Can Obama Beat the Israel Lobby?
The outline of such an initiative was presented to President Obama in several letters by former senior officials, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, William Fallon, Chuck Hagel, Lee Hamilton, Carla Hills, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Thomas Pickering, Brent Scowcroft, James Wolfensohn and Paul Volcker. They proposed that negotiations take place within the following parameters:
1. The United States will work to establish a sovereign and viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, subject only to agreed, minor and equal land swaps to take into account areas adjoining the former Green Line that are heavily populated by Israelis. Unilateral changes to the 1967 borders will not be accorded US recognition or legitimacy.
2. The United States will support a solution to the refugee problem on the principle of two states for two peoples; it would address the Palestinian refugees’ sense of injustice, and provide them with resettlement opportunities and financial compensation. The United States will oppose proposals that undercut the principle of two states for two peoples—such as proposals for unlimited entry of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel.
3. The United States believes both states must enjoy strong security guarantees. In this context, Washington will support a nonmilitarized Palestinian state along with security mechanisms that address legitimate Israeli concerns while respecting Palestinian sovereignty. The United States will support the presence of a US-led multinational force to oversee security provisions and border crossings.
4. The United States believes Jerusalem should be home to both states’ capitals, with Jewish neighborhoods falling under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty. Regarding the Old City, arrangements should provide for each side to control its holy places and to have unimpeded access by each community to them.
5. The United States will encourage the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas on terms compatible with these principles and UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.
The signers of these letters urged that if a US-supported plan is rejected by either side, the United States and Europe should submit it to the UN Security Council. With US and European support, the Council would surely adopt the plan. If either party refused to abide by the Council’s determination, it would be on its own. The United States would of course continue to counter threats to Israel’s security, but it would no longer provide a diplomatic shield for Israel from international criticism when it disregards US guidelines, nor would Washington discourage international efforts by Palestinians to seek legal redress.
That would help pave the way for a two-state accord—not with current Israeli leaders but with those who will replace them. The rejection of US proposals by Netanyahu’s government, and the ensuing gulf between Netanyahu and the White House that would inevitably result, will make the proposed parameters the central issue in the next Israeli elections—and likely produce a new government that will seek to repair the damage done to the Israel-US relationship by Netanyahu. It is not clear whether a majority of Israelis supports a two-state solution, but a majority does understand that without US friendship and support, Israel has no future in that part of the world.
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To be sure, Washington cannot impose terms for a peace accord. But neither can the two sides impose on the United States an obligation to support policies that deeply offend American principles of justice and respect for international law and bilateral agreements—especially if the policies would damage vital US interests in the region and beyond.
Which brings me to the president’s May 19 speech. Even though what he said will not produce renewed peace talks—much less a peace agreement—it was important because it laid down certain markers:
1. The time to press for a peace accord is now, not some time in the indeterminate future.
2. Putting forward American parameters for bilateral talks is not an imposition on the parties. The parameters are essential terms of reference for successful talks.
3. The starting point for talks about mutually agreed-upon territorial swaps must be the 1967 lines.
4. A peace accord must provide credible security arrangements for both parties and “full and phased” withdrawal of Israel’s military forces from the West Bank.
Obama suggested that the parties seek agreement on border and security issues before tackling the status of Jerusalem and the rights of refugees. The danger of such a two-stage process is that Israel may have no interest in proceeding to the second stage, leaving an undivided Jerusalem in its hands and the refugee issue unaddressed. It is also hard to imagine that Palestinians will agree to borders before the status of Jerusalem has been resolved or before they know whether their state would have to accommodate all refugees who wish to return.
The fatal flaw in Obama’s proposal is that it does not state clearly that rejecting his parameters will have consequences. Indeed, he seemed to suggest the opposite when he stressed on May 19 and in his speech to AIPAC on May 22 that the ties that bind America to Israel are “unshakable” and “ironclad.” Did Obama really mean to say that Washington would continue to defend Israel against its critics if its policy was—and as everyone in Israel above the age of 6 knows already is—to prevent a Palestinian state? In those circumstances (which would clearly prevail if Avigdor Lieberman or someone of his ilk were to win the premiership in the next elections), would our “unshakable” and “ironclad” ties require us to continue providing billions in military funding to help the IDF enforce the permanent disenfranchisement and dispossession of the Palestinian people?
If that is what the president meant, what right do we have to berate Palestinians for turning to the UN—source of the two most fundamental resolutions to the peace process, 242 and 338—for adjudication of their grievances? If that is not what he meant, why didn’t he tell his AIPAC audience and Netanyahu, in the spirit of—as Obama put it in his speech before AIPAC—“real friends talk openly and honestly with one another,” that US support for Israel could not survive an Israeli government that pursues such policies?
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It is generally believed that for a US president to speak truthfully to the American people about the dishonesty of this Israeli government’s peaceful pretensions is to invite a devastating loss of financial support, as well as electoral defeat. Can Obama overcome the opposition of the Israel lobby, and of a Congress so deeply beholden to that lobby, and successfully promote a US peace plan? I believe he can, particularly if he obtains the support of former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, whose deep friendship with Israel is beyond challenge. The plan is consistent with the Clinton parameters of December 2000 and with positions taken by Bush, who stressed that Israel cannot acquire any territory beyond the ‘67 lines without Palestinian consent. In a confrontation between the Israel lobby, on the one hand, and former Presidents Clinton and Bush and President Obama, on the other—who together declare their support for a peace plan they believe to be just, fair to both sides and in America’s national interest—there should be no question about who would prevail.
This is the only way the Obama administration can bring about an end to this long-running and tragic conflict, ensure the survival of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and regain the respect and trust it has lost—in the region and in much of the world—because of its mishandling of this issue. It is also the only way the administration can protect Israel from an inevitable and unstoppable wave of delegitimization that would surely follow a UN General Assembly vote recognizing the legitimacy of Palestinian statehood within the pre-1967 borders. Some Obama advisers assume that the hundreds of thousands of Arabs throughout the region who have risked their lives—and continue to do so—to regain their freedom and dignity will remain indifferent to Israel’s denial of that freedom and dignity to millions of Palestinians. That is a delusion that will bring about catastrophic consequences.
Israelis would do well to heed a warning by the sages of the Talmud: Tafasta merubah, lo tafasta! (If you try to grab it all, you risk losing it all!)