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U.S. Needs its Own 'Arab Spring' to Counter Power of Pro-Israel Lobby

The revolt that swept through Tunisia and Egypt should be a wake-up call for both the U.S. government and the remaining dictators.
 
 
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Take action by attending Move Over AIPAC, a gathering in Washington DC from May 21-24, 2011, to expose AIPAC and build the vision for a new US foreign policy in the Middle East! More information can be found atwww.MoveOverAIPAC.org.

We spent a lot of time in the Middle East this year, during what history will surely regard as the equivalent of a seismic earthquake. In country after country, people rose up and either forced from power tyrants propped up by the United States or put them on the defensive, promising reform after reform in the vain hope of convincing their constituents to go back to sleep.

But the “Arab Street” is awakened from its slumber now, and there is no turning back. The revolt that swept through Tunisia and Egypt, and that is continuing now through Yemen, Libya, Syria and Bahrain, should be a wake-up call for both the U.S. government and the remaining dictators.

One of the most glaring examples of how U.S. policy is out of step is its unwavering support for Israel, even in the face of increasingly rash and alienating behavior – such as the ongoing expansion of its illegal settlements and the murder of nine Turkish internationals in last year’s Free Gaza Flotilla. As we saw recently in the demonstration of Egyptians in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, human rights and freedom for Palestinians are core concerns for Arabs. Once the U.S.-friendly rulers are deposed, or even if they barely retain power, the people’s empathy towards the Palestinians will have to be addressed. A knee-jerk defense of Israel by the U.S. government – or by Arab governments – will become increasingly untenable.

For too long, U.S. foreign policy has been skewed by a fear of offending Israel – or rather, the Israeli government and its right-wing arm in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). On May 22, AIPAC will kick off its annual policy conference in Washington, DC, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a keynote speaker.  Already, American politicians are lining up for a spot at the podium. Last year, President Barack Obama sent a high-level liaison – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – to the confab and is likely to do so again this year. Speaker of the House John Boehner and the majority leader for both the House and Senate are confirmed speakers, and hundreds of other elected officials will make an appearance.

Why such a rush to appear at this particular policy conference when similar events are ubiquitous in Washington? To spell it out bluntly, AIPAC has shown its ability to make and break political careers. Offend AIPAC and your opponent will be generously funded. Befriend AIPAC and you may well be richly rewarded in campaign contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-Israel political action committees – most of which are affiliated with AIPAC – contributed nearly $12 million to political candidates in the 2009-2010 election cycle. One senator alone, Mark Kirk (R-IL), received $553,698. 

What does all that money buy? It’s difficult to trace the dollars directly to votes, but one can only assume it is a primary explanation for Obama’s instructions to UN Ambassador Susan Rice on Feb. 8 to use the American veto to overrule the other 14 Security Council members, all of whom voted for a resolution condemning as illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

That single vote accelerated the loss of faith that began almost immediately after Obama’s famous “message to the Muslim world” in Cairo in 2009, when he boldly proclaimed, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” U.S. credibility has crashed since then as the Obama administration failed to back up its words with Netanyahu.

Perhaps the disappointment of the Arab world is best captured by a poster we saw during the revolution in Cairo.  It read: “Obama, we don’t want to hate you.”  Likewise, Palestinians we talked to were crestfallen when they received the news that the U.S. vetoed the UN vote on settlements; they were not surprised that they had been betrayed once again, but were disappointed nevertheless. Hope dies hard.

The U.S. is preparing to repeat this mistake by voting against recognition of Palestine (based on the 1967 borders) as an independent state if it comes to a vote in the UN General Assembly this fall. Most members — more than 100 countries — are expected to vote yes, leaving the United States alone with Israel in the pariah corner.

If the United States wants to remain an influential voice in the Middle East – the heartland of oil and geopolitics – it must adjust to the shifting sands. It’s time to publicly acknowledge that Israel’s intransigence and the resulting injustice and lawbreaking must not be ours. And that means practicing some “tough love” that goes beyond talk – including joining the global community in Israel-related votes at the UN and putting a hold on the $3 billion in yearly military assistance we provide.

An interim step we can take to ease the way for congresspersons overly dependent on lobbyists and their contributions is to counter the outsized and outdated influence of AIPAC. That’s why more than 100 peace and justice groups have taken a page from the Arab playbook and launched a people-power movement of our own, called “Move Over AIPAC: Building a New Middle East Policy.”  We will meet to discuss alternative views and make those views known as AIPAC convenes in Washington DC’s Convention Center.

It’s time for the people to show the way. If the Egyptians were able to overthrow Hosni Mubarak, the American people should be able to get out from under the boot of AIPAC.

Take action by attending Move Over AIPAC, a gathering in Washington DC from May 21-24, 2011, to expose AIPAC and build the vision for a new US foreign policy in the Middle East! More information can be found at www.MoveOverAIPAC.org.

Pam Bailey is a freelance journalist and social entrepreneur who frequently writes from the Middle East. She is the co-founder of the DC metro chapter of the International Solidarity Movement. Medea Benjamin is cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK:Women for Peace.
 
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