President Obama has probably studied the first President Bush’s standoff with Israel. Then as now, the issue of contention was Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and Jerusalem. George H.W. Bush was hopeful about moving toward a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In the last days of the Reagan presidency, the Palestine Liberation Organization had finally laid down the only significant diplomatic card in its possession, accepting UN Resolutions 242 and 338, recognizing Israel’s right to exist within its 1967 borders and limiting its aspirations to a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza. In May 1989, Secretary of State James Baker addressed AIPAC’s annual Washington conference. After praising Israel’s commitment to democracy and role as a strategic partner, Baker went on to say, “Now is the time to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel. … Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity. Allow schools to reopen. Reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.”
AIPAC’s delegates gave Baker a chilly reception. Relations between Israel’s Likud Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and President Bush were frosty as well. Bush believed Shamir had lied to him about settlements in East Jerusalem, which the United States (and every other country) considered occupied territory. The embryonic peace process stalled.
But after driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Bush and Baker returned to the Palestine issue. In May 1991, Israel asked the administration for a $10 billion loan guarantee. The funds were to be used to settle immigrants from the former Soviet Union. At the time, Israel was building settlements at breakneck pace, and Baker and Bush both labeled them an obstacle to peace. Shamir was confident Israel’s clout in Congress would force the president to relent and turn over the money. Bush worked to ensure no funds could be used for construction beyond Israel’s 1967 borders. When AIPAC held an “education day” in Congress to press for the loans with no strings attached, Bush went public with a denunciation, depicting himself as “one lonely little guy” battling thousands of lobbyists. Some American Jews were bothered by the language, but the country was supportive, backing the president by two- and three-to-one margins. Bush stuck to his guns through the following summer, when Israeli voters tossed out Likud and elected Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor Party by a decisive margin. He then released the loan guarantees. The peace process, which came tantalizingly close to producing a two-states-for-two-peoples agreement by the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, would begin.
A principal lesson is that an American president can prevail in a showdown with Israel over settlements. But the Bush-Shamir dispute also highlights the centrality of the settlement issue. Pro-Israel commentators have gone into overdrive apologizing for Israel’s “gaffe” of announcing that 1,600 new homes for Jews would be built in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting the country. Bibi Netanyahu decried this “regrettable incident, done in all innocence, which was hurtful and certainly should not have occurred.” (The “hurtful” part is especially rich, as if the injury was to Biden’s self-esteem and not to America’s national interest.)
But, of course, the issue is one of substance, not timing, just as it was in 1991. It can be difficult for outsiders to grasp what is at stake in these seemingly endless battles over the building of neighborhoods in a few contested acres. But the 22 percent of Palestine that remained for the Palestinians after the 1948 armistice has, since 1967, been sliced and diced by Israeli settlements, by roads connecting the settlements to one another and to Israel proper, and by checkpoints and roadblocks designed to hinder Palestinian commerce and normal life. Israel’s East Jerusalem settlements supplement a policy of slow- motion bureaucratic population removal —Palestinians are routinely denied residency permits, permission to live with a spouse, authorization to build. Palestinians in Bethlehem have a difficult time visiting a Jerusalem-based doctor or lawyer or parent ten minutes away. Quite apart from its sacred status to Islam, Jerusalem is the center of bourgeois Palestinian life, a place where the majority of professional families have their roots. A Palestinian state without a capital in East Jerusalem is as much an absurdity as a Jerusalem stripped of an official Jewish presence.
In recent months, the battle of neighborhoods has been intensifying. In January, an Israeli court evicted several Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, another East Jerusalem Arab neighborhood, and Jewish settlers were moved in. Thousands of Arabs and Jews have marched together in weekly demonstrations to protest this ethnic cleansing by housing court. Likewise, there have been regular demonstrations in Bil’in, where the route of Israel’s “separation wall” severs the Arab village from its farmland. Settlement-building has been incessant; 10 percent of Israelis now live in the occupied territories, four times the number that did so in 1993.
But if new settlements with their roads and checkpoints and the separation wall have transformed the physical geography of the West Bank since the first George Bush confronted Shamir, the moral geography of the region and how it is perceived in the United States may be changing more rapidly—and not in Israel’s favor.
One of the most interesting developments—not to my knowledge ever quantified—is the dramatic growth in the number of Americans who have become well-informed about Israel from a critical perspective. This group, far too diffuse to be called a coalition, includes some anti-Zionists, but its vast majority favors a two-state solution. It is composed of Christians and Jews and an increasing number of Muslims. It includes congressmen who tour the region under non-Israeli auspices, young people who volunteer on the West Bank, a talented coterie of bloggers, and a proliferation of Jewish peace groups, stretching from the establishment-oriented J Street leftward. Whereas informed skepticism about Israeli claims was once limited largely to American diplomats who served in the region, today its base may be ten times larger. For the first time in U.S. history, the pro-Palestinian side has a competitive voice in the public discourse—far smaller than the Israel lobby’s but growing every day.
In December 2008, Israel initiated a war against the Palestinian population of Gaza, then under the rule of Hamas. For over a year prior, there had been an uneasy but viable ceasefire, which Israel broke with some “targeted killings” in November. Hamas responded with rocket fire. Gaza was without serious military defense during the three-week campaign, and the IDF had its way, killing 1,400 Palestinians, using white phosphorous against civilian targets, and destroying much of Gaza’s infrastructure while suffering a handful of casualties. Several American congressmen who visited Gaza in the weeks after were appalled at the destruction and disturbed by Israel’s use of American weaponry to carry it out.
Shortly thereafter, Judge Richard Goldstone was named by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate Israeli and Hamas actions during the Gaza war. A highly accomplished international jurist, Goldstone has been described as nothing less than an archetype of Jewish liberalism, a believer in the rule of law and in human rights, a Zionist with a daughter living in Israel. His scathing report about Israeli conduct in the war opened up the possibility that the war’s initiators, the leaders of Israel’s centrist Kadima Party, could be arrested and charged with war crimes if they traveled abroad. The United States used its power in the UN to constrain the writ of the report, but in public-relations terms, the stain on Israel was there for the world to see.
At the same time, Israel began to be increasingly linked in the public mind with the term “apartheid.” Jimmy Carter used it in his bestselling book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. In interviews, he explained carefully that Israel itself was not an apartheid state, and Palestinian Arabs living in Israel proper possessed civil rights. But for 40 years, Israel has been ruling over Arabs on the West Bank, and the growth of settlements and Jews-only roads and checkpoints has created a de facto apartheid system. Some Israeli leaders have used the term to warn of their country’s fate in the absence of a two-state solution. And indeed there are parts of Israel now visible to anyone with Internet access that resemble South African apartheid conditions or worse. The New York Times website recently posted a video of Israeli settlers, newly moved into an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, singing songs in praise of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein. It is hard to know how much such scenes have altered American perceptions, but clearly the racist settlers are a world away from the “Exodus” performances of Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint.
A milestone in this shifting moral climate was the face-off between Andrew Sullivan and Leon Wieseltier. Gay, Catholic, and eclectically conservative, Sullivan is an extremely popular political blogger. Combining moral seriousness and whimsy, he manages to post on dozens of topics every day. After initially supporting the Iraq War, he revised his view and in the last few years has become increasingly critical of Israel and occasionally of the role of the Israel lobby. Leon Wieseltier—the longtime literary editor of The New Republic and Sullivan’s colleague when the latter edited the magazine in the early 1990s—is known for prose drizzled with displays of philosophical erudition and is author of the award-winning book Kaddish, an exploration of Jewish liturgy.
Generally centrist, Wieseltier is a staunch defender of Israel. “We’re the cops,” he once said of his magazine’s role in policing the Washington debate on the Mideast. In February, Wieseltier posted a long essay accusing Sullivan of displaying “venomous hostility toward Israel and the Jews.” The “rants” Wieseltier cited in evidence were in the main Sullivan’s expressive critiques of Israeli policies—the “pulverization of Gaza,” the “daily grinding of Palestinians on the West Bank”—and the assertion that “standing up to Netanyahu’s provocations” would help the U.S. “advance its interests in the region and the world.”
What happened next invites a point of comparison. In the mid ’80s, the editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, launched a campaign against Joe Sobran, then a senior editor at National Review. Sobran was a less judicious and far more reactionary writer than Sullivan, but there was nonetheless a fair degree of overlap between what he was writing about Israel then and what Sullivan is writing now. Under pressure from Podhoretz, NR founder William F. Buckley wrote an editorial affirming that “the structure of prevailing taboos respecting Israel … is welcome” and that Sobran, in full “knowledge of the reigning protocols,” had transgressed them, giving rise to “suspicions of anti-Semitism.” NR henceforth disassociated itself from Sobran’s syndicated columns. This was the first step along the way to the severance of Sobran from the magazine. Outside the National Review orbit, Sobran’s career unraveled. Apart from a few paleoconservatives, few took time to lament the hit.
In Sullivan’s case, almost the opposite occurred. Much of the liberal blogosphere rose to his defense. Wieseltier was widely mocked, most effectively perhaps by Matthew Yglesias, who observed that a former Bolshevik minister of justice had said that “execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more” than execution of the guilty. Yglesias added, “flinging baseless charges of anti-semitism is the essence of [The New Republic’s] commentary on Israel.” In the Washington intellectual blogosphere at least, the “structure of prevailing taboos” concerning Israel had eroded nearly out of existence.
The newest and potentially most decisive development in this American conversation about Israel, the settlements, and the Palestinians arose, by chance or design, at almost precisely the moment that the vice president and secretary of state were denouncing Israel’s settlement policy. Mark Perry reported inForeign Policy that Gen. David Petraeus of Central Command had dispatched a team of officers last year to the Middle East to take a reading of America’s position. In January, they reported to the Joint Chiefs that the conduct of Israel toward the Palestinians was causing Muslims throughout the region to conclude that the administration was weak. The message was delivered in dramatic terms and reportedly shocked the White House. Petraeus reiterated the finding in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment. … Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with government and people in [the region].”
Such analysis is hardly new: one could have heard variations on it from almost any American Mideast specialist over the past 40 years. But it has usually been discounted by political Washington, a murmur from the foreign-affairs bureaucracy that could be ignored.
But Petraeus is no mid-level Arabist or anonymous retired general. He is the military’s best-known commander, admired for apparently turning around the conflict in Iraq and touted by conservatives as a potential president. While his statements were a frontal challenge to the Israel lobby’s claims that America’s and Israel’s interests are identical, his stature seemed to render him immune to the defamation typically showered on those making this argument.
The Petraeus intervention may prove a case study in the role of unintended consequences in history. Both he and Vice President Biden stressed the increased danger American troops now face because of perceptions that the U.S. is anti-Muslim and weak because of its deference to Israel. Ironically, it was in great part because of Israel and its American lobby that U.S. soldiers were in this position to begin with. A parade of Israeli leaders had professed to American audiences that Saddam Hussein was the new Hitler whom the United States had to take out, and it is well documented that pro-Israel voices within the administration worked relentlessly to ignite the Iraq War. Of course, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld had to be inclined to listen to them. But as Stephen Walt has pointed out, it is inconceivable that the United States would have attacked Iraq had Israel and its American friends argued against such an invasion.
And so the United States is now there, and the security of its troops depends considerably on cooperation with Arab friends and the effective neutralization of those less friendly. As a society, the United States is thus much more engaged with Arab perceptions than it was before March 2003. The patronizing generalizations of Israeli Orientalism about the “Arab mind” have lost much of their cachet in Washington, as the United States has had to expand its base of specialists to deal with the Arab world. A fair number are in the military and report to General Petraeus.
The result is that two streams of anti-settlement, pro-peace-process discourse have begun to merge and reinforce one another. The realist argument about Israel—which can be traced from President Truman’s secretary of state George Marshall through Kennedy and Johnson aide George Ball to Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer—now appears to have the patronage of American’s most respected military commander. The pretense that America’s and Israel’s interests in the Middle East coincide completely is being challenged at the highest level and may never recover.
At the same time, the humanitarian argument, rooted in observation of Israeli oppression and Palestinian suffering, is disseminated more widely than ever. It reaches Americans through the Internet, through congressional visits, through the work of Israeli peace and human-rights monitoring groups, through the burgeoning communities of international solidarity workers, through church groups, through Richard Goldstone. Expressions of unconditional solidarity with Israel—such as Joseph Lieberman’s claim that we must not quarrel in public because Israel is “family”—are of course as common as ever. But they often give off the musty scent of Soviet bloc boilerplate in the 1970s and ’80s—words that many recite ritualistically but fewer and fewer say with conviction.
A gap in the line has been opened, but no one yet knows whether Obama will push through it. Chas Freeman, the veteran diplomat whose appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council was scuttled by objections from Israel lobbyists, says, “The president gets it”—that his appreciation of the centrality of these issues was manifest in his Ankara and Cairo speeches. Freeman views the showdown as an historic juncture: “the first time anything resembling an assault on an entrenched interest that many have recognized is contrary to American interests” has taken place. The moment has the potential to unite “Obama as the commander in chief with the visionary who spoke in Cairo.” But Obama’s track record is not reassuring, Freeman admits. He notes that the president has a “pattern of laying out a sensible strategic doctrine followed by delegating its implementation to people who may work to subvert it or who have their own agendas.”
Progress does not seem possible with the current Netanyahu government. But Israeli governing coalitions last, on average, 18 months, and some fall more quickly. (Netanyahu was sworn in a year ago.) George H.W. Bush had the leverage of Israel’s extraordinary request for a $10 billion loan guarantee, which Obama lacks. But there are many steps short of a cut-off of American aid that the administration could use to prod Israelis toward the two-state solution the majority of them say they want.
Biden and Clinton’s condemnations of East Jerusalem settlement-building were a start. The U.S. could choose not to veto a UN resolution condemning the occupation. It could suspend or downgrade military or intelligence cooperation with Israel as Ronald Reagan did after the invasion of Lebanon. It could end tax deductions for U.S.-based organizations that fund settlements.
In a broader sociological sense, the United States and Israel are plainly moving in different directions: America has been striving to become less racist and is inexorably becoming more multicultural. So are all the Western democracies. Israel, founded on the idea that Jews, like other peoples, should have their “own” state, is animated by an ethnonationalism that seems, in the Western world at least, increasingly anachronistic. Meanwhile, Israeli racism is on the upswing. I know no one on the Israeli Right who has proffered a suggestion for what Israel might do with the Palestinians in the absence of a two-state solution: the choices would seem to be either to grant them democratic rights in what would then become a binational state or solidify the current West Bank apartheid and rule over a growing Arab population while denying it equal rights.
The moment for decisive action is seldom obvious, but the first polls could hardly be more favorable to Obama: there is roughly a 50-50 split in Israel over whether settlement-construction in Jerusalem should be stopped, and Americans approve Obama’s position on the settlements by nearly a 5-2 margin (likely more than their approval of any other presidential initiative). With the Biden trip and the Petraeus report, the Obama administration has crossed its Rubicon in dealing with Israel. What remains to be seen is whether the president recognizes this.
Scott McConnell is editor at large of The American Conservative.