I delivered this talk today for the Foreign Policy Association’s Great Decisions program here in Seattle:
To follow the arc of Israel-U.S. relations, let’s begin with the founding of Israel in 1948. In the period leading up to independence, David Ben Gurion desperately craved international recognition. Soviet Russia under Stalin was on board. But if you read John Judis’ new book, Genesis, about the founding of Israel, you’ll learn the remarkable fact that Harry Truman, while he eventually recognized Israel, did so reluctantly, and not as a religious state. He pointedly did not use the term “Jewish” in official statements regarding recognition. Truman wanted Israel to be a State of all its citizens, whether Jewish or Muslim. This is highly relevant to the current dispute between Palestinians and Israelis about whether the former should concede that Israel is the State of the Jewish people, an issue that rankled as far back as 1948.
By the early 1950s, Israel had launched Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It was founded by a visionary Canadian-American named Si Kenen. It didn’t always have the power it has now. In the beginning, it was a small struggling group. But quickly, wealthy pro-Israel Jews rallied to its cause and by the early 1960s, its power began to resemble what it is now.
From Israel’s inception, Ben Gurion understood that while Israel might have a technological advantage over its Arab enemies, that the latter had superiority of numbers. This is why he adopted a similar strategy to Iran’s military planners. Each of these countries believed it could make up for a serious military deficit by developing the ultimate weapon: that is WMD.
Israel began this process in the 1950s, when it commenced research on nuclear technology and a few years later built its plutonium reactor in Dimona with French assistance. Officially, the U.S. government had no involvement with the Israeli effort. In fact, our intelligence officials distrusted assurances they received from Israel that the reactor would be for purely civilian use (an assurance Iran is also giving to the west about its program).
But there is a largely unknown factor about Israel’s nuclear program: that U.S. Jewish philanthropists under the leadership of Abraham Feinberg, whose name now graces a building at Brandeis University, raised millions to finance Israel’s nuclear project. In fact, it’s doubtful Israel would have the 200 nuclear warheads it now has without such essential assistance. Or if it could have done so without this assistance, it would’ve taken much longer.
If you’ve read Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s extraordinary account of the Israel Lobby, then you understand both the power of this lobby and how it exercises it. I’m not just talking about Aipac. The Lobby includes a range of pro-Israel advocacy groups including the ADL, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, StandWithUs, The Israel Project, Zionist Organization of America, Conference of Presidents, and many others.
They exert a full-court press on the American political system on behalf of Israel’s interests. This involves a number of different tactics from legislative lobbying, to all-expenses-paid Israel junkets for Congressional representatives and staff, to massive contributions to Congressional and presidential races. The latter is incredibly corrosive both in its impact of legislation and the formulation of foreign policy.
How else could you imagine the U.S. government would formally renounce policies it’s adhered to for decades in UN Security Council votes concerning recognition of a Palestinian state and opposition to settlements?
You may know that in Democratic presidential primaries pro-Israel donors give as much as 40% of the cash that candidates get. Pro-Israel Democrats in these primaries provide as much as 20% of those who vote in several key states with large Jewish populations. Overall, Jews are only about 2% of the U.S. population. This causes a weird distortion effect in mounting a rational, effective policy toward Israel. It means that candidates have to do a delicate dance when it comes to this subject. Certain subjects like BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement) that may not be touched. Other subjects can be discussed, but only in certain ways. Israel is the third rail of American politics. If you touch it, it can be deadly. House and Senate members who said the wrong things or voted the wrong way in the past have found this out when they were voted out of office after massive campaigns by the Lobby.
But usually, the Lobby doesn’t have to get it hands that dirty. Members of Congress and their staffs know what the limits are and abide by them. When they exceed them, they hear about it from Lobby donors and their constituents. Like the NRA, Aipac has a well-oiled, well-financed machine that makes its presence felt in matters big and small.
Today, the Obama administration is engaged in two critical sets of foreign policy negotiations involving Israel. In one, it has largely taken Israel’s side and in the other it has largely abandoned Israel. I’m speaking of the Israel-Palestine negotiations led by John Kerry and the Iran nuclear negotiations.
In the Kerry-led talks, he’s appointed two senior advisers formerly affiliated with Aipac to assist him: former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk and David Makovsky. He has no similarly Palestine-friendly senior advisers.
Though there has been radio silence regarding the negotiations, there have been enough statements and leaks to tell us that the agreement outlined and advocated by the U.S. will not be favorable to Palestinian interests. In fact, Peter Beinart has written an alarming account (especially for a liberal Zionist) for Haaretz confirming my fears.
First, the “framework” they’re proposing won’t even deal with Jerusalem, one of the thorniest issues for both sides. There are even some indications that when the final deal is announced it will confine Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem to a few neighborhoods, rather than that entire portion of the city. The framework will in some way finesse the issue of Israel as a Jewish state, so that the Palestinians will concede this point to the Israeli side. In doing so, the Palestinians will have abandoned the Right of Return, which is so cherished by those whose families were expelled in 1948. The Palestinians will also give up the right to include the Jordan Valley in a future Palestinian state for at least five years.
It is true that the Palestinians could reject the deal being offered, bringing everything back to square one. But Mahmoud Abbas has a history of caving to western demands when enough pressure is brought to bear. He has neither the stature nor the support nor the self-confidence to withstand the blandishments and naked threats used by both the Israelis and Americans. For example, a Palestinian news agency ran a story that John Kerry warned Abbas that if he didn’t agree to a deal, his fate might be the same as Yasser Arafat’s. It’s suspected by many, including Palestinians, that Israel’s Mossad assassinated Arafat through poisoning.
I don’t know how this delicate negotiation will turn out. But if the eventual agreement is as outlined in the media, then Israel will have succeeded in obtaining a highly favorable outcome finessed on its behalf by the U.S.
Now let’s turn to the Iran negotiations. Here, the Obama administration is taking a different approach. While it is listening attentively to Israeli concerns, it is not adopting the hardline approach advocated by Israel. The U.S. has turned away from military intervention (Israel’s preferred option) and embraced a diplomatic solution. In the case of Iran, pragmatism has trumped ideology, while I would argue that in the case of the I-P talks our alliance with Israel has trumped a fair and just solution.
There are several reasons for this discrepancy: first, we judge the I-P talks to be at the heart of Israel’s interests, while we reject Israel’s contention that Iran is an existential threat to Israel. Because a resolution of the I-P conflict involves parties and issues right on Israel’s doorstep, we see a reason to side with Israel on the major elements of the talks, even if the proposed solution will leave Palestinians out in the cold.
Further, in the case of the Palestinians, we view them as largely powerless to influence events. They have no Lobby to speak of. They have relatively weak military capacity. They have nothing we covet like gas or oil. Their only allies, mainly in the Arab world, aren’t critical to U.S. foreign policy interests. That’s why the Palestinians are likely to get short shrift.
The Iranians are a different story. They have been a major destabilizing force in the region for three decades. Their influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and throughout the Gulf has been a severe thorn in our side going back to 1979. Iran has potential markets and natural resources the west craves. There is tremendous motivation on the part of the Obama administration to grasp the opening offered by the pragmatist Iranian regime which took power last year.
Obama also realizes that if he can resolve major outstanding issues with Iran, this will allow a host of other implacable issues to be resolved including (possibly) the civil war in Syria, the Hezbollah insurgency in Lebanon which destabilizes Israel’s northern border, Sunni-Shia ethnic conflict in Bahrain (a major U.S. naval port), and possibly even bringing Hamas into the fold to enable an Israel-Palestine agreement.
That’s a rich target, and one Obama feels he can have a major impact in shaping. I think Obama feels that the Israel-Palestine conflict is one that has been too poisoned and that the parties are either weak or intransigent. He either doesn’t have the political capital to overcome these obstacles, or he doesn’t have the will to expend that capital, in opposition to the massive power of the Lobby which he’d have to battle.
Above all else, and often to his detriment, Obama is a pragmatist, one who seeks the lowest common denominator. He seeks to achieve some of his objectives while avoiding knock-down drag-out political warfare. That’s why Obama may satisfy himself with an imperfect Israel-Palestine deal.
Finally, I wanted to return to my earlier theme of the power of the Lobby. Were it not so strong, there might be an Israel-Palestine agreement that followed along the lines of the potential Iran nuclear agreement. Such an I-P agreement would share Jerusalem, recognize two states (without prejudicing its religious identity), recognize a Right of Return, and bring about an Israeli withdrawal to 1967 borders. It would also bring recognition to Israel of the Arab states and resolution of border conflicts with all frontline states. Further, the economic assistance the world would offer both to Israel (to accept Palestinian refugees) and Palestine (in order to build a viable economy) would be substantial and fuel an even larger economic boom for years.
The fact that Barack Obama appears to have given up on reaching such an accord speaks volumes to the power of the Lobby and the distortion effect I mentioned at the beginning of my talk. American policymakers have known for decades what the outline for a Mideast peace agreement should be, they simply don’t have the power to implement it. And it’s not so much they don’t have the power. Rather they make a cold, hard political calculation that to take on the Lobby on an issue that is so central to its core mission (preserving Israel’s existence) and so close to home, would be political suicide.
There simply is no U.S. equivalent of Ariel Sharon, the tough political leader with impeccable military and pro-Israel credentials, who’s willing to dare the Israel Lobby to stand in his way. The closest we ever came to that was the administration of the first President Bush, whose secretary of state, Jim Baker, used the F-bomb in public to describe then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and offered him the State Department phone number if he ever wanted to talk peace. We followed up by freezing U.S. aid to Israel, conveying just how serious we were. As a result, Shamir lost the next election and was followed by a moderate Yitzhak Rabin. It’s no accident that Rabin is the closest Israel ever came to a leader capable of negotiating a comprehensive peace agreement. And he was assassinated by a pro-settler extremist who understood that. No U.S. leader since the first George Bush has been willing to do anything like that.
My worry is that if there is an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and it does tilt toward Israeli interests, that the Palestinians will remain sullen and defiant despite their signature on the document. We all know what happened after World War I when Germany was forced to sign punitive measures that impoverished it for decades. The resentment that built up led to the rise of National Socialism and we all know where that led. I am not making a literal prediction that anything like this will happen in Palestine. But when a nation feels its interests have been sold out and it has been forced to sign away its rights, this will not be conducive to bringing the security that everyone hoped for. It is a recipe for continued unrest, resentment, and possibly even acts of terror that everyone hopes to avoid.