One important thing to remember about the Annual Festival of Hyperbole (aka the AIPAC Policy Conference) is that the views of the attendees aren't representative of most Americans, let alone American Jewry, and that a lot of the speakers who are there to pay homage don't mean most of what they are saying. At least I hope not. President Obama walked a wobbly tightrope as well as one could have expected; the depressing feature is that he had to perform these sort of acrobatics at all. That's politics, folks.
Next up: Obama and Netanyahu meet at the White House. My basic take is that Netanyahu's view and Obama's view are essentially mirror-images of each other. Netanyahu says Iran is an "existential" threat to Israel, while he sees the Palestinians as just a problem to be managed. So he wants Iran's nuclear program ended, and by force if necessary, while the peace process drags on interminably. By contrast, Obama sees Iran as a problem to be managed through patient diplomacy, but he thinks the Palestinian issue is the real existential threat to Israel's future (and a continued liability for U.S. strategic interests). He'd like to put that one to rest ASAP, except that he's been forced to back down every time he's tried and he knows he can't say much about it between now and November.
Those interested in further reflections on this matter can take a look at this op-ed in the Financial Times, co-authored with John Mearsheimer.
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In our book on the Israel lobby, John Mearsheimer and I emphasized that it was "wrong -- and objectionable -- to argue that Jews or pro-Israel forces 'control' the media and what [it] says about Israel." Instead, we argued that groups and individuals in the lobby work overtime to monitor what the media says about Israel, and to bring pressure to bear on reporters and editors who said things these groups or individuals didn't like. The lobby didn't "control" the media in a direct or conspiratorial fashion; it just sought to influence media coverage in a variety of sometimes heavy-handed ways, much as some other interest groups do. We documented numerous incidents where media organizations faced pressure to alter their coverage. As a former spokesman for the Israeli consulate in New York put it, "Of course, a lot of self-censorship goes on. Journalists, editors, and politicians are going to think twice about criticizing Israel if they know they are going to get thousands of calls in a matter of hours. The Jewish lobby is good at orchestrating pressure." (Note: "Jewish lobby" was his term, not ours). As an anonymous interviewee told journalist Michael Massing, "the pressure from these groups is relentless. Editors would just as soon not touch them."
Discourse about this topic has opened up a lot in recent years, but the same tactics are still on display. Case in point: the warning shots fired at the New York Times' new bureau chief in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren, which began when the ink on the press release announcing her appointment was barely dry.
What was Rudoren's scandalous transgression? She had the temerity to send a pleasant (but hardly effusive) response to a tweet from Ali Abunimah, who is the author of a book advocating one state for Israel and Palestine. Whatever you may think of Abunimah's views (I happen to think he's wrong on that issue), he's not a violent extremist and there's nothing inappropriate about Rudoren responding to him as she did. Rudoren also tweeted some positive things about Peter Beinart's forthcoming book The Crisis of Zionism.
Well, before you could say "hasbara," Rudoren was being chastised by a familiar list of commentators, including Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon, Shmuel Rosner of the Jerusalem Post, and Josh Block, the former AIPAC staffer who recently led a despicable effort to smear the Center for American Progess. And of course Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, self-appointed Supreme Jurisprudent of What is Permissible to Say about Israel, got into the act as well. (Goldberg's sudden interest in fair-minded reporting is especially amusing, given his penchant for making up lies about those with whom he disagrees.)
Rudoren had done nothing wrong, of course. Her job as a reporter is to reach out to a wide variety of interested parties, to describe the situation on the ground as she sees it, and to render intelligent judgments about what she observes. I frankly don't envy her the job given how politicized the issue is. It remains to be seen how good a job she will do, but the obvious purpose of this little exercise in intimidation was to put her on notice. Her critics were sending a message: "If you write things that we don't like (and especially anything that might present Israel in a negative light), then we're going to raise a stink and try to get you to start pulling your punches."
As I've said ad nauseum, this situation is not healthy for the United States or for Israel. If Americans get a one-sided diet of reportage about this conflict, we are going to misunderstand it and we are going to keep making stupid or ill-informed decisions. We're also going to be less capable of giving our Israeli friends sensible advice, which all states need from time to time. Israel's staunchest backers shouldn't want a cheerleader at the Times' Jerusalem bureau; in fact, the more you care about Israel, the more you want someone who'll tell you the truth, even when some of it might not be pleasant to read or hear. Otherwise, you might not find out what's really happening until it is too late.
P.S. Readers here will probably be aware of the tragic death of Times' reporter Anthony Shadid, who suffered a fatal asthma attack while covering the violence in Syria. I don't think I ever met Shadid, and my only experience with him was being on a couple of radio talk shows. His reporting on Middle East affairs was intrepid, insightful, fair-minded, and often eloquent, and his death is a loss for us all. My condolences to his family and to anyone who knew him well.
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Last week the Washington Institute of Near East Policy released a brief report entitled "Israel: A Strategic Asset for the United States." Such an event is not exactly headline news, insofar as the report is precisely the sort of analysis that you'd expect a "pro-Israel" think tank like WINEP to promote. What is slightly more interesting are the study's authors: Robert Blackwill and Walter Slocombe. Blackwill was formerly U.S. Ambassador to India (and a former colleague of mine here at the Kennedy School); Slocombe is a long-time Washington insider perhaps best known for helping mismanage the occupation of Iraq.
Their report checks in at a modest 17 pages of large type, and it offers few arguments that experienced Middle East mavens haven't heard before. It's tempting to disregard it, except that it illustrates many of the misconceptions that still permeate discussion of the U.S.-Israel relationship and U.S. Mideast policy. I will take the bait, therefore, and offer a brief critique.
Blackwill and Slocombe (hereafter B&S) begin by rehearsing the familiar claim that the United States and Israel are bound together by shared values, and by America's "moral responsibility" to defend the Jewish state. But they argue that there is a third justification, which they maintain is "too often ignored." That justification is the idea that Israel and the United States have common strategic interests and that Israel is a major asset for helping the United States achieve them. They offer the usual list of benefits (e.g., intelligence sharing, military technology, counter-terrorism expertise, counter-proliferation activities, etc.), in order to show what a valuable asset Israel really is. They then argue that the costs of U.S. support are not very significant, mostly because support for Israel does not preclude close cooperation with Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. They conclude by calling for increased collaboration with Israel, as a means of advancing U.S. national interests.
So what's wrong with this picture?
For starters, Blackwill and Slocombe do not consider whether the alleged benefits of U.S.-Israeli cooperation require the unprecedented "special relationship" that now exists between the two countries. The real debate is not whether the United States should cooperate with Israel or support Israel's existence: even prominent critics of U.S. policy (including myself and John Mearsheimer) agree that the United States should support Israel's existence (within the pre-1967 borders) and should come to its aid if its survival were ever in jeopardy. Rather, the real debate is whether the United States should have a special relationship with Israel, in which the United States gives Israel generous economic, military, and diplomatic support no matter what it does, and where U.S. politicians cannot offer the mildest criticism of Israel's conduct without facing a torrent of abuse and political pressure from the Israel lobby.
Today, Israel is the only country in the world that mainstream U.S. politicians (and most members of the foreign-policy establishment) cannot openly criticize. It is the only country in the world that U.S. presidents cannot pressure in any meaningful way. The United States does not have this sort of relationship with any other country in the world -- not with Great Britain, or Japan, or South Korea, or Canada, or France, or Denmark. But it does with Israel, which is a key reason why Israel's settlements have been expanding for more than forty years, even though every president since Lyndon Johnson has formally opposed such actions. The "special relationship" is also a major reason why the Oslo process failed, and why Barack Obama's efforts to achieve a viable "two-state solution" have foundered. (B/S wrongly state that the United States and Israel share a common desire for a two-state solution; Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is formally opposed to a Palestinian state, and Israel's current government has made it clear that the only "Palestinian state" that it would countenance would be a set of disconnected, unviable Bantustans under permanent Israeli control.)
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Today is one of those days when blogging is difficult -- lots
of meetings through the day, office hours for students, and then I take off for
Korea. So no time for extended reflection on anything, except...
I sometimes think the U.S. Congress is working overtime to prove my point about the domestic origins of our screwed-up Middle East policy, and to set a new record for fealty to the Israel lobby. Of course you already saw that those enlightened and courageous patriots up on the Hill have voted to slash our foreign aid budget, except, of course, for the biggest chunk, which happens to go to one of the wealthiest recipients. Translation: Israel will still get its $3 billion per year, even though its per capita income is now 27th in the world and even though lots of other countries and programs are getting their aid totals whacked. Moreover, as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now runs down here, they are also targeting the Palestinian Authority because it had the temerity to apply for recognition as a state a week or so ago. Those fiends! How dare they seek a state of their own!
Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a policy that could be better designed to solidify regional resentment and hatred of the United States, and at a moment when local populations are finding their own voice for the first time in decades. And it's equally hard to find an approach to this conflict that is more likely to do long-term harm to Israel itself, by encouraging it to continue the policies that have squandered so much international acceptance and directly contributed to various social and economic problems there. Not to mention the dubious morality of punishing stateless peoples while rewarding the country that is continue to expand its illegal settlements. Talk about hitting the negative policy trifecta: bad for the United States, bad for the Palestinians, and bad for Israel too.
Meanwhile, I'm off to Seoul this evening, to attend a conference on regional security issues at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security. It is a very impressive group of American and Korean scholars, including several who know a lot more about these issues than I do. I expect to learn a lot, but mostly I'm interested in figuring out just who worries the South Koreans most: China, North Korea, or us?
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Despite what you might think, I don't have much to say about Tom Friedman's column in the Sunday New York Times, where he openly bemoans the disastrous influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy and puts up in bright lights how bad it is for Israel as well. I'm grateful to Glenn Greenwald and Phil Weiss for pointing out that this is the main point that John Mearsheimer and I have been making for some time in our writings about the lobby.
But I will say this: Friedman's admission reflects the protracted failure of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine issue, going back several decades. That's not news, of course. What has changed in the past few years is that the lobby's operations and its harmful influence are now out in the open for all to see, which makes it almost impossible to make the old arguments that Israel is a "vital strategic asset" or a country that "shares our values" with a straight face, or to convince anyone who's not already in agreement. Not after more than forty years of occupation, not after 9/11, not after the 2006 Lebanon War, not after Operation Cast Lead, not after the killings on the Mavi Marmara, and not after PM Netanyahu's repeated acts of contempt toward the U.S. president.
The United States has backed Israel no matter what it did because AIPAC and the other groups in the lobby have enormous influence inside the Beltway and use that political muscle to defend Israel whenever its government's policies clash with America's interests. But the problem they face now is that almost everyone can see what they are doing and people like Friedman understand that the policies the lobby is promoting are a disaster for the United States and Israel alike. At this point, only hardcore individuals and groups in the lobby and opportunistic fellow-travelers try to kick up dust by blaming our failed Middle East policy on "public opinion" or on the supposed influence of Christian evangelicals. Right: like they were the ones who told Obama to stop pressing Netanyahu if he wanted to get his health care bill passed, and they were the ones holding one-sided Congressional hearings and threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it goes to the UN to get statehood.
The elephant has been in the room for a long time, but now it has the spotlights on it and it's wearing a pink bikini too. It's hard to miss, in short, which is surely why Tom Friedman wrote what he did.
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Just when you think your contempt for Congress could not get any higher, our elected representatives manage to do something to ratchet it up another notch. After congressional shenanigans helped spark a major market sell-off and sparked fears of a double-dip recession, you'd think every single one of them would be heading back to their districts to figure out what their constituents wanted and to try to explain how they were going to help make things better. Or maybe a few of them would even spend the recess taking a crash course in macroeconomics and public finance, so that they could start exercising their public duties more responsibly.
But what did 81 of them decide to do instead? You guessed it: they are off on junkets to Israel, paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, an AIPAC spinoff that has been funding such trips for years. That's right: during the August recess nearly a fifth of the U.S. Congress will visit a single country whose entire population is less than that of New York City.
Such behavior is especially disturbing in light of our current woes; even Greta Van Susteren of Fox News found it appalling (h/t Mondoweiss here and here). But it's not really a new pattern: in recent decades about 10 percent of all Congressional trips overseas have been to Israel, even though it is only one of the nearly 200 countries in the world.
Why do Congresspersons do this, especially at a moment when it is obvious that they ought to be worrying about conditions here at home? Mostly because such junkets burnish a legislator's ‘pro-Israel' credentials and facilitate campaign fundraising. Such trips also expose these visitors to the policy preferences and basic worldview of Israel's leaders, which is of course why AIEF pays for them.
I suppose I ought to be grateful that AIPAC and its sister organizations continue to work overtime to prove me and my co-author right. But there are bigger issues at stake here, which is why I hope that every one of those eighty-plus Congressmen faces a lot of nasty questions from their constituents upon their return.
And in a related story, the Israeli government has just announced a new round of settlement building in occupied East Jerusalem. (For apt commentary, see Matt Duss of the Center for American Progress here.) If you've been wondering why most people have lost faith in U.S. stewardship of the peace process and are turning to other strategies--such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement or the push for a Palestinian state at the UN --well, I think you have your answer. And if "two states for two peoples" is never achieved and Israel ceases to be either a Jewish majority state or a true democracy, you'll know exactly which misguided or feckless Americans helped bring that about.
UPDATE: American taxpayers will be pleased to know that Representative Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) has reassured Israelis that financial challenges "will not have any adverse effect on America's determination to meet its promise to Israel." Translation: we may be cutting Medicare and Social Security for U.S. citizens, but Israelis--whose country has the 27th highest per capita income in the world--will continue to get generous subsidies from Uncle Sucker.
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One of my occasional hobbyhorses on this blog has been the desirability of greater transparency on where research and advocacy organizations (and intellectuals) get their money. It's the old question: cui bono? You can read what I've said in the past here and here. I frankly would welcome a system where think tanks had to publicly disclose all of their sources of support, so that consumers of their work could see exactly who they were beholden to. Lest you think I'm being hypocritical about this, I think university professors ought to do the same with any outside income that they earn.** The reason in both cases is simple: when anyone participates in public discourse on vital issues, outsiders should be aware of potential conflicts of interest and should know exactly who might be paying for it.
Eli Clifton at the Center for American Progress has a revealing post up on the various backers of the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This organization has been in the vanguard of the campaign for war with Iran, reflexively supportive of the Israeli right, and a fertile source of fear-mongering Islamophobia. It will therefore surprise no one that its primary financial backers are also hard-core Zionists, and that the democracy it seems most committed to defending is located far from Washington D.C.
This situation underscores a point that John Mearsheimer and I emphasized in our book: the Israel lobby is not confined to formal "lobbying" organizations like AIPAC. It also includes well-funded think tanks and advocacy organizations that actively work to shape political debate and public discourse in ways intended to reinforce the U.S.-Israel "special relationship" and to persuade policymakers to support policies that these organizations believe (in my view incorrectly) will be beneficial for Israel and the United States.
It bears repeating that there's nothing illegal, conspiratorial, or unethical about what these donors are doing; individuals and foundations in the United States are entitled to fund whatever advocacy organizations they wish. But Clifton's data helps you understand why discourse inside-the-Beltway is so heavily skewed in one direction.
**Postscript: In my own case, in 2010 I received a consulting fee from the S Rajaratnam School in Singapore and speakers' fees from eight other universities (for public lectures). I also received honoraria for presentations at several events sponsored by the Department of Defense and for participating in a colloquium sponsored by the State Department. I was also paid to speak at an Economist magazine conference in Athens and for doing some research work for the New America Foundation. Foreign Policy pays me a modest amount to write this blog, and Cornell University Press pays me to co-edit a book series. And in case some of you are wondering, I didn't receive any money from any individuals, groups, countries, or corporations connected with Middle East politics.
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In case you missed it, veteran Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has written a scathing denunciation of U.S. Middle East policy -- and long-time Middle East advisor Dennis Ross -- in Ha'aretz. His bottom line is that Oslo is over, yet the United States is still trying to convince the Palestinian leadership to buy into a diplomatic process that has been a cover for continued settlement building and has manifestly failed to bring them a state. The key passage:
"It would be tough to find a bigger expert than Ross on the myths and illusions related to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. For years he has been nurturing the myth that if the United States would only meet his exact specifications, the Israeli right would offer the Arabs extensive concessions.
During the years he headed the American peace team, Israeli settlement construction ramped up. Now Ross, the former chairman of the Jewish People Policy Institute, is trying to convince the Palestinians to give up on bringing Palestinian independence for a vote in the United Nations in September and recognize the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people -- in other words, as his country, though he was born in San Francisco, more than that of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was born in Safed.
If they give up on the U.N. vote, Ross argues, then Netanyahu will be so kind as to negotiate a final-status agreement with them. Has anyone heard anything recently about a construction freeze in the settlements?
Ross is trying to peddle the illusion that the most right-wing government Israel has ever seen will abandon the strategy of eradicating the Oslo approach in favor of fulfilling the hated agreement. In an effort to save his latest boss from choosing between recognizing a Palestinian state at the risk of clashing with the Jewish community and voting against recognition at the risk of damaging U.S. standing in the Arab world, Ross is trying to drag the Palestinians back into the "peace process" trap.
If Obama really intended to justify his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would not have left the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hands of this whiz at the never-ending management of the conflict."
As Eldar makes clear, Ross has been advising presidents ever since the first Bush administration and played a central role in both the Clinton and Obama administration, and his stewardship of the "peace process" has led exactly nowhere.
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A couple of weeks ago, Americans were treated to a remarkably clear demonstration of the power of the Israel lobby in the United States. First, Barack Obama gave a speech on Middle East policy at the State Department, which tried to position America as a supporter of the Arab spring and reiterated his belief that a two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The next day, he met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who rejected several of Obama's assertions and lectured him about what "Israel expects" from its great power patron. Then Obama felt it was smart politics to go to AIPAC and clarify his remarks. It was a pretty good speech, but Obama didn't offer any ideas for how his vision of Middle East peace might be realized and he certainly never suggested that -- horrors! -- the United States might use its considerable leverage to push both sides to an agreement. And then Netanyahu received a hero's welcome up on Capitol Hill, getting twenty-nine standing ovations for a defiant speech that made it clear that the only "two-state" solution he's willing to contemplate is one where the Palestinians live in disconnected Bantustans under near-total Israeli control.
Not surprisingly, this display of the lobby's influence made plenty of people uncomfortable, and some of them -- such as M.J. Rosenberg at Media Matters offered up some personal tales of their own run-ins with Israel's hardline backers. In response to Rosenberg's sally (and the hoopla surrounding the Netanyahu visit), Jonathan Chait of The New Republic has fallen back on a familiar line of defense. After conceding that there is a lobby and that it does have a lot of influence, he argued that "the most important basis of American support for Israel is not the lobby but the public's overwhelming sympathy for Israel." In other words, AIPAC et al don't really matter that much, and all those standing ovations on Capitol Hill were really just a genuine reflection of public opinion. He also said that John Mearsheimer and I believe the lobby exerts "total control" over U.S. foreign policy, and that we claim groups in the lobby were solely responsible for the invasion of Iraq.
To deal with the last claim first, this straw-man depiction of our argument merely confirms once again that Chait has not in fact read our book. I don't find that surprising, because a careful reading of the book would reveal to him that we weren't anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, had made none of the claims he accuses us of, and had in fact amassed considerable evidence to support the far more nuanced arguments that we did advance. And then he'd have to ponder the fact that virtually everything The New Republic has ever published about us was bogus. So I can easily see why he prefers to repeat the same falsehoods and leave it at that.
But what of his more basic claim that the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel is really a reflection of "the public's overwhelming sympathy?" There are at least three big problems with this assertion.
First, even if it were true that the public had "overwhelming sympathy" for Israel, it does not immediately follow that United States policy would necessarily follow suit. U.S. officials frequently do things that a majority of Americans oppose, if they believe that doing so is in the U.S. interest. A majority of Americans oppose fighting on in Afghanistan, for example, yet the Obama administration chose to escalate that war instead. Similarly, numerous polls show that the American people favor the "public option" in health care, but that's not exactly the policy that health care reform produced. Public opinion is an important factor, of course, but what public officials decide to do almost always reflects a more complex weighting of political factors (including the intensity of public preferences, broader strategic considerations, the weight of organized interests, etc.)
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I was wrong. I thought it made little sense for President Obama to deliver a speech to the AIPAC policy conference, because he'd lose points globally if all he did was pander, and he'd face a firestorm at home if he told the truth and offered up a little tough love. Plus, I thought it was a little demeaning for a sitting president to appear in front of any foreign policy lobbying group.
But Obama was cleverer than that, which is one of the countless reasons why he is president and I am not. Instead of choosing between pandering and speaking truth to power, he did both.
Specifically, he offered up the usual bromides about shared values and ironclad commitments, and put down various markers about the U.N. vote and Hamas and security that were obviously intended to defuse suspicions. He also used the opportunity to expose how his critics-including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu-had deliberately mischaracterized what he had said in his speech at the State Department last Thursday, especially his reference to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.
But the important part of the speech was when he told AIPAC what everyone knows: Israel and its die-hard supporters here in the United States have a choice. Down one road is a viable two-state solution that will guarantee Israel's democratic and Jewish character, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, remove the stigma of looming apartheid, turn the 2007 Arab Peace Plan into a reality and ensure Israel's acceptance in the region, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, and ultimately preserve the Zionist dream. Down another road lies the folly of a "greater Israel," in which a minority Jewish population tries to permanently subjugate an eventual Arab majority, thereby guaranteeing endless conflict, accelerating the gradual delegitimization of Israel in the eyes of the rest of the world, handing Iran a potent wedge issue, and making the United States look deeply hypocritical whenever it talks about self-determination and human rights.
The speech also tells you how much Obama has learned since taking office. After being repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu and the lobby ever since the June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has learned that he can't take them on directly. By necessity, therefore, he's now relying on the indirect approach. His strategy is to keep pointing out what is palpably obvious: the alternative that Netanyahu and AIPAC propose is simply not going to work, and the costs of trying to pursue it will only increase with time. And because this argument has the merit of being true, more and more people are going to be convinced by it.
It would be better, of course, if a great power like the United States could use its considerable leverage directly, in order to bring the parties to an agreement. Indeed, it would have been far, far better had the U.S. done so during the Oslo peace process, instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer." But given political realities in the region and the lobby's continued influence here in the United States, what Obama did yesterday was probably the best one could hope for. I doubt it will be enough, but it was better than I expected.
One of the downsides of blogging is the feeling that if youtry to take a day or two off, something big will happen and you'll miss thechance to say anything about it. So mywife and I spent this weekend in Portland, Maine, to celebrate our 20thanniversary, and what happens? GeorgeMitchell resigns, Palestinian demonstrations in Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza,and Syria (!) spill across the ceasefire lines and the "most moral army in theworld" ends up shooting and killing several of them. Meanwhile, NATO officials call for escalating the war inLibya, the head of the IMF gets arrested on suspicion of rape in New York, andthere's lots of speculation about what Obama is going to say in his upcomingMiddle East speech (and what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his speech toCongress the day after). And then we learn that Obama is planning to address the annual AIPAC policy conferencenext weekend, a decision that strikes me as both beneath the dignity of the Presidency and a classic "no-win" situation to boot. (If he panders he'll just confirm what everybody now suspects about America's paralyzed Middle East policy; if he tells them the truth, he'll face a firestorm of criticism here at home. Why not just send Biden?)
I know this isn't about me, but if this is what happens whenI go away for a weekend, maybe I should just stay home. So let me play catch-up on some of the news.
The word that comes to mind is "trapped." George Mitchell was trapped in a dead-endjob as special envoy, because his job was to shepherd negotiations and therewere no negotiations taking place. Someof you may recall that I thought Mitchell should have resigned eighteen months ago, onceit became clear that Obama wasn't willing to take on Netanyahu or the Israellobby. Had he resigned then, it mighthave been of some modest value as a wake-up call. His resignation last Friday was more of awhimper than a bang.
But Mitchell wasn't the only one who's trapped. So are Arab dictators like Muammar Qadhafi in Libyaand Bashar Assad in Syria, even if they manage to cling to power temporarily throughthe use of brutal force. They aretrapped because demands for greater openness and justice aren't going to end,and their responses over the past few months now guarantee that there can be nosoft landing or safe exit strategy for them. If they fall, they will fall completely, andprobably lose their lives in the bargain. So they are trapped in the dead-end spiral of repression and stagnation,while the rest of the world advances.
The Palestinians are still trapped of course; they remain theworld's largest stateless populations and are simultaneously victims ofIsrael's expulsion in 1947-48 and again in 1967, decades of Arab neglect andexploitation, Israel's long occupation/control of the West Bank and Gaza, and prolongedWestern indifference. Their only silver lining is the growing realization that terrorist violence is not their best route to statehood, but diplomacy, publicity, and non-violent civil protest might be.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trapped too: by hisideological devotion to the dream of "Greater Israel," by the even more hawkishstance of the settlers and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and by theuncertainties created by the recent upheavals in the Arab world. He can't do the right thing and move swiftlytowards the creation of a viable Palestinian state--even if he wanted to, whichis highly unlikely--though this step would end the demographic threat toIsrael's democratic and Jewish character andremove the main reason why people around the world are increasinglycritical of Israel's conduct. Instead, by clinging to the policies of the past,the IDF ends up having to crack down on demonstrators on the West Bank andalong the borders, which means they start to resemble the thugs that areputting down pro-democracy movements in Syria and Bahrain. (No, I'm not saying the situations are identical, but appearances do matter).
And Barack Obama is surely trapped too. I think he's understood what needed to bedone in the Middle East since before he became president; he just didn't recognizethat it would be a lot harder to do than he thought. He knew that achieving a viable two-statesolution was the most obvious way to remove the primary source of Arab andMuslim anger at the United States, as well as the best way to safeguardIsrael's long-term future. As he said inCairo back in June 2009, a two-state solution was "in America's interest, thePalestinians' interest, Israel's interest," and the world's interest." And if he could pull that off, then theUnited States could stop devoting so much time on the squabbles in the MiddleEast and start shifting more of its strategic attention to the far more seriousissue of China's rise in Asia. But Obamadidn't fully recognize the power of the Israel lobby, which made it impossiblefor him to deliver on his early commitments. And as long as that is the case, Obama (or his successors) will remaintrapped in policies that aren't good for America, Israel, or any of our otherfriends in the region.
Five years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and I published "The Israel Lobby" in the London Review of Books. Our goal in writing the article (and subsequent book) was to break the taboo on discussions of the lobby's impact on U.S. foreign policy, and to transform it into a topic that people could talk about openly and calmly. Because we believed the "special relationship" that the lobby had promoted was harmful to the United States and Israel (not to mention the Palestinians), we hoped that a more open discourse on this topic would move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for almost everyone.
Did we succeed?To read the full article, click here.
Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel's continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn't question Israel's legitimacy, didn't declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn't call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with "secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.
There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.
Yet even now, with the peace process and the two-state solution flat-lining, the Obama administration couldn't bring itself to vote for a U.N. resolution that reflected the U.S. government's own position on settlements. The transparently lame explanation given by U.S. officials was that the security council isn't the right forum to address this issue. Instead, they claimed that the settlements issue ought to be dealt with in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the security council should have nothing to say on the issue.
This position is absurd on at least two grounds. First, the expansion of settlements is clearly an appropriate issue for the security council to consider, given that it is authorized to address obvious threats to international peace and security. Second, confining this issue to "direct talks" doesn't make much sense when those talks are going nowhere. Surely the Obama administration recognizes that its prolonged and prodigious effort to get meaningful discussions going have been a complete bust? It is hard to believe that they didn't recognize that voting "yes" on the resolution might be a much-needed wake-up call for the Israeli government, and thus be a good way to get the peace process moving again? Thus far, all that Obama's Middle East team has managed to do in two years is to further undermine U.S. credibility as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and to dash the early hopes that the United States was serious about "two states for two peoples." And while Obama, Mitchell, Clinton, Ross, and the rest of the team have floundered, the Netanyahu government has continued to evict Palestinian residents from their homes, its bulldozers and construction crews continuing to seize more and more of the land on which the Palestinians hoped to create a state.
Needless to say, the United States is all by its lonesome on this issue. Our fellow democracies -- France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, India, and Colombia -- all voted in favor of the resolution, but not the government of the Land of the Free. And it's not as if Netanyahu deserved to be rewarded at this point, given how consistently he has stiffed Obama and his Middle East team.
Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention to both.
Item No. 1: Steve and several of his associates have sponsored an important open letter, co-signed by an impressive list of former government officials, journalists, and academics. The letter calls for the United States government to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's continued efforts to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The normal U.S. practice is to veto such resolutions, even though the official U.S. government position is that settlement construction is illegal and an obstacle to peace. Given that the peace process itself is going nowhere, however, supporting such a resolution would be an important symbolic act that would signal to the Netanyahu government that it cannot act with impunity. It would also remind the rest of the world that the Obama administration isn't just a lap dog when it comes to these issues and that Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 wasn't just empty rhetoric.
More importantly, voting for this resolution is not an "anti-Israel" act, though it would undoubtedly be seen as such by most groups in the "status quo" lobby. The signatories to the letter were no doubt primarily concerned with advancing U.S. interests, but in this case the long-term interests of the United States and Israel are identical. As many Americans and Israelis now realize, the settlement enterprise has been a costly blunder for Israel. By making a two-state solution more difficult (and maybe impossible), it even threatens Israel's long-term future. Although no government likes open criticism or Security Council censure, backing this resolution is an easy way for the United States to help Israel begin to rethink its present course and strengthen our tarnished credentials as an honest broker.
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Keeping up with Jeffrey Goldberg's errors is like trying to dam the Gulf Stream, and responding to his repeated smears is a mug's game. I suppose I could quote a bunch of snarky comments about him too, and we could have a nasty blogosopheric food fight for the entertainment of our readers. But I prefer to focus on the issues, instead of the name-calling that is J.G.'s stock-in-trade.
His latest silly sally is to chide me for my saying that there is no meaningful "Arab lobby" in Washington. As evidence, he points out that various Arab states have paid a lot of money to various public relations firms, in a rather transparent attempt to gain some influence in Washington. The question to ask is whether these activities produce "meaningful" influence on key foreign policy issues, especially when you compare them with the lobbying groups on the other side.
Once you ask that question, of course, his case collapses. Let's look at the vast influence that the "Arab lobby" has wielded in recent years.
1. It is undoubtedly the all-powerful Arab lobby that ensures that Israel gets $3-4 billion in economic and military aid each year, even when it does things that the United States opposes, like building settlements. And were it not for the Arab lobby, the United States would be putting a lot of pressure on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and come clean about its nuclear arsenal.
2. It was the vaunted Arab lobby that convinced President Bush to delay a U.N. ceasefire resolution during the Lebanon War of 2006, so that Israel could try to finish off Hezbollah and continue bombing civilian areas in Lebanon. Pressure from the Arab lobby also convinced Congress to pass a resolution backing Israel to the hilt, and to remove language from the original draft that called for both sides to "protect civilian life and infrastructure."
3. When Ambassador Charles Freeman was nominated to chair the National Intelligence Council in 2009, the vast Arab lobby promptly launched a successful smear campaign to deny him the post, running roughshod over his outnumbered and powerless defenders at the New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, and Washington Post.
4. When Obama asked Israel to implement a settlement freeze in 2009, the Arab lobby promptly swung into action and drafted open letters warning the President not to put any pressure on Israel. These resolutions passed overwhelmingly in both Houses, another sign of the Arab lobby's political clout.
5. When Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008, the Arab lobby was there to prevent the U.S. from interfering. And when the Goldstone Report raised the issue of possible Israeli war crimes in that war, the Arab Lobby no doubt called the Obama administration and told it to condemn the report, which it promptly did.
The good news is that the Obama administration has withdrawn its humiliating attempt to bribe Israel into accepting a 90-day extension of the (partial) settlement freeze. Not only was this negotiating ploy one of the more degrading moments in the annals of U.S. diplomacy, it also had scant chance of success. To their credit, Obama's Middle East teams finally figured this out -- a few weeks later than most observers -- and pulled the plug on the deal.
The bad news, however, is that it's not clear what their next move is. Everyone now realizes that the United States cannot play the role of a fair-minded mediator in this conflict, and the early hopes that Obama would adopt a smarter approach have been repeatedly dashed.
This situation isn't good for anyone -- not the United States, not Israel, and not the Palestinians. It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.
This failure will further complicate our efforts elsewhere in the region. As former President Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, solving the Israel-Palestine problem "will take about half the impetus in the whole world -- not just the region, the whole world -- for terror away. . . It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done." It is also clear from the recent WikiLeaks releases that our Arab partners want the United States to do something about Iran, but they remain deeply concerned by the Palestinian issue and they recognize that progress on Israel-Palestine would go a long way to reducing Iran's regional influence.
Unfortunately, there's little reason to expect any sort of breakthrough, which means that local forces and dynamics are going to be exerting greater weight. When others believe that the United States is in charge of the "peace process" and leading it in a positive direction, they sit back and let Uncle Sam do the work. But now that Obama's team has failed, local actors will take matters into their own hands and U.S. influence is likely to diminish further. Why wait for Washington to deliver a deal when it is obvious that it can't?
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the events of the past two years have done a lot to clarify both where we are and where we are headed. One can take no joy from that, because the current path is bound to produce more needless suffering in the short to medium term, and maybe beyond. But dispelling the myths and illusions that have obscured our vision is of some value, and in this case, one didn't even need WikiLeaks to figure out what's going on.
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I never cease to be amazed at how virtually any criticism of Israel can cause Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic to go bananas and make all sorts of wild charges. This tendency is especially evident when someone writes about the Israel lobby. It is usually best to ignore him, because he seems incapable of getting the simplest facts right. But occasionally I feel the need to set the record straight.
Goldberg's forte is character assassination, and his main weapons are name-calling and misrepresenting his opponents' arguments. Instead of calling me a "Jew-baiter" (a despicable accusation for which he has no grounds), as he has in the past, his latest sally calls me a "neo-Lindberghian," again implying that I am an anti-Semite. This is a serious charge -- the political equivalent of calling someone a racist or child molester -- and you'd think a respectable journalist would go to some effort to document the label before using it. You'd think he'd supply a lengthy array of quotations from my writings and speeches to prove his point. Goldberg cannot do this, however, because no such evidence exists.
Goldberg doesn't know me; doesn't know my history, relatives, friends, students, and close associates, and has no idea what I really think about any of these questions. Judging by what he writes about my work, he doesn't even know what I've written. For example, he claims that the book that John Mearsheimer and I wrote on the Israel lobby describes a "nefarious, all-powerful Jewish lobby." and that we "love to capitalize the word 'Lobby.'" Both statements are demonstrably false, as he would know if he had bothered to examine the issue.
We portray the lobby as a legitimate interest group like many others and emphasize that its activities are a normal part of democratic politics in America (pp. 13-14, 112, 150). We explicitly reject the term "Jewish lobby" (p. 115) and we don't capitalize the word lobby anywhere in the 484-page book. Indeed, the only place we ever capitalized that word was in our original London Review article; but we openly acknowledged in our subsequent response to critics that this usage was misleading and have not done so in any of our subsequent writings.
Journalists are supposed to be concerned with truth and accuracy. But Goldberg is clearly incapable of being objective or open-minded when the subject is Israel, which is why he quickly descends to innuendo and fabrication when dealing with anyone who criticizes that country's policies, questions America's special relationship with the Jewish state, or raises doubts the activities of the Israel lobby. He invents false charges for a simple reason: It would be impossible to smear us if he had to rely on what we actually said. So he has to make things up.
Goldberg is also wrong when he says the latest WikiLeaks revelations discredit our arguments about the lobby's role in encouraging a war with Iran. We argued that if the United States were foolish enough to start a war against Iran, it would be largely due to the influence of Israel and especially the lobby. Both Israel and its hardline supporters here in the United States have been relentless in their efforts to push the United States to confront Iran, and to keep the military option at the ready. There is nothing in WikiLeaks that changes that assessment. Yes, there has also been pressure from some Arab leaders, such as the king of Saudi Arabia, to use force against Iran. There are also prominent voices in the Arab world warning that this step would be disastrous. But the key point is that these Arab leaders have much less influence on the United States than Israel does.
First, Arab leaders cannot make the case for war in public, because their publics oppose this course of action. Israel, on the other hand, is constantly making the case for war directly and overtly. Second, Israel has a powerful lobby in the United States that has been working overtime to push the United States to strike Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states have no meaningful lobby in Washington, which is why their repeated requests that the United States do something to end Israel's illegal occupation and harsh treatment of the Palestinians have fallen on deaf ears for decades.
It is Israel and the lobby, not the Arabs, that are shaping the discourse on Iran, and it is disingenuous for Goldberg to suggest otherwise. Does he not know about the origins of "dual containment," as recounted in recent books by Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi? Is he unaware of AIPAC's successful effort to kill the CONOCO oil deal with Iran in 1995, or the lobby's role in pushing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, not to mention the 2010 version of unilateral U.S. sanctions? Has he forgotten his own recent writings, which warned that top Israeli leaders were contemplating war with Iran in early 2011?
Bear in mind that we still do not know if Iran is actively seeking an overt nuclear weapons capability or not. The December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which has not been superseded by a new estimate, said that Tehran was not trying to build nuclear weapons. And the evidence we have in the public record about Iran's nuclear program does not show in any conclusive way that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal. One can hardly rule out the possibility, of course, but neither should we simply assume that Tehran is hell-bent on building an actual weapon. It is even possible that these Arab leaders are so concerned that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in part because they have been influenced by the efforts of Israel and the lobby to hype the Iran threat, just as they hyped the WMD threat from Iraq in the earlier part of this decade.
Perhaps I take Goldberg too seriously, and I should just ignore his regrettable tendency to distort the views of those with whom he disagrees. If Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly get to spout dangerous nonsense, why can't Goldberg? Yet it is important to point out what he is doing, because he is a textbook case of the lengths to which many defenders of Israel will go in order to convince Americans that they must support it no matter what. Like the Cuban-American lobby, the gun lobby, and other narrow interest groups, the Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby isn't really interested in truth or even a fair-minded discussion of the issues. They just smear their targets with made-up accusations, knowing that if you throw enough mud, some of it is bound to stick.
I suspect that what really ticks Goldberg off is this: My co-author and I (and a few others) have had the temerity to write critically about the political role of "pro-Israel" forces (both Jewish and non-Jewish) in America today. This is a topic that the goyim aren't supposed to talk about openly. It's fine for Goldberg to write at length about this topic, or for former Forward editor J. J. Goldberg, to devote an entire book (which is well worth reading) to it. But when a non-Jew writes about this issue, and suggests that these groups are advocating foolish and self-defeating policies, then that person must of course be an anti-Semite. If Jews express similar doubts, they must be labeled as "self-hating" and marginalized as well.
Please. I really do understand this sort of tribalism and up to a point, I'm sympathetic to it. Given Jewish history -- and especially the dark legacy of genuine anti-Semitism -- it is unsurprising that some people are quick to assume that any gentile who criticizes the present "special relationship" must have sinister motives, even when there's no actual basis for the suspicion. But that sensitivity doesn't make the elephant in the room disappear, and given that America's Middle East policy affects all of us, the various factors that shape that policy ought to open to fair-minded discussion devoid of name-calling and character assassination.
So yes, Jeffrey, there is a powerful "Israel lobby" (though it's not "all-powerful"). Yes, many individuals in the lobby think the United States should do whatever it takes--including the use of military force -- to eliminate Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities. They aren't the only people who think this, but they have been among the loudest and most persistent voices advocating this course of action. And yes, like most (all?) lobbies, some of the policies that it promotes are not in the best interests of the country as a whole. These facts are so obvious and so easy to document that it's no wonder that a zealot like Goldberg prefers to throw mud whenever somebody points them out.
I've been trying to figure what I think of the latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the most part I agree with FP colleague Marc Lynch -- it's hard to see how this is going to lead anywhere. Even if you get a 90-day extension of the partial freeze on settlement building, nobody thinks you can get a viable final-status agreement in that time period. The best you could hope for is some sort of agreement on borders, but even there I'd be pretty pessimistic.
But let me put aside my usual skepticism and ask a different question: What can the Obama team do to maximize the chances of tangible progress? They've already given Israel a lot of carrots up front: a promise of F-35 aircraft, a pledge to never, ever, ever raise the issue of a settlement freeze again, and a guarantee that we will keep defending Israel in the United Nations, and probably a bunch of other goodies too. Plus, we agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the deal, even though this is a major irritant on the Palestinian side. All told, Netanyahu got a pretty big reward for being recalcitrant. At first glance, there's not much to stop him for halting some (but not all) settlement building, digging in his heels for 90 days, and then going back to business-as-usual.
Here's the rub: given the power of the Israel lobby, it's unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would be able to put any overt pressure on Israel. Congress will make sure that Israel gets its annual aid package, and die-hard defenders like Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) will make it impossible for Obama to use the leverage that is potentially at his disposal. And as noted above, those same forces will make sure that the United States continues veto any unfavorable resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and deflects international efforts to raise question about Israel's nuclear program.
So what's a president to do? Obama and his team have a huge incentive to make this latest gamble pay off. Obama has been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech (which can't be pleasant), George Mitchell is probably worried his long career as a public servant will end in abject failure, and I'll bet Middle East advisor Dennis Ross would like to prove that he's not really "Israel's lawyer" after all. And surely everybody on the team knows that another cave-in will completely derail any hope of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Islamic world. But given that overt pressure is out, what cards do Mitchell, Ross, Clinton, and Obama have to play?
Here's my suggestion: assuming direct talks do resume under U.S. auspices, tell the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that the United States is going to keep a very careful record of who did and said what, and the United States will not hesitate to go public in the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions. Unlike Camp David 2000, where nothing was written down and no maps were exchanged (at Israel's insistence), this time we are going to prevent anybody from doing a lot of spin-control after the fact. In other words, the United States tells everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change, and if either side refuses to play ball, we are going to expose their recalcitrance in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, this declaration can't be a bluff: if the talks bog down, the administration has to be prepared to go public.
And remember: The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all made it clear a viable state for the Palestinians is the only alternative that the United States can get behind. It is what the original U.N. partition plan in 1947 called for, and all the other alternatives (binational democracy, ethnic cleansing, or permanent apartheid) are either impractical or directly at odds with U.S. values.
This approach might actually work, because public discourse on this subject has begun to open up and it is increasingly difficult to spin a one-sided story. (See here for a recent example.) Moreover, many Israelis are growing worried about what they see as a growing international campaign to "delegitimize" their country. The best way to counter that alleged campaign is to end the occupation and establish internationally recognized borders. By contrast, if Israel is seen as the main obstacle to peace, international criticism is bound to increase. Given these concerns, a threat to make the negotiating process public might actually have some bite to it.
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I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
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One of the silliest things ever written was F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement that, "There are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald obviously wasn't around to witness the lives of Oliver North, Elliot Spitzer, G. Gordon Liddy, Elliott Abrams, or Madonna's entire career. I'm even betting Tiger Woods manages a pretty successful second act after his own embarrassing melodrama.
If Fitzgerald were alive today and studying the United States' Middle East policy, he'd never have written such a silly line. I refer to Laura Rozen's latest Politico column, entitled "On the Mideast: Waiting for Superman." Rozen suggests that the Obama administration is thinking about bringing former Clinton-era official Martin Indyk into the government to jump-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks. She also speculates about the possibility of using former president Bill Clinton as some sort of a special envoy, an idea that has been recently advanced by New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
Waiting for Superman? More like Waiting for Godot.
There's little doubt that the Obama's administration's handling of Mideast affairs has been an embarrassing failure, but it is hard to see how these personnel moves would help. Nothing personal, but didn't these guys have the chance to produce an Israel-Palestinian peace in the 1990s -- when conditions were a lot more favorable -- and didn't their efforts end in near-total failure? (That goes for Dennis Ross too, who is already a key player on this issue in the current administration, and who seems to be repeating his past mistakes.) Clinton, Indyk, and Ross were handed a golden opportunity with the Oslo Peace Accords back in 1993, and they spent the rest of the 1990s squandering it. They had plenty of help from the Israelis and Palestinians, but the U.S. record during that decade is hardly one that inspires confidence.
Let's also not forget that Indyk was the chief architect of "dual containment," a remarkably foolish policy that achieved the neat trick of putting the United States at odds with two countries (Iran and Iraq) that also hated each other. It also forced the United States to keep large air and ground forces in the Persian Gulf, thereby contributing to the rise of al Qaeda. And as both Ken Pollock and Trita Parsi have shown, a primary motive for dual containment was reassuring Israel about Iran, so that it would be more forthcoming in the peace discussions. Gee, that worked out great, didn't it?
As for the former president, it's clear he recognizes the value that a peace deal would bring, and I don't question his sincerity on this issue. But his own track record isn't encouraging either. The number of Israeli settlers more than doubled during his eight years as president, and he didn't lift a finger to stop it. Moreover, he persuaded Yasser Arafat to go to the hastily-prepared Camp David summit by promising Arafat that he would not be blamed if the talks didn't succeed. But when the talks collapsed, Clinton walked out to the microphones and put all the blame squarely on Arafat, in violation of his earlier promise and contrary to the available evidence. (Arafat was partly to blame for Camp David's failure, but so were the United States and Israel.) That act of political vengeance contributed greatly to the myth that Israel has "no partner" for peace, a belief that has undermined all subsequent efforts to end this tragic conflict.
When it comes to the United States' Middle East policy, in short, there are an infinite number of "second acts." In a country of 300 million people, you'd think we could find a few fresh faces to handle these issues, instead of retreads who have been tried and found wanting. Instead, we keep recycling the same people (mostly for domestic political reasons), who adopt more-or-less the same negotiating strategy, yet somehow we expect a different, happier ending. And so we get the same familiar melodrama, and like any tragedy, the play always ends badly.
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Last week, Laura Rozen of Politico reported that Mideast envoy George Mitchell's chief of staff, Mara Rudman, was resigning to take a job with USAID. Her article suggested that it was a sign of friction in Clinton's Middle East team, and for all I know that's correct. But the real problem isn't "friction" inside Obama's team; the problem is that nobody there seems to have any idea what they are doing.
I used to think that the 2000 Camp David Summit was the most ill-prepared and mishandled peace discussion in Middle East history -- which is saying something -- but I'm beginning to think that Obama and his team are making a serious try at breaking that dubious record. First they raise expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, then undercut their own credibility by retreating steadiliy in the face of Israeli intransigence, until they end up literally begging and bribing Netanyahu to continue a settlement slowdown (not freeze) for a mere two months.
Question: Is this how a smart great power behaves?
Answer: Not if it wants to get anything done or be taken seriously.
Rudman's departure, however, is essentially meaningless. There is no evidence that anyone in the Obama team is committed to doing what it takes to actually get a meaningful deal, and so there won't be one. Full stop. You'd have to fire the whole lot of them and start over, and appoint people who were willing to get really mad when they were repeatedly diddled by a client state, and who didn't think that the best way to negotiate was to give one side a lot of goodies up front (in exchange for very little), while expecting the other side to accept a lot of promises to be redeemed at some unspecified point down the road (and maybe never).
Unfortunately, the odds that Obama will clean house and bring in a new team are about the same as the odds of my sprouting wings and flying to the moon. And the result, as I've said before, will be not "two states" but one, with all the attendant difficulties that this outcome will produce for all concerned. So I guess Rudman should be congratulated for having the good sense to abandon this charade. My question remains: Why hasn't George Mitchell done the same?
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Back in 2007, a couple of political scientists wrote the following:
One might think that U.S. generosity would give Washington considerable leverage over Israel's conduct, but this has not been the case. When dealing with Israel, in fact, U.S. leaders can usually elicit cooperation only by offering additional carrots (increased assistance) rather than employing sticks (threats to withhold aid)." (pp. 37-38)
They offered several examples to illustrate this phenomenon, and quoted Israeli leader Shimon Peres saying that: "As to the question of U.S. pressure on Israel, I would say they handled us more with a carrot than with a stick."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Yesterday the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama administration has offered Israel a generous package of new benefits if it will just extend the settlement freeze for another two months. The source for the report was David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a key organization in the Israel lobby. Makovsky is also a co-author with Obama Middle East advisor Dennis Ross, so presumably he has accurate knowledge about this latest initiative, which is said to take the form of a personal letter from Obama to Netanyahu.
Assuming this report is true, it marks a new low in U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Just consider the message that Obama's team is sending the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu has been giving Obama the finger ever since the Cairo speech in June 2009, but instead of being punished for it, he's getting rewarded for being so difficult. So why should any rational person expect Bibi's position to change if this is what happens when he digs in his heels?
Although failure to achieve a two-state solution is ultimately much more of a problem for Israel than for the United States, we have been reduced to begging them and bribing to stop building settlements -- please ... please ... pretty please? ... and then only for a mere 60 days.
Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably craven fashion, it's just plain stupid. How will this latest bribe change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in two months? Remember that there isn't even a genuine freeze right now, only a slowdown, which means that a deal will be just a little bit harder in two months than it is today. Does Obama think his bargaining position will be stronger after the midterm elections? And if construction resumes, what then?
Back when direct talks were announced, I said they wouldn't go anywhere, and I've made it clear in the past that I think this situation is a brewing tragedy for all concerned. And then I said I hoped the Obama administration would prove me wrong. Looks like there's little danger of that, alas.
P.S. Haaretz has reported that Netanyahu is not inclined to accept the administration's offer, which leaves us right where we started. That is to say, with little hope that this latest round of talks will lead anywhere. The real question is: When will the United States try a different approach?
UPDATE: Ha'aretz now reports that the White House is denying that any letter was sent outlining the conditions originally identified by Makovsky, thought it does not say that the information was not conveyed in some other way. If the entire report is bogus then new puzzles arise: where did Makovsky get these ideas? Was it a trial balloon? An attempt to make policy via leaks? An attempt to show that Netanyahu was being really stubborn? I have no idea, but unless the whole thing was just a hallucination on Makovsky's part (and that's hard to believe), then it reinforces the idea that the Obama Middle East team is improvising wildly and/or not on the same page.
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I'm sure most of you are "shocked, shocked" to hear that the Israeli government rejected U.S. requests that it extend the so-called freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Never mind that it wasn't a real freeze (i.e., it didn't stop existing projects or the expulsion of more Palestinians from East Jerusalem, etc.); the partial halt in new authorizations did have a certain symbolic value. By refusing to extend it, the Netanyahu government has shown that it cares more about continuing the 43-years-and-counting process of colonization than it does about achieving a final peace deal.
At this point, Obama's Middle East team will try to come up with some sort of face-saving maneuver to keep the negotiations alive. Translated: they need a fig leaf to conceal how badly they've bungled this issue. Because putting serious pressure on Israel is anathema (especially in an election year), they will have to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the table even as construction resumes, so that he can watch the bulldozers make a "viable state" impossible while the talk, talk, talk continues. They may succeed in keeping the charade going, but it will be a pyrrhic victory that changes nothing.
Two key points should be kept in mind as you watch this diplomatic train wreck.
First, one of the great myths of Middle East diplomacy is the old cliché that "the United States can't want it more than the parties do." This excuse for inaction is trotted out whenever the United States fails to exercise the enormous potential leverage at its disposal, and it's just plain silly. There's no reason why the United States can't want a settlement more than Israel or the Palestinians do, particularly if the two sides are so mired in dysfunctional politics or old Likudnik dreams that they need to be pushed hard to make a deal. Unfortunately, this conflict isn't just about them; it's also about us. And when U.S. interests are at stake, we can want a solution just as much -- and maybe even more -- than they do.
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President Obama is hosting a dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 1, in order to kick off the new round of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. As regular readers know, I don't think this effort will go anywhere, because the two sides are too far apart and because the Obama administration won't have the political will to push them towards the necessary compromises.
Furthermore, there are now a few hints that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistakes that doomed the Clinton administration's own Middle East peacemaking efforts and the Bush administration's even more half-hearted attempts (i.e., the "Road Map" and the stillborn Annapolis summit). Last week, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth provided a summary of a conference call between Obama Middle East advisors Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and David Hale and the leaders of a number of influential American Jewish organizations. According to the article (whose accuracy I cannot vouch for), the goal of the direct talks will be a "framework agreement" between the two sides that would then be implemented over a period of up to ten years.
Excuse me, but haven't we seen this movie before, and isn't the last reel a bummer? This idea sounds a lot like the Oslo Accords, which also laid out a "framework" for peace, but deferred the hard issues to the end and repeatedly missed key deadlines. Or maybe it's another version of the Road Map/Annapolis summit, which offered deadlines and bold talk and led precisely nowhere. Or perhaps what they have in mind is a "shelf agreement" -- a piece of paper that sits "on the shelf" until conditions are right (i.e., forever). It is this sort of charade that has led veteran observers like Henry Siegman to denounce the long-running peace process as a "scam," and Siegman is hardly alone in that view.
Here's the basic problem: Unless the new "framework" is very detailed and specific about the core issues -- borders, the status of East Jerusalem, the refugee issue, etc., -- we will once again have a situation where spoilers on both sides have both an incentive and the opportunity to do whatever they can to disrupt the process. And even if it were close to a detailed final-status agreement, a ten-year implementation schedule provides those same spoilers (or malevolent third parties) with all the time they will need to try to derail the deal. I can easily imagine Netanyahu and other hardliners being happy with this arrangement, as they would be able to keep expanding settlements (either openly or covertly) while the talks drag on, which is what has happened ever since Oslo (and under both Likud and Labor governments). Ironically, some members of Hamas might secretly welcome this outcome too, because it would further discredit moderates like Abbas and Fayyad. And there is little reason to think the United States would do a better job of managing the process than it did in 1990s.
The great paradox of the negotiations is that United States is clearly willing and able to put great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas (albeit in different ways), even though that is like squeezing a dry lemon by now. Fatah has already recognized Israel's existence and has surrendered any claims to 78 percent of original Mandate Palestine; all they are bargaining over now is the share they will get of the remaining 22 percent. Moreover, that 22 percent is already dotted with Israeli settlements (containing about 500,000 people), and carved up by settler-only bypass roads, checkpoints, fences, and walls. And even if they were to get an independent state on all of that remaining 22 percent (which isn't likely) they will probably have to agree to some significant constraints on Palestinian sovereignty and they are going to have to compromise in some fashion on the issue of the "right of return." The obvious point is that when you've got next to nothing, you've got very little left to give up, no matter how hard Uncle Sam twists your arm.
At this point, the main concessions have to come from Israel, simply because it is the occupying power whose presence in the West Bank and whose physical control over Gaza makes a Palestinian state impossible. Some readers may think this characterization is unfair, but the issue isn't so much one of "fairness" as one of simple practicality. How do you possibly create "two states for two peoples" if Israel doesn't withdraw from virtually all of the West Bank?
MENAHEM KAHANA/ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
If you think today's announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume "direct talks" is a significant breakthrough, you haven't been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing.
Why do I say this? Three reasons.
1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguous state in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.
2. There is no sign that Israel's government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian "state" consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a "two-state solution," and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn't let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.
3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We're clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas' arm to the breaking point (which is why he's agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?
So don't fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the "peace process." George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive "talks" will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.
The one item in all this that does give me pause is the accompanying statement by the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the EU and the U.N.), which appears at first glance to have some modest teeth in it. Among other things, it calls explicitly for "a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors." It also says these talks can be completed within one year. Sounds promising, but the Quartet has issued similar proclamations before (notably the 2003 "Roadmap"), and these efforts led precisely nowhere. So maybe there's a ray of hope in there somewhere, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans here in the United States will continue to make pious statements about their commitment to a two-state solution, even as it fades further and further into the realm of impossibility. Barring a miracle, we will eventually have to recognize that "two-states for two peoples" has become a pipe-dream. At that point, U.S. leaders will face a very awkward choice: they can support a democratic Israel where Jews and Arabs have equal political rights (i.e., a one-state democracy similar to the United States, where discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity is taboo), or they can support an apartheid state whose basic institutions are fundamentally at odds with core American values.
Equally important, an apartheid Israel will face growing international censure, and as both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have warned, such an outcome would place Israel's own long-term future in doubt. If that happens, all those staunch "friends of Israel" who have hamstrung U.S. diplomacy for decades can explain to their grandchildren how they let that happen.
As for the Obama administration itself, I have only one comment. If you think I'm being too gloomy, then do the world a favor and prove me wrong. If you do, I'll be the first to admit it.
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If you are worried that the United States might be foolish enough to attack Iran, then you might take comfort from Jeffrey Goldberg's lengthy and alarmist Atlantic article on the subject. Based on a flock of mostly anonymous interviews, Goldberg has concluded that odds are better than 50-50 that Israel will attack Iran sometime next spring. Given his track record as a Middle East analyst -- particularly when it comes to the wisdom of using force -- you might be justified in viewing that prediction as a sign that war was in fact quite unlikely.
I've said plenty already about the reasons why Iran is not a grave threat that justifies preemptive war, and why neither the United States nor Israel should be thinking about a military strike, so I don't feel compelled to dismantle Goldberg's restating of the hawks' case yet again. And I don't have to, because others have already done so quite ably.
Instead, I'd just like to highlight what's really going on here. Although Goldberg does not explicitly call for the United States to attack Iran and is careful to acknowledge the potential downsides of this option, the tone and thrust of the article is clearly intended to nudge the Obama administration toward an attack. He emphasizes that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities would be very difficult for Israel (some analysts think it is it is essentially impossible), but says it would be easy for the United States. He reminds us that Obama has repeatedly said that Iran with nuclear weapons would be "unacceptable," and suggests that both Israel and various Arab states have real doubts about Obama's toughness.
The implication is clear: "If you meant what you said, Mr. President, and you don't want people to think you're a wimp, you'd better get serious about military force."
In short, a central purpose of this article is to mainstream the idea that an attack on Iran is likely to happen and savvy people-in-the-know should start getting accustomed to the idea. In other words, a preemptive strike on Iran should be seen not as a remote or far-fetched possibility, but rather as something that is just "business-as-usual" in the Middle East strategic environment. If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
You'll recall that a similar process of "mainstreaming" occurred over Iraq: What at first seemed like the far-fetched dream of a handful of out-of-power neoconservatives in 1998 had become a serious option by 2001. By 2003, aided in no small part by the efforts of journalists such as Goldberg, the idea had been embraced by liberals and others who should have known better.
Thus, articles like this one (and some other recent sallies), are intended to box Obama in, and create a win-win situation for the war party. If Obama eventually caves, they get the attack on Iran that they (wrongly) believe is necessary to ensure Israel's survival. If Obama doesn't take the bait, they can beat him up for being spineless. And by portraying him as soft on Iran, they make it even more difficult for Obama to exert the kind of pressure on both sides that is necessary to bring about a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
In our 2007 book on the Israel lobby, John Mearsheimer and I wrote (emphasis added):
Although there is still some chance that President Bush will decide to attack Iran before he leaves office, it is impossible to know for sure. There is also some possibility, given the inflexible rhetoric of the presidential candidates, that his successor will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hard-liners there continue to predominate. If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel's behalf, and the lobby will bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy."
As one would expect, Goldberg wrote a rather hysterical negative review of the book when it came out, and he enjoys calling us names and leveling unfounded accusations. It is therefore somewhat surprising that he is now doing his best to demonstrate how right we were.
Even though I am on vacation with my family this week, I was planning to blog today about the Washington Post's stunning series on the extraordinary expansion of America's intelligence apparatus since 9/11. It is outstanding investigative journalism, and its authors -- Dana Priest and William Arkin -- deserve enormous kudos. I'll share my thoughts on this matter later this week.
Instead of writing today about quality journalism, I unfortunately have to write about an article that fits squarely at the other end of the journalism spectrum. I refer here to the nasty column in Tablet magazine by Lee Smith, denouncing Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Philip Weiss, Jim Lobe and me for being "career Jew-baiters" and serving as facilitators of anti-Semitism.
As one might expect, the piece is long on invective and innuendo but almost completely devoid of meaningful evidence. Its only real value is to once again demonstrate the usual tactics that many of the so-called defenders of Israel employ against anyone who is critical either of Israel's actions or of America's special relationship with Israel.
The first thing to observe about Smith's screed is that even though he accuses me and my fellow bloggers of being anti-Semites and "Jew-baiters," his article contains not a scintilla of evidence that Sullivan, Greenwald, Weiss, or I have written or said anything that is remotely anti-Semitic, much less that involves "Jew-baiting." There's an obvious reason for this omission: None of us has ever written or said anything that supports Smith's outrageous charges.
Smith therefore has to resort to a new and bizarre form of "guilt-by-association." He attacks the four of us-and me in particular-by looking at some of the anonymous reader comments that appear in response to some of our posts. He finds that a few of those individuals who comment make some extreme statements, which he uses to argue that we are deliberately fostering anti-Semitism on our blogs. In other words, we must be anti-Semites because a handful of people whom we don't even know -- because their identities are secret -- are commenting on our posts. (It's not clear how this applies to Sullivan, by the way, because his blog doesn't have a comments thread.)
Via Ben Smith at Politico, we learn that the usual suspects have started yet another organization whose objective is to promote a hard-right, Likudnik agenda in the Middle East. The new group apparently intends to go after anyone who thinks U.S. Middle East policy has been less than totally successful in recent years, and who is willing to think for themselves (and U.S. interests), instead of reflexively echoing the positions favored by AIPAC and other groups in the "status quo" lobby.
To be more specific, Smith reports that hardline neoconservatives such as William Kristol, Michael Goldfarb, Noah Pollak, and Rachel Abrams have joined forces (again) with rightwing Christian evangelical Gary Bauer to establish a new group: the "Emergency Committee for Israel." The group says it is going to target candidates in key Senate and Congressional races, along with the Obama administration. It is directing its initial salvo (in the form of a TV ad) at Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA), who defeated incumbent Arlen Spector in the Democratic primary and is now running for the Senate. Sestak was targeted because he had the temerity not to sign an AIPAC-sponsored letter awhile back, and though he's a strong defender of Israel, he's been critical of Israel's counterproductive blockade of Gaza.
The ironies here are remarkable. For starters, you have some of the same geniuses who dreamed up and sold the Iraq War -- one of the dumbest blunders in the annals of U.S. foreign policy -- joining forces with someone who thinks U.S. Middle East policy ought to be based on his interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. They're going after a retired three-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, who also happens to have a Ph.D. in political economy and international affairs from Harvard. Given their track record over the past decade, this is actually a stunning endorsement of Sestak's candidacy. Criticism from these folks is like having Lindsay Lohan complain about your lifestyle choices, or having BP president Tony Hayward offer advice on environmental safety and public relations.
What is even more ironic is the group's paranoid name: the "Emergency Committee." Its members must think Israel is in real trouble, but what they don't seem to realize is that it is their advice that has helped lead to its current difficulties. Israel has been following the Likudnik/neoconservative/Christian Zionist program for several decades now, with vocal backing from the likes of Kristol, Pollak and Bauer, and the United States has been providing it with unconditional support for this self-destructive course.
Contrary to what many people think, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not win a great political victory over President Obama during their little love-fest last week. Sure, Obama has largely abandoned his early insistence that Israel stop building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and he's made it clear that his administration won't use U.S. pressure to bring about a genuine two-state solution. Contrary to his early rhetoric, Obama is proving to be just like most of his predecessors, and for essentially the same reason.
Last week was a tactical win for Bibi but yet another strategic misstep, because, as his predecessor Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have both acknowledged, only a viable two-state solution can prevent Israel from becoming a full-fledged apartheid state. This development will force the Palestinians to seek full political rights within this "greater Israel." And as Olmert warned back in 2007, "once that happens ... the state of Israel is finished."
As Jerome Slater pointed out on his own blog last week, the reason Obama couldn't do the right thing was the power of the lobby, and that includes the endless machinations of folks like Kristol and Bauer. They are right to think that Israel is in deep trouble and that it's likely to get worse. What they don't get is that it is to a large extent their fault.
Bottom line: If you want to kill off any prospect for peace, ensure that Israel's current difficulties multiply, and reinforce anti-Americanism throughout the region, by all means back any of the candidates that the "emergency committee" endorses.
URIEL SINAI/AFP/Getty Images
I suspect some readers are expecting me to comment on today's meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but I actually don't have that much to say about it. I think it's a largely meaningless public relations exercise, a kiss-and-make-up session designed to show that U.S-Israeli relations are still just fine and intended to keep "pro-Israel" dollars flowing into the Democratic Party's coffers in the run-up to the November mid-terms. I don't expect Bibi to make any serious concessions today and I doubt Barack will put any serious pressure on him. Instead, look for lots of smiles and handshakes, accompanied by frothy statements about "shared values" and "unbreakable commitments." Then you can switch channels, turn the page, or head for a different website.
There is only one big question here: is there going to be a genuine two-state solution or not? In other words, is Israel going to withdraw from most of the lands it occupied in 1967, end the siege of Gaza, and permit the Palestinians to establish an independent state of their own on those lands, including a capital in East Jerusalem? If so, then the rest of the Arab world will recognize it, its stigma as an occupying power will end, and U.S. relations with the Arab and Islamic world will improve significantly. It won't solve all our problems, of course, but it would be a major step forward.
If a two-state solution fails, however, then Israel will become a full-fledged apartheid state and will increasingly be seen as one. It will face growing international censure, liberal Israelis will be more inclined to emigrate, and the United States will continue to pay a significant price for the "special relationship."
President Obama understood all this when he took the oath of office,
but he's been in full retreat mode ever since his Cairo speech in June
2009. Unless today's meeting yields some unexpected results, it's
mostly a waste of time. And time is running out.
It couldn't be more predictable. Back when Israel and Turkey were strategic allies with extensive military-to-military ties, prominent neoconservatives were vocal defenders of the Turkish government and groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AIPAC encouraged Congress not to pass resolutions that would have labeled what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks during World War I a "genocide." (The "Armenian lobby" is no slouch, but it's no match for AIPAC and its allies in the Israel lobby). The fact that the ADL was in effect protecting another country against the charge of genocide is more than a little ironic, but who ever said that political organizations had to be ethically consistent? Once relations between Israel and Turkey began to fray, however -- fueled primarily by Turkish anger over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians -- the ADL and AIPAC withdrew their protection and Congressional defenders of Israel began switching sides, too.
Last week Jim Lobe published a terrific piece at InterPress Service, detailing how prominent neoconservatives have switched from being strong supporters (and in some cases well-paid consultants) of the Turkish government to being vehement critics. He lays out the story better than I could, but I have a few comments to add.
First, if this doesn't convince you that virtually all neoconservatives are deeply Israeli-centric, then nothing will. This affinity is hardly a secret; indeed, neocon pundit Max Boot once declared that support for Israel was a "key tenet" of neoconservatism. But the extent of their attachment to Israel is sometimes disguised by the claim that what they really care about is freedom and democracy, and therefore they support Israel simply because it is "the only democracy in the Middle East."
But now we see the neoconservatives turning on Turkey, even though it is a well-functioning democracy, a member of NATO, and a strong ally of the United States. Of course,Turkey's democracy isn't perfect, but show me one that is. The neocons have turned from friends of Turkey to foes for one simple reason: Israel. Specifically, the Turkish government has been openly critical of Israel's conduct toward the Palestinians, beginning with the blockade of Gaza, ramping up after the brutal bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009, and culminating in the lethal IDF attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. As Lobe shows, a flock of prominent neoconservatives are now busily demonizing Turkey, and in some cases calling for its expulsion from NATO.
Thus, whether a state is democratic or not matters little for the neocons; what matters for them is whether a state backs Israel or not. So if you're still wondering why so many neoconservatives worked overtime to get the U.S. to invade Iraq -- even though Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan or Pakistan -- and why they are now pushing for war with Iran, well, there's your answer.
As I've said repeatedly, there's nothing wrong with any American feeling a deep attachment to a foreign country and expressing it in politics, provided that they are open and honest about it and provided that other people can raise the issue without being accused of some sort of bigotry. The neocons' recent volte-face over Turkey is important because it reveals their policy priorities with particular clarity, and Lobe deserves full points for documenting it for us.
One last comment. Neoconservatives usually portray American and Israeli interests as essentially identical: In their eyes, what is good for Israel is good for the United States and vice versa. This claim makes unconditional U.S. support seem like a good idea, and it also insulates them from the charge that they are promoting Israel's interests over America's. After all, if the interests of the two states are really one and the same, then by definition there can be no conflict of interest, which means that the "dual loyalty" issue (a term I still don't like) doesn't arise.
I hold the opposite view. I believe that the "special relationship" has become harmful to both countries, and that a more normal relationship would be better for both. Right now, the special relationship hurts the United States by fueling anti-Americanism throughout the region and making us look deeply hypocritical in the eyes of billions -- yes, billions -- of people. It also distorts our policy on a host of issues, such as non-proliferation, and makes it extremely difficult to use our influence to advance the cause of Middle East peace. President Obama's failures on this front -- despite his repeated pledges to do better--make this all-too-obvious. At the same time, this unusual relationship harms Israel by underwriting policies that have increased its isolation and that threaten its long-term future. It also makes it nearly impossible for U.S. leaders to voice even the mildest of criticisms when Israel acts foolishly, because to do so casts doubts about the merits of the special relationship and risks incurring the wrath of the various groups that exist to defend it.
Although the United States and Israel do share certain common interests, it is becoming increasingly clear that their interests are not identical. This situation puts die-hard neoconservatives in a tough spot, as it could force them to choose between promoting what is good for America or defending what they think (usually wrongly) will be good for Israel. And insofar as prominent neocons continue to beat the drums for war, it behooves us to remember both their abysmal track record and their underlying motivations.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.