Sometimes an authority figure – a parent, a sober friend to an alcoholic, a supervisor or a senior partner – has to make it clear that there are consequences to someone’s actions. This has been the missing piece from the United States’ “special relationship” with Israel for a very long time. Barack Obama understands this very well.
Steadily, over the course of the Clinton and W. Bush Administrations, Israel has gotten more and more comfortable with obstructing the possibility of a two-state solution. Over that time, and far more than in the 25 years between 1967 and 1992, successive Israeli governments have expanded the settlement project massively and tightened the physical hold on East Jerusalem.
Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush looked the other way. They did that for different reasons; Clinton felt it was too much to take on with a peace process so recently started and Bush simply supported Israel’s attempt to create Greater Israel.
But Barack Obama, acting on his own sense of the situation as well as the advice of the most respected and informed diplomats and experts, knows he can’t afford to do that. And, while it is clearly not Obama’s intention to diminish the strong bond the US has with Israel, the nasty recalcitrance of the current Israeli leadership may very well bring just that about.
Obama is not standing alone. He is supported by people with a strong pro-Israel record, such as Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is also supported by General David Petraeus, and it was his comments that proved the most interesting and telling in recent weeks.
The Words of the General
Petraeus, both in private and public, has made it clear that he sees the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict as an obstacle to US military endeavors throughout the region. This should be non-controversial—even Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to some extent that this is the case. Still, that hasn’t stopped some, like House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), and the ADL’s professional reactionary, Abe Foxman, from insisting they understand military exigencies better than Petraeus.
General Petraeus’ statement, which has been misrepresented frequently, simply was that this conflict complicates everything he works on. And that clear point emboldens the Obama Administration. But that was only the first factor. Two more have since come along which will make it exceedingly difficult for Israel to continue its obstinacy.
One is the passage of health care reform. Whatever one thinks of the bill, its passage is a tremendous political victory for Obama. It was, in some measure, the reason Obama could be angry rather than conciliatory with Netanyahu after the latter worked at both the AIPAC conference and Capitol Hill to rally opposition to the President. Bibi failed and Obama dressed him down in the White House.
Now, Obama is poised to put a major foreign policy triumph under his belt as well, with the signing of the START Treaty, an agreement with Russia that will reduce deployed nuclear weapons significantly.
These two factors are going to make Obama an extremely powerful president, at least for the time being. It is likely that he will be strong enough to withstand the losses the Democrats are likely to face in congressional elections in November (indeed, these developments may even stem some of those losses). This is not a president that Israel should be fighting with.
AIPAC knows it too. Despite the fiery and fear-mongering rhetoric that saturated its conference this past week, they have stayed low-key since Netanyahu’s visit. One of the better developments that can, possibly, come of all this is the shattering of the “Israel Lobby” theory, which is taking a beating right now as AIPAC is showing itself to be only a small obstacle in the path of a determined and politically well-positioned president.
The Israeli Position
So why is Israel acting so stubbornly? The obvious answer is the radically right-wing nature of the current Israeli government, and of course this is so. This Knesset would be much more comfortable with the previous administration. But that isn’t the whole answer. It’s really about timing.
The ultra-right Knesset has come in at a time when the US can no longer avoid dealing with settlement expansion in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. To do so would mean the end of the two-state solution, and any short-term prospects of resolving the conflict. This was precisely what the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration were trying to do. They went a long way toward that goal but did not quite succeed before being shown the door.
With the neocons gone, the US had to move swiftly, and has done so.
But this Israeli government feels it has a mandate to refuse the two-state solution. Their election is all the proof they need, and it’s a valid basis for their belief. Bibi’s rhetoric supporting two states has always been understood to be phony, by both his supporters and his detractors.
But it’s one thing for ministers of relatively small parties to oppose any reduction in settlement activity, and even for a leader to merely nod and wink at the desire for a solution. It’s quite another for a party that is in leadership and has to operate as the leader of all of Israel on the world stage to be blatant about such refusal. That is the tightrope Netanyahu has been forced to walk, and he’s failing at it.
Israel is finding itself increasingly isolated. The massive destruction in Gaza has sharply downgraded Israel’s image in the world, even in the United States, and even, to some extent, among world Jewry. That doesn’t mean that people don’t support Israel’s continued existence or its right to defend itself, but it does mean that people are not willing to accept Israel bombing the hell out of an impoverished population, devastating homes and civilian infrastructure, killing hundreds of civilians and preventing those people from rebuilding.
The world, including the US and world Jewry, is also growing increasingly impatient with Israeli whining that it would stop settlement expansion if it could, but it simply can’t due to that nasty settler lobby and the pesky laws, while their Prime Minister says loudly back home that he will build, build, build. Yet that is precisely the case the Bibi and his right-wing government must now try to make, and it’s a born loser.
The Palestinian Side
As has often been the case, the Palestinians haven’t been much help. Hamas and Fatah continue their feud, at a time when it would significantly bolster the President’s case to be able to deal with one Palestinian leadership.
Hamas continues to harbor its delusions of being able to bring Palestinian independence outside of the American sphere through the use of force and hard-line stances. There seems little hope of change there, and their unwillingness to even consider new elections (born largely of their understanding that they would lose by a large margin, as well as their experience of having won and seeing the response) offers little short-term hope that they will become more reasonable.
Fatah, for its part, has seen its greatest failures in its inability to communicate its own successes. The two-year state-building plan of Salam Fayyad and the extensive success the American and Jordanian-trained PA security force are tremendous steps forward in Palestinian state-building. Yet saying they are not well-known either in Israel and, much less, in the United States is an understatement.
This was well expressed at an event hosted by the New America Foundation unveiling a poll of American attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians. There were many divides on many questions (often along party lines), but one thing was universal—everyone had a low opinion of the Palestinians.
Both Jim Zogby of the Arab American Institute (which commissioned the poll) and Amjad Atallah of NAF’s Middle East Task Force agreed that the Palestinians have done a terrible job of reaching out, telling their stories and thereby humanizing themselves to the American public, and to some extent the global one. As Zogby put it, “The equation [in American minds] is Israeli humanity vs. the Arab problem. And humanity always wins.”
Imagine for a moment what it would be like if Americans, who very much want to see this conflict resolved, saw Palestinians, viscerally, the same way they see Israelis. Most Americans, intellectually, would agree Palestinians deserve the same rights, but they also empathize more with Israelis, whose tragedies and hardships they are familiar with.
That empathy with Israelis is a good thing and should not be diminished. But it should co-exist with empathy for the Palestinians, an empathy Americans don’t feel because they don’t know Palestinian stories. What they have heard that is sympathetic has come to them through others—internationals, Israelis, other activists. All of those people are making a genuine effort to bring the realities of Palestinian life to Americans, but it simply isn’t the same. Atallah and Zogby are just two of a long list of professionals working on this issue, of all sorts of backgrounds and points of view, who have bemoaned the Palestinian and broader Arab neglect of reaching out to the American public. I’ve heard it, and expressed it myself, for many, many years.
Humanizing the Palestinians in a substantive way needs to happen, and not in the form of cries for justice and accusations of Israeli barbarism. It needs to simply be Palestinians telling their stories—their whole stories, not only the suffering. Making the Palestinians fully human in American eyes would give Obama enormous political freedom.
Perceptions of Palestinians are not likely to change any time soon, though. Nor is this Israeli government likely to simply fold under American pressure.
But Obama does not stand alone. After Bibi’s departure from Washington, he was immediately on the phone with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of England, President Nicholas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. That’s a quartet of Israel’s closest and most important allies in the world, and they are together on this issue, with American leadership.
That’s not something Israel can continue to defy indefinitely. And the failure of Netanyahu to get Congress to back him, outside of the likes of Eric Cantor and Shelly Berkley (D-NV) who routinely put Israel’s interests ahead of America’s, leaves him with few tools with which to fight back. This isn’t the Congress of 1998, nor is it a president operating under the shadow of scandal.
But Israel is an ally, and Obama is not interested in changing that, or lessening the alliance. He is willing to work with both carrot and stick, as evidenced by the new arms sale with Israel, made despite all of this fighting.
Some on the left will see this as a clear indication that Obama is not serious. That can only be true if the sale is viewed in isolation. What it is, in fact, is a reminder to Israel of just what it stands to lose if it doesn’t find a way to help the US pursue its interests while the US helps Israel ensure its security and pursue peace.
Obama seems dedicated to this course, and he has now gained the political strength he needs to pursue it. Republicans, who are unanimously opposed to just about anything Obama does, including Mideast peace, have marginalized themselves on this issue as well as so many others with their new “Party of No” identity. So far, Democrats, while not totally united, have stood behind the President, and he has the support of the American people.
Bibi knows all this. He will need to find a way to make what he has to do politically feasible in Israel. Considering that, once the US made it an issue, the number of Israelis who supported a freeze on Jerusalem construction rocketed upward, he can do it if he wants.
If he chooses a different course, he is endangering the “unshakeable bond” between the two countries.
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