The American Problem

McDonalds in Hebrew. Israel, 2011.

Of all the empty statements that US leaders have made about the Israel-Palestine conflict, “We can’t want peace more than the parties themselves” is the worst. The most egregious part of it is that it absolves Washington for its responsibility for the current state of affairs. In fact, if the Israeli occupation is Frankenstein’s monster, its mad scientist creator is entirely clothed in the Stars and Stripes.

Israel, justifiably, comes in for a lot of criticism. That criticism is very important in the United States, as it is the only way to make Ameicans understand what is happening in the Occupied Territories and, one hopes someday, to agitate for a change in US policy in the region.

However, that same criticism also has the unintended consequence of obscuring US culpability for this mess. Since 1968, when the United States replaced France as Israel’s patron, Washington has been enabling and encouraging the worst excesses of Israeli policy. President after President has rendered peace a distant dream with their simultaneous myopic support of Israel, and their insistence that the US must be the one and only peace broker. One US administration after another has similarly recognized that resolving this conflict would be a big boon to US foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. Yet most American governments have balked at taking on the domestic political forces that don’t want to see peace. There have been exceptions, and they demonstrate what a US president can do if he decides to act.

Jimmy Carter is by far the most reviled ex-president among the so-called “pro-Israel” community. Yet he did more for Israeli security than any other president by completely changing Israel’s security situation and taking Egypt out of the equation and into an unprecedented peace treaty with Israel. He did this by defying the Israel Lobby. Against their wishes, Carter push hard on both Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (Israel’s first rightwing PM) to reach an agreement. He knew that Sadat needed to include discussion of “the Palestinian issue,” and, very much against the wishes of the “pro-Israel” groups, Carter brought that issue to the table. In the end, there was only a vague, five-year commitment to find a way to implement UNSC Resolution 242, which was subsequently ignored. But the issue was brought to the fore, where it has remained ever since. Israel may not like that, but in exchange, Carter and Sadat removed by far the most potent military threat to Israel in the region.

Later, George H.W. Bush saw Israeli settlements as a major obstacle to moving forward on the process begun at the 1991 Madrid peace conference, held in the wake of the first Gulf War, where the US had significant Arab support. He threatened to withhold needed loan guarantees for Israel unless the ultra-right (by the standard of the day) Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir curtailed settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories. Shamir eventually gave in.

Some have asserted that Carter and Bush, the only two incumbent presidents to lose an election for their second terms since Herbert Hoover in 1932 (Gerald Ford did lose to Carter, but he was never elected in the first place), lost because of the Israel Lobby. The assertion is simply absurd. The problems both men faced by the end of their first terms were serious, and they were rooted in the economy. Carter’s administration had numerous domestic faux pas, looked impotent in the face of the Iran hostage crisis and, most importantly, presided over a stagnant economy that featured very high inflation. Bush had alienated his base by breaking his “no new taxes” pledge, which cost him votes to H. Ross Perot, a third party candidate, and he was in office when recession finally hit as a result of the economic bubble of Reaganomics bursting under its own weight. No, the Carter and Bush experience tells us that a President who wishes to act can do so.

The Israel Lobby plays its role but if it wasn’t there, what would we have? Not a supporter of Palestinian rights, to be sure, but certainly a government which would be free to put some substantive pressure on Israel, as Bush did, when its attempts to settle more and more of the West Bank complicated matters for the US. Very likely, the US would have pressed Israel to move forward on two states many years ago in ways Israel could not resist.

But that’s not the world we live in. Instead, the United States indulges Israel’s land grabs, makes excuses for an occupation that has steadily increased Palestinian dispossession and hopelessness and prevents anyone else from acting to curb Israeli excesses, through its active diplomacy and its repeated use of its veto power in the UN Security Council. They call this “pro-Israel.”

Bilingual packaging. Israel, March 2013.
Bilingual packaging. Israel, March 2013.

In fact, it has been very much to Israel’s detriment. Israelis live in fear, and always have. The country was created a mere three years after the Holocaust. It fought first a civil war which featured the expulsion and flight of most of Palestine’s Arab population, creating the world’s biggest refugee population. Israel then repelled invaders from five neighboring countries. It remained in a state of war and fought four more (in 1956, 1967, the War of Attrition, and 1973,) each of which could have been avoided.

Israel sets up its own terrifying demons, as well. Israelis lived in fear in 1967 of an invasion by Egypt and Syria, when Israel’s military was far weaker than it is today. In 1973, they may well have lost the war if not for the US coming to their rescue. Now, they have a dominant military that no one in the Middle East can stand against, and their neighboring nemeses are Hezbollah and Hamas, not states with regular armed forces. That is a far more secure situation, yet Israeli fear has, if anything, grown.

Branded ice cream stand. No location given, 2012.
Ice cream stand. No location given, 2012.

That is the result of US policy, which shields Israel from all the normal diplomatic and international political pressures that every other country must contend with and supports fear-mongering Israeli leaders who use annihilationist rhetoric when there is far less threat on the borders than there was for the first twenty-five years of Israel’s existence. US policy allowed Israel to ignore the Arab Peace Initiative, a step taken by the Saudis that was no less significant than the one taken by Anwar Sadat a quarter of a century earlier. The API, like Sadat’s speech to the Knesset, was met with skepticism and suspicion in some Israeli quarters, welcomed in others. The US picked up the ball in Sadat’s case, but punted it far away twenty-five years later.

Barack Obama seems to be more in the foreign policy mold of the elder George Bush than in that of Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton or his son, George W. Bush. Yet his first term saw him collapse under the weight of Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence and defiance and the intense pressure of the Israel Lobby. His second term looks no different.

Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, sandwiched two trips to the region around Obama’s headline-grabbing voyage. He spent the previous four years chairing the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations so he knows both the international and domestic politics of this issue very well. He put out all the positive spin he could on his trips. Yet, after he left, Israeli officials couldn’t wait to get to the Hebrew media to say how out of touch Kerry was. The Palestinians saw little that was positive from Kerry or Obama, and a few days after Kerry’s second departure, the US’ and Europe’s main man in the Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad, quit again.

Now Kerry is said to be convening a meeting with the Arab League where they will try to revive the Arab Peace Initiative. This document has been on the table for over a decade now, but it is not inconceivable that a serious diplomatic effort based on it could lead to significant progress. Will it? It seems doubtful.

Negotiations based on the API would start with the 1967 borders, which is the key point that Netanyahu has based his refusal on. It also calls for a negotiated resolution of the Palestinian refugee crisis based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194. That is a non-starter for Netanyahu.

That can be surmounted. As the Arab League’s Ambassador to the US, Dr. Mohammed Alhussaini Alsharif, told Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen, ““The plan is very flexible. It doesn’t say, things are not negotiable. It has accommodation for many things.” Thus, a US President could apply real pressure and bring Netanyahu to the table, not with any agreement to the terms of the API but with his own set of guidelines and negotiate from there.

But Obama is not about to do that. An anonymous Israeli diplomat said, “Were the Arab League to adopt/issue (as opposed to re-issue) a proposal that in exchange for a just agreement on a two state(s for two peoples) solution all 22 members of the Arab league would initiate full diplomatic relations with Israel – that would be something special.” In other words, drop the refugee wording, and call for two states, rather than specify starting from the 1967 borders, and Israel would jump to the table. This explains why Kerry was trying to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to agree to change the terms of the API when he visited him in Ramallah. That’s how the Obama Administration responds—bend the document to Israel’s demands, but certainly don’t press Israel to come to the table on such eminently reasonable terms.

This is just the latest version of the same old dynamic. No country makes concessions unless it has to. Countries don’t sue for peace unless the conflict they are in is costing them too much. Power, as Frederick Douglas said, cedes nothing without a demand.

The US shields Israel from such a demand. It encourages the worst tendencies of both Israeli politicians and a fearful Israeli public. For most Israelis, a Palestinian state and normal relations with Arab states are desirable, but seem very risky. For a country whose politics revolve so much around security, it is inconceivable that Israel will make any concessions unless they have to; no country would. The US makes sure they don’t have to.

These circumstances are very unusual, but what is not is Israel’s reaction to them. It is hard to imagine any country behaving differently in this regard, taking perceived security and obvious political risks for peace when the conflict is not raging. The US can change this state of affairs. It chooses not to. The Lobby is the reason, it’s true, but it can be confronted and overcome. But only by a president who is willing to take them on, like Carter and Bush did. Obama doesn’t seem to be that guy. And, while US strategic interests are set back by that, it is the Palestinians who pay the highest price for this cowardice. And while Netanyahu may be delighted, ordinary Israelis pay a lesser, but still quite steep price for it as well.


Photographs courtesy of  Julien Lehuen,  amseaman, and joshuapiano. Published under a Creative Commons license.

1 comment

  1. I think it is more complex than that. Middle Eastern politics is a big unpredictable mess and the US ruling class likes predictability because it is politically safe. And Israel is undoubtedly the most predictable state in the region. This fact alone works in favor of the “special relation” between the two states. I think the same works for Saudi Arabia than is shielded by the US from the consequences of its being a feudal monarchy denying citizen rights to women and funding international terrorism.

    While we are at this, why does Israeli left (or whatever is left of it) supports the two state solution, which is basically a US backed position that de facto creates Palestinian Bantustans, instead of a single state one with full citizen rights for residents in the occupied territories? If not anything else, this would provide a nice counterbalance to both the Zionist right and Islamism, eliminate the settlements problem, not to mention working class solidarity, internationalism and all that jazz that used to define the left wing position.

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