December 29, 2016
President Obama’s decision to allow passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements as illegal has done more to change the shape of the conflict than any other action in the last ten years, even than Israel’s massacres in Gaza. He has nudged Israel, and the media, toward recognition of the country’s new status, as a rogue state; he has split the Israel lobby right down the middle, or down the side anyway; and he has given huge impetus to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
That is why Israeli leaders are going crazy this weekend, flinging accusations against the president on the cable networks and national news too. Because what Obama did is so meaningful.
Israel’s supporters long claimed that Israel only makes progress if you embrace it and tell Israel you love it. (Dennis Ross says this all the time.) Obama heeded that advice for years and got nothing. Now he has made one gesture against Israel, and the progress in a few days is amazing.
The media are talking about settlements as never before. Every time I turn on National Public Radio, I hear a story about the settlements. It is about time our country talked about the occupation, as it approaches its jubilee year. And any reasonable person hearing this discussion accepts the simple truth of the U.N. resolution: Israel should not have transferred its population into territories conquered by war. It has destroyed the two-state solution by colonizing the 22 percent of the original territory that the two-state solution treated as Palestinian.
The hysteria against the resolution from Israeli leaders is a reminder to even-moderately-well-informed Americans of ideas that were once heresies but are now hardening into public attitudes here: We give these people tens of billions of dollars and they act like spoiled brats. They have ignored our presidents’ warnings for decade after decade and thumbed their noses at critics because they have the powerful Israel lobby at their beck and call.
Now the country is exposed as never before for Americans, and guess what– the place is haywire! Their prime minister is having a tantrum about American betrayal and non-friendship at his Cabinet meeting, even as they take our $38 billion. His chief diplomat berates President Obama and Ben Rhodes as liars on MSNBC, and does small talk about the Miami Dolphins. These people don’t have a clue: the entire world is against them; the vote was 14-0-1.
Obama’s Failure to Veto signals to Americans that U.S. policy is not going to be dictated by the Israel lobby any more, or at least this once. Certainly the lobby is now split. The centrist and right wing groups that dominate the leadership are all appalled by Obama’s decision and issuing denunciations. The ADL is “outraged” and “incredibly disappointed,” the Conference of Presidents and AIPAC are boiling. The Trump-addled Zionist Organization of America is accusing our president of anti-Semitism.
But liberal Zionist groups have never been so happy. Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, and J Street are supporting President Obama. They do so because their own base is highly critical of Israel– American Jews overwhelmingly support action against settlements– and because the Democratic Party base is even further to the left; and so Israel has become a partisan issue at last, with real debate.
The potential loss of the lobby’s uniform support is what so animates the Israeli political classes right now. As Shmuel Rosner rightly observes, echoing Walt and Mearsheimer of 10 years ago, America is all that Israel has. Its entire foreign policy is a domestic policy: pressure tactics carried out by the lobby on American politicians and media, resulting in a uniformly-supportive policy. Those pressure tactics having failed, Israelis are in full crisis mode.
These people are hysterical for a good reason. They are losing the most important thing they have to maintain the status quo of Jewish supremacy and apartheid, an order that serves the bulk of Israeli society.
They know that Obama’s defection could have great consequences. It could lead to Palestinian actions in international fora. It will give enormous encouragement to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, because Obama’s action is perceived by Israel’s supporters as a mild form of BDS– so why not try the hard stuff?
The consequences are already evident in Israeli society. The Jewish left is correctly accusing the right of isolating Israel. “Bibi” is now BBDS, per a liberal messaging campaign. The right seems determined to isolate Israel even more. Several rightwing Israelis are speaking out against Netanyahu.
A shakeup is happening inside Israeli Jewish society and its political structure that might actually change the country’s direction. It has long been my bet that an Israeli leader is going to emerge who says, “World, we hear you. We are making changes.” I believe that day is approaching more rapidly than people think, and Obama can claim some of the credit. (Though what effect those changes will have is a different question.)
The questions for students of US politics are: How will Trump change Obama’s orientation? And why didn’t Obama act sooner?
Obama vetoed a similar resolution in 2011 because of the Israel lobby; because he was being hounded by establishment Jewish voices who were saying that he was being too tough on Israel, and he could not afford to ignore them as he approached his reelection year. It’s that simple. Presidents take actions in their final months because they finally have some political autonomy.
As for Trump, he also can claim credit for the UN Resolution. If he had not won and not appointed David Friedman, a settler hero, to be his ambassador to Israel, and Steve Bannon, a white nationalist, as a White House strategist, we would be seeing an entirely different political terrain. Hillary Clinton would be the president-elect, and her traditional/conservative Democratic/Jewish establishment fear of alienating her megadonor Haim Saban would have caused President Obama to veto the resolution in the name of continuity. The lobby would be coalescing around right-centrist articles of faith, such as: Settlements are an obstacle to peace, but that’s all. As it is, Saban, and the Democratic Party’s dependence on rich elites, is blamed for the election debacle; and Saban has lost influence.
But will Trump reverse Obama’s actions re settlements? I don’t know. His tweets have actually been careful on this subject; suggesting that he might take Obama’s side against the spoiled child of Israel. Whatever Trump does, the lobby will continue to fragment. That is the larger process at work, and it is good news for Americans and Israelis and Palestinians.
Thanks to Yakov Hirsch, Scott Roth, and Adam Horowitz.