“America would do well to have a more even-handed policy.”
With those words, spoken after a 1968 fact-finding mission to Israel, former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton waded into a political minefield — one that still hasn’t been cleared away.
Scranton — who died July 29 at the age of 96 — likely didn’t introduce the term “even-handed” to the Middle East political lexicon.
But in the decades since, the question of whether America should pursue a balanced approach to the Middle East conflict, or whether being even-handed inherently means putting Israel at a disadvantage, has persisted.
And it is arguably as relevant now as ever as President Barack Obama’s administration is attempting to launch a new round of Israeli-Palestinian talks.
The adminstrations of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, as well as Obama, have been accused of pushing Israel too hard, in the case of the elder Bush and Obama, or not pushing hard enough, in the case of the younger Bush, on issues related to making peace.
As recently as 2011, Howard Kohr, the executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said at the pro-Israel lobby’s annual policy conference that American policy toward Israel shouldn’t be even-handed.
“When the United States is even-handed,” he said, “Israel is automatically at a disadvantage.”
Some commentators said that Obama’s visit to Israel in March was an effort to reinforce the image that the U.S.-Israel relationship is special.
Scranton, a moderate Republican who served as Pennsylvania governor from 1963 to 1967, was a year out of office when he was sent by President-elect Richard Nixon on a fact-finding mission to Israel.
“We are interested, very interested, in Israel and its security and we should be,” he said at the time.
“But it is important to point out to the Middle East and to people around the world that we are interested in other countries in the area and have friends among them.”
Apart from his 1968 comments, he never generated much controversy when it came to matters in the Middle East. In 1965, he published a glowing letter in the Jewish Exponent about his gubernatorial trip to Israel.
“When one sees that all this is going on literally facing the barrel of a gun, then one knows the people of Israel are demonstrating every minute of the day and night two of humanity’s greatest traits — courage and faith,” he wrote.
He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1976-1977.
His first vote as ambassador was to oppose Palestine Liberation Organization participation in a U.N. Security Council debate about anti-Israel protests in the West Bank. He was voted down 11-1 amid three abstentions.
Around the time of his confirmation to the post, Scranton placed his earlier comments within the context of Cold War geopolitics.
“Russia was on the point of becoming the predominant power there,” he said of the time. “We had few friends on the other side.”
Edward H. Rosen, a longtime Jewish communal leader who knew Scranton personally, said the politician “had no real investment in Israel’s well-being.”
“We, supporters of Israel, weren’t too happy” with his insistence on even-handedness, said Rosen. “He never backed down from that and his support among Jewish Republicans seriously diminished.”
In the 1970s, Rosen chaired an American Jewish Committee dinner honoring Scranton and sat next to him.
“When I pushed him on the even-handed approach,” Rosen wrote in an email, “he did say that his comment was more even-handed.”