Parting the Waters

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

By the time you read this, the 2010 American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference will already be under way and may even be over. The AIPAC shindig invariably features the most unrestrained expressions of philo-Semitism outside the Holy Land.

But until a few days ago, this year’s meeting held the promise of an unusual degree of drama, owing to the presence of a pair of A-list speakers whose recent conversations have been—how to put this?—less than entirely cordial: Benjamin Netanyahu and Hillary Clinton.

The chain of events that had infused the gathering with such headline-making potential is well known by now: the sharp stick stuck in the eye of Joe Biden on his recent trip to Israel, in the form of an announcement of new settlement blocks being built in contested East Jerusalem; the Obama administration’s furious response to the affront (including a 43-minute telephonic reaming out of Netanyahu by Madam Secretary); the prime minister’s wan apology (“regrettable” and “hurtful,” he called the timing of the announcement) coupled with his initial defiance in the face of insistence by the White House that Israel halt the construction plans and agree to substantive negotiations with the Palestinians.

On the night of March 18, the possibility of an AIPAC showdown evaporated, when Bibi phoned Hillary and, well, pretty much caved. Though both sides were unspecific about what Netanyahu promised, diplomatic sources indicated that it might include confidence-boosting steps in the West Bank, along with a postponement of the new building in East Jerusalem. But while Netanyahu’s climbdown prevented the events of the past two weeks from escalating from tsuris into crisis, the episode was still at once clarifying and filled with portent. Among many Obama officials and seasoned Mideast hands, there is an unmistakable feeling that some kind of corner has been turned.

So precisely what has been clarified? Four things, I think—the first of which centers on Israeli domestic politics. For Netanyahu, every political calculation that he makes revolves around holding together a governing coalition that includes the far-right nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party and the far-right fundamentalist Shas Party, which controls the Interior Ministry that was responsible for sucker-punching Biden with the new housing plans. That Netanyahu was apparently as blindsided as the V.P. by the announcement speaks volumes about the incoherence and volatility of his coalition. The imperative to appease the right was what put Netanyahu in such difficult straits in responding to the resulting contretemps. And it has surely influenced his hard-line positioning when it comes to negotiations with the Palestinians.

There are other reasons, to be sure, for Netanyahu’s stances. Based on past and present, the Israelis rightly fear that the Palestinians are not a reliable or even plausible partner in peace. Yet as long as Netanyahu is beholden to his ultrarightist flank, neither is Israel—a brute reality with which the Obama administration is now being forced to grapple. As Jeffrey Goldberg put it bluntly the other day on his blog, “It’s clear to everyone—at the White House, at the State Department, at [Goldberg’s] Goldblog—that no progress will be made on any front if” the two right-wing parties “remain in Netanyahu’s surpassingly fragile coalition.”

No doubt, there are many in the administration who see things this way. By playing rough with Netanyahu, more a pragmatist than a wild-eyed ideologue, the administration hoped to embarrass him sufficiently that he would have no choice but to get a handle on his own government, either by parting ways with Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu and teaming up with Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima Party or staring down the ultracons. For now, at least, it appears that Netanyahu has chosen the latter course—a victory of no small importance for the Obamans.

The second point of clarity also involves domestic politics, but this time in the United States. When the news of Biden’s ill-treatment in Jerusalem broke, the reaction of the pro-Israel lobby in America was silence. When the administration pushed back on Netanyahu, though, the howls of protest were loud and confrontational. AIPAC CALLS RECENT STATEMENTS BY THE U.S. GOVERNMENT “A MATTER OF SERIOUS CONCERN,” blared the headline of a written statement issued by the group. URGES OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TO WORK TO IMMEDIATELY DEFUSE THE TENSION WITH ISRAEL.

Now, you might say that this was utterly predictable—and so were the amens that echoed the statement from congresspeople across the ideological spectrum. Yet the truth is that, by any measure, the response of the pro-Israel lobby was extraordinary. Here you had a U.S. lobbying group standing tall beside a foreign power against the president of the United States. And not just one president, as Time’s Joe Klein pointed out, but, in effect, against every president from Richard Nixon forward, since all of them have called on the Israelis to freeze their settlement-building, which pretty much the entire rest of the world regards as illegal.

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.


Parting the Waters