and, should you choose to run for higher office, you can just say that you were wrong before and have since seen the light.
By contrast, outside the five boroughs, I’m not sure you can get away with saying such things. Newt Gingrich did it in December 2011—“invented Palestinian people”—and it kept him in the Republican primary an extra month by attracting Sheldon Adelson’s largesse, but it also probably further cemented his image with the country that he is erratic and unfit for anything besides blabbering on cable, which, congratulations, Mr. Speaker. By contrast, Mitt Romney supported a two-state solution (a premise of which is that there are indeed Palestinians and that they should not be denied basic rights in perpetuity)—and he received even more Adelson money than Gingrich. There is probably the odd congressman who has said something roughly as appalling as what Weiner said, and that’s shameful, but shouldn’t be extrapolated into a rule, particularly when you have the counter-examples of the presidential candidates.
Actually, Weiner himself said such things when he was a congressman and many of his constituents were Russian and Haredi Jews in Brooklyn and Queens—it was his district, recall, that Bob Turner won in a 2011 special election that was seen as a mini-referendum on Barack Obama’s Israel policies. But that is just the point: even then, he was pandering. Weiner, like New York City, is a special case. Even by the standards of politicians, he has shown himself willing to pander shamelessly on issues of local concern while leaving the substance to others. Weiner’s remarks don’t say something larger about America, but they do say something larger about Weiner.