Journalist Michael Kinsley famously said, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” Whether you think that applies to Gov. Chris Christie and his “occupied territories” remark will depend on your politics.
Christie was in Las Vegas on Saturday, joining the line of politicians courting the Republican Jewish Coalition and especially the event’s host, casino magnate, GOP bankroller, and pro-Israel philanthropist Sheldon Adelson. According to several eyewitness accounts, audience members were audibly dismayed when Christie used the phrase “occupied territories” when talking about his family’s trip to Israel in 2012. “I took a helicopter ride from the occupied territories across and just felt, personally, how extraordinary that was to understand the military risk that Israel faces every day,” he said.
Unnamed sources said Christie apologized to Adelson in a private meeting soon after, although not every RJC delegate was satisfied. Morton Klein, president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America, told Politico that he “confronted” Christie after his speech, explaining to the governor that “at minimum you should call it ‘disputed territories.’” Afterward, Klein said, “Chris Christie either does not understand the issues affecting Israel, or he’s not a friend of Israel.”
Those are ridiculously stark choices. In fact, Christie has said and done all the things expected of a politician in a state with the third-largest Jewish population. It seems the only mistake he made was using the wrong term in front of the wrong audience.
Unless you think he used exactly the right term, which is how left-wing commentators spun the issue. J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami whipped up a quick petition noting that the term reflects “official U.S. government policy,” was previously used by President George W. Bush, and has been affirmed by Israel’s Supreme Court.
“These hawkish heavyweights need to hear the truth: denying the occupation is an obstacle to peace, and fundamentally un-Presidential,” wrote Ben-Ami.
Why this matters so much to both the Left and the Right points to the fluidity and complexity of the conflict itself. The case against the term “occupied territories” is summarized by the hawkish Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which says the term is “incorrect and misleading.” A 2001 position paper says that occupation applies to “aggressive conquest” and not to “territorial disputes that arise after a war of self-defense.” Moreover — and perhaps more importantly — describing the territories as occupied or “Palestinian” serves “the Palestinians’ political agenda.”
“It would be far more accurate to describe the West Bank and Gaza Strip as ‘disputed territories’ to which both Israelis and Palestinians have claims,” according to the center.
Dovish groups, meanwhile, point out that the weight of international opinion favors “occupied territories.” Americans for Peace Now, for example, writes that the West Bank and Gaza “are viewed by virtually all international legal experts as ‘occupied territory.’” Like Ben-Ami, they point to the Israeli Supreme Court, saying it has repeatedly used the term “belligerent occupation.”
“What matters, from this perspective, is the fact that the West Bank and Gaza were conquered by Israeli armed forces in a war (that the war was forced upon Israel is irrelevant) and has been controlled and governed by the Israeli military since,” according to APN.
From the Right’s perspective, using “occupied” is a gaffe because it carries the Palestinians’ water, surrenders the settlements, and colludes in the effort to label Israel an “international outlaw,” as David M. Phillips argued in Commentary.
The Left believes that terms like “disputed” or “administered” obscure the legal, moral, and democratic imperative for Israel to cease its rule over millions of Palestinians.
As to whether “occupied” was Christie’s Macaca moment, pro-Israel Republicans seem to be forgiving. “I think it’s no big deal,” Ben Chouake, president of NORPAC, told us. “He is not on the Foreign Relations Committee and even then, [occupied] is not a denigrating term. It is a commonly used term. I call it Judea and Samaria. But it doesn’t mean he is taking a position on what is there or what should be there. He is a supporter. It is a non-issue.”
Mark Levenson, chair of the New Jersey-Israel Commission and a partner of Sills Cummis & Gross in Newark, agreed. “Gov. Christie misspoke here,” Levenson told us. “He acknowledged he misspoke and conveyed that to Sheldon Adelson and whoever else. Not everyone is as nuanced on these issues as we are. We traveled to Israel with Gov. Christie and he couldn’t have been more supportive of our issues…. He has in word and deed shown where he stands on these issues.”
I’ve debated “occupied” at all of the various Jewish newspapers for which I have worked. The Jewish media tend to fall on the side of “disputed” or “administered.” Neither term seems to rile readers, and neither is as politically loaded as “occupied” on one side and “Judea and Samaria” on the other. I’d much rather debate whether the settlement enterprise is sustainable, or the two-state solution is viable, than get bogged down in an argument over nomenclature.
I am sure poor Chris Christie is thinking the same thing.