The Cold Realities of US Policy in Israel-Palestine

During the summertime war in Gaza, the two most progressive members of the US Senate stirred up controversy among their backers with 7258702972_d11e56b4ea_z (1)expressions of uncritical support for Israel. At a town hall meeting, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the lone Senate independent, responded to a questioner that Israel had “overreacted” with its 52-day bombardment and ground incursion, but then proceeded to justify Israel’s actions with the usual pro-Israel talking points about “missiles fired from populated areas” and “sophisticated tunnels.” An audience member began to shout objections, to which Sanders said, “Shut up.”

Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts, went further in her defense of Israel at a meeting with constituents on Cape Cod. She said it was right for the United States to send $225 million in aid to Israel, a “democracy controlled by the rule of law,” as the bombing continued. She ventured no criticism at all of the extensive damage to civilian lives and livelihoods in Gaza. When another constituent suggested that future US aid be conditioned on Israel halting settlement construction in the West Bank, Warren replied, “I think there’s a question of whether we should go that far.” Read more at the Middle East Research and Information Project

A Poison Pill For AIPAC

Today, I’m asking my readers to please support the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The group has been working hard on some new legislation and it’s really important to help get this bill to the floor of the Senate and the House.

According to a report in Buzzfeed, AIPAC has been working with congressional staff members for months on the bill, trying to find the formula for success. The bill would “…aim to prevent U.S. companies from participating in the (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel) campaign without infringing on Americans’ First Amendment rights to political speech. It would also try to make the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership being negotiated between the U.S. and E.U. conditional on whether the E.U. takes action to stop BDS.”

And how would they prevent US companies from participating in BDS? By “…authorizing states and local governments to divest from companies deemed to be participating in BDS,” and by denying “…federal contracts to such companies.” This bill should be at the top of the agenda for American activists in the United States who wish to see our country change its policies towards Israel and Palestine.

AIPAC hasn’t been doing very well of late. Their attempt to weasel a provision into another bill that would have allowed Israelis to enter the United States without a visa while Israel refused to make the same arrangement for US citizens raised a lot of hackles on Capitol Hill, even in some offices that are very AIPAC-friendly. The proposed provision was killed. AIPAC was unable to sway the Senate against the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Nor has it been able to significantly impact the Obama administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

There have been a lot of failures lately, including the failure to get Congress to push hard for an attack on Syria last year. But this bill, if it ever reaches the floor, could be the biggest bust of all, with some serious ramifications for the powerful lobbying group.

Let’s just start with the First Amendment issues this raises. If this bill ever sees the light of day, AIPAC is going to try to convince people that it is similar to the laws passed forty years ago in response to the Arab League’s boycott of Israel. Put simply, it isn’t.

Those laws–the 1977 amendments to the Export Administration Act (EAA) and the Ribicoff Amendment to the 1976 Tax Reform Act (TRA)–were drawn up narrowly, to apply only in the case of abetting or cooperating with a boycott directed at Israel by other countries. The mentions of boycott “by a foreign nation” or similar words are so frequent that the meaning cannot be missed. This is no surprise, of course; Congress is loath to dictate to US businesses, and it is especially tricky where a national interest is not clearly and immediately at stake. So these laws were contrived so that they only barred supporting boycotts by foreign countries against Israel.

In the case of BDS, no government is running this program, not even the pseudo-governments of the Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has not endorsed boycotts of Israel and is, itself, completely incapable of boycotting Israeli goods and services. It is in most ways a captive market to Israel. Hamas has, frankly, paid little attention to such measures, though they have encouraged them rhetorically from time to time.

There is a call for BDS from Palestinian civil society, but that is not covered by the 1970s laws. Moreover, any law that would target BDS would need to be constructed in such a way so that it would not have made boycotts of Apartheid South Africa illegal. Those boycotts also came in response to a call from the African National Congress. If businesses could not engage in such activities, there would be great outrage.

So the Arab League boycott is moot as a basis for anti-BDS legislation. The right to boycott is also not limited by what the government decides is an acceptable boycott and what is not. People, and businesses, are free to choose with whom they will do business. Congress making such decisions violates the very essence of the First Amendment, and it is highly unlikely that such a law could pass as a result and, if it could, even less likely that it could withstand legal challenges.

The bit about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is even more toxic. The point of TTIP is to make international trade between the United States and European Union easier, to reduce tariffs and lessen bureaucracy. The idea is to significantly improve the speed, and thus the volume and value, of trade between the two economic giants. Adding stipulations like ensuring that EU states are working against BDS is precisely what TTIP is designed to avoid. Whatever my own objections to TTIP (and they are many), it clearly holds great appeal for businesses on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is one thing for US citizens with influence in Washington to go along with the powerful lobbying forces defending Israel’s ability to act with impunity in the region; for the most part, that has not had a negative effect on trade. But this would be a very different matter. Now we are talking about AIPAC going up against powerful, domestic business interests. That is a whole new ballgame.

Even bringing the bill to the floor would demonstrate in a clearer way than ever before that AIPAC is willing to compromise US commercial interests and even one of the most cherished and basic freedoms the US prides itself on for the sake of Israeli interests.

Consider also that the overwhelming majority of boycott actions, divestment decisions and even popular proposals for sanctions against Israel have focused squarely on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. They have not targeted Israel as a whole, with the exception of some of the attempts at cultural and academic boycott. But these are not major concerns for Israel nor do they have the same impact potential as economic boycotts and divestment. So, the threat to free speech and to international trade that this bill represents would be demonstrably in the service of the settlement enterprise, the siege of Gaza and the occupation regime more generally. The mask would be off.

In reality, I very much doubt any such legislation is ever going to move forward, at least not from AIPAC. They know the problems as well as anyone and, while I don’t doubt that they are working constantly with their closest friends in Congress to see if something could work, I don’t think they’ll be successful. But if you want to see AIPAC suffer major damage, such a bill would do it. I can’t think of a better strategy to oppose AIPAC than to do everything we can to make sure this sort of doomed anti-BDS legislation hits the floor in Congress with a resounding thud.

Kerry in the Mideast: Tilting at Windmills

Who is John Kerry trying to fool?

His repeated trips to the Middle East have produced no change in the status quo and prevented neither the resignation of the US’ golden boy in Palestine, Salam Fayyad, nor Turkish Prime Minister Trecip Erdogan’s planned visit to Gaza. But he remains determined to bring peace to the Middle East. His urgent warning to Congress that the opportunity for a two-state solution has only one to two years of life left was meant to ignite a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill.

If this was some other Secretary of State, one might think he just needs to learn about the Israel-Palestine conflict (and he’s got a harsh lesson coming), but Kerry knows the dynamics of this issue very well. He spent 28 years in the Senate, including the last four as the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He managed to rise to that position despite having been more vocal than most in Congress (though that’s a very low bar) in opposing settlements.

Kerry was visibly shaken when he returned from Gaza in 2009, and his attention to some of the excesses of the Israeli blockade, like the barring of pasta from the Strip (because we all know the terrifying dual uses that can be put to), helped rein some of them in. None of this made a huge difference in either the political situation or the daily lives of Palestinians, but it does reflect a US politician who is far from a novice in the Israel-Palestine conflict. That image is reinforced by the fact that despite these substantive acts, which could not have been greeted warmly in the offices of AIPAC and other parts of the Israel Lobby, Kerry’s nomination as Secretary of State met virtually no opposition, in stark contrast to his colleague, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.

I’ve never spoken with John Kerry, but I got to know his staff on the Foreign Relations Committee pretty well. I was left with no doubt that Kerry had a pretty good grasp of the conflict, the Lobby and what was possible in the halls of power in Washington. Kerry is no fool and he’s neither ignorant about the Israel-Palestine conflict and its attendant politics nor is he naïve.

But it’s not easy to square those facts with his opening blitz on this issue. I spoke off the record with someone who knows Kerry and his thinking earlier this week and he told me Kerry is sincere about going all out to finally resolve this conflict. That certainly seems to be the case based on Kerry’s two trips to the region already and his plea for congressional backing at the hearing at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations.

Which leads to the conclusion that the person John Kerry is really fooling is himself. With his experience, his solid working relationships — not only with regional leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, but also with key figures in the Israel Lobby and the US Jewish community — and his long and consistent support for a two-state solution, he believes he can do, within a one to two year period, what all those before him have failed to accomplish.

The early returns, predictably enough, do not bear Kerry’s faith out. Almost immediately after Kerry left Israel, Netanyahu, mindful that he has lost significant support in Israel for his poor relationship with Barack Obama and not wanting to directly insult the Secretary of State, had one of his top aides anonymously tell the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Israel was rejecting Kerry’s proposed framework for renewing talks with the Palestinians. Shortly thereafter, Abbas accepted the resignation of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a particularly pointed development since Kerry had stressed Palestinian economic development as the key step in bringing the two sides back to the table. Fayyad has long been the point man for building the Palestinian economy, but it remains propped up by international donations. The Palestinians, correctly reading Kerry’s proposal as an echo of Netanyahu’s plan for “economic peace,” made it clear that political progress is what is needed for economic growth, not the reverse.

It didn’t end there. Kerry hoped to build on Obama’s success in breaking the impasse between Israel and Turkey by convincing Turkish PM Erdogan to postpone his planned to trip to Gaza next month. Erdogan refused, and Kerry was criticized for trying to dictate to Turkey how it should handle its foreign relations. Finally, a quiet project aimed at producing a summit that would bring the US, Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan, with the possible participation of other Arab countries together in June, was rejected loudly and out of hand by Israel, forcing the US to deny it was even trying this.

In short, it has been business as usual in Israel-Palestine diplomacy. Kerry is surely as aware as anyone that re-unifying the Palestinian leadership is crucial to any hope of an agreement, but he is bound by US and Israeli policy that refuses to deal not only with Hamas but with any Palestinian government that Hamas is a player in. Turkey is aware of the same thing, but is not bound by it, and Erdogan wants to position himself as the man who can make something happen in this realm.

Israel’s new government is dominated by rejectionists and Netanyahu is not going to be conciliatory unless he can demonstrate that the United States is leaving him no choice; the Israel Lobby ensures that won’t happen. The Palestinians, for their part, cannot afford to return to talks without some signal that Israel will leave something to negotiate over, in other words, a settlement freeze and some gesture on Palestinian prisoners.

These circumstances aren’t changing, and they have already formed a brick wall that Kerry has run headlong into. His message to Congress was just empty air. He’s telling them that the US position is going to have to change in order for him to be able to do anything. Well, that has always been true, whether the Secretary of State was named Clinton, Rice, Powell, Albright or Christopher. Congress’ recent behavior gives no indication that they are willing to move far afield from the Lobby. Again, no change.

By the end of the year, will Kerry be willing to admit that the two-state solution is dead? Perhaps, and maybe that was what he was telling Congress: I’m not going to work on this for my whole term as Secretary. But if John Kerry truly believes that he’s going to be able to break this impasse with his skills and experience alone, he is in for as rude an awakening as his boss was when he tried to get Netanyahu to freeze settlements in his first term.

US Arms Sale Sends Mixed Messages to Israel

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel may have insisted that the latest sale of US arms to Israel sent a strong message to Iran, but the actual message was a bit more restrained. Hagel made a point of emphasizing that the arms sale reaffirmed the close ties between the nations and repeated the Obama Administration’s mantra that Israel has the right to defend itself. The actual sale, though, gave the US another lever of control over a potential Israeli attack.

For Israel, the sale was a double-edged sword. The new equipment from the US does make it easier for Israel to attack Iran. Anti-radiation missiles disrupt anti-aircraft systems, and the new refueling jets modernize and expand Israel’s existing arsenal of such planes.

What they don’t do is give Israel the means to carry out an attack on Iran’s key nuclear facility at Fordo. For that, Israel needs the prize it has been seeking from the US: the new Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a “super bunker-buster” bomb weighing fifteen tons that’s capable of penetrating ten times as much concrete as previous models. With the Fordo site located some 300 feet underground, the MOP is the only bomb that might be able to impact the facility.

It is by no means certain that even the MOP could knock the Fordo facility out, but without that bomb, Israel cannot realistically try, short of a massive ground invasion. And even with the bomb itself, Israel would still need a plane to deliver the 15-ton explosive. Only a B-2 bomber can do that operationally and Israel currently does not have one.

The message being sent to Israel becomes clearer in light of an interesting event in the Senate on April 17. Senate Resolution 65 was an AIPAC-Sponsored bill that included a clause which committed the United States to supporting Israel if it attacked Iran. Usually, such AIPAC bills slide through the Senate and quickly reach an up or down vote on the floor. This one was marked up in the Foreign Relations Committee.

The markup was significant. Though it still commits the US to supporting Israel against Iran, it is not a simple green light for an Israeli attack with a rubber stamp on US involvement. It refers to legitimate self-defense, rather than just any Israeli decision to attack. The US can decide whether an Israeli act constitutes “legitimate self-defense”. The bill also makes clear that such defense refers only to Iranian nuclear targets. The markup also clarifies that any US support for an Israeli attack must conform to US law, including further Congressional authorization for any US action.

It’s still a problematic bill for many reasons, but it doesn’t create an automatic path for Israel to force the United States into a war with Iran. The fact that this AIPAC bill even went to a markup is unusual and says a lot. Combined with the public refusal to sell Israel the MOP — which gives the strong impression that the US is not even considering such a sale — an image of an Obama Administration determined to have a much firmer grip on its Iran policy during its second term emerges. Previously they felt too easily pressured by Israel’s and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on Congress and public opinion.

The US did enhance Israel’s ability to attack Iran, but it continues to guard the key to making such a mission successful in terms of setting back the Iranian nuclear program. In this way, the Obama Administration has stood by its principle that Israel has the right to defend itself, while maintaining its control over critical decisions regarding Iran. And Congress did not end up thwarting the administration’s designs.

By making it clear that Israel is free to make its own decisions — and that the US will also do so — Obama hopes to blunt Netanyahu’s ability to mount the sort of pressure he did last time. Given that Israel seems to be publicly playing along with these moves, the plan may be working, at least for now.

While a lot of attention has been paid to the continuing US refusal to provide Israel with the massive bunker buster bomb, much of the strategy at play in this sale was revealed in a piece of equipment Israel was able to buy. The V-22 Osprey combines the speed and range of a plane with the vertical maneuverability of a helicopter. Its main use is as a personnel and supplies carrier, though it can also be equipped with surveillance devices.

Israel is the first country the US has sold the V-22 to. Its ability to land almost anywhere it can fit and hover over a given point combines with its range to significantly increase areas in which Israel can consider infiltration operations. It’s possible that some sort of commando operation into Iran could be augmented by the V-22, but it wouldn’t be a direct flight; Iran lies at the extreme edge of the V-22’s range. It would have to be carried there on a ship.

More likely, the V-22 is meant for use in the more immediate neighborhood. It will enable Israel, according to one anonymous Israeli colonel, to “…be able to carry out operations that we never imagined that one of our planes could execute. If we purchase the plane, our ranges of activity will dramatically change and we’ll be able to reach points we’ve never even dreamed of.”

The V-22 could be used to get commandos in and out of areas quickly, enabling Israel to strike specific targets deep inside Arab countries. It would enhance their ability to launch operations at selected militant camps or people and get their own soldiers in and out quickly.

Although the V-22 is likely to be sold to other US allies soon, selling it to Israel before any other country was clearly meant to further the charm offensive that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been pushing with their visits to the region recently. But underlying that is a tie-in with the efforts to mend the breach between Israel and Turkey.

The hope seems to be that Turkey and Israel can work together to enhance stability in the region as the dominant military powers. That is a bit of a stretch, it’s true, but the US wants to scale back its direct involvement in the region, and this is one way of doing that. It could work. In the worst and more likely case, the US will have enhanced Israel’s ability to strike at unfriendly groups within increasingly tumultuous Arab countries. That keeps Netanyahu happy and is the sort of activity that the US has generally wanted Israel to engage in, despite sometimes explosive consequences.

AIPAC on the Defensive

This article was originally published by LobeLog, an indispensable source for foreign policy news and analysis. Check it out. 

The 2013 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference wasn’t quite the same show of arrogant power that it usually is. There seems to have been a AIPAC-620x350note of unusual concern among the 13,000 or so assembled activists. And those concerns echo some of what AIPAC’s detractors have been saying for some time.

The tone was set by AIPAC’s president, Michael Kassen at the beginning of the conference. In what Ha’aretz reporter Chemi Shalev described as “… an uncharacteristic ‘adapt or die’ alarm to the American Jewish community,” Kassen warned of “the growing allure of isolationism among our new leaders”, which would include an aversion to difficult foreign policy issues…like Israel.

Kassen urged the AIPAC activists to expand the base from its overwhelmingly Jewish one, and highlighted the participation of representatives from the African-American and Latino communities in the conference. Yet, despite this outreach, The Forward’s Natan Guttman reports that “…a look at the audience made clear that AIPAC is still largely an organization made up of white Jewish activists.”

There’s more here. Orthodox Jews are disproportionately represented at AIPAC. The Orthodox community represents around 15% of all US Jews. Support among non-orthodox Jews has been dwindling in a hurry, and despite intense efforts by AIPAC to reach out to younger Jews, the crowd is heavily skewed toward grey hair. Guttman also reports that an AIPAC official he spoke to rejected the idea that AIPAC had lost many liberal Jews to the more dovish pro-Israel group J Street by saying that “…if anything, liberal activists are turning away from the issue of Israel altogether and are not seeking a different kind of political approach.”

What AIPAC seems to be facing is the fact that its base, while very active and willing to mobilize considerable wealth as well as time and energy to support the AIPAC agenda, is aging and increasingly out of touch with most Americans. This is something commentators like myself, MJ Rosenberg and groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have been contending for quite some time. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of AIPAC’s problems. Continue reading