Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Netanyahu & Obama...continued

Seeing linkage, plainly


Saeb Erekat, the hardline chief PLO negotiator, is described as "discouraged" and "disappointed" in The Washington Post by the outcome of Monday's White House meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.

He started out in a bad mood, telling The Jerusalem Post he opposed any friendly gestures by the Arab League toward Israel even if the Netanyahu government put a total freeze on "settlement" construction in Judea, Samaria... and metropolitan Jerusalem. And Aaron David Miller, a former US Middle East negotiator who leans left, told The New York Times that "Anyone who was expecting a major rift in the US-Israeli relationship is going to be disappointed."

It will take a while yet to get a handle on the direction Obama wants to take. How will he finesse the seemingly irreconcilable differences with Netanyahu exposed at Monday's meeting? On Iran, for one, Israel feels more acutely threatened than the US. And on the Palestinian issue - which Obama intimated should be solved en route to grappling with Iran - the president gave the impression that Israel's leadership could somehow rapidly enable the creation of a non-threatening Palestinian state

Netanyahu has foolishly allowed himself to be perceived as an obstacle to progress by making an issue over Palestinian statehood, when he could so easily have found an "in principle" formulation that would in no way have undermined his legitimate concerns about the dangers Palestinian sovereignty poses.

The Palestinian Arabs have been opposing a two-state solution ever since the British Mandate. Nowadays, the PLO says it wants "Palestine" and Israel to exist side by side - though you wouldn't know it from the way it behaves at the negotiating table.

An insight into why this is so comes from Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the June 11 New York Review of Books: "For Palestinians, the most primal demands relate to addressing and redressing a historical experience of dispossession, expulsion, dispersal, massacres, occupation, discrimination, denial of dignity, persistent killing-off of their leaders, and the relentless fracturing of their national polity. These… yearnings are of a sort that, no matter how precisely fine-tuned, a two-state deal will find it hard to fulfill."

No matter. On Monday, Obama in effect told Netanyahu: You want our help in stopping Iran getting nuclear weapons? Ease your grip on the West Bank so the Palestinians can create their state there.

Exerting leverage in this way is nothing new, as veteran Israeli diplomat Zalman Shoval points out. Jimmy Carter tried to link aid to Israel with a settlement freeze; George H.W. Bush tried to link loan guarantees for the absorption of Soviet Jews to a settlement freeze; and he even linked Israeli concessions on the Palestinian front to gaining Arab cooperation in America's 1991 Gulf War.

WHAT MAKES the current situation unique is the gravity of the Iranian threat and the ascendency of Hamas and Hizbullah, combined with the fact that a charismatic American president, capable of using the "power to persuade" in a coherent and determined manner, is apparently becoming convinced - in part by ostensible "friends of Israel" - that Israeli intransigence is at the root of Palestinian and wider regional tension.

Obama is not the first president to watch some among the Jewish lobby pressuring Israel on behalf of US policy, rather than the other way around. For example, leading figures in the community facilitated the Reagan administration in its desire to diplomatically recognize the PLO in 1988.

Administrations have long enjoyed political cover for their Israel-related policies from elements in the US Jewish community. It is legitimate for Jewish Americans not to support Israeli policies; Jewish machers have been giving our premiers a piece of their minds since Nahum Goldmann first tried to set David Ben-Gurion straight. And it is legitimate for them to champion American policies to Israeli leaders. It's even fine for them to yell gevalt over Israeli policies.

Where American Jews cross the line is in proactively lobbying their government to pressure Israel into steps most Israelis strongly feel would put this country in jeopardy - and in doing so under the intellectually dishonest banner of being pro-Israel.

This is a challenging time for Diaspora Jews. Netanyahu has failed to define Israel's "red lines," or say unequivocally what he's for. Nevertheless, no one whose lobbying platform is indistinguishable from Erekat's should get away with telling you he's "pro-Israel."

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