Viewpoint: Obama's Medal of Freedom Mistake

Last week the White House announced that Mary Robinson would be one of the recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor. Robinson was the first female president of Ireland and was later the United Nations's High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR)—the first one ever to visit Tibet, among other notable achievements in that post. She has also held leadership roles at several other noble international organizations. Obviously, she has been an indomitable defender of freedom across the globe. Yet if there's one person who shouldn't be getting a freedom medal, it's Mary Robinson.

Robinson presided over the infamous 2001 "World Conference Against Racism" in Durban, which targeted Israel squarely, and so disproportionately that the United States delegation walked out in the middle. (As a result of that debacle, the United States, Canada, Germany, and several other countries skipped the 2009 follow-up conference entirely.) Led by Robinson, the summit made the case that Zionism was inherently racist, plummeting it into a circus of outright hatred where, for example, demonstrators marched with banners saying "Hitler Should Have Finished the Job." Later, Robinson called the conference's results "remarkably good, including on the issues of the Middle East." At exactly the moment when Obama is throwing energy at a just Middle East peace, he has taken the counterproductive step of choosing to honor someone who, despite her other achievements, is anathema to key players in the conflict.

Under Robinson's stewardship, the UNHCHR consistently cost the U.N. credibility by fostering initiatives that, instead of acknowledging that both sides in the conflict had rights and responsibilities, pointed angry fingers at only one party: Israel. One 2002 resolution, for example, voiced support for "all available means, including armed struggle," to establish a Palestinian state. This was widely thought to condone terrorism by Palestinian extremist groups. The result was a disservice not just to Israelis, but also to Palestinians wanting peace.

Given all that, it's no surprise that several American Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, are up in arms. What is surprising, though is that even the highly influential, but usually circumspect, American Israel Public Affairs Committee has chosen to weigh in. A statement from the group said, "AIPAC respectfully calls on the administration to firmly, fully, and publicly repudiate her views on Israel and her long public record of hostility and one-sided bias against the Jewish state."

Of course, the White House shouldn't have to worry about pacifying AIPAC at every turn. Nor does it have any responsibility to foreign countries when it comes to giving out presidential medals. But if Obama, whose efforts in the Middle East so far have been admirable and correct, is serious about getting Israel to make the concessions necessary for peace (freezing settlements once and for all, halting unfair land grabs in East Jerusalem, and generally causing the Palestinian people less suffering), he has to convince Israel and its American friends that he's listening to them. Up to now, the American Jewish community has largely been on Obama's side in his muted dispute with the current, hardline Israeli government. Awarding Robinson a medal isn't likely to help keep them there.

To be sure, it's unfair to denigrate the entire career of a person who has done virtuous work because of a few years of questionable judgment. And some of the ad hominem attacks on Robinson this week have been overblown. In the right-wing blogosphere, for instance, she has been called everything from "anti-Semite" to "war criminal."

But when Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, reaffirmed the president's support for Robinson, conceding only that the president didn't agree with everything she has ever said, it sounded tone deaf. Even to many moderates who support Israel, Robinson is not just an annoyance who has made unfortunate statements. She is an outright villain.

So even if she does deserve the award for other work, White House vetters should have known that giving it to her was going to touch a deep nerve among people the president needs on his side as he tries to finagle a seemingly impossible peace. For those of us who wholeheartedly support Obama's Middle East policies and hope they will succeed, that sort of inattentiveness is distressing. Middle East diplomacy can often turn as much on nuance, signals, and body language as on overt communication. And to the people listening, this sends the wrong message.

Gregory Levey, author of the memoir Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomacy Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government, is writing his second book, How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving Your Apartment.

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