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Taking Odds:

Obama vs. Netanyahu?

By M J Rosenberg, 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.

That 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 be).

In short, the Israeli and American governments are far apart on most of the key issues.

So is a clash inevitable?

In 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.

There 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 preferred.

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 Mandela.

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.




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