There’s a mighty tussle in the USA right now between the President and the Prime Minister of a very small country in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is winning the early rounds. Who wins in the end will not be known for some time.
President Obama wants a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict to help defuse the hostility of the Islamic world towards America.
His speech in Cairo early in his presidency, his condemnation then of Israel’s continued settlement policy, and assertion that the Palestine issue was of strategic importance to the USA, seemed to indicate change in US policy.
However, policy on Palestine and Israel is hard to change, because when push comes to shove the USA has always backed Israel and so cannot be even-handed. The recent row between Obama and Netanyahu, caused by Israel building 1,600 settlement houses in East Jerusalem, illustrates the point.
The White House was “insulted,” when the announcement was made during Vice-President Biden’s visit.
But what if the announcement was made at any other time, with no senior member of the administration in Jerusalem? A bit of handwringing?
Certainly not action, such as cutting the $3bn due this year from America’s commitment of $30bn military aid to Israel. So, Netanyahu builds with impunity, and Obama fumes in impotence.
Netanyahu is winning so far because the American political establishment has unswerving loyalty to a foreign country, Israel; a loyalty that puts support for Israel above the strategic needs of the United States; a remarkable phenomenon in the whole history of world politics.
Never before has a superpower submitted itself to the policy of a minor power.
The reason lies, of course, in the US’s domestic politics, where the Jewish lobby – American Israeli Political Action Committee – has proved its ability to break Congressmen and Senators who do not toe its line. AIPAC boasts of its power. After Obama’s Cairo speech, it organised one of the largest ever lobbies of Congress and, on cue, 328 House Members and 76 Senators wrote to Obama to keep the cosy US-Israel policy in place.
Even as the White House protested the insult to Biden, AIPAC mobilised. Its website shows House members and Senators writing angrily to Obama on Israel’s behalf. Even John McCain, usually honest, has said settlements are not the problem. An intelligent man, he must know settlements are the issue destroying any possibility of a just outcome to negotiations. But he is standing for re-election in November. Going against AIPAC is too big a risk.
McCain knows of the significant heads stuck on AIPAC’s pole; among them Senators Fulbright (Democrat) and Jepson (Republican).
When Jepson lost, due to his vote offending AIPAC, Senator Cranston said his fate “struck terror into the hearts of Senators about switching on Middle East votes.” On 21 March, AIPAC opened its policy conference, with 6,000 delegates attending. Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, Senators and Congressmen, and Tony Blair, were the star speakers. A show of force. It has reigned supreme for many years as the most formidable lobby, with the ability to destroy its critics.
But times may be changing. There are American Jews who realise two things. First, if once American voters realise that Israel is not a strategic partner, but its conduct is the cause of a direct threat to their lives from Islamic jihadis, they will start to pressure the political class to think America first and not Israel first. Second, that Israel is becoming a pariah state, despised by the international community, and thus vulnerable in the long run. They recognise that a truly just two-state settlement is the only long-term security for Israel.
This change has seen the emergence of a new US Jewish organisation – J Street. It now contests AIPAC’s claim to represent both American Jewish opinion, and act in the longterm interests of Israel. There are other American Jews outraged at Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, and who recognise that any claim by Israel to uphold Western values has been rendered false by the methods used to occupy and steal Palestinian land.
Then there is another source for the process of change – the US military, still in Iraq, fighting a war for hearts and minds in Afghanistan, and facing a long, long struggle to eliminate al-Qaeda organisations, for whom the Israeli conduct in Palestine is a constant recruiting sergeant.
General Petraeus, whose ability gives the lie to the claim that military intelligence is an oxymoron, deliberately made the point to the Senate Armed Services Committee on 16 March, that “a perception of US favoritism for Israel…” stokes “Arab anger” and that “meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilise support.” The Israeli lobby did not like Petraeus’s views, but unlike the vulnerable politicians, a heroic general is hard to destroy.
Petraeus and other military commanders know that as long as America favours Israel, and there is no just solution for the Palestinians, more lives of US service personnel will be at risk, as they are drawn into conflicts by the jihadis, fuelled by America’s pro-Israel position.
So, as Israel becomes, as it is, a known threat to America’s homeland and troops, AIPAC’s malignant grip on political power in the United States is starting to erode. Israel’s days of deciding US Middle East policy are running out.