Dr. David Albert, PhD, teaches Political Science in Austin, TX at Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Community College, and University of Texas – Extension Division.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held their annual Policy Conference in DC this week with 6000 delegates and a plethora of political figures. They are sailing in somewhat rougher political waters than they were last year when all three Presidential candidates – Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain – and all four Congressional leaders (Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner) spoke at their Conference. They face a new President, Barack Obama, who has said he is committed to achieving a two-state solution (and won overwhelming support from American Jews in the Presidential election) and a new Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, who is squarely against a two-state solution.
So what did AIPAC do? They did what they always do; they tried to separate – in my dissertation I call this process “compartmentalizing” – the US-Israel “special relationship” from the peace process. They put forth the case that their “special relationship” between Israel and the United States is permanently derivative of shared strategic interests and cultural values. They argue that U.S. and Israeli interests are synonymous. They put forth a political argument to the Congress and the new President that the “special relationship” does not depend on the peace process, but rather that it transcends the peace process. They argued that the U.S.-Israel alliance should remain central to U.S. Middle East policy regardless of whether or not Israel actively seeks to advance it.
The centerpiece of this strategy is the threat to Iran. The argument placed front and center is that Iran is the central threat to both U.S. and Israeli interests which must be confronted. They exaggerate the real and genuine threat that Iran poses, because it is a lever of shared interest for binding together the “special relationship” in the same way that the Cold War once was. The potential for Iran gaining nuclear weapons must be ended by diplomacy, if possible, but they would prefer to do so through military force as soon as possible. Although, in a sense, they’d rather have the threat continue unabated, because it glues the relationship together. While AIPAC is circulating a letter in Congress in support of a two-state solution – with a lot of “ifs”, “buts”, and “maybes” – AIPAC’s – and Bibi Netanyahu’s – central argument is that the peace process can only be addressed once the Iranian threat is extinguished.
And the dirty little secret is that that the Iranian threat – which is a real, if limited one – will never truly be extinguished. If Iran ceased to exist tomorrow, a new boogey man would quickly be invented. The fear mongering is pervasive and the next Holocaust remains the ever-present threat to Israel’s survival. If you listen to Newt Gingrich’s speech you hear him comparing Iran to the NAZIS and the Soviet Union with warmed over Bush/Cheney rhetoric of the late Dr. Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” They implicitly argue that as long as there is an Iranian threat, the two-state solution must remain on the backburner. In its place, Bibi suggests rather tepid proposals for Palestinian institution-building and economic development that will do almost nothing to advance the peace process.
So how did AIPAC do? The answer came Tuesday morning from Vice-President Joe Biden who delivered a mixed message on behalf of President Obama. He stated as every speaker does that the American commitment to Israel is absolute, unshakeable, unconditional and non-negotiable. He even called Israel “our most treasured ally.” In other words, whether Israel advances the peace process or not, the United States stands by Israel. He accepted at least rhetorically that the “special relationship” is above the peace process. He went on to talk about his personal commitment to Israel dating back to his meeting with Golda Meir in the early 1970s. He made clear that both he and President Obama are personally committed as Christians to the survival of Israel. By personalizing the relationship with Israel Biden was reinforcing that the commitment to Israel is a cultural one going beyond simple strategic interests.
About half-way through the speech, the Vice-President Biden finally got specific. He affirmed AIPAC’s position that the Iranian threat must be addressed diplomatically and militarily, if necessary. But here’s the rub. AIPAC and Bibi Netanyahu seek a U.S. policy of Iran first and only MINUS the two-state peace process. Biden didn’t give them that. Biden argued that the resolution to the conflict must remain a primary focus as a means of containing Iran and blunting its influence. Implicitly, he argued that a coalition with the Arab states against the shared threat of Iran will be much stronger in the context of an active, engaged peace process. He went on to discuss the appointment of George Mitchell as a Presidential envoy, a two-state solution, the Road Map, and the Annapolis Peace Conference. While he also called for the standard litany of positive efforts by the Arab states and the Palestinians, his demands were not completely one-sided. He challenged Israel to freeze settlements, dismantle outposts (which he called “outposts” not “illegal outposts”) and to allow the Palestinians more freedom of movement and access to economic opportunities (presumably by ending the siege of Gaza). He also asserted that U.S. will continue to aid the Palestinians in Gaza and pursue the Syrian peace track. In other words, he gave them a U.S. policy of Iran PLUS the two-state peace process.
So did AIPAC succeed in bullying the administration to do what it wants? Well, at this stage it is too early to tell and, of course, ultimately, actions will speak louder than words. We will learn more in the coming months as Obama meets with Bibi and makes his first trip to Israel. But the administration hasn’t blinked – at least not yet. It gave AIPAC some reassurances on Iran, but it didn’t back down on its insistence for progress towards a two-state solution. The administration didn’t give sacrifice their peace-making agenda at the altar of AIPAC. The Obama administration let AIPAC know that unlike the Bush administration they will not automatically give in to the policy agenda of the Israeli government.
So some very real questions remain. How much pressure is President Obama willing to apply on Bibi on the peace process? Is Bibi really an immovable roadblock on the road to peace as he how seems? And if he does resist President Obama how long will his government last before Israelis reject his intransigence and the damaging that will have on the vital U.S.-Israel alliance? What sort of resistance to President Obama will AIPAC put up via Congress and the mainstream Jewish community? Are the emerging “pro-peace, pro-Israel” voices in the Jewish community – Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom and J Street – ready to provide a counterbalance to AIPAC? The only thing that is certain is that we are entering a new and phase of the U.S.-Israel alliance. How different this administration will be from the last one remains to be seen. I remain highly skeptical that this Israeli government will ever agree to a viable two-state solution, but I very much hope that I will be proved wrong on that point.