Fear in the lobby

My latest column for New Matilda is about the Zionist lobby and its hopefully stunted plans for the Middle East:

Public and private noises from the Obama administration have the Israel lobby spooked. Now they’re getting ready for the fight of their lives, writes Antony Loewenstein

Last week in Washington 7000 delegates from America’s most powerful Zionist lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), conducted its annual conference. With new leaders in office in Israel and the US, the mood was decidedly different to years past, when George W Bush was guaranteed to provide the Jewish state with unqualified support for its policies.

This year, however, the atmosphere was muted… — even nervous. The vast majority of speakers talked about peace in the Middle East, and with the Palestinians, but the main topics were Iran, Iran and Iran.

Iran will also be a main focus of the message that Benjamin Netanyahu will take to his first White House meeting on 18 May. Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security adviser (and former spy), told Newsweek last year that the Islamic Republic was threatening the region, Hamas and Hizbollah were intolerable, and therefore a Palestinian peace agreement would be meaningless until these problems were resolved.

Netanyahu presented this idea to the AIPAC conference as a unique opportunity for the Arab states to work with Israel against Iran through mutual fear. It was a cute formulation that some US-backed Arab dictatorships would like in private, but with no movement on Israeli/Palestinian peace, that line is almost impossible to pursue confidently.

One wonders when the global power elite will recognise that the Israeli Government has no interest in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. Jerusalem is being colonised to erase Arab history from the area, and illegal West Bank settlements are expanding at a rate not seen since 2003, according to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group.

AIPAC delegates would therefore not have been pleased to hear US Vice President Joe Biden remind Israel at the conference that, “Israel has to work toward a two-state solution. You’re not going to like my saying this, but [do] not build more settlements; dismantle existing outposts, and allow Palestinians freedom of movement.”

AIPAC may talk about a two-state solution but the words are meaningless without serious pressure being applied to the Jewish state to at least cease all colony building and lift the Gaza siege. The pro-settler Zionist Organisation of America damned AIPAC for even mentioning the concept of two states, while more moderate Zionist groups praised Obama’s early noises on the issue.

Since Obama took office, the Israeli media has been filled with stories about how Jerusalem is worried there is a “breakdown” of US/Israel cooperation over key issues, such as engagement with Syria, Iran and the Palestinians. The recent comment by an Obama official that Israel should sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) caused profound unease within the Israel lobby, which reacts as if acknowledging the country’s massive nuclear arsenal was not an important step towards Middle East peace.

Israeli neo-conservatives appear discomforted that Washington is signalling a slightly more balanced approach to these issues. Such people have become complacent with their favoured client-nation status.

An unnamed official quoted in Ha’aretz (many of the Israeli papers rely far too heavily on anonymous sources for stories, providing cover for politicians or advisers to push policy from under cover) worried that the new US administration no longer saw Israel as “special” or “extraordinary”, and merely treated it like any other country in the Middle East. “The feeling is that the dialogue and coordination with the Arab states and with Europe is today no less important to the US and perhaps more so than with Israel,” the official lamented. Such stories are gaining traction in the American mainstream media, too.

Early indications are that Obama intends to press for a Palestinian state and engage, at least briefly, with Iran. National Security Adviser James Jones told a European counterpart recently that Washington will “convince Israel to compromise on the Palestinian question”. He went on: “We will not push Israel under the wheels of a bus, but we will be more forceful towards Israel than we have been under Bush.” The American Zionist lobby is already targeting Jones over such honesty.

Another Netanyahu ploy has been to demand the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state, although, writes Tony Karon in The National, “[Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas might also have inquired why a Palestinian national leader should be asked to confer upon Israel a status denied it even by many learned rabbis.” It should be even harder to push this point when Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics found that Jews are now a minority in the Israeli “empire”. A total of 49 per cent Jews and 51 per cent non-Jews currently live in the territory under Israeli control. Apartheid is official.

This “split” between Israel and America may simply be a figment of journalists’ imaginations. What matters in the Middle East is action, not words. If Obama is serious about pushing some kind of workable peace in the region, he’ll need to strong-arm Israel in a way the Jewish state has never experienced before. MJ Rosenberg, head of the progressive US Zionist lobby, the Israel Policy Forum, argued last week that American Jews, the vast majority who vote Democrat, will support Obama if he wants to challenge Israel:

“[In] leading an effort to achieve peace, Obama will be advancing Israel’s security, along with our own. That is also why American Jews will rally behind him. It is not because they are indifferent to Israel’s security but because they understand that maintaining the occupation undermines Israel’s long-term survival. Proponents of the status quo believe that Israel can maintain the occupation and remain a democratic Jewish state. But that is impossible.”

Putting aside the fanciful notion of a democratic, Jewish state (a concept that even the most liberal of Zionists cling onto as if it were a present fact, despite the vast evidence that Israel has instituted over decades policies of profound racial discrimination against any non-Jews in the country) it’s much too early to determine the kind of response that Israel’s far-right Government will receive globally. Elements in the Italian Government reportedly expressed support last week for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s racist plan to begin a loyalty oath for all Israeli citizens, but the response Lieberman got in France was much cooler.

The most encouraging sign from the AIPAC conference, largely unreported by the mainstream media, was highlighted by Mondoweiss blogger Adam Horowitz, who attended the whole event. AIPAC’s Executive Director Howard Kohr warned the delegates that there was a growing international movement to delegitimise Israel in the eyes of its allies. He talked about the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign and Israel Apartheid Week:

“No longer is this campaign confined to the ravings of the political far left or far right, but increasingly it is entering the American mainstream: an ordinary political discourse on our TV and radio talk shows; in the pages of our major newspapers and in countless blogs, in town hall meetings, on campuses and city squares…

“And I want to be clearly understood here. I’m not saying that these allegations have become accepted. But they have become acceptable. More and more they are invading the mainstream discourse, becoming part of the constant and unrelenting drumbeat against Israel. These voices are laying the predicate for abandonment.”

Kohr was undoubtedly exaggerating his fears, because that’s what AIPAC does. But it was significant that he noted how the ground was shifting in public opinion (a recent study by WorldPublicOpinion.org found the vast majority of Americans were opposed to the settlement project).

The Zionist lobby is finding it more difficult to claim that Israel is a democracy that upholds the rule of law while increasingly common stories of Jewish pogroms in the West Bank are influencing public debate.

More voices — Jewish and non Jewish — are being raised to save the Middle East from Israel’s seemingly determined drive towards self-destruction.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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