Of course it isn’t yet clear what Eric Cantor’s stunning and decisive defeat at the hands of an unknown challenger with one twentieth the campaign funds means for the direction of the House GOP. On domestic issues, including immigration, Cantor has been a chameleon—an establishment figure, a reformer, a “young gun,” a Tea Party insurgent with legislative tactician skills, a supporter of immigration reform (aka amnesty), and then a professed opponent of the same immigration reform. (I should note there was a time, in the 1990s, when immigration “reform” meant tightening the borders and tinkering with the legal immigration system so it was more skills-based, less based on “your brother’s wife got in a few years ago, so you are now eligible for a visa.”) The only ads I’ve seen from David Brat, the surprising victor, attacked Cantor’s readiness to hang out with big-money immigration boosters (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) while ignoring the labor market and wage impact large-scale immigration has for voters in his district.
One issue wasn’t talked about, though I wonder if it subliminally registered with some anti-Cantor voters. Cantor in 2010 more or less presented himself as Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman. Newly elevated by the GOP House takeover as the incoming majority leader, he held a private meeting with the Likud leader at the New York Regency. No other Americans were present; Netanyahu was joined by Israel’s ambassador and national security advisor.
It was a tense time in American-Israeli relations: the Obama administration was pushing hard for progress on peace talks and trying to get Israel to stop expanding settlements on the West Bank during the negotiations, an idea vigorously resisted by Israel’s government. During the meeting, Cantor gave Netanyahu assurances that the House would have his back in any showdown with the Obama administration. The Republicans, he told Bibi, “understand the special relationship” and would obstruct American initiatives which made Israel uncomfortable. Ron Kampeas, a veteran and centrist observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, said he could not “remember an opposition leader telling a foreign leader, in a personal meeting, that he would side, as a policy, with that leader against the president.” So Cantor was, in his way, making history.
The ties to Israel made Cantor popular in the GOP caucus. Cantor could raise money more easily than other southern congressmen—from pro-Israel billionaires, for example—and spread it around. Sheldon Adelson poured millions into his PAC. Cantor knew his way around the Regency.
More recently, Cantor has spearheaded House opposition to Obama’s negotiations with Iran, speaking frequently of Iran in terms that echo Netanyahu. His Mideast positions track completely with Likud’s, whether it be aid to the Syrian rebels or aid to Egypt after the Sisi coup. He may be hard to pin down domestic issues, one day a moderate, another a hard rightist, but he is always a hawk—whether it be Ukraine or Syria or Iran, he will be a force pushing the most belligerent policies.
I wonder if this registered in the district in some ways. Pat Lang, of the interesting Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, meditated on Cantor (his congressmen) several years ago, wondering whether this sophisticated Richmond lawyer was a natural fit for a district that trends barbecue. Some have pointed to an ethnic angle, which could well be a factor. But it may be simply that conservative southern Republicans are beginning to get tired of neocons telling them they have to prepare to fight another war. Antiwar Republican Walter Jones won his North Carolina primary earlier this spring, standing strong against a major media assault by Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel. Now, in an election result that stunned political observers more than anything that happened in their lifetime, Cantor goes down before an underfunded Tea Party candidate.
We’ll see what happens with David Brat, but he’s already made history.
I’ve been skimming Hillary Clinton’s State Department memoir Hard Choices, which stands at more than 600 pages. The massive tome, the product of Hillary and her “book team,” is in its way extremely skillful. Throughout the book Hillary appears engaged, intelligent, tough, compassionate—all qualities she obviously wants to project—while effectively muting any controversy that might be politically inconvenient as she pursues her next project. As we know, Hillary has no particular accomplishments as Secretary of State: she traveled extensively, and is able to describe in impressive detail various rooms and furnishings and personages. It has never been reported that she said anything embarrassing to herself or the country. But I haven’t found anything remotely like a “hard choice.” There was no moment when Hillary was in the White House situation room, trying to break down for a president the options about missiles in Cuba; no effort to brainstorm about escalation in Vietnam, or to decide whether Gorbachev was the real thing.
She supports the two-state solution of Israel-Palestine—though of course, as the administration’s commonly used phrase had it, “not more than the parties themselves”. She says nice things about former senator George Mitchell (Obama’s appointee as head Mideast peace processor—who was genuinely committed to a two-state solution) and also Dennis Ross, the epitome of a faux peace process-er who served, more or less, as Israel’s lawyer from his various appointments close to the center of power. The conflict between the two men was important and much speculated upon, but Hillary says not a word about it. Even those who want to attack Hillary from the perspective of the Israeli Right can’t find much to complain about: The Emergency Committee for Israel is running ads condemning her for not objecting publicly when John Kerry said Israel risked becoming an apartheid state. They can’t find anything in her actual record to fault.
And indeed what could there be? The peace process in the Middle East was doomed so long as Americans insisted it would strive to be even-handed between the military occupier and the occupied: this is about as sensible as the Justice Department facilitating even-handed talks between segregated blacks and the Mississippi power structure in 1960. If you want to change the situation, you have to acknowledge the power discrepancies and weigh in to equalize them. There was not the shadow of a chance Hillary would have favored that. Obama apparently believed that making speeches would suffice to change Israeli behavior.
The one place in her narrative where Hillary seems truly energized about a policy matter is lobbying UN member states to support tough sanctions on Iran. I suspect that when she enters the campaign trail she will tout this as her signal achievement—whatever happens with current negotiations. “She was tough enough to bring Iran to its knees.” might be the slogan. A thoughtful Secretary of State, writing at the end of his or her career, might speculate on why Iran would want a nuclear program—and presumably the potential to build a weapon. That question would be at the center of any serious foreign policy analysis. But there is none of that—no history, no mention of the American-supported attack on Iran by Saddam Hussein, or Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons into the region.
The prominence of Hillary, and more, the absence of anyone who is willing to challenge her quest for the Democratic nomination, is a depressing indication about the state of the Democratic Party and the country. It tells us that there is no lasting impact of the Iraq war on elite Democratic party attitudes, it might as well have never happened. A couple of trillion dollars when the wounded veteran care is factored in. A million Iraqis homeless and refugees. Not only has Hillary not learned any lessons; no one else of prominence has either. There is no rethinking whether the United States needs to be poking its nose militarily in every spot in the globe—not by Hillary certainly, but seemingly not by any other leading Democrat, either.
Andy Bacevich’s Washington Rules contains substantial segments quoting Democratic senators prominent in the 1960s, especially Bill Fulbright and Mike Mansfield. At the time there were several top lawmakers seeking to figure out what went wrong—how we became immersed in Vietnam with no good way out, what that said about American attitudes, hubris, and self-delusion. There is eloquence there, and probing intelligence. There is none of that kind of soul-searching going on now on Capitol Hill, at least at the Senate level. Hillary Clinton, for her obvious wonkishness and impressive grasp of detail, certainly isn’t engaged in it. The sad thing is, no one seems to want her to be.
It’s conniption time on Capitol Hill, as the Obama administration is demonstrating quietly there will be at least some consequences for stonewalling the administration’s effort actually to forge, or at least begin to forge, a two-state peace settlement in Israel-Palestine. The first shoe to drop was a State Department spokesperson’s almost passive acknowledgement that no, the United States is not going to cut off all relations with the Palestinian Authority because of its efforts to heal its breach with Hamas by forming a unity “technocratic” government.
Israel has been complaining loudly, along with its allies in Congress. Its stated objections are two-fold: Hamas rejects the two state solution, and in many of its public statements, calls for the end of Israel; Hamas has committed terrorist acts against Israeli civilians, particularly in late 1990s as the Oslo process was winding down.
These are obviously serious issues: there won’t be a two-state solution if the Palestinian side doesn’t seek one, with all the recognition of Israel’s permanence that such a solution implies. But wait a second. The United States has obviously been willing to deal with Israel’s government—more than deal with it, subsidize it, treat it as a valued strategic ally, etc.—despite the fact that Israel’s Likud Charter calls for Israeli sovereignty over the entire West Bank, and Israel’s government includes ministers who themselves are sworn enemies of the two-state solution. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s election platform called explicitly for there to be no Palestinian state on the West Bank and for exclusive Israeli control over Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s coalition partner Naftali Bennett has long called for Israeli annexation of most of the West Bank, perhaps leaving the Palestinian towns as “self-governed” bantustans. If the congressmen now jumping up and down about the inclusion of Hamas “technocrats” in a unity Palestinian government raised any objection when an Israeli government included ministers calling for annexation of the West Bank and no Palestinian state, they did so very quietly.
Terrorism is also a serious issue. But, sad to say, there are many leaders and factions in the Mideast who have engaged in terrorism, including, of course former Israeli prime ministers and Likud leaders Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Beyond the Mideast, IRA leaders are welcome in Washington, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. If they seek them, Palestinians can find numerous precedents for the evolution from terrorist to freedom fighter to venerated statesman.
We are left to acknowledge the beginnings of a real breach between American policies and those of Israel. American politicians will deny it: John Kerry has said again and again, there must be “no daylight” between Washington and Israel—Kerry reiterated the phrase just last year. But the phrase has begun to sound false, more and more like the ritualistic protests of a couple on the way to a break-up. Read More…
Oddly enough, I have few large professional regrets, things I really wish I had done differently. But there are many small ones. Here’s one. Sometime in TAC‘s first year, perhaps even before we published our first issue, I don’t recall exactly, I got a call from an associate of Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean Marie, leader of the French Front National. She would be in Washington in a day or two—was I free for lunch? As it happened, I wasn’t really. There were some complicated personal matters at home, I was commuting back and forth to New York, and hadn’t planned to be in DC that day.
But I also wasn’t that eager. I thought that Jean Marie Le Pen was getting a bit of bad rap by being labeled an anti-Semite, if not a fascist, all of the time. But I was aware of some of the things he had said which could well give that impression, and was also aware that I wasn’t paying much attention to France in those days, and that if I was, I might agree with the charge.
So did I want to have lunch? Not really. There might be some requests for favorable coverage, or overtures towards linking TAC to the general European populist (or far) right. I didn’t feel TAC was far right, and didn’t want to give anyone that impression. Much as I was curious to meet Marine Le Pen, there were good reasons (besides my personal ones) for not rearranging my schedule. I replied that regrettably, I would be out of town.
Marine Le Pen has for years now succeeded her father as head of the National Front, the party which has—in the limited but far from unimportant elections for the European Parliaments, scored higher than any party in France, besting the ruling socialists, besting the center-right parties. Marine Le Pen has changed the FN’s image, modernized it, softened it, without repudiating her garrulous father, whom she always refers to publicly as “Jean Marie Le Pen.” Generally speaking the Front National is the French anti-immigrant party—the one that worries about whether a multicultural society with an expanding and pious Muslim minority is really possible or desirable. I think this is a reasonable argument to make, though difficult to carry off without attracting racists and bigots and turning the party into something potentially worse than the perceived problem. I suspect that vast majorities of Frenchmen would agree with the FN’s premise: De Gaulle, who once said that trying to hold on to French Algeria would ensure that his village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises would become Colombey-les-Deux-Mosques, almost certainly would.
Marine Le Pen’s argument is buttressed by the fact that none of the “mainstream” French parties showed the slightest desire to protect the values and interests of the French who were troubled by mass immigration. The center-right of Sarkozy campaigned on a fierce law and order line, but failed to stem France’s rising crime rate. And mass immigration—if it produced some discomfiture about public prayer, or rising crime, or complicated governmental services—also was a symbol of the larger issue, loss of nationhood, loss of sovereignty over the French space. The steady rise in power of the Brussels bureaucracy and the European Union gave the FN another issue to campaign about—though it might have been essentially the same thing: globalization. The FN and Marine Le Pen were opposed. For France’s elites, membership in “Europe”, even at the expense of France’s currency and control of borders, was considered a closed question and certainly not one to be put before the French people. Read More…
A self-provoked crisis in Ukraine (if the United States hadn’t sponsored a coup there, there wouldn’t be a crisis), a horrific civil war in Syria with no sign of ending soon, kidnapped girls in Nigeria, anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. These all falling within a span of glorious late spring days on eastern Long Island, where bright sunlight begins to peep under and around the shades at 5:30 in the morning. It feels almost ominous, this contrast between the almost unspeakable natural beauty here and horrors abroad.
The Iran negotiations, a critical subject of the late fall and early winter, are reaching a pivotal point. The Obama administration won a major victory in January, with an assist from grassroots peace and arms-control groups, gaining the right to negotiate with Iran on terms which could conceivably succeed—i.e. terms which acknowledged that some part of Iran’s nuclear enrichment cycle would be retained. AIPAC backed off from legislation designed to scuttle the negotiations.
But of course the negotiations themselves, even without pro-Israel senators trying to ensure their failure, are fraught with difficulties. Iran may not want to have a nuclear weapon, but it pretty clearly wants to be a nuclear threshold state, with the ability to build a nuclear weapon if it felt seriously threatened. It has been invaded by Iraq and is constantly menaced by Israel and America, and it is hard to see why any Iranian foreign policy analyst would think that the potential for building a bomb wouldn’t give it a deterrence it might someday need. On the other hand, Obama and John Kerry would surely find it easier to sell to Congress and the American people a deal where Iran has no more than a symbolic uranium enrichment capacity. I suspect that a common ground can be found, but it is difficult. Iran has its own hardliners, reluctant to negotiate away any of Iran’s nuclear program. It also has vested interests who would welcome intensified confrontation with the West, which would help them domestically. The latest round of talks in Geneva, where some hoped that progress towards drafting a comprehensive agreement would begin, showed very large gaps remaining.
Meanwhile, there are outside actors, both positive and negative. On the negative side, Washington-based foes of any Iran deal were only provisionally set back in January. Israel continues to oppose any deal that will give Iran enrichment capacity, and Republicans will oppose any deal that gives Obama a meaningful foreign affairs accomplishment. That’s a potent combination on Capitol Hill, which is why the progress of the Corker amendment—originally attached to the kind of pro-Israel legislation that Congress passes without debate—bears watching. If it is brought to the Senate floor and voted on (which by some accounts may happen this week), it will give Congress the right to hold a “vote of disapproval” within days of any signed agreement with Iran. The purpose, it would seem, is to give the Israeli government power to weigh in on the negotiations, which it has always strongly disapproved of. A snap vote that the combined forces of the Israel lobby and the GOP would certainly win, generating national headlines like “Iran deal DOA in Congress” and the like, even though the amendment is constructed to not give Congress the power to block the deal formally. Read More…
Pat Buchanan beat me to it writing about the Pfizer story which appeared in the New York Times. In what is now called an “inversion” strategy, Pfizer is in negotiations to buy a British drug company, declare its corporate home Great Britain, and cease paying corporate taxes to the U.S. Treasury. Buchanan argues that U.S. corporate taxes are among the highest in the world, and if the U.S. reduced them to zero, it could make up the revenue by tariffs on manufactured imports. I don’t feel especially confident that this would work, though I would state unequivocally, based on experience with him during one of his presidential campaigns, that Buchanan knows more about the nitty gritty of the federal budget than most prominent people in Washington.
On significant mention in the Pfizer story was the galvanizing role of hedge funds in encouraging companies to pull up stakes in the U.S. and renounce their nationality. It makes sense, I suppose. If you own a big block of stock which has a greater chance of appreciating if a company expatriates itself, you will do what you can to increase your return. And you will have leverage—enough perhaps to persuade a large company to do what you want. You will be rewarded as well. Recent stories about hedge fund chieftans demonstrate without a doubt that they are now the highest-paid princelings of capitalism, making sums well beyond a humble CEO who employs and manages hundreds of thousands of people. If during the 1950s, Secretary of Defense and former GM CEO Charlie Wilson said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” (the popular if incorrect version of what Wilson actually said) an apt aphorism about contemporary capitalism might be “What’s good for Appaloosa Management is good for David Tepper and his friends.”
The shift in the commanding heights of American capitalism from huge Midwest-based conglomerates that employed hundreds of thousands to small firms staffed by a handful of Ivy League graduates is the central fact of what the Marxists used to call “late capitalism.” With the exception of various technology developments, betting on the markets is a route to greater money and power (probably not status) than building companies, making useful discoveries, or just about anything else. As the “inversion” model now begins to illustrate, CEO’s of large companies tend to listen to hedge fund managers, and do what they are told.
I’m no economist, but seems obvious that this transformation has not only accompanied but contributed to the growing inequality that has taken place over two generations, and which shows every sign of increasing. It’s reached the point where “equality” ought to be elevated to the status of at least a secondary conservative goal, somewhere beneath liberty but not far from it. If one is conservative by temperament at all, it is because one sees virtues in the society one grew up with under threat. And growing up in California in the 1960s (as I did, in part) one was conscious of feeling that America was better because of its science and its social organization—that is, very few people seemed poor, and there was no obvious class of rich oligarchs. It was a middle class democracy. That alternative social model—the few very rich, the great mass of impoverished—was for Mexico or Brazil, or pre-revolutionary China, places which either teetered on the edge of violent revolution or deserved to.
Ironically, in that 1960s America, extraordinarily egalitarian by today’s standards, one heard (from a quite loud and much listened to New Left) constant calls to challenge corporate hegemony. Marxist tomes which purported to explain U.S. foreign policy by reference to needs of major capitalist enterprises brought fame to several professors.
One hears none of that now, though perhaps the Thomas Piketty book will revive it. So far as I can see, the United States has no anti-capitalist left whatsoever, only movements of cultural or ethnic minorities fighting for greater recognition or rights. This seems curious, since the capitalists are fewer, contribute less to the public good than any prior American capitalist elite, all the while managing to acquire a much larger slice of the pie. But there seems to be no hope of challenging them. A politician who suggested he would aim to restore an America with an income distribution resembling that of Eisenhower’s second term would be dismissed, not just on Fox but everywhere, as a mad, raging socialist.
A Washington gaffe, as Michael Kinsley once observed, occurs when a politician states an obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say. John Kerry’s closed door remark before a Trilateral Commission (an elite establishment group) gathering, where he said that without a two-state solution, Israel will become an apartheid state, reaches the important gaffe category. The remark is largely true (though it would have truer if he had said that Israel already subjects most Palestinians in the territories it controls to apartheid conditions); it concerns a matter of great importance to American foreign policy, as Israel colors our relationships with the entire Arab and much of the Muslim world; and it breaches a dam on American internal discourse which the Israel lobby has fought hard to construct and defend.
Israel plays an extraordinary role in the American political system. Its leaders flood the important Sunday talk shows when any Mideast topic arises; Israelis lobbied hard for an American war against Iraq, as they do now for an American war against Iran. Americans, by and large, receive them with deference and rapt attention. They also honor Israel by subsidizing it: Americans give more foreign aid to Israel, a rich country, than to all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. So for Kerry to suggest, even with a heavy heart, that Israel is headed for apartheid in the absence of a two state solution is to tread into Emperor’s New Clothes territory. It may be true, indeed of course it’s true. But for a high ranking American politician to actually say so falls somewhere between lèse-majesté and blasphemy.
Kerry was rapidly denounced by Israel lobbyists in their multiple guises. Commentary called the comments a “calumny” against Israel. One of Bill Kristol’s groups, the Emergency Committee for Israel, called for Obama to fire Kerry, and for Hillary Clinton to repudiate his remarks. AIPAC called the remarks “offensive” and “inappropriate,” comments echoed by the ADL and the American Jewish Committee. The National Jewish Democratic Committee, a major arm of Democratic Party fundraising, expressed its “deep disappointment” with the remarks, rejecting the idea that racially based governance “in any way describes Israel.” Kerry was asked to apologize.
He didn’t—he clarified. Kerry stated that if he could “rewind the tape” he wouldn’t use the A word, while reminding everyone that current Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livini, and former prime ministers Olmert and Barak had explicitly claimed Israel was headed towards apartheid if it didn’t come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Some saw this statement as a grovel, but it could as easily be read as a non-apologetic “explanation.” Read More…
Philip Weiss discusses an interesting Hardball clip here, where bestselling mainstream political author Mark Halperin says that Rand Paul could never be elected because the pro-Israel wing of the GOP and the general electorate won’t stand for it. Guest host Joy Reid catalogs the establishment Republican attacks on Paul: she cites NR‘s Rich Lowry, the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens, and the ever-hawkish Congressman Peter King. Their strident, combined, and seemingly coordinated attacks reveal something of a looming panic about Paul’s early progress: there is no clear “establishment” choice (Chris Christie on the bridge; Jeb Bush has devoted the last decade to making money and his political skills may be rusty), and Paul is making progress among various groups (youth, African-Americans) which are appealing to Republicans who want to expand the GOP electorate.
Weiss finds the clip dispiriting because it displays how entrenched the Israel lobby is in the GOP: rabid hawks like Peter King are considered mainstream; it is considered normal behavior for GOP aspirants to kiss the ring of Sheldon Adelson, an advocate of nuking Iran. Rand Paul (who didn’t kowtow to Adelson) is presented as the loopy one. And it may be that Halperin is right—the Israel lobby is powerful enough to essentially dictate the nominating process, and will use that power against Rand Paul.
I had a different reaction: the mere fact that Paul now appears so threatening to the hawks in the party establishment is a sign of their weakness (a lack of grass roots support which they are more aware of than anyone else) and opens at least the possibility of a return to foreign policy realism in the GOP, whether under Paul’s leadership or someone else. Once people start voting, will they go for Sheldon Adelson, or someone who opposes him? I don’t think it’s foreordained that Adelson will prevail, and there are a lot of other people with money in this country.
My other reaction was pure pleasure at the candor of Joy Reid. At the end of the clip, after Halperin states that Paul will “never” satisfy the “pro-Israel” wing of the party, Reid goes right to her summation saying yes, Paul has problem with “the pro-Israel wing of the party, the pro-war (with strong emphasis) wing of the party, the neocons…”
For prime time television, this was a rare moment of blunt truth. Yes, the “pro-Israel wing” of the party takes their intellectual marching orders from neocons, who nearly always are advocating that America start a war somewhere. But one doesn’t normally say this on TV. I thought about this clip, from several years ago: Juan Williams confronted Bill Kristol on Fox News Sunday, exclaiming: Read More…
Is John Kerry’s effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian “framework” for peace (i.e. not an actual peace settlement) finally done? It seems to be, though one should not be surprised to see a last ditch formula allowing Kerry to continue. Not, to be sure, to continue actual negotiations between the parties, but to continue doing what he has been doing: trying to win Israeli agreement to some proposal vaguely hinting perhaps at some kind of Palestinian state in a middling future, then rushing over to Ramallah to try to sell it to the Palestinian Authority.
Everyone involved with the “peace process” fears what will happen when negotiations stop. The process, which began before Oslo in the 1980s, succeeding in getting the the Palestine Liberation Organization to rewrite its charter, recognize Israel, and commit itself to a two state solution, seems finally to be over. Most politicians the world over know of no other way to even think of the Middle East. Giving up on it is to step into an unfamiliar dark room, which is why one can’t rule out some absolutely-final-last-call-this-time-we-mean-it effort to breathe new life into the corpse.
There was a good reason why the peace process was American-sponsored. While the actual number of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs residing in historic Palestine has been roughly equal for some time, the balance of power between the two sides—in terms of wealth and weaponry—may have been 100 to 1 in Israel’s favor. One reason for the imbalance is that Israel was sponsored by the United States, provided with American weapons and money and diplomatic support to a degree that literally has no parallel in the history of statecraft. The theory was that this support gave the United States “leverage.” which it could use to persuade Israel to embrace a two state solution which the Palestinians, as the much weaker party, couldn’t manage by themselves. The solution would lie along parameters which everyone knows and has known for nearly two generations. (They are succinctly summarized in Tuesday’s New York Times editorial, which calls for Kerry to finally “move on” to other pressing diplomatic matters.) But this leverage, it has turned out, was fanciful. The United States could never actually use it; both Democrats and Republicans felt too vulnerable to the political consequences. The one president who came closest to using it—the first President Bush, was a one term president. Democrats, probably more dependent than Republicans on campaign funds linked to the Israel lobby, backed off from using it as well. President Obama’s humiliation by prime minister Netanyahu in 2010 taught him a lesson in the realities of American politics.
So the peace process was left to cajoling. It is difficult not to respect John Kerry’s efforts and the doggedness of his pursuit. He understood the issues well, and was willing to raise rhetorical points about the costs to Israel of continued occupation to the extent that the Israeli Right came seriously to hate him. But he never had the real power of the American state behind him: he could never say to Israel, fine, do what you want, but America is not going to subsidize it any longer, nor have your back in the United Nations. The “special relationship” of American unconditional support for Israel was never up for negotiation. Kerry was a diplomat without any of the tools in the diplomat’s kit, remarkable since he was supposedly representing a superpower.
At this point, who can wish to revive the corpse? Israel doesn’t have a political majority that favors a genuine Palestinian state with contiguous territory, control of its own borders and its capital in Jerusalem; that is now beyond dispute. (Though certainly many Israelis, perhaps 40 percent, do favor such an outcome.) Since a pro-settler fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, every successive Israeli government has become more under the sway of settler ideology and political power. If Israelis once thought of the West Bank as a terrific bargaining chip, to be swapped for peace and acceptance in the region, that was long ago: most Israelis think of the territories as Judea and Samaria, inextricably part of Israel. And John Kerry and Barack Obama have established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they aren’t willing or able to do anything about it.
But that doesn’t put an end to the matter. The circumstances of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank are, for the most part, horrendous. Authors Peter Beinart and Hussein Ibish made this crystal clear last week at a Columbia University event. Chronicling the roadblocks—physical and bureaucratic—that obstruct Palestinian life every day, Ibish told the audience that there’s not a single person in this room who would accept living in such conditions without resisting. Beinart added,
You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.
Irrefutable as is this logic might be, in the absence of an American-led peace process, what will happen next? One view, put forth by Tony Klug and Sam Bahour in Le Monde Diplomatique is that Israel must be forced to choose whether the West Bank is occupied territory, or whether—after fifty years—the occupation has become permanent. Of course this would have been clarified long ago had not the obfuscations of the “peace process” allowed Israel to pretend the occupation was temporary. Israel denies the territory is occupied on legal grounds, which are accepted by no other country (though Sheldon Adelson has apparently persuaded some American politicians of Israel’s viewpoint). But if the West Bank is not occupied, it is annexed and part of Israel, and Israel will become legally what it already is de facto—an apartheid state—one with different laws for its different ethnic groups. As the occupation approaches the 50 year mark, it is time, the authors argue, to clear up the ambiguity.
There are any number of observers who believe that only when faced with the real possibility of Palestinians demanding the vote will Israel realize that it is perhaps “more Zionist” to allow them an independent state instead. In any case, without the shield of the “peace process” Israel will become more exposed to the rapidly growing BDS movement, which already scares Israel to death, and to the growing pressures in American churches (mainline and, increasingly, evangelical) which shudder at American support for blatant injustice in the Holy Land. The stunning new study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” produced by Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, would have been inconceivable a decade ago, and points to an inexorable reconsideration of Zionism in the light of Christian social justice teachings.
Basically, American diplomats have had a clear field for some 30 years to try to engineer a two state solution. One can respect their efforts—and we should all give John Kerry at least a B for tireless pursuit—and recognize that they would now do better to get out of the way.
Many peoples have have a folk memory of great suffering branded into them. The Irish often recall the famines of the 1840s, in which a million died, in great part due to cruel and neglectful policies of the ruling British officials and absentee landlords. For African Americans, the middle passage and slavery—scarring the lives of millions—form an indelible cultural memory. Palestinian Arabs remember the Nakba, or catastrophe, in which three quarters of a million people were ethnically cleansed from their homeland. Of course the Holocaust, where six million Jews were murdered, has left a permanent imprint on contemporary Judaism.
For our part, we Americans have the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 American diplomats were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy for over a year by Iranian revolutionaries. Their plight has been memorialized in an award winning film, Argo. The the scars left by the episode remain raw today—as even today the U.S. Senate rose up as one to pass a bill to prohibit Iran from adding insult to injury by sending to the United Nations as an ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, a man who actually served as a French and English to Farsi translator for the young militants who engineered the embassy takeover nearly thirty-five years ago.
I am being, of course, ironic. The seizure of the American embassy in Tehran was illegal and wrong, as many Iranian officials argued at the time. The hostages were often subjected to psychological abuse. Yet Iran was in the middle of tumultuous and bloody revolution as various factions maneuvered for dominance in a fluid political situation. The embassy hostages became pawns in internal Iranian struggles. These were deadly: thousands had been killed before the Shah overthrown, and thousands more died, often by summary execution, in the months which followed Khomeini’s assumption of power. In the Tehran bloodshed department, the holding of hostages in the embassy was distinctly minor league.
Because the Carter administration wanted a) the safe return of the diplomats and b) to avoid alienating the Muslim world when it appeared, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few months after the embassy seizure, that a new and particularly dangerous phase of the Cold War had commenced, it appeared to have no good response. The result, for all the world to see, was an America that seemed helpless. Washington of course could have seized some Iranian territory or bombed targets in Iran. For reasons a and b, neither seemed preferable to doing what we actually did, essentially wait until Iran grew tired of holding the hostages. But the year of waiting was perceived, especially in Washington, as a year of humiliation and impotence, and Washington has never been able to get over it. Though the hostages themselves have returned unharmed and went on to lead productive lives, Washington continues to react as if an injustice of epochal scale was done to it. Fifty-two diplomats, held for 444 days, our American Nakba.
It was not particularly surprising that the senator who decided to wave the bloody, or at least unironed, shirts of the imprisoned diplomats over the issue of Hamid Aboutalebi’s appointment was Ted Cruz., the Texan Tea Party Republican who distinguished himself during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings by insinuating that the former Nebraska senator was in the pay of North Korea. In this instance, Cruz introduced legislation designed to bar Aboutalebi from obtaining a visa because he was a “terrorist.” He was joined by Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who has been working behind the scenes to scuttle President Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, mostly by introducing poison pill legislation in the Senate. Neither Cruz not Schumer discussed whether Aboutalebi carried out any terrorist activities in Australia, Italy, or Brussels (the European Union), the last three posts where Aboutalebi served as Iran’s ambassador.