Can Obama Beat the Israel Lobby?
This article is based on a study prepared for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (Noref) in Oslo.
How one gauges the importance or shortcomings of Barack Obama’s comments on the Israel-Palestine conflict in his speech of May 19 depends on how one understands the history of the Middle East peace process. My take on that history has always reminded me of the gallows humor that used to make the rounds in the Soviet Union: Soviet workers pretend to work, and their Kremlin rulers pretend to pay them. So it has been with the peace process: Israeli governments pretend they are seeking a two-state solution, and the United States pretends it believes them—that is, until President Obama’s latest speech on the subject. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The main agency for the promotion of this deception in the United States has been the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose legitimacy is based on the pretense that it speaks for the American Jewish community. It does not, for the lobby’s commitment is to Israeli governments of a certain right-wing cast.
AIPAC went into virtual hibernation during the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s because he disliked its politics and the notion that an Israeli prime minister needs AIPAC’s intercession to communicate with the US administration. The chemistry between them was so bad that Rabin encouraged the formation of a new American support group, the Israel Policy Forum.
It is not widely known that in 1988 the three major US Jewish “defense” organizations—the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League—joined in a public challenge to AIPAC (as well as to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations), charging that the policies it advocates do not always represent the views of the American Jewish community. I am familiar with the episode because I served on the executive committee of AIPAC for nearly thirty years—from 1965 to 1994—while heading the Synagogue Council of America and then the American Jewish Congress. As the New York Times reported at the time, the challenge was “politically significant because it suggests that American Jewish opinion is more diverse and, on some issues, less hard-line than the picture presented by AIPAC, which is viewed by Congress and the Administration as an authoritative spokesman for American Jews.” AIPAC managed to neutralize the challenge by promising deeper consultation with the three organizations, which of course it never did.
Today, AIPAC gives full and unqualified support to an Israeli government most of whose members deeply oppose a two-state solution. The lip service that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, pay to such an accord is a cover for their government’s overriding goal of foiling one. In fact, it is a goal that Israeli governments have pursued since 1967, when the Palestinian territories came under Israel’s control. As Aluf Benn of Haaretz noted this April:
Israeli foreign policy has, for the past 44 years, strived to prevent another repetition of this scenario [Israel’s withdrawals from territory beyond its legitimate borders, forced first by President Truman and then by President Eisenhower] through a combination of intransigence and a surrender of territories considered less vital (Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank cities, South Lebanon), in order to keep the major prizes (East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights).
Most members of Netanyahu’s government do not hide their opposition to Palestinian statehood, and they openly advocate Israel’s permanent retention of the occupied territories. Danny Danon, a Likud member and deputy speaker of the Knesset, published an op-ed in the New York Times the day before Netanyahu met with President Obama at the White House, calling on Netanyahu “to rectify the mistake we made in 1967 by failing to annex all of the West Bank.”
In a June 2009 speech, under pressure from the Obama administration, Netanyahu declared his acceptance of a two-state solution. It was a patently insincere speech, for he uttered not the slightest reproach when senior members of his own Likud Party and ministers in his government announced the formation of a thirty-nine-member Land of Israel Caucus, the largest caucus in the Knesset. The co-chair of the caucus is Ze’ev Elkin, head of the party’s parliamentary delegation. It includes the Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, Knesset speaker; Benny Begin, a member of the so-called Septet, Netanyahu’s seven-member inner security cabinet, which passes on all major government decisions; as well as several other ministers and deputy ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet. Haaretz reported at the time that the only two Likud ministers in his government who did not support the caucus were Dan Meridor and Netanyahu himself. Only one minister, Michael Eitan, objected to it, calling the caucus a “thunderous contradiction” of Netanyahu’s declared commitment to a two-state accord.
The official goal of the caucus is to strengthen “Israel’s grasp on the entire Land of Israel.” If that’s not clear enough, Begin helpfully elaborated: “The establishment of a foreign independent sovereign state headed by the PLO in parts of the Land of Israel stands in opposition to two basic ideas that are both supported by a majority of the Knesset: the absolute historic right of the Nation of Israel to the Land of Israel and the right of the State of Israel to national security.”
Is there any question in anyone’s mind how the United States would react to the presence in Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority government of ministers who made similar claims to Palestinian rights in any part of pre-1967 Israel?
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For some time now, Obama has been urged by senior foreign policy experts who served in previous administrations to abandon his efforts to revive the moribund peace process and instead present Israelis and Palestinians with an American outline of an accord. But Dennis Ross, Obama’s senior adviser on the Middle East, strongly opposed this course, as did Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. In a recent blog post, Gelb wrote that “taking this leap [toward an American plan] without any prior indication by the two parties that they’d accept U.S. terms…would be jumping off the cliff for peace…. If this grand leap fails, U.S. credibility would virtually disappear, and the warring parties could be left without a viable intermediary. Then what?”
Critics of the proposed US initiative are certainly right about its likely rejection by this Israeli government. But they seem blindingly unaware that their question, “Then what?” is evoked far more forcefully by their insistence on returning to a process that has gone absolutely nowhere in twenty years—precisely because it has shielded Israel from outside pressures. It has left the Palestinians to the tender mercies of colonial rulers ever more intent on retaining control over a West Bank to which they have transferred, in blatant contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, more than 300,000 Israeli settlers—and that does not count the 200,000 illegal settlers in East Jerusalem.
Haaretz columnist Nehemia Shtrasler wrote recently that “Netanyahu is not ready for any agreement, any concession, any withdrawal; as far as he is concerned, it’s all the Land of Israel.” Netanyahu’s May 24 speech before the US Congress left no doubt that this is the case. Therefore, the purpose of a US peace initiative to rescue a two-state solution cannot be to obtain the acceptance of Netanyahu’s government. Its purpose, instead, must be to establish clear red lines that define the limits of US support for Israeli and Palestinian policies. Both parties need to know that neither retaining the West Bank under Israeli control nor permitting unlimited rights of return to Israel for Palestinian refugees will receive US support.