Pander Bear Traps

In case the last posting left the mistaken that pander bearing was a harmless romp in the political park, a word or two of admonition is necessary. Like molting and mating, pander bearing may be a rite of spring during political years, but its effects can be more profound than a mere romp; increasingly, pander bears can have pernicious effects after the election season is over and the pander bear has gone back into hibernation.

The recent spate of pander bearing over the pro-Israel vote at AIPAC is a case in point. Both candidates McCain and Obama (reinforced by “18-Mil Hil”) assured those in attendance at the annual AIPAC meeting in Washington that each was the best friend Israel ever had, that the United States under his leadership would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, and that Israeli security would be a vital interest in a McCain/Obama administration. This, of course, was standard boiler plate Israel pandering that America’s friends and foes in the region realize candidates for the US. presidency must do, and it probably has little effect on them.

Obama, unfortunately, upped the pandering ante in a way that the U.S. could regret down the road, assuming he is elected. In addition to the standard panders, Obama made an additional promise: that he would defend Israel’s claim to sovereign control over all of Jerusalem, including the Old City, and that Jerusalem would be, in the eyes of an Obama administration, solely an Israeli city and capital. That promise could prove a terrible pander bear trap.

Why? If one assumes (as I do), that moving the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians forward will be a major priority of a post-Bush administration, the Jerusalem pander could undermine that effort. The reason is that the status of Jerusalem is one of the three pivotal points of contention that have formed the impasse in negotiations since Camp David II (I discuss this process in some detail in Cases in International Relations). The other points of contention, the size and nature of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the “right of return” of Palesinian refugees who fled Israel in 1948 are sticky enough, but much of the emotional baggage surrounds who can claim which parts of Jerusalem for what purposes. The Palestinians claim the Old City (including the traditional Muslim neighborhoods and Muslim holy shrines) as their property and as their capital. Obama has adopted the Israeli (more spcifically Likud) position that all of Jerusalem is theirs.

The two positions are incompatible, to put it mildly, and a peace agreement must somehow reconcile them. If the pace process is to move forward, presumably American intermediation will be necessary. But if the United States adopts the negotiating position of one side (the Israeli side in Obama’s promise), can the Palestinians possibly do business with the Americans? Or has the pander bear created a trap for the new administration?

The problem is not trivial. Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian negotiator, was quoted in a June 8, 2008 New York Times article on the subject. “If there is no Jerusalem, there will be no agreement,” he said. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” If Obama’s pander undermines the ability to reach agreement on Jerusalem, in other words, the whole process may be dead in the water.

One can argue that everyone in the Middle East understands that Obama’s promise may have been nothing more than good old election-year pandering, and that when he goes to court the Michigan vote, he may have some panders for the Palestinians too. Equally, maybe his people have assured the Palestinians not to worry about his election rhetoric. Hopefully so, but it is also possible that there is a pander bear trap into which he has fallen.


Kershner, Isabel. “Jerusalem Solution Called Unlikely by Year’s End.” New York Times (online), June 8, 2008.

Snow, Donald M. Cases in International Relations: Portraits of the Future, 3rd. New York: Pearson Longman, 2008 (4th edition available Spring 2009).  


One Response to “Pander Bear Traps”

  1. Marion Conlin Says:

    Don, this is a beautiful blog. Congratulations. Marion

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