I placed a short op-ed in the Daily News today. The headline is not surprisingly misleading, and the News is not exactly a highly professional outlet. But it has a pretty good readership, and, in New York, it gets more of a cross-section than the Times and the Post. Check it out.
The ongoing spat between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States President Barack Obama has drowned out an important issue. The entire question of the Israel-Palestine conflict seems to be out of sight and out of mind in Washington and the mainstream media. Instead, the focus has been on diplomatic protocols: on what the United States is or is not willing to concede to Iran in talks, on whether Israel can be trusted with sensitive updates on those talks, and on whether issuing renewed sanctions against Iran is a foolish idea.
Traditionally, the United States and the international community in general don’t even try to push peace in Israel’s direction when the Jewish state is in the midst of electoral campaign season. That’s what is happening now as well, despite the drama stirred up by Bibi and his congressional cohorts John Boehner (R-OH) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Staying out of Israeli elections is conventional wisdom, but is it the right move now?
A new report issued yesterday strongly suggests otherwise. It’s written by Michael Cohen, a fellow at the Century Foundation, and Matthew Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (full disclosure, I work with Matt at FMEP, where I am the program director). Titled The United States and Israel at a Crossroads, the report is based on some polling recently done in Israel to gauge the Israeli public’s responses to various steps the United States might take to move the peace process forward, as well as direct conversations with a number of Israeli, Palestinian, and U.S. leaders.
The Concerns of Israelis
Unsurprisingly, Israelis are skittish about any U.S. interference in their internal politics. Leaving aside the irony of that sentiment in light of recent events, Israelis do still understand that they need U.S. support. They also understand, based on the polling data, that their own government’s policies are putting the United States in an increasingly difficult position. Furthermore, they are open to Washington pursuing certain actions, particularly regarding settlements.
From these data, Duss and Cohen gauge what might be both practical and politically feasible and make the following recommendations:
- Make clear that while the United States remains committed to Israel’s genuine security requirements and right to defend itself, it will cease to expend significant diplomatic capital to protect Israel from international actions against Israeli policies that are contrary to U.S. positions, such as settlement expansion.
- Once again publicly refer to settlements as “illegal” rather than the current “illegitimate.” While the final disposition of the settlements will be determined by negotiations, until that time it remains the legal opinion of the U.S. State Department that they are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and this should be stated clearly by U.S. spokespersons.
- Offer support for a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemns Israel’s policy of settlement construction, particularly those outside the major settlement blocs.
- Work with its partners to produce a UN Security Council resolution setting clear terms of reference for negotiations, similar to those articulated by President Obama himself in his May 2011 speech at the State Department.
- Announce plans to more closely scrutinize the tax-exempt status of U.S. organizations that support the settlement enterprise in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to ensure that these activities do not violate U.S. laws and guidelines for charitable contributions and tax-exempt purposes.
- Publicly present the framework of a final status agreement that would lead to the creation of two states for two peoples along the lines of the Clinton Parameters. This framework would take into account Israel’s legitimate security concerns and would include recognition of Israel by the Arab League, per the Arab Peace Initiative.
These ideas are sure to strike many as modest, even as they send chills up the spines of some of the Netanyahu government’s most strident supporters, especially among the small, but influential minority of right-wing U.S. Jews and the larger cadre of so-called “Christian Zionists.” Only a few short years ago, they would also have been dismissed as wholly unrealistic. Things have changed.
Many will focus on the mutual loathing between Netanyahu and Obama to explain that change. But the cause is really more basic than that. Despite the jingoistic political rhetoric, embraced so tightly by Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, that there is “no daylight” between Israeli and U.S. policies, there has in fact always been such daylight. Events in the Middle East and, more importantly, domestic politics in both Israel and the United States have increased the gap in recent years. Although the fissures are still not visible in Congress on the Palestinian question, they can be seen just about everywhere else.
A Shifting Consensus
No doubt, readers out there will have their own ideas about what they’d recommend to Obama. But what is particularly striking about these ideas is that they are all politically viable. That is not to say they would not be opposed, even by some prominent Democrats. But neither would they be the kind of political poison they were a few years ago.
In 2015, a liberal hawk like Bill Maher can be heard to say that “…we’re getting very close on the Iran issue to allowing Israel to write American policy,” and it hardly causes a murmur in response. John Kerry betrays his true views of Israel’s Gaza assault when a camera catches him sarcastically grumbling “it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” in reference to Israel’s wildly disproportionate assault on the Strip.
Perhaps most significantly, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, warned the Israelis that if a genuine effort for reviving a peace process was not made after the election, “’international actions’ [would be] pursued not by the Palestinians, but rather by the international community ‘in terms of a Security Council resolution’ to ‘lay out and preserve the principles of a two state solution in the future.’”
That’s a pretty strong indication that the Obama administration’s thinking is similar to that of Cohen and Duss, and that the White House is seriously considering crafting something in the Security Council that would spell out international expectations of Israel and the Palestinians for the ultimate resolution of this conflict. It would be an unprecedented step, and not an easy one. Surely Russia and China would have a different view than France and Great Britain, let alone the United States of how such a document should look. And that’s before we even consider the non-permanent members of the Council.
Still, just the fact that such an idea is even floating around policy circles in Washington, and even at the White House, is remarkable. No doubt, if Obama were to take such steps, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle would oppose him, and there would be a loud outcry from various sectors. But the polling data on which Cohen and Duss based their report shows that significant numbers of Israelis are worried about precisely such outcomes. Strong minorities, and in some cases majorities, would place the blame for such actions on the Israeli, rather than the U.S. government.
More research is surely needed, but the polling done for this report raises some interesting possibilities. Let’s keep in mind that these questions were being asked while Israelis are still relatively certain that the United States will have their back, not only in the military sense, but also in terms of boycotts and other forms of international isolation. Yet, of the six policy recommendations listed above, the one Indyk is warning Israelis about is perhaps the harshest measure.
It has long been my belief that if the United States should take such recommended actions, this would be more than sufficient to convince the majority of Israelis, in and out of government, to push for a change in their policies regarding the occupation and Palestinian rights. Despite Israel’s sharp right turn, I still believe that. There has never been a better time to put it to the test.
For those of you who don’t follow my social media postings, I was on the KPFA Sunday Show this past Sunday, along with Joel Beinin, discussing the Bibi-Boehner Brouhaha, the Israeli elections and the Iran nuclear talks. If you’d like to check it out, you can listen to the whole show at KPFA’s website (where you can also donate to one of the few remaining progressive radio stations that actually earns the name) at this link.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, U.S. President Barack Obama stated once again, and quite firmly,
that he would veto any new sanctions bill against Iran. Apparently, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner was not going to take that lying down.
Less than twelve hours after Obama finished his speech, Boehner announced that he has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest expressed President Obama’s displeasure at the invitation, of which the White House was not informed until Boehner’s announcement. Earnest called it a “departure from protocol” whereby the two leaders normally coordinate such visits. The soft words are thin cover for what is surely white-hot anger in the White House.
As Boehner’s announcement itself made clear, there can be little doubt that the speaker’s move was intended to undercut Obama. The fact that Netanyahu’s office also did not communicate with the White House before the invitation was issued will likely further strain the relationship between the two leaders. Although Netanyahu has not, as of this writing, said whether or not he will accept the invitation, it will be difficult for him to pass it up. This appearance will be one to which every U.S. citizen concerned with our foreign policy will need to pay close attention. It will be nothing less than the prime minister of Israel rallying his faithful troops in Congress to oppose the president of the United States.
Before getting into the obvious partisan and Israel-related politics around this, we should take note of the fact that this appearance before Congress, if it materializes, will take place just over a month before the Israeli elections. Netanyahu is facing a pretty stiff challenge from the “Zionist Camp” ticket, a coalition formed by the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Ha’Tnuah party. One of their talking points—though certainly not the central one—will be that Netanyahu has bungled the relationship with the United States on which Israel depends so much.
The spectacle that will surely be seen again—that of Netanyahu hardly being able to speak a sentence without yet another new standing ovation by virtually every one of Congress’ 535 members—will hit that point hard. Bibi’s talking point will be to ask, “What does it matter if we don’t get along so well with an administration that will be gone in two years? We have Congress lock, stock, and barrel.” And that will play very well in Israel.
Boehner and his Republican colleagues very much want Netanyahu to win re-election. It is no coincidence that this invitation comes at the perfect moment for Netanyahu. It is not so far from the election that it will fade from memory, but not so close as to make it seem as if he is prioritizing international matters over domestic Israeli concerns.
This episode should be kept in mind when we hear that the United States and the international community must postpone diplomacy around the Israel-Palestine conflict to avoid “interfering with the Israeli elections.” In reality, it is perfectly acceptable to interfere in Israel’s elections, as long as that interference favors Netanyahu.
But this is not at all meant to imply that the Israeli election is the reason for Boehner’s invitation. On the contrary, it is, for Boehner, merely a happy side effect. For both men, the primary reason for this appearance is to bring the full weight of Israel’s influence in Congress to bear against the president of the United States. The goal is to consolidate enough support in Congress to override the veto Obama promised against any new Iran sanctions bill.
Netanyahu will surely seize this opportunity to garner support for more sanctions whose impact, as Obama—backed, incidentally, by British Prime Minister David Cameron in their joint press conference—warned last week, would likely lead to the collapse of diplomacy.
Congress should be aware that if this diplomatic solution fails, then the risks and likelihood that this ends up being at some point a military confrontation is heightened, and Congress will have to own that as well, and that will have to be debated by the American people. And we may not be able to rebuild the kind of coalition we need in that context if the world believes that we were not serious about negotiations.
While Obama didn’t go quite as far during his address last night repeated that “…new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails—alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.”
Obama’s opponents, in Washington and Jerusalem, are quite right, in their own terms, about the deal Obama is trying to strike with Iran. That deal would surely feature a phased end to sanctions in exchange for verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program but it would also permit Iran to retain some of its nuclear infrastructure, including a uranium enrichment program. That is the very definition of what Netanyahu, as well as hawks in the United States from both parties, would call a “bad deal.” On top of that, there is a desire for regime change in Iran among neoconservative forces in the United States. That desire is shared by Netanyahu and many in Israel. The goal is a long way off, so it is rarely mentioned, but lowering tensions through diplomacy—let alone a detente between Washington and Tehran—is certainly not the way to get there.
So, here comes Bibi, marching up Capitol Hill. He certainly will have a chance to rally enough support in the Senate to override the President’s veto. It won’t be easy; many of the more hawkish Democrats from last year’s attempt to pass new sanctions backed down when the heat got turned up, and a number of them lost their seats in November. Moreover, Boehner’s unilateral action—apparently without consulting anyone from the Minority—will not endear him to wavering Democrats.
But Netanyahu could have some extra ammunition in his corner. Tensions between Israel and Iran are escalating in the wake of an Israeli attack in the Golan Heights region of Syria last weekend that killed an Iranian general, along with several members of Hezbollah, including Jihad Mughniyeh, whose father was a major Hezbollah figure also killed by Israel. Iran and Hezbollah have both sworn retaliation, though nothing has come of it yet and they both have their hands full with the war in Syria. Nonetheless, the incident reinforces the view of Iran as a major regional threat and serves as a reminder of the support Iran is giving to Bashar al-Assad.
Moreover, the recent “suicide” of an Argentine prosecutor before he was to testify about the results of his investigation into the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires could also strengthen Netanyahu’s hand against Obama. The prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy between the current Argentine government and Iran to whitewash the Islamic Republic’s alleged role in the deadly attack which claimed 85 lives. Few believe that Nisman took his own life the night before giving such potentially explosive testimony.
The question of who might have coerced Nisman into taking his own life, or perhaps staged his suicide, is likely to remain an open one for a long time. The prime suspect would surely be the current Argentine leadership, but the incident will serve as a reminder of the well-worn charge that Iran is the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism and the accused sponsor of the worst attack on Jews in Argentina’s very problematic history.
It would be no easy feat to get thirteen Democrats (the number that would be required assuming all 54 Senate Republicans are on board) to vote to override a veto cast by a Democratic president. But it’s not an impossible figure, and a lot of circumstances seem to be coming together to intensify the already hostile attitude that prevails on Capitol Hill.
Bibi is the big gun, and, if Boehner has his way, he’ll be be deployed in three weeks. If we want to prevent a collapse in the talks with Iran, and the very strong likelihood that war will soon follow, there has never been a more crucial time to support Obama.
An edited version of this article originally appeared at LobeLog.
On Monday, I attended the National Leadership Assembly for Israel. The gathering was more than a little disquieting.
The names in attendance were big ones. National Security Adviser Susan Rice, House Speaker John Boehner, Former Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, current Chairman Ed Royce, Senator Ben Cardin, Ambassador Dennis Stephens of Canada, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer as well as leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (COPJ), AIPAC, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and others all spoke. One of the most troubling aspects of it was that they mostly all had the same thing to say.
Some speakers went farther than others. Paul De Vries, the evangelical preacher and president of the New York Divinity School, called Hamas “evil” and said that ISIS was Hamas’ “twin.” While most statements were not that stark, every speaker placed full blame for all the casualties in Gaza on Hamas. Israel was defended completely uncritically, with not a hint from anyone that maybe, just maybe, the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children might mean that Israel is not quite taking enough care to avoid harming civilians. Continue reading