The Timing Is Ripe for Obama to Make Demands on Israel to Settle for Peace


Crisis in U.S.-Israel relations? What crisis? That’s the public pose of the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

So what if right-wingers in his government announced 1,600 new units to be built in East Jerusalem, intentionally sabotaging the peace talks with Palestinians about to begin under U.S. auspices? So what if they did it while Vice-President Joe Biden was in their country on a friendship mission, publicly humiliating him?

So what if Netanyahu dismissed the whole affair as "an unfortunate incident" and then refused to cancel the building plans, telling his Likud party that "the building in Jerusalem -- and in all other places -- will continue in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years"? So what if the Israelis are now doing what they have not done over the last 42 years (as Israel’s president Shimon Peres pointed out) -- building Jewish homes in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem?

Fergetaboutit, says Bibi Netanyahu. Let bygones be bygones. In fact, all the fuss is being whipped by a U.S. government intent on twisting Israel’s arm. That’s what Bibi’s supporters say -- including his friends in Washington, like Washington Post Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl, who wrote that Biden should have "sidestep[ped] such broadsides," as U.S. officials have done in the past, and pretended that settlement expansion doesn’t affect chances for peace.

President Obama wouldn’t go that far. But he did play along with the fiction that there’s no crisis. It’s simply a "disagreement" between friends, he told Fox News, about "how we can move this peace process forward."

Amid all this spin, which is not likely to fool anyone, there is a kernel of truth: The brewing crisis is not, in fact, between the United States and Israel. It is between two fundamentally opposed visions of the future.

One vision sees a negotiated solution "achieving a Palestinian state that is independent, viable, and contiguous," as Joe Biden put it last week, declaring the Obama administration "fully committed" to that goal. The other sees continued Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, leaving the Palestinians to rule only over an impossible archipelago of little clumps of land, separated by expanding Jewish settlements, security roads, and checkpoints.

Both visions have supporters in the U.S. and in Israel. And -- contrary to a common progressive view that Israeli hawks and their American supporters wield some monstrous, invincible power -- the peaceable vision of a just two-state solution is rapidly gaining support.

Let’s look first at Israel, where "there are only two political parties," says commentator Bernard Avishai: "The party that dreads the loss of Greater Israel, i.e., the party of settlements, and the party that dreads the isolation of global Israel, i.e., the party of America." Why "the party of America?" Because without continuing strong support from the U.S. government Israel would be left isolated, with no dependable allies at all.

This is a fear that haunts many Israelis. One of that nation’s most influential think-tanks warns of efforts to "turn Israel into a pariah state," calling it "the new battlefield." On that battlefield, the latest great skirmish was over the report by world-renowned jurist Richard Goldstone, accusing Israel of war crimes in its late 2008 attack on Gaza.

The Goldstone report triggered hysteria in Israel largely because of fear that if Israel’s attack were not seen as legitimate self-defense then every Israeli use of force, past and future, might be called into question. Moved by dread (and, in some quarters, a buried self-doubt), many Israelis made an illogical leap: If our military actions are deemed illegitimate, the very existence of our state will be deemed illegitimate. No matter how faulty the reasoning, it’s the feeling that counts. Desperate to avoid becoming a pariah state, many Israelis are willing to accept the dictates of their last remaining friend, the one in the White House.

"It's time for Netanyahu to say yes to Obama," an editorial headline in the prestigious Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz proclaimed. No less a figure than Israel’s President Peres bluntly explained why: "Israel must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the United States, so as to guarantee political support in a time of need."

Netanyahu’s chief political opponent, Kadimah Party leader Tzipi Livni, made much the same point. Decrying Netanyahu’s "stupid declarations," she told her party that she is "willing to pay the political price in order to preserve Jerusalem through negotiations … because I knew that even if strong statements strengthened me politically, the reaction by the world will weaken Jerusalem" and thus all of Israel.

That’s "the party of America" speaking. And it embraces a majority of Israeli Jews, Avishai claims. Columnist Shmuel Rosner, an influential Israeli observer of U.S. - Israel relations, agrees; he recently wrote that if Obama "signalled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic support would quickly evaporate."

Netanyahu is well aware that his grip on power is shaky at best. His own Likud party has only 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament). That’s one less than the largest party, the centrist Kadimah. According to one theory making the rounds, the Obama administration’s immediate goal is to force Netanyahu to drop his right-wing coalition partners and form a new government in alliance with Kadimah and his current leftish partner, the Labor Party.

A majority of Israelis will not be moved to resist the power of the right simply to get justice for Palestinians. "In Israel, building in East Jerusalem is not controversial for the general public," as Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler says.  "What is controversial is doing things that affect the relationship with the United States.  And [for] that Netanyahu is facing a lot of criticism."

If Israelis see Israel’s legitimacy in the world’s eyes at stake, Livni could well rally them to topple the present government. The threat of losing Washington’s friendship could set that political earthquake in motion.

If Netanyahu is a politician who values his hold on power above all else, he’ll respond to U.S. pressure by creating a new, centrist government. If he is a true believer in the pro-settler, pro-occupation vision, he’ll step aside in favor of Livni or some other leader who values Israel’s global standing above all else. Either way, persistent pressure from Washington -- and that alone -- would open the door to the peace talks Obama says he wants so badly.

But wouldn’t it also open the door to a fatal political attack on Obama himself? That’s the question many progressives will ask, clinging (though I can’t understand why) to their favorite image of the right-wing Zionists as an almighty force in Washington.

The answer is that Obama is in a better position than any president in decades to make demands on the Israelis and insist that they be met. The knee-jerk support that Israel once got in the U.S. Congress for anything it did, no matter how outrageous, is no longer there. Israel used to count on legislators like Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Gary Ackerman, chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, both from districts with sizeable Jewish populations.

But Berman responded to the Israeli right-wing ambush by supporting Obama: "The Administration had real justification for being upset with the timing of the settlements announcement.  A process was supposed to be in place to keep the United States from being blindsided by just such a development, and yet once again we were blindsided.  The Israeli leadership needs to get this right and put a system in place so it won’t happen again. … The talks need to go forward." Ackerman responded in a similar vein: "It’s a moment for the Obama administration to say to our Israeli partners and our Palestinian partners, ‘We need to see peace.’"

These politicians, with their fingers always up to the political wind, know how fast the wind is changing. They’re watching the growing success of groups like J Street -- the nation’s most influential pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby, with over 140,000 members -- who are whipping up that wind. J Street has now identified and endorsed over 40 candidates for Congress in this year’s election who support its pro-peace stand.

Earlier this week J Street leaders met with White House officials and handed them a petition with over 18,000 signatures (gathered in just three days), urging the administration "to take even stronger action" and "demonstrate real seriousness of purpose to reach a two-state endgame." J Street also logged at least 21,000 emails to Congress from its members, delivering the same message. American groups supporting Netanyahu’s position came nowhere close to such numbers.

How to explain the unprecedented outburst of support for a tough stand against Israel? "Mainstream American Jews and others who are committed to Israel's long term security as a Jewish, democratic home are fed up with the status quo of politics on Israel," J Street Communications director Isaac Luria told me. "We are witnessing the decline of a discredited ideology, based on the neocon worldview and cowboy diplomacy, that hurt our standing in the world and has brought Israel no closer to real peace and security. More and more people are waking up to the urgency of the situation in the Middle East and want to see the US take the reigns now."

Luria was happy to count among those people General David Petraeus, who warned the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that the old U.S. stance of supporting Israel no matter what has indeed hurt our standing in the world. "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our [U.S. military] interests" in the greater Middle East, Petraeus reported. "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel" and "limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships" in the region.

This has been obvious to military personnel in the region for a long time, says journalist Mark Perry. But it came as a shock in a briefing to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who signaled his distress to the White House. As Luria put it, "General Petreaus's remarks are a watershed moment. Even for those who come from the hawkish side of the political spectrum, General Petreaus' reputation and credentials speak for themselves."

Now progressive groups like J Street find themselves in an unexpected alliance with top-ranking U.S. generals, admirals, and politicians once on the hawkish side, as well as Israeli political leaders like Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres -- all urging Obama (some loudly and some more quietly) to stand firm on the demands communicated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Israelis.

This is a marriage of political convenience; there are important differences among the partners. Israel’s "party of America" is motivated by fear for their nation’s increasingly-tarnished public image, and U.S. military leaders fear that U.S. support for Israel may cost them victories.

Peace groups like J Street, on the other hand, are moved not by fear but by hope for a better life for Israelis and Palestinians alike. J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a recent speech that his group aims to "redefine and expand the very concept of being pro-Israel. No longer will this pro- require an anti-."

Going out to change the political world without putting up your guard against a foe to be feared. Now there’s a new idea. Progressives who are working for the same goal as the Obama administration -- "a Palestinian state that is independent, viable, and contiguous" -- might consider dropping their own guard, dropping their fear of some supposedly omnipotent Zionist foe, and recognizing that the forces of peace, in the U.S. and Israel, now have the upper hand. Yes, Israel still deserves plenty of criticism. But it’s time to devote more of our energy to promoting a positive vision of negotiated peace.

And yes, it’s still a time of crisis -- not between the U.S. and Israel, but between a peace movement that spans both nations and a militaristic faction in both nations that would thwart efforts for peace. Now (as a sign of the changing times) the peace movement can take guidance from a one-time "pro-Israel" hawk like Rep. Ackerman, who says, "It's a never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste moment."

To make sure this moment doesn’t go to waste, thousands of Americans and Israelis have to make their views known, especially to their elected leaders. Here in the U.S., we need a voice for peace loud enough to make it safe for the Obama administration to heed the warnings from the Pentagon and finally take a firm stand against the Israeli war hawks.

The real crisis, then, is a crisis of conscience within each American and each Israeli who knows that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Who will remain silent and who will speak out? That’s the most critical question of all. The answer will decide the future of the Middle East, and the U.S. role in the Middle East, for a long time to come.

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