Twenty years ago, the influence of the pro-Israel lobby was greater among Democrats than Republicans. It was greater in Congress than in the White House. Today, the Republicans, with their Christian Zionist wing at the forefront, have taken the lead in obeisance to Israel’s right-wing government. The Democrats are as supportive as ever, and are uneasy in their role of defending their President who has alienated Israel and its U.S. lobby. The pro-Israel forces are presently attempting to wield the kind of influence on the executive branch as it has enjoyed with members of Congress. This trend can only serve to strengthen the lobby’s ability to distort U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Republican politicians clearly plan to make the Obama administration’s strained relations with Israel an important campaign issue in the Presidential race. By doing so, they hope to portray the President as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state. These Republicans will take their cue from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which utilizes a network of wealthy donors who generously contribute to both parties’ campaign coffers, provides free educational guided tours of the Holy Land and arranges audiences with Israeli officials for many members of Congress and their families. Led by majority leader Eric Cantor and his democratic counterpart, Steny Hoyer, more than 80 House members are traveling to Israel as guests of AIPAC’s educational arm during the August recess, a time when you would expect most lawmakers to be back home consulting with constituents anxious about their economic future.
Republicans are not alone in their opposition to President Obama’s Middle East policies. Most Democratic politicians, who are equally beholden to AIPAC, have expressed discomfort with the administration’s handling of relations with the Netanyahu government.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told Politico,* “… there are a lot of questions unanswered as to where this president stands on Israel.” Many Democrats concur with the Republicans, although most are presently reluctant to publicly criticize Mr. Obama. The Politico web post also quotes an unnamed Democratic source admitting that “There’s a lot of anger about that [Obama’s Israel policy] both in the Obama administration and campaign and DNC [Democratic National Committee].”
Although Obama raised expectations that he could broker a just and enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians, his record to this point has been abysmal. Neither side is talking to the other, and there are no prospects for negotiations in the near future. George Mitchell, who was Obama’s envoy and adviser to the region, resigned months ago, apparently out of frustration with Obama’s willingness to press Netanyahu harder. It is widely believed that Mitchell was frustrated by Obama’s unwillingness to apply greater pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt settlement activity or make other gestures that would permit a resumption of peace talks. No new envoy has been appointed. Obama’s chief advisor now appears to be Dennis Ross. Placing Ross in charge of Israel policy indicates that Obama has lost any desire to tangle with the Israelis and their U.S. loyalists.
Despite the President’s recent retreat from confrontation with the Israelis or maybe because of it, the Republicans sense they can reap political rewards by questioning Obama’s loyalty to our “important ally.” These politicians can rely on the U.S. media to assist them in this endeavor by continuing to depict the conflict virtually from Israel’s standpoint.
The issues that will probably be raised in the election are: Obama’s initial demand that Israel freeze settlement activity in the occupied territories (which has been withdrawn), his call last May to use the pre-1967 borders as a basis for negotiations, and his administration’s supposed softness toward the alleged Iranian nuclear threat to Israel. Republicans may also demand that Obama cut off U.S. funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) if it persists in seeking statehood at the United Nations in September. Discontinuing financial assistance to the PA was part of a recent resolution which was passed by both the House and the Senate.
In the context of the sound bites that comprise much of political campaigning, these arguments could damage Obama even though all are easily refuted. If evacuating some settlements is to be an integral component of the peace talks, it is reasonable to stop their expansion before the negotiation. Obama’s statement concerning the 1967 lines in no way implied that Israel should return to the pre-1967 borders, as many of his detractors claim. The President’s position on Iran and his willingness to support an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities are not all that clear. Finally, even Israel does not want the U.S. to withdraw its financial support from the PA because that money pays the Palestinian police, who suppress armed resistance against the Jewish state.
Obama thought he could resuscitate the Oslo peace process and build on previous agreements made during the Clinton administration. His incentive for bringing the parties together is that it would improve U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. However, he found that Israeli political reality had shifted markedly since the Clinton years. Both the government and the population are presently quite comfortable with continuing the occupation. The West Bank provides Israelis with a captive market for exporting consumer goods, it is a good source of cheap labor (although fewer Palestinians are allowed to work inside the Green Line than were in the past), and is a source of water and other natural resources. It is difficult to assess the net economic effect of the occupation since Israel does not publish statistics on its costs and benefits.
In addition, a growing number of Israelis and most politicians in the ruling Likud party now believe that they are the rightful sovereign in the territories. This all means that even if the Netanyahu government enters into negotiations, its demands will be more unreasonable than they were during the failed Camp David negotiation in 2000 or the terms worked out between former Prime Minister Olmert and PA President Abbas just before Netanyahu took power.
The pro-Israel lobby is probably more powerful today than it was ten years ago. It exercises a tighter control on the U.S media. In 2003 the pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA organized protests in 33 cities claiming that the programming of National Public Radio (NPR) was overly critical of Israel. The Boston station reportedly lost 1 million dollars as a result of the campaign. NPR coverage of the conflict has shifted markedly toward the Israeli viewpoint since those demonstrations. The Congress, ever beholden to AIPAC, has become more insistent that the executive branch not challenge the Israelis. The time is approaching when the political consensus may not even pay lip service to “the two-state solution.”
The Middle East policy and peace negotiations Obama initially championed were designed to improve U.S. foreign relations with Arab nations and the vast majority of the world that supports ending the Israeli occupation. The peace treaty that Obama desires is based on what President Clinton proposed in 2000. It is a treaty that severely restricts the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state by limiting its control of borders, foreign policy and defense capabilities. These are just a few of the unresolved problems. Thus it is not at all clear that any Palestinian government could sign such an agreement, or whether it would be accepted by the Palestinian people.
The Republican attack upon Obama’s Israel policy will place him in an uncomfortable position. Many members of his own party are urging him to defuse the GOP criticism by backing away from brokering a Middle East peace. They will tell him to refrain from even sparse and weak public criticism of Israel. The Democrats are afraid that any friction between Obama and Israel will cost them and the President dearly in campaign contributions and at the ballot box in 2012.
The President may stand behind his policies and explain that what he is attempting to do is in the best interest of the U.S. and Israel. If he does so, he can count on the support of the Jewish pro-peace lobby JStreet. Its assistance will, however, be small consolation in the face of the combined strength of AIPAC, Congress and the media.
President Obama has demonstrated that he is extremely reluctant to challenge powerful political forces. He has consistently demonstrated an ability to adopt positions he has previously opposed in order to appease powerful interests. Under these circumstances, it is easy to envision the President embracing the extreme pro-Israel stance of Congress and AIPAC. It is more difficult imagining him continuing to defend his policies and chasing a U.S.-brokered two-state solution that after almost two decades appears increasingly out of reach.
If the President concedes in the upcoming debate on Israel, and becomes more Bush-than-Bush on this issue, as he has become on many others, it will reposition the public discourse on Israel and Palestine toward a truly delusional and hopeless place. Will the U.S Presidency become as beholden to Israel as the US Congress? Will this set a precedent for a future total and unequivocal surrender to the pro-Israel lobby by the U.S. executive? The day soon may be upon us when the weak admonition, “it is not helpful,” in regard to massive illegal Israeli settlement construction will be interpreted as a bold and out-of-bounds attack on our strong ally and friend, Israel.
It has been a dream of the pro-Israel lobby to transform the U.S. presidency into an institution that is as subservient to its dictates as the United States Congress has become. Unfortunately, there may never be a better time than between now and the 2012 election to realize this terrifying vision. If the election debate weakens the Presidency, it will solidify Israel’s hegemony over the territories it occupied in 1967 and make U.S. relations with the Arab world much more difficult.
* Marin Cogan and Jake Sherman, “Hill Fight Simmers Over Palestinian Statehood Vote,” Politico, August 8, 2011. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0811/61638.html
Ira Glunts first visited the Middle East in 1972, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural community in Israel. He was a volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces in 1992. Mr. Glunts is a Jewish American who lives in Madison, New York where he owns and operates a used and rare book business with his wife Linda Ford. You can contact him at gluntsi[at]morrisville[dot]edu.