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Obama Won't Have to Kiss AIPAC's Ring -- Progressive Alternative to Hawkish Mideast Policies Emerges

A new wave of progressive Jewish activists are challenging the dominance of AIPAC and other hawkish groups on Gaza, Israeli settlers and even Iran.
 
 
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Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza has pushed to the fore with ferocity one of the great campaign debates of 2008: How will Barack Obama approach the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? The president-elect has stated repeatedly that achieving a final settlement will be an administration priority, but beyond that oft-expressed campaign commitment swirls a constellation of increasingly urgent unknowns. Will he choose a Mideast envoy with at least a shred of credibility on both sides? Will he negotiate with Hamas? Will he spend the needed political capital to revive the rotting corpse of the peace process? Is resuscitation even possible?

Normally, a very constricted Beltway political wisdom on Israel, as embodied by American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would set and guard the parameters of the debate over these questions. But the landscape of organized Jewish political power in America is changing. Even as John Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt were coming under heavy fire for their 2006 analysis of the traditional American Israel Lobby, a liberal pro-Israel countermovement was forming in utero. Today, that movement is not only walking and talking, it is mounting a vigorous challenge to the dominance of traditional groups like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League. Together, with a growing number of voices within the foreign policy community, it is pushing Obama to initiate a strong and fresh approach to the region during his busy first 100 days.

As we wait to see how this debate shapes up, it's worth revisiting what we know about Barack Obama. In his personal life, he has exposed himself to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide like few other incoming presidents. At the University of Chicago, he cultivated a friendship with the Palestinian American scholar Rashid Khalidi, through whom he also came to know the late Edward Said. He visited the slums of Ramallah in the West Bank on his own initiative, after which he told an audience in Muscatine, Iowa, "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people." During the primaries and presidential campaign, these facts fueled the hopes of Palestinians and Americans hungry for a more balanced approach to the region. It also became grist for Republican (and Likud) fear and smear campaigns that warned Obama was an Israel-hating stalking horse for Hamas and a kissing cousin of Louis Farrakhan.

Obama neutralized these smear campaigns all too effectively. Terrified that the attacks would go viral faster than his dismissals, Obama famously tracked hard right upon clinching the Democratic nomination. His first act as nominee was to visit AIPAC and affirm his commitment to the U.S.-Israeli "special relationship," cemented by $30 billion in no-strings military aid over the next decade. After one of Obama's informal advisers, the highly respected Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, came under right-wing assault for holding meetings with Hamas officials, he was quickly and quietly allowed to "resign." In November, came Hillary Rodham Clinton's appointment and word that the hawkish former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross is a leading candidate to fill that position again.

Most recently, the president-elect has maintained a controversial silence in response to Israel's invasion of Gaza. For those around the world who had expected at least a cursory statement of concern or condemnation, this silence has been deafening.

"Palestinian circles have increasingly looked at Obama with skepticism throughout his campaign and into the transitional period," says Toufic Haddad, a Palestinian American activist and co-author of Between the Lines: Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S. War on Terror. "Palestinians were willing, perhaps desperate, to believe in his calls for 'change,' but the margin of tolerance for his rhetoric has faded. His recent declaration that 'there is only one president' ring hollow when Arab satellite stations have closely followed his political platform and noted his vocal positions during this transition period on both domestic and international issues."

Of course, Palestinians don't vote in U.S. elections. But Jews do, and in November they voted for Obama more than 4-to-1, despite his selective and belated declaration of allegiance to the established AIPAC orthodoxy. That Obama's success with Jews surprised so many people testifies to the extent right-wing American Jewish groups have succeeded in equating hard-line, "Israel right or wrong" politics with support for the Jewish state. But as the election results and post-Gaza opinion polls of U.S. opinion have shown, those days are over and receding quickly from view. This fact may very well widen the political space for Obama to chart a brave new course in the region. 

As explained most eloquently by Bernard Avishai in an October essay for Harper's, "Obama's Jews" are a different breed from the hard-line Likudniks that have traditionally claimed to represent the American Jewish community. "Obama's campaign exposed the fault lines among Jews, which are serious, while implicitly challenging the great silent majority to repudiate ... neoconservative celebrities like William Kristol ... whose militant simplicities purport to represent them -- and don't," wrote Avishai, noting that 70 percent of American Jews support exerting pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians. "Obama's campaign is an implicit opportunity for a new leadership to emerge, a contemporary equivalent of Rabbi Heschel locking arms with Dr. King."

That new leadership is guardedly confident that Obama will call for a cease-fire upon taking office and begin the tortuous work of reviving the peace process. Just as important, they are hopeful they will have a voice in the debate over the evolution of U.S. policy. Last month, senior Obama transition officials met with an unprecedented array of American Jewish organizations, including pro-peace outfits that have been completely shut out during the last eight years. Present were groups at the core of what might be called "The Lobby 2.0." This new wave of beltway Jewish activism is challenging the traditional dominance of AIPAC and the ADL on everything from a Gaza ceasefire to West Bank settlers to diplomacy with Iran.

The best known of these groups is the newly minted J Street, which since its founding in early 2008 has grown to threaten AIPAC as the most influential voice of American pro-Israel Jewry. In the last cycle, J Street's political action committee raised more money for liberal, pro-peace candidates -- nearly $600,000 -- than any of the more established PACs in the hard-line AIPAC constellation. Although J Street has no direct links to the incoming administration, organizers say they intend to have impact through their web of connections in the Capitol, extensive media outreach and an organizing e-mail list of 100,000 supporters and growing.

"Our influence will be significant because the agenda we back -- a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and diplomacy to resolve conflicts in the Middle East -- has such overwhelming support in the American Jewish community," says Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director. "The voices that have been the loudest in recent years when it comes to Israel and the Middle East are far to the right of the community. If the agenda does start to shift, groups like ours can anticipate far sharper attacks from the right."

Other pro-Israel, pro-peace groups share this sense of a new day dawning on Jan. 20. "Based on the statements of candidate Obama and on what we have been hearing from staffers of President-elect Obama, we have good reason to believe that the incoming administration will be more receptive to our message," says Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans For Peace Now, the U.S. affiliate of Israelis For Peace Now.

"If you are prepared to listen to a wide range of informed opinions and have the intellectual capacity and willingness to process them, then organizations like ours will inevitably play a much more important role," says Nick Bunzl, executive director of the pro-peace Israel Policy Forum. Among the proposals advocated by IPF is an immediate cease-fire in Gaza followed by a 10-year armistice conditioned on a full lifting of Israel's blockade and an end to rocket attacks.

Whatever the particulars of the administration's forthcoming plan, a chorus is growing for a vigorous U.S. re-engagement with a problem that has been allowed to fester and is now burning. From the foreign policy community to the new Jewish net-roots, the call for bold action, and change, is clear.

"During its first several months, the Obama administration will have to make a choice," says Ben-Ami. "Either continue with the status quo of a low-level peace process on the back burner, or turn the current crisis into an opportunity to redefine American foreign policy and achieve a settlement."

Let the newly enlarged conversation begin.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.