Can Obama Beat the Israel Lobby?

Can Obama Beat the Israel Lobby?

He can, if he presents a just peace plan supported by former Presidents Clinton and Bush.


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?

* * *

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.

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.

* * *

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?

* * *

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!)

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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