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.”