Yet as often unhinged as America’s pro-Israel lobby is, no sensible president is in any position to deny or ignore its influence. And that certainly goes for Obama, who claimed 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. The last thing the president needs right now, at the climax of a battle over health care that will do much to determine the course of the rest of his first term, is to be taking incoming from the right and the left (bi-partisanship at last!) over Israel. Although Obama’s domestic constraints aren’t as great or burdensome as Bibi’s, they are significant all the same.
Which brings us to the third point of clarification—or, rather, revelation. It now seems apparent that a new and potentially potent counterweight to the pro-Israel lobby is emerging on the scene: the United States military. I’m referring here, of course, to General David Petraeus, the most influential military man alive and a hero to many of the same neoconservatives who bow reflexively before AIPAC.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, a team of officers from U.S. Central Command delivered a forceful presentation back in January to top Pentagon brass that argued that the lack of progress on solving the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma—and in particular America’s perceived complicity in Israeli intransigence—“was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.” The magazine quoted a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing thus: “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling … America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.”
Last week, Petraeus went up to Capitol Hill and delivered a message a tad less colorful and grim, yet still remarkable for its frankness. “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests,” Petraeus said. “Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in [the region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.”
The reaction to Petraeus’s comments from the neocons and the pro-Israel lobby was silence—with the notable exception of the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, who seemed to be addressing the general when he madly condemned those he accused of “blaming the Jews for everything.”
In truth, what Petraeus was clearly asserting was a tenet that is abundantly obvious to many observers but that the most ardent philo-Semites refuse to countenance: that although the U.S. and Israel are and should be deep and steadfast allies, their interests and objectives are not always and forever identical. How long it will take for that to be digested is anyone’s guess. But for a soldier of Petraeus’s stature to say so, especially at this moment, may be a turning point of profound significance.
Inasmuch as Petraeus’s testimony was a blow to the Israel-is-always-right crowd, however, it was also a backhanded shot at Team Obama’s thus-far feeble efforts to nudge and cajole the two sides toward the bargaining table. After a year of such slow (too slow) and patient (too patient) efforts by special envoy George Mitchell, the situation is no better than when Obama first took office. What Petraeus was saying implicitly was: This is urgent, what we’re doing isn’t working, it’s time to stop dicking around.
Before now, the administration has been loath to put on the table a full-fledged peace plan. The arguments against doing so were easy enough to grasp: After Netanyahu formed his government in March 2009, the circumstances seemed too inhospitable for such an endeavor. But now, after the administration’s show of mettle and Bibi’s forced retreat, and with the new clarities that this latest tussle have brought forth, the time may be right to make the big bet and roll the dice. For too long, American policy has been hamstrung by the notion that the U.S. can’t want a two-state solution more than the parties do. The fourth point is that if Obama keeps waiting for the day when both Israel and the Palestinians desire a grand bargain—and need one—more than we do, the sad and dangerous probability is that it will never come.