Creating new perspectives since 2009

Obama, American Jewry and the prospects for Middle East peace

January 29, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since 2009, and no new initiative will emerge from either side soon. The Netanyahu government is not interested in a two-state solution and is focused instead on building settlements and cementing its control over the West Bank. The Palestinians are too weak and divided to stop the settlements or put meaningful pressure on Israel, and they have no interest in renewing a “peace process” that has become a cover for additional Israeli expansion.

Accordingly, the fading hopes for a two-state solution now rest on whether the Obama administration re-engages with the issue and uses America’s vast leverage to push the two sides to an agreement. For many observers, the answer to this question hinges on Obama’s relationship with the American Jewish community. Because the president no longer has to worry about getting re-elected, they hope he will ignore the sentiments of American Jews and put real pressure on Israel to end its colonial project and permit the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Unfortunately, this view of the situation misreads Obama’s relationship with American Jewry and fails to grasp the domestic obstacles that a new peace effort would encounter. In fact, Obama continues to enjoy overwhelming support from politically active American Jews. Moreover, a sizeable fraction of that population supports a two-state solution and might support using US leverage to bring about a deal. There is even a new pro-peace group-J Street-that is openly committed to advancing this goal.

Opposition to a serious peace effort comes not from the broader Jewish population, therefore, but from the most powerful organisations in the “Israel lobby”. The lobby is a loose coalition of groups and individuals that work actively to ensure that the United States gives Israel unconditional economic, military and diplomatic support. These groups include both Jews and non-Jews (most notably so-called Christian Zionists), and they have far more extreme views on Mideast issues than most Americans or even most Jewish-Americans. Because they are highly organised and well-funded, however, and because there are no groups with similar clout backing the other side, these organisations have disproportionate influence in the US political system. In addition to having an unchallenged hold on Congress, these supposedly “pro-Israel” organisations can put real limits on what even a popular president like Obama is able to do. 

When combined with the other obstacles to an Israel-Palestinian agreement, the lobby’s influence will discourage Obama from making a serious push for Middle East peace. The administration will pretend to care about the issue and may undertake some symbolic actions on this front-including Obama’s forthcoming visit to Israel and Jordan in March-but a sustained effort to achieve a two-state solution is unlikely.

Obama and American Jewry

Although Obama is often portrayed as having difficult relations with Jewish-Americans, the exact opposite is the case. In fact, Obama has had strong support from prominent American Jews from the very start of his political career. He was a friend and confidant of the late Arnold Wolf, a politically active progressive rabbi, while well-connected Democratic Party insiders like Abner Mikva and Penny Pritzker backed Obama’s political ambitions from the beginning. His team during the 2008 campaign and first term featured a number of important Jewish-Americans, such as political advisor David Axelrod, White House chiefs of staff Rahm Emanuel and Jacob Lew, National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner (who has been replaced by Lew for the second term) and Middle East advisors Dan Shapiro and Dennis Ross.

Obama also received strong backing from Jewish voters in both of his presidential campaigns. He got 78 per cent of the Jewish vote in 2008, a result that reflects the enduring liberal tendencies of the American Jewish community. Obama’s share of the Jewish vote dipped to 69 per cent in 2012, but his support from other groups declined as well and his overall share dropped from 54 to 51 per cent. Nonetheless, Obama still earned a larger share of the Jewish vote than Adlai Stevenson in 1956 or Michael Dukakis in 1988, and his yield was much higher than the 45 per cent Jimmy Carter won in 1980.

In short, there is little evidence that Obama has significant problems with the American Jewish community as a whole. And given that Israel is not a salient issue for many American Jews, it is not surprising that Obama has remained popular with most of the community despite his prickly relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama and the “Israel lobby”

Where Obama has had trouble is with the more hard-line elements in the Israel lobby, whose views on many Mideast issues are not representative of the population in whose name they claim to speak. Groups like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations have become increasingly right-wing over the past several decades, and they have been joined in recent years by extremist Christian Zionists and neoconservative groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel. These groups have challenged Obama every time he tried to put even the slightest pressure on Israel and have maintained a steady drumbeat of pressure for a tougher line against Iran, which they regard as an existential threat to Israel’s security. Wealthy hardliners such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson have spent millions of dollars bankrolling these efforts; indeed, Adelson reportedly contributed more than $100 million to Obama’s opponents in the 2012 election.

Although the campaign to deny Obama a second term failed, the lobby did derail Obama’s efforts to end the occupation and achieve a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president took office in 2009 vowing to achieve a two-state solution in his first term, and his famous Cairo speech in June 2009 declared “two-states for two peoples” to be in “Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest and the world’s interest”. He called upon Israel to halt further settlement building while a final status agreement was being reached.

Netanyahu rejected Obama’s request and over the following two years inflicted a series of humiliating defeats on the US president. He refused to halt settlement building in East Jerusalem and authorised three hundred new homes there a few weeks after the Cairo speech. Pressed by the lobby and by Congressional Democrats worried about the 2010 midterm elections, and needing the votes of every Democratic senator in order to pass his signature health care bill, Obama dropped the demand for a settlement freeze in the autumn of 2009. In response, Netanyahu announced triumphantly that he was “pleased that President Obama has accepted my approach that there should be no preconditions.”

The second humiliation occurred in March 2010, when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was arriving in Israel on an official visit. Netanyahu then flew to Washington and told AIPAC’s annual policy conference that construction would continue because “Jerusalem is not a settlement; it’s our capital”. At the same time, 333 Congressmen and 76 Senators signed an AIPAC-drafted letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring their unequivocal support for Israel and telling her to keep future disputes between the US and Israel behind closed doors. 

Netanyahu agreed subsequently to a temporary ten-month settlement freeze (excluding East Jerusalem) in order to persuade the Palestinians to resume talks. When Obama tried to get Netanyahu to extend the freeze by offering him a vast new arms package, the Israeli prime minister refused and the talks collapsed, delivering a third blow to Obama’s faltering efforts.

Finally, after Obama made a major speech in May 2011 calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and reiterating the longstanding US position that it be based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps, Netanyahu erupted in faux outrage and called the 1967 lines “indefensible”. He visited the White House shortly thereafter and lectured Obama in front of the TV cameras, and then delivered an address to Congress that received twenty-nine carefully-orchestrated standing ovations, four more than Obama got during his own State of the Union address.

With his re-election campaign looming, Obama abandoned his peace efforts and began pandering to Israel instead. The United States opposed the Palestinian statehood resolution at the United Nations in 2011 and defended Israel’s pummelling of the Gaza Strip in November 2012, moves that echoed Obama’s earlier silence during the 2008/9 Israeli offensive against Gaza, the administration’s trashing of the Goldstone Report on war crimes during that conflict, and its defence of Israel’s assault on the Gaza relief vessel Mavi Marmara in May 2010. Nor was there any daylight between Obama and Romney on the subject of Israel during the 2012 campaign, with both candidates competing to convince voters of their deep personal commitment to Israel’s security and well-being.

Of course, the hardliners in the lobby did not get everything they wanted during Obama’s first term. They failed to persuade Obama to use military force against Iran, even though Netanyahu had warned repeatedly of imminent “red lines” and clearly hoped to get the United States to take action on Israel’s behalf. And the lobby’s criticisms of the president failed to diminish Obama’s Jewish support significantly or prevent him from winning re-election.   

Why Obama Will Not Try Again

Will a second term bring a new US initiative? Might Obama decide to take on the lobby again and make a serious push for peace? The answer is no.

For starters, Obama’s re-election does not mean the lobby is significantly weaker. Obama was re-elected in part because he understood the lobby’s power and did little to challenge Israel after 2009. On the contrary, his administration provided Israel with increased levels of military aid and security cooperation (including cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities) and consistent diplomatic cover in the United Nations. Moreover, the lobby’s scorched-earth campaign to derail former Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defence shows that it retains considerable clout on Capitol Hill, even though Hagel was approved by a narrow majority. Why else would Israel get mentioned 178 times during Hagel’s confirmation hearings, while the US war in Afghanistan was raised only 27 times and Al-Qaeda only came up twice?

Won’t Obama be tempted to secure a legacy as a peacemaker and earn the Nobel Prize he received in 2009? Perhaps, but it is a temptation he is likely to resist. Although support for the Likud Party declined sharply in the Israeli election in January this year, Netanyahu will retain his spot as Prime Minister and his new coalition will not be significantly more inclined to compromise with the Palestinians. The continued tumult of the “Arab spring” will reinforce Israel’s reluctance to cut a deal even more and the Palestinians are too weak and divided to negotiate effectively on their own.

If Barack Obama is looking to secure his legacy, therefore, trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not look like a smart bet.  He does not have to run for re-election, but most members of Congress do. If Obama tried to make US support for Israel conditional on a halt to settlement building and a genuine two state solution, the House and Senate would put the same pressure on him in 2014 that they did in 2009 and 2010 and they will continue to give Israel $3-4 billion in foreign assistance each year. Which means, of course, that there will be no real pressure put on Israel and no real chance of a deal.

The situation is a genuine tragedy: bad for the United States, bad for Israel and obviously bad for the Palestinians. However, the main cause is not a troubled relationship between Obama and American Jewry. Rather, the problem is the political influence of the small number of Jews and gentiles who make up the Israel lobby, and their inability to see how their reflexive defence of the US-Israel “special relationship” has become deeply harmful to both countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.