The Israel lobby is mobilizing for what might turn into the most significant confrontation between the United States and Israel since, well, the Suez War of 1956, when President Eisenhower told Israel — and its covert allies, the UK and France — to halt the unprovoked assault on Egypt. Since then, US-Israel conflicts have been relatively small and tied to side issues, such as the fight over President Reagan’s sale of AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s or President Bush’s showdown with Israel in the early 1990s, when the United States threatened to withhold loan guarantees to Israel after a right-wing Israeli government stone-walled the peace process.
This time, if President Obama plays his cards right, he could bring down the extremist government of Bibi Netanyahu. But that depends on whether Obama displays the guts and gumption necessary for a full-frontal challenge to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies.
In a piece written for Mother Jones last year, I outlined the vulnerability of AIPAC et al. to a direct challenge from Obama, especially with the emergence of J Street, the “pro-Israeli, pro-peace” Jewish lobby.
A year ago, it seemed possible that Obama was headed in that direction. He’d nominated the even-handed George Mitchell as his Israel-Palestine special representative, to the discomfort of AIPAC. He’d installed a number of aides at the White House, including General Jones, Mara Rudman, and others who had sympathies with the Palestinians and with the Israeli pro-peace camp. Obama launched a major effort to rebuild US ties with the Muslim world, including his June speech in Cairo, that all but required a stronger US effort to force concessions from Israel. And he’d ordered a showdown with Israel over its illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, demanding outright that Israel stop building them.
Nearly all of that collapsed. Mitchell got nowhere. Netanyahu bluntly rejected the settlements demand, kept building them, and faced no consequences. And, worst of all, Obama utterly failed to put forward an American peace plan to restart the talks. What was needed then, and now, is for Obama to outline what a final settlement of the conflict will look like: a return to the 1967 borders (with some land swaps), the division of Jerusalem, the removal of Israeli encampments from the West Bank, a sovereign Palestinian state, a deal over the Palestinians’ right to return to their land (including a Saudi- and Gulf-financed compensation package), and probably some sort of US security guarantees for Israel.
Obama didn’t deliver. He never stated the end goal. Now, he has another chance. His new opportunity was handed to him last week when Netanyahu’s government slapped visiting Vice President Biden in face by announcing, during a high-stakes, delicate trip, a plan to build 1,600 new Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. In the aftermath of that event, the entire Obama administration has been mobilized against Israel. The key question is not whether Obama and Co. will slam Israel rhetorically, as they’ve done, buy whether there will be concrete consequences for Israel and whether the Obama team will finally relaunch the all-but-dead peace process by declaring the president’s own vision of the terms that Israel, the Palestinians, and the Arab states must agree to.