Those of us who are critical of the power of the Israel Lobby have been intrigued by the fact that the Obama administration seems to be standing up to the Israelis — and, by implication, to the Israel Lobby. After all, during the election campaign Obama did all the right things to show his support of the Israel Lobby and calm the fears of some Jewish activists that he would not be sufficiently pro-Israel, including which Philip Weiss termed a “truckling” speech at the AIPAC convention.
Obama was rewarded for his apparent fealty. Around 80% of Jews voted for Obama, and Jews contributed more than 50% of the Democratic Party’s money during the campaign. His choice of Rahm Emanuel (who served with the Israeli Defense Force during the 1991 Gulf War) as Chief of Staff and the presence of seasoned pro-Israel activists like Dennis Ross in the State Department also made it seem that Obama’s policy toward Israel would not be a major departure.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has appointed George Mitchell (who has a reputation as relatively evenhanded) as Middle East envoy and made conciliatory statements toward the Muslim world. More importantly, the administration has called for a two-state solution and pressed Israel to put a meaningful freeze on settlement expansion—including what Steven Walt terms the “fig leaf of ‘natural growth’”. (The New York Times reports that if all the currently approved West Bank housing units were actually built, it would almost double the total.)
One could be excused for being skeptical about these developments. Walt interprets the Obama administration’s behavior as entirely in keeping with the thrust of the ideas presented in The Israel Lobby. He interprets the stance of the Obama administration as a hopeful sign that the United States is at last pursuing a policy that is in the interests of both the US and Israel. But he warns that thus far, it’s all rhetoric.
Indeed, other presidents—most notably Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush—have put pressure on Israel, only to be thwarted because of the power of the Israel Lobby in Congress. There have already been murmurs of dissent in Congress about Obama’s statements among both Democrats and Republicans—the latter doubtless sensing a political opening.
It must concentrate the minds of the Obama administration to realize that Carter and Bush were one-term presidents who were heavily criticized by the Israel Lobby. Jimmy Carter was widely viewed as hostile to Israel during the 1980 election, and his policy toward Israel was the main impetus to the migration of neoconservatives to the Republican Party. Many believe that George H. W. Bush’s loss in 1992 stemmed from his attempt to rein in the settlements. (George W. Bush apparently got the message and decided not to alienate the Lobby on the settlement issue. This resulted, among other things, in his administration becoming bogged down in a needless and costly war in Iraq.)
One wonders if many American Jews feel they would have been better off with John McCain and his neocon foreign policy advisors—especially considering that McCain’s treasonous attitudes on immigration and the rest of his domestic agenda were compatible with Jewish attitudes.
The reaction to the Obama administration’s rhetoric by Jewish fanatics in Israel has been predictably over the top. National Religious Party’s leader, Science Minister Daniel Herschkowitz, compared Obama to an archetypal anti-Semite from the past: “The American demand to prevent natural growth is unreasonable, and brings to mind Pharaoh who said: Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river.”
Israeli activists are launching protests, and posters of “Barak Hussein Obama” (middle name included) in Arabic headgear with the statement “Anti-Semitic Jew Hater” are being distributed throughout Israel.
Poster of President Obama Wearing a Kaffiyeh
Philip Weiss notes that one of the protests was organized by “none other than Nadia Matar, who when we last saw her was raising [tax deductible] money in a New York synagogue and calling for Mahmoud Abbas to be assassinated.” The following statement by an activist gets at the depth of emotion involved:
I’m here to tell Obama that Eretz Yisrael belongs to the Jewish people. What right does anybody have to tell us to stop building in the land that was given to us by God? I’m not going to stand by and let Obama, or anybody else, tell me where I can live and where I can’t live.
This is actually quite mild compared to the comments (most of them scatological) by young Israelis in this video by Max Blumenthal. Blumenthal defends his video here, noting the “climate of extremism that exploded into the open when the country attacked Gaza.” His video shows that “vitriolic levels of racism are able to flow through the streets of Jerusalem like sewage, why the grandsons of Holocaust survivors feel compelled to offer the Shoah as justification to behave like fascist street thugs, and how the sons and daughters of successful Jewish American families casually merged Zionist cant with crude white supremacism.” It’s an excellent example showing that attitudes that are normal in Jews are absolutely forbidden to Europeans.
J Street and the Israeli left (and commentators such as Steven Walt) believe that freezing the settlements and agreeing to a viable Palestinian state are good for Israel. I have expressed doubts about this in my review of The Israel Lobby—the main point being that Israel has the power, especially with the cooperation of the US, to achieve its goal of seizing substantially all of the West Bank and relegating the Palestinians to a completely degraded status to the point that most will emigrate.
Of course, these aggressive, expansionist policies make Israel into an international pariah. But the Israel Lobby has a long and successful track record in rationalizing Israeli behavior, at least in the United States.
The more important point is that it really doesn’t matter if it’s good for Israel. The present government is the most right-wing in Israeli history, and many of its supporters are the types of fanatics putting up posters stating that Obama is an “Anti-Semitic Jew hater.”
The extremists have had a powerful say in Israeli politics, at least since the 1967 war. They are now more entrenched than ever. There is simply no way that these people are going to make major territorial concessions without a fight.
Any attempt to rein in the settlements or make a meaningful withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem or allow a viable Palestinian state would produce a civil war among Israelis. But it’s also quite clear that there is no political will in Israel for supporting such policies. The Labor Party functions mainly to collaborate with the right in order to give it a fig leaf of respectability (see also here). (Predictably, Labor leader Ehud Barak was sent to the US to present the Israeli position on the settlements.) According to my calculation, theethno–religious–nationalist–pro-settlement right holds 92 of 120 seats in the Knesset.
As throughout Jewish history, it is the most committed members who determine the direction of the entire group. This is doubtless true of most groups, but it is especially the case with Jews where there is a long history of fanaticism. In the present case, the most fanatical members of the Jewish community are firmly in support of territorial expansion in the West Bank. They are a solid majority in Israeli politics.
I am reminded of Christiane Amanpour’s depiction of Jewish fanatics in her excellent TV documentary, God’s Jewish Warriors (now back online[!]). One of the early scenes shows a large force of Israeli soldiers forcibly removing settlers from a Hebron neighborhood. Imagine what it would be like to remove anything approaching the nearly 500,000 settlers (as of 2006) now living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
These West Bank settlers and Jewish activists are massively ethnocentric, and they do not accept Western values like democracy and free speech. They live in a completely Jewish world where their every thought and perception is colored by their Jewish identity. Theirs is an apartheid world separated by high concrete walls from their Palestinian neighbors, where even tiny settlements are necessarily protected by the Israeli army.
At a time when Americans are constantly being encouraged by Jewish organizations like the ADL to be ever more tolerant of all kinds of diversity, these people are anything but tolerant. Calls for expropriation and expulsion of the Palestinians are commonplace among them. Many believe that God gave Jews all of the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Such people may not be representative of the Jewish community, at least in America. But their numbers are large, and they have created “facts on the ground” that make any kind of reasonable settlement impossible.
In the foreseeable future, it is quite clear that no Israeli government will fail to promote their interests. And the problem will only exacerbate as time goes on because the fanatics are the ones having the children. Already, the calls for “natural growth” of the settlements are rationalized because of the high fertility of the settler population.
As Walt points out, there are indeed signs in America that the less fanatic Jews, such as J Street, may have some influence in blunting the force of the Israel Lobby or possibly even turning it against the settlement movement. However, in keeping with the general finding that the most extreme Jews tend to win the day within the Jewish community, I predict that in the end Jews will be forced to choose between supporting their extremist brethren, or become marginalized or even ostracized from the Jewish community. The great majority of activist Jews in the US will support Israel even if it continues to stand firmly behind the settlement movement.
And when push comes to shove, Jews will go along with the activists who lead the organized Jewish community. One can talk about U.S. interests or Israeli interests all one wants, but this is a fight to the finish.
I’m not sure that Obama realizes what he’s getting into.