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Stephen M. Walt
Obama and the Israel lobby: Quo vadis?
Has AIPAC lost its mojo? Does Obama’s reelection prove that the Israel lobby is getting weaker, and that he can return to Middle East peacemaking with new confidence and resolve? It’s no secret that Obama has a frosty relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, fueling GOP hopes that Israel would be a wedge issue that ...
Has AIPAC lost its mojo? Does Obama’s reelection prove that the Israel lobby is getting weaker, and that he can return to Middle East peacemaking with new confidence and resolve? It’s no secret that Obama has a frosty relationship with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, fueling GOP hopes that Israel would be a wedge issue that would attract lots of Jewish voters and donors. At least one prominent hardline Zionist, Sheldon Adelson, spent tens of millions of dollars trying to buy the election for Romney, and he got bupkis for all that cash. So now that Obama’s got a second term, will he blithely ignore AIPAC et al and pursue an even-handed approach to the Middle East peace process?
Don’t bet on it. For starters, the election didn’t show that the traditional "status quo lobby" was substantially weaker. Why? Because Obama caved to these groups a long time ago, and there was hardly any daylight between him and Romney on this issue. As the Obama campaign repeatedly emphasized, they had been extraordinarily supportive of Israel from Day One: providing increased levels of military aid, expanding various forms of security cooperation (including joint operations against Iran), and providing diplomatic cover in the United Nations and elsewhere. Obama dropped his early insistence on a settlement freeze and eventually gave up on the peace process. The only thing that Netanyahu didn’t get from Obama was a war against Iran, and plenty of top Israeli officials didn’t think that was a very good idea either. Given that there wasn’t much difference between Obama and Romney on Israel, therefore, American Jewry stuck with its long-standing liberal preferences and voted overwhelmingly for Obama and the Democrats.
But the election is over, and the second term beckons. Won’t Obama be tempted to secure a legacy as a peacemaker (remember that Nobel Prize?), and go back to his original vision of "two states for two peoples?" I don’t think so. Conditions in the region aren’t propitious: Israel continues to drift rightward, Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to be reelected, and the tumult of the Arab spring is bound to make everyone more cautious (and with good reason). The Palestinian Authority is less and less popular, and even if he wanted to, Mahmoud Abbas could never persuade his followers to accept the one-sided Bantustan arrangement that is Netanyahu’s idea of a "Palestinian state." Obama doesn’t have to run for re-election again but Congressional Dems do, and they’ll put the same pressure on him in 2014 that they did in 2010 if he tries to force Netanyahu to abandon his vision of "greater Israel." The bottom line: No U.S. pressure on Israel, and thus no chance for a deal.
If you’re Barack Obama, in short, this just doesn’t look like a smart place to invest a lot of time, effort, and political capital. Plus, my hunch is that he’s going to try to secure his legacy by "nation-building" here at home, not by pursuing the elusive grail of Middle East peace. For that matter, if he decides to spend any political capital in that part of the world, it will be on Iran, not Israel-Palestine. Meanwhile, Congress will reflexively vote the aid package and sign whatever goofy letters and resolutions that AIPAC dreams up. Politicians and policy wonks will continue to pay homage to the "special relationship," lest they come under fire from the lobby and its various watchdogs and smear artists.
Which is not to say that nothing has changed, as Steve Rosen argues here. Public discourse on this topic is more open than it used to be, some journalists have become largely immune to intimidation, and the role of the lobby in stifling peace efforts and promoting a military approach to Iran is now plain for all to see. J Street has been more equivocal than some of us might have hoped, but it can take some pride in helping escort Islamophobes from office and getting some pro-peace candidates elected. Writers like Peter Beinart have bravely spoken truth to those with closed minds and closed eyes, and even some stalwart defenders of Israel seem increasingly troubled by where it’s headed.
But I don’t see a sea-change; at least not yet. AIPAC and its allies don’t get everything they want, of course, but they can still put real limits on what the president and his advisors are willing to try. We still have not reached the point where politicians are willing to openly acknowledge that a normal relationship would be better for both countries than the current special relationship of unconditional U.S. support. You didn’t hear Obama, Romney, or any other major candidate say anything like that in 2012, which tells you that fear of the lobby remains a potent political force. That’s not good for us, but it’s even worse for Israelis and Palestinians. Which is why I’d be delighted if the next four years proves me wrong.