Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Obama vs. Netanyahu?
By M J Rosenberg
ccun.org, May 10, 2009
Reporters are always asking me if I think
President Barack Obama would prevail in the
oft-predicted “knock down, drag out” fight with the
Israeli government (and lobby) over the peace process.
question is especially relevant following this week’s AIPAC conference. Vice
President Joe Biden made it abundantly clear that the administration intends
to push hard for a Palestinian state. (While Prime Minister Netanyahu is
talking about everything except a Palestinian state.) The Israeli media is
picking up the signals too. Writing in Yedioth Achronoth, Eitan Haber says
that all the signs point in one direction and he’s worried. “When Obama
roars, who will not tremble?” he asks.
The new president is
committed to the two-state solution and intends to insist that the Israeli
government not take actions that thwart that goal. That means moving against
ever-expanding settlements (which the Israeli press today reports are about
to be expanded even more by Netanyahu), easing the flow of goods in and out
of Gaza, and removing checkpoints and other obstacles to Palestinian freedom
of movement. The administration is also moving away from Israel’s ironclad
opposition to dealing with Hamas.
For instance, Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton noted that although we do not deal with Hezbollah, we do
deal with a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah. Why not apply that
model to a Palestinian unity government?
Meanwhile Obama’s top White
House adviser on foreign policy, National Security Adviser James Jones, told
the Washington Post that Obama does not intend to wait for the Israelis and
Palestinians to come up with a formula.
“The United States is at its
best when it’s directly involved,” Jones said. He invoked the successful
U.S. efforts to end the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. “We didn’t tell
the parties to go off and work this out. If we want to get momentum, we have
to be involved directly.”
Then there is Iran. President Shimon Peres
was in Washington for the AIPAC conference, pushing a hard line on Iran
(when it comes to Iran, Peres is as hawkish as Netanyahu). He did not
expressly oppose President Obama’s diplomatic overture to Tehran but did
indicate that Israel was less than enthusiastic about it. The Israelis want
us to set a firm expiration date on diplomacy. If Iran does not deliver by
that date, then we, or they, will move to the next step (whatever that might
In short, the Israeli
and American governments are far apart on most of the key issues.
So is a
my opinion, no. That is because I believe that no
Israeli government can successfully oppose a popular American president who
sets out to pursue Arab-Israeli peace.
Neither the Israeli
government (nor the lobby) was happy with President Jimmy Carter’s
aggressive efforts to promote the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in the late
1970s. But Carter was undaunted and the peace deal was signed—by Prime
Minister Menachem Begin, of all people. The same applies to the Reagan Plan
of 1982 and Reagan’s recognition of the PLO in 1988. In neither of these
cases was a challenge successfully mounted. The lobby loathes the idea of
confronting any American president, especially a popular one.
were, however, two occasions when challenges were launched, the first
against Reagan’s sale of AWACS to Saudi Arabia and the second against
President George H. W. Bush’s decision to withhold loan guarantees in
protest of Israeli settlement policies. In both cases, it was the U.S.
president who won. In the latter case, Shamir’s government actually
collapsed and was replaced by a government (led by Yitzhak Rabin) that Bush
Bush did not engineer Shamir’s downfall. He was brought
down by an Israeli political establishment (and public) that did not want
its government fighting against Israel’s only significant ally and weapons
supplier. Few Israelis, or their U.S. supporters, would be willing to
jeopardize what AIPAC’s founder, IL Kenen, called “Israel’s lifeline” in
order to retain West Bank settlements.
If Obama holds firm, it will
not be Obama who blinks.
And not only because it is the United
States that is the super power. It is also because President Obama will not
be asking Israel to sacrifice any vital interest. On the contrary, in
leading an effort to achieve peace, Obama will be advancing Israel’s
security, along with our own.
That is also why American Jews will
rally behind him. It is not because they are indifferent to Israel’s
security but because they understand that maintaining the occupation
undermines Israel’s long-term survival.
Proponents of the status quo
believe that Israel can maintain the occupation and remain a democratic
Jewish state. But that is impossible. In fact, on Israel’s Independence Day
last month, the official Central Bureau of Statistics announced that
territories under Israeli control are already 51 percent non-Jewish (5.6
million Jews vs. 5.8 million non-Jews).
Continuing the occupation
means a significant Arab majority in a few years that would achieve power
through the ballot box and terminate the Zionist enterprise. Or Israel could
maintain the territories, deny the Arab population the vote, and become
(actually continue to be) an apartheid state like South Africa before Nelson
The final possibility—the one the United States is working
to achieve—is the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza,
and East Jerusalem. Essentially, Israel would go back to being what it was
before 1967—an overwhelmingly Jewish state. The difference would be that now
it would have ironclad peace treaties with the Palestinians, Egyptians, and
Jordanians. In other words, Israel would achieve what every Israeli dreamed
of before June 5, 1967: peace and security in a Jewish country. How terrible
is that? (For those too young to remember, pre-1967 Israel was not terrible
at all. In fact, it was pretty wonderful. It is forty years of occupation
that has been terrible.)
It should be noted that despite what some
may think, American Jews are Americans and, it must be said, overwhelmingly
Democratic. They will back their president if he pushes hard for Middle East
peace. They are not Israelis living in exile. They are Americans who not
only share the general enthusiasm for our new president, but also feel it
more than any group except African Americans. Seventy-eight percent voted
for Obama over John McCain, a figure unmatched by any other white group.
They will not turn against Obama to protest his actions advancing . . .
peace. They voted for Obama, in large part, because he ran on his record
opposing the Iraq war and favoring diplomacy with Iran.
As for the
lobby, it will not go head-to-head against this president. It won’t because
it doesn’t like losing any more than it likes losing access to the halls of
power. As for the Democratic majority in Congress, with the exception of a
few House members who are to the right of Likud, they will stick with the
president who gave their party its first electoral landslide since 1964.
In short, Barack Obama is
uniquely positioned to achieve two states for two peoples. It’s now or
never. And if it’s never, we will see the “one state solution” instead. That
one state won’t be called Israel.
MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's
Washington Policy Center.