It’s been clear to me for about ten years that the primary problem the United States faces in crafting Middle East policy is not so much the Arabs or the Israelis. It is the Israel lobby (led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or AIPAC but consisting also of all the major Jewish organizations that include Israel in their portfolio.
Writing about the lobby’s influence (from the perspective of someone who had spent 20 years dealing with AIPAC as an aide to a senator and several House members), I initially felt like a voice in the wilderness. Yes, there were always people pointing to the power of the lobby but many of those had no use for Israel to start out with. For them, attacking the lobby is a subset of attacking Israel in general.
Don’t get me wrong. Although I support a secure Jewish State of Israel, I despise the policies of the Netanyahu government and any and all Israeli policies that are designed to either preserve the occupation or (and this is most relevant now) prevent a diplomatic resolution of the stalemate over Iranian nuclear development. Even if the lobby didn’t exist, I’d be vehemently condemning those policies.
Of course, if the lobby didn’t exist, the United States government would not have to spend much effort getting a country that is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in line, just as the bank who holds the mortgage has considerably more say than a property’s nominal owner. Not only do all other foreign recipients of U.S. aid have to comply with conditions set by Washington, so do all states and municipalities here in the United States. Only Israel gets what it wants, no strings attached.
The Israel Lobby has truly gotten out of control.
The Obama administration is close to an agreement with the Iranian government to achieve a decade’s long goal. Iran would give up any plans it might have to develop nuclear weapons (verified by international inspections) in exchange for the lifting of some international sanctions that are doing significant damage to the Iranian economy.
This development — the possibility of ending a possible Iranian nuclear threat and ultimately normalizing relations with Iran after a four decade freeze — was made possible by an event few anticipated. That was the election of a moderate Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who has been authorized by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to explore if the United States (and the Europeans) are serious about peace in exchange for a no-weapons pledge. Fortunately, in the Obama administration, the Iranians have a negotiating partner eager to improve U.S.-Iran relations if Iran gives up the nuclear bomb option.
Negotiations commenced and moved more swiftly than anyone expected. A week ago Secretary of State John Kerry was about to announce the first step toward a breakthrough when, apparently, the French government objected, putting the process on hold and giving the Israel lobby the opening it wanted to kill the negotiations. By itself, of course, the French position counts for very little in Washington. Two examples: the French opposed the Iraq war and they supported bombing Syria. They were simply ignored. No, France does not count for much in Washington. But the lobby, that is a whole other thing.
Nonetheless, the French have provided the delay the lobby needed. And it has gone to work. Here is the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman saying that Kerry’s Iran opening is “chutzpah” that he hopes “will unite American Jews” in opposition. Here is Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer and pro-Israel spokesman, likening Kerry to Neville Chamberlain and, like Foxman, saying that the “entire pro-Israel community must unite” against the Iran deal.
It has never been as clear as it is today that Americans who support a secure State of Israel have an obligation to oppose the Netanyahu government. That is not as daring as it sounds. Opposing Prime Minister Netanyahu only requires backing the efforts of our own government to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and a nuclear deal with Iran. In the past few days Netanyahu has gone to war with the Obama administration on both fronts.
I have always believed that, at some point, the Israeli prime minister and his lobby would lose their grip on U.S. Middle East policy. At least I’ve believed that since 1982 when Tom Dine, AIPAC’s most successful executive director,explained how it would happen.
It was during my four year stint at AIPAC that I asked Dine if a president of the United States could take a position opposed by the lobby,in a case where U.S. national security interests were clearly at stake,and prevail.
Dine responded that although he hoped that day wouldn’t come, he did not think a president could make Israel do anything it didn’t want to do given the power of AIPAC and “our friends in Congress.” In other words, as long as politicians need AIPAC-directed campaign funds, it wouldn’t happen.
But then he added a caveat: “Of course, if a president pushed hard enough, and told the American people directly that U.S. security was at stake, he’d win. By that I mean AIPAC would have no choice but to support him. We can never defeat a U.S. president who reaches over the heads of AIPAC and Congress and goes to the American people directly and invokes the national interest.”
I was on the bus, returning to Washington from New York where I spent Yom Kippur.
I wouldn’t have talked to the kid next to me him except I could not find the outlet near my seat to charge my phone. He saw me struggling and helped me find it. (It was camouflaged under the seat in front of mine). We started to talk and, after I told him I had been in Manhattan for the Jewish holiday, he said that he had been there for the same reason.
We talked about Georgetown and why he chose to go there and then he asked me what I did.
I told him “my story” which led him to say that he had no interest in the Middle East at all. His issue was income inequality in the United States.
AIPAC is taking an incredible risk by making an unprecedented full court press to get the bomb Syria resolution.
Never in its history has it gone all out to achieve passage or defeat for anything not directly related to Israel. And, because Congress is snugly in its pocket on Israel issues, it rarely needs to fight.
AIPAC’s last big battle was in 1991 when it tried to get extra aid to support Soviet Jewish refugees in Israel. President George H. W. Bush said the extra aid (in the form of loan guarantees) would only be provided if Israel froze West Bank settlement construction. Prime Minister Shamir said no and Bush said: no extra aid for you.
The media today is full of stories about AIPAC and its decision to push for a “yes” vote on Syria to ensure that President Obama initiates the war it really wants, with Iran. Check out this Washington Post story.
There is simply no way AIPAC and its camp followers would do this for Syria. Israel has no problem with the Assad regime. Like their dearly departed fellow former strongman Hosni Mubarak, both Hafez and Bashir Assad scrupulously kept the peace with Israel since 1973. As for chemical weapons, Israel not only has used them in Gaza but is one of seven countries in the world (Syria is another one) that has not ratified the treaty banning their use. Additionally, any regime likely to succeed Assad’s is likely to be more militantly anti-Israel and more trigger happy than the current regime.
Check out Peter Beinart’s latest piece on the American Jewish community. It is brilliant.
It is about the cocoon American Jews live in when it comes to the reality of Israel and Palestine. They know nothing and care less. And their leaders who do know intentionally work to keep them ignorant.
Add to that a lot of bigotry and you have the self-described “pro-Israel” community today. No, not the Jewish community — the Israel-centered minority of the Jewish community (of which I am one).
The New York Times
has a pretty shocking revelation
on page one today. White House correspondent Mark Landler reveals (after interviewing unnamed senior Obama aides) that the “most compelling ” reason the President is seeking Congressional authorization to strike Iran may be this:
…acting alone would undercut him if in the next three years he needed Congressional authority for his next military confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps with Iran.
If he made the decision to strike Syria without Congress now, he said, would he get Congress when he really needed it?
In other words, attacking Syria now makes it possible to attack Iran later.
Something remarkable happened in London yesterday. Members of Parliament prevented Prime Minister Cameron from joining in a U.S.-led attack on Syria. For the first time since Vietnam, the British government, reflecting the views of the British people, is refusing to be led into war by the United States.
Prime Minister David Cameron says “I get it.” The British don’t want to attack Syria which means he just can’t do it,
This is huge.
But even more huge is the precedent it sets for Iran. If a relatively small action in the Middle East is rejected out of fear of a larger entanglement, what are the chances that the British people can be led into an infinitely larger war in Iran? And what are the chances that the British government will even try?