Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

For Obama's Second Term Israel Policy Read Peter Beinart

Those wondering what Obama's policy towards Israel will probably be in his second term should read Peter Beinart's 2012 Jewish bestseller The Crisis of Zionism. Although the subject of the book is the crisis within American Judaism (emptiness of communal life) and in Israel (loss of democracy and the occupation) he does devote a full three chapters out of ten total to Obama. The first of these is entitled "The Jewish President," and in it Beinart attempts to do for our first actual black president what black novelist Toni Morrison famously did for Clinton when she declared him "America's first black president." Beinart argues that Obama as an adult was most influenced by his association with Jews in Chicago, most of whom were either liberal or radical and critical of Israel. But as a candidate Obama was a cautious politician who picked Jewish advisors more for their reputation with the Jewish community than for their academic or policy credentials. This is why he replaced Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer with Ambassador Dennis Ross as his main advisor on Israel and the peace process during the 2008 campaign and for his first term. Beinart ends the chapter with a quote from one of Obama's key Jewish influences, Rabbi Arnold Wolf, "He's going to go very cautiously and not do anything that shakes up the Jewish community." That turned out to not be quite accurate.

In the next chapter he describes Obama's abortive attempt to influence the peace process by going for a freeze on settlement construction. This has already been told by others but Beinart's account may be a great source for future historians. The third Obama chapter then relates how Obama ate crow and repudiated his earlier approach after the settlement freeze failed and attempts to bribe Netanyahu into renewing it also failed. He also has a very good chapter on Netanyahu entitled "The Monist Prime Minister." He argues that Netanyahu dislikes Obama because he reminds Netanyahu of the type of Jews that he dislikes. But the summary is that Obama has naturally liberal Zionist instincts towards Israel, he attempted to act on these once he was elected but backed off when he faced stiff resistance from Netanyahu. He then not only desisted from trying to implement a peace policy but also abstained from any rhetoric that would have been associated with that.

In the conclusion on p. 189 Beinart has four sentences of great importance that I will quote in full. 

In 2008, Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former staffer in the Clinton White House, created J Street to act as Barack Obama's "blocking back" in Congress as he tried to relaunch the peace process. These efforts are important, but in and of themselves they are not enough. Changing Israel policy in Washington is hard because liberal Jews wield little influence in a Republican Party substantially beholden to the Christian right. And even in the Democratic Party, where many members of Congress privately support American pressure on Israel to halt settlement growth and negotiate seriously toward a two-state deal, these members often say the opposite in public. 

At best J Street and its allies (like Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu) can give these Democratic Congress members courage and backbones. But they have no effect on Republicans. The question for any Democratic president then becomes, "Will I use up my precious political capital fighting with Republicans when this policy is likely to fail in any case?" The answer is clearly no when losing will only win him the support of liberal Jews and Muslims that he (or she) can already count on. Democratic presidents will only really take on the peace process in a sustained fashion when the Middle East appears visibly ripe for peace. George H.W. Bush was the last Republican president who was willing to take a risk for peace in the Middle East.

Such was the case in November 1973 after the end of the Yom Kippur War when Kissinger ascertained that Sadat wanted peace with Israel and that he had leverage because of American arms that Israel wanted and Israeli prisoners of war that Egypt held. The situation remained ripe until September 1975 when the Sinai II interim agreement was signed. It then reopened two years later when Sadat very visibly journeyed to Jerusalem to speak in the Israeli Knesset. The next moment of ripeness was in the spring of 1991 when the destruction of the Iraqi army by the allied coalition and Arafat's decision to lean towards Iraq left the PLO isolated. President George Bush Sr. but pressure on Israel by withholding loan guarantees for money needed to house arriving Soviet Jews. This led to Israel electing Yitzhak Rabin prime minister by a narrow margin. Bush saw the ripeness.

Peace making in the Middle East is about seeing the ripeness when it is there and not seeing it when it is not present. It is also about using leverage to create ripeness and further the potential like blowing a spark into a fire and feeding the flames. Ripeness requires two partners that feel that they need to sacrifice to make peace. Sadat was such a partner after his honorable loss in the 1973 war. Arafat was such a partner once the Gulf states cut off his allowance and made the PLO bankrupt. The victors in a destroyed Syria could be such partners once they have consolidated power.

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