Thursday, May 26, 2011

Something Everyone Can Agree On

Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to the United States this week has led to serious discussion about the relationship the United States has with Israel.

Wait, did I say I serious discussion? I meant OMG stop the Kenyan Muslim from being so mean to Israel!!1! Glenn Greenwald:
The Right Wing Noise Machine all but accused Obama of trying to destroy Israel, with the GOP's leading presidential candidates condemning the President for the crime of "disrespecting" and "throwing Israel under the bus," Glenn Beck denouncing him for "betraying Israel," and Matt Drudge exploiting ignorance to screech in headlines that "Obama Sides With Palestinians."  Meanwhile, a former AIPAC spokesman demanded that Obama take a renewed public pledge of devotion to Israel, and circulated to the media statements of condemnation from numerous "pro-Israel" Democrats in Congress.  The neoconservative Israel-devotees at The Washington Post editorialized against Obama and predictably blamed him for the resulting tension with Netanyahu, siding (as usual) with this foreign government over their own.  And a Reuters article this morning claims that "some prominent Jewish Americans are rethinking their support for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election bid" due to that speech:

The backlash after Obama's keynote speech on the Middle East has Democratic Party operatives scrambling to mollify the Jewish community as the president prepares to seek a second term in the White House. . . .
"I have spoken to a lot of people in the last couple of days -- former supporters -- who are very upset and feel alienated," billionaire real estate developer and publisher Mortimer Zuckerman said.
"He'll get less political support, fewer activists for his campaign, and I am sure that will extend to financial support as well."
But remember: it's so very heinous and hateful to suggest -- as Walt and Mearsheimer shamefully did -- that some Americans are driven by devotion to Israel as their primary political preoccupation and that, banded together, they exert substantial influence.  Perish the thought.
It's not just right wing noise machine we can blame either. If there's one thing that can foster bi-partisanship, it's cheering on a nutjob who has made it perfectly clear that he wants no part of any plan that doesn't result in the destruction of anyone/anything Palestinian:
Top Democrats have joined a number of Republicans in challenging President Obama’s policy toward Israel, further exposing rifts that the White House and its allies will seek to mend before next year’s election.

The differences, on display as senior lawmakers addressed a pro-Israel group late Monday and Tuesday, stem from Obama’s calls in recent days for any peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians to be based on boundaries that existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, combined with “mutually agreed swaps” of territory.

Addressing a joint meeting of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel will not return to borders set in 1967. He also welcomes negotiations on "the status of settlements."

Addressing a joint meeting of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel will not return to borders set in 1967. He also welcomes negotiations on "the status of settlements."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and other Democrats appeared to reject the president’s reference to the 1967 lines in his latest attempt to nudge along peace talks, thinking that he was giving away too much, too soon.
So what did Obama say that got everyone so fired up?

Did he say he'd reconsider US military aid if Netanyahu doesn't stop expanding settlements? Did he say he'd stop using the US veto on the security council to stop any resloution that so much looks in Israel's direction?

Not even close: (Greenwald)
Obama's call for a peace deal ultimately "based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps" is not even arguably a change from past American policy.  Though he's the first President to publicly call for such an outcome, that's been the working premise of American policy for decades.  It's controversial in one sense -- it unduly rewards Israel for its illegal seizures of land by suggesting they should be able to permanently keep West Bank settlements (the "land swap" aspect of the formula) -- but it does not remotely constitute a step in an anti-Israel direction.  When even Israel-devoted stalwarts such as former IDF Corporal Jeffrey Goldberg and the ADL's Abe Foxman are dismissive of the condemnation of Obama's statements, it's crystal clear that they pose no challenge to the dominant pro-Israel orthodoxy that has shaped American policy (and political discourse) for decades.

At most, Obama's public endorsement of this position was a symbolic gesture to chide Netanyahu for his overt indifference to U.S. interests (and, more so, belligerence toward Obama), and a small rhetorical fig leaf to the populist forces driving the Arab rebellion.  Yet even the most microscopic deviation from the dictates of the Israel Government produce shrill and ludicrous backlash from The inside-the-U.S. Israel Lobby.
. . .
This is one area where I think President Obama deserves support and some modest credit.  From the start of his administration -- from appointing George Mitchell as his envoy to  demanding a settlement freeze in the West Bank -- the White House has appeared to recognize that tongue-wagging subservience to the Israeli Government is a counter-productive policy.  Of course, the movement away from such blind support has been extremely slow and cautious -- Obama was silent in the wake of the attack on Gaza, supportive after the flotilla assault, and recently vetoed a thoroughly uncontroversial U.N. Resolution calling for a settlement freeze -- but there have been signs of a genuine desire to push the Israelis in a direction they plainly do not want to go.
So where does this leave us? Matt Yglesias points out that Netenyahu pushed the US around, without even the usual (false) pretense of a genuine desire for peace, and it made absolutely no difference in the outcome:
The upshot is that with a series of bold strokes following Barack Obama’s inauguration, Netanyahu has debunked the Barak/Sharon/Olmert/Livni centrist conventional wisdom that has previously dominated Israeli politics. It turns out that it’s not true that Israel needs to be willing to make tactical concessions to the Palestinians or even be polite to the White House in order to retain American support. Israel has a basically free hand to behave as it wishes, taking the pieces of the West Bank it wants.
The problem, as Glenn Greenwald points out, is that anyone (even the president) who finds the courage to do this most likely be ending their political career by going up against the most powerful force in American politics:
What made this last week significant is that it underscores how politically difficult such an undertaking is for any American President: precisely because of the obsessive, relentless Israel Lobby that Walt and Mearsheimer invented in their conspiratorial, bigoted heads.  If even the tiniest step provokes the backlash that we saw this week, imagine the domestic political upheaval which a true effort would engender.  The New Yorker's Hendrick Hertzberg put it this way:
The President wants to make peace and presumably knows that it won't happen without a huge and politically brutal American effort. Such an effort would probably provoke the Israel lobby (a better name for which would be the Likud lobby) into an all-out fight against his reĆ«lection. 
Andrew Sullivan added:  "To achieve this, he has to face down the apocalyptic Christianist right, the entire FNC-RNC media machine, a sizable chunk of his party's financial base, and the US Congress."
Unfortunately that is where we stand. Even stating publicly what had been known US policy for years leads to an unforgiving bipartisan backlash. And all of this for what? To blindly support a country whose decades long occupation and rampant human rights abuses helps ensure the United States remains extremely unpopular around the the world.

Our relationship with Israel really is one of those things that historians will look back in 100 years from now and be completely baffled at our actions. If nothing else, it's a great way to understand how few other things matter when this level of political influence is achieved. One of my favorite statements about political power came from Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy issues at AIPAC:
A half smile appeared on his face, and he pushed a napkin across the table. “You see this napkin?” he said. “In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”
Judging by the response to the last week's events, he could have had a lot more than that.

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