Will the GOP's Victory Energize Mideast Doves?
Elite Doves vs. Elite Hawks
As in the Vietnam era, today's policy debate has not been restricted to groups of outsiders. It's reaching deep into the foreign policy establishment. Top editors of the New York Times recently visited Israel, talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and came home to write an editorial putting most of the blame on the Israeli leader. They urged him to renew the moratorium on expanding settlements and immediately settle on the borders of a Palestinian state.
Just two days after election day, when everyone else was still talking domestic politics, the Times gave Bill Clinton op-ed space to say that "everyone knows what a final agreement would look like"—a coded message from the secretary of state's husband to the Jewish state's prime minister that it's time to end the occupation, withdraw settlements, and share Jerusalem. Two former national security advisors, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have publicly urged Barack Obama to "outline the basic parameters for a Palestinian state"—a coded message to the president that it's time for a US-imposed solution in the Middle East (assumedly based on Clinton's parameters).
Of course, the elite hawks are fighting back. Neoconservatives (whose obituaries are always premature) have created an international alliance that calls itself "The Friends of Israel Initiative." With friends like these, the doves claim, Israel doesn't need enemies.
The elite debate extends into US military and intelligence communities which have worked closely with Israel for decades. It's a safe bet that there are powerful hawks in those circles who don't want to put pressure on Israel because it might jeopardize those relationships. But top military leaders have been issuing warnings in private and in public about the dangerous consequences the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have for US interests in the region, and implying that the president should be pressuring Israel to bring the conflict to an end.
Both hawks and doves have found jobs in the Obama administration. "The question of how much the United States is offering [Israel], and what it is asking for in return, is being fiercely debated within the White House and the State Department," the New York Times reported—which is undoubtedly one reason that the administration has been bobbing and weaving on Israel and Palestine with no clear policy direction in sight.
Another reason is the political risk involved. Though domestic issues dominated this year's campaign season, the Republicans still stake their claim on being the party of tough guys, and they look for every opportunity to paint the Democrats as soft on national security. If Obama wavers on Israel, the GOP is ready to pounce and he knows it.
Republicans are always eager to run against "the ‘60s," and efforts to move Israel to the peace table have become yet another symbol of "the ‘60s" in the GOP imagination. It's no coincidence that, just after he won the Florida Senate race, the Tea Party's rising star Marco Rubio announced that he was packing for a trip to Israel.
On the other hand, a president stymied in the domestic sphere is always tempted to make his historical mark with major foreign policy initiatives where he has more freedom. As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now points out, this president will be criticized for abandoning his original demands on the Israelis just as much as for pursuing them, so he might as well "double down on his Middle East peace efforts." If he does that, the doves will have Obama's back. And a triumph at the peace table could shift attention away from the morass of Afghanistan in just the way Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China overshadowed the continuing slaughter in Vietnam.
An Unpredictable Complex System
There's one more interesting analogy between the present Middle Eastern conflict and Vietnam. Both have triggered the passions of hawks and doves who otherwise would not pay much attention to foreign affairs. Every day, a few more doves start asking why the US suppresses the Palestinian urge for national liberation and self-determination.
From there, it's just a short step to asking other questions: Why does the Obama administration echo Israel's frightening but unproven claims about "the Iranian threat" and leave so much room for talk of war? Why does the United States continue to demonize Hamas, rebuffing its efforts to moderate its stand and resume a truce with Israel? Why do government and media figures so regularly reduce the endless complexities of the Middle East to a simple morality tale of good guys against bad guys? And how can that enhance the security of the American people?
Just as during the Vietnam War years, such questions about US policy in one region lead to even larger questions about the American stance in the world—and sooner or later, some of those questioners will dare call it imperialism. Any victory for the doves on the question of policy toward Israel will also be a victory in the ongoing struggle between competing visions of foreign policy, and no one can say where the growing movement of doves might lead.
In fact, no one can say anything with any degree of certainty about the future of this issue. It is now what the Vietnam debate once was: a complex, perhaps even chaotic, system, where every action provokes reaction.
Will a more Republican-leaning Congress change policy? Perhaps. But who knows exactly how? The more the hawks push, the bigger and more appealing the target they offer to the doves. As the issue only polarizes, ever more American Jews may feel pushed out of their tactful silence.
We could end up with a new media picture entirely: gentile hawks urging Israel to maintain its hard-line stance versus a Jewish community leaning toward compromise and peace. Under those circumstances, the average citizen, who figures that Jews know best about Israel, might be unlikely to sympathize with the hawks.
That's not a prediction, just one among many possibilities in a complex system that's inherently unstable and so unpredictable. In other words, there's no reason for doves to feel powerless. Election Day 2010 may look like a victory for the hawks, but it could turn out to be a step toward their long-term defeat.