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Israel Not As Powerful As You May Think

Ira Chernus

Too many peace-and-justice activists are too quick -- even eager, it sometimes seems -- to feel powerless.  Did you hear all the wailing and gnashing of teeth the other day from liberals, when the Obama administration hinted that it might give up the public option for health care? You'd have thought they pronounced it dead and buried it. A lot of crusaders for health care reform were so depressed that they were ready to thrown in the towel.

But professional politicians like Howard Dean recognized it as merely a trial balloon, a way to test the strength of opinion for and against the idea, and an invitation to public-option supporters to fight all the harder.

The same misunderstanding is a problem for peace activists addressing the Israel-Palestine conflict. Through the long, dark years of neoconservative ascendancy under Bush and Cheney, it was common on the left to pronounce U.S. foreign policy under the thumb of the Israelis. Now the neocons are suffering a well-deserved obscurity. But the view that Israel is all-powerful, immune to pressures from anyone including the U.S. government, persists on the left. 

The proof, we're told, is that the Israelis insist they will go on expanding their settlements, despite a strong demand from the President of the United States himself that they stop. At least Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu keeps saying that Israel will do whatever it damn pleases (all in the name of "security," of course), regardless of what POTUS or anyone else says. That endless flow of defiance from Jerusalem angers lots of peace activists here. They seem convinced that Israel has all the power in this ongoing conflict and richly deserves to be condemned for the way it abuses that power.

The Israeli policymakers certainly deserve condemnation for plenty of things -- but not because they are omnipotent. The signs of their weakness are easy enough to see, for anyone who is looking carefully.

When Netanyahu recently laid out Israel's minimum requirements for a peace settlement, in a  public statement, he included "the genuine recognition of the state of Israel" -- but he omitted any demand for recognizing Israel as "a Jewish state" or "the homeland of the Jewish people." That was no accident, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz: "Foreign diplomats have reported that people in the prime minister's bureau had phoned some of their colleagues to draw their attention to the striking absence from the statement."

For those who say it's actions, not words, that count (though in fact both are equally important) there is this news: Israel has quietly stopped approving new building projects in the West Bank settlements.  Although Housing Minister Ariel Atias took public responsibility for the decision, Israeli officials say that it was made jointly at the highest level, by Netanyahu, Atias, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Projects under construction are continuing, and privately-funded projects are being initiated. But the fact that Israel is not authorizing public money for new settlement construction marks a major concession to the U.S.

Israeli political scientist Jonathan Rynhold explained it this way: Netanyahu "does not want to lose his credibility with the Americans. He says that you don't have to do everything they say, but that you do have to be reasonable. Otherwise you will lose all your backing when there are more important issues on the agenda, like Iran."

But on Iran, too, Israel has been timid.  A senior Israeli official has said that Israel isn't asking for U.S. permission to attack Iran because the Netanyahu government doesn't want to risk being told "no." And in early August, Barak revealed that Israel restrained its attack on Lebanon in 2006 because "a message from the United States indicated we must spare Lebanon's infrastructure." At about the same time, Barak told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the United States would present a regional peace plan "in the coming weeks," he added that "Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan."


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Barak did not need to say what everyone knows: If Jerusalem refuses to jump when Washington issues a serious order, it risks losing an unknown amount of the enormous aid package the U.S. sends Israel every year. A government that wants to be reasonable doesn't bite the hand that feeds it. 

That may very well be one reason the Israelis have stopped building the wall that was supposed to separate them from Palestine.  "Much of the unfinished work involves ‘fingers' of the barrier around Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank," the Washington Post said, and that's "potentially controversial in a climate in which the Obama administration is trying to curb Israeli activity in the West Bank as a prelude to restarting peace talks."

It's controversial from the U.S. side because completing the wall might mean that Israel is defining permanent borders. It's controversial from the Israeli side because the public there largely supports the wall project. To give it up is a political risk. Yet it's one that the Netanyahu government is willing to take.

It's easy enough to understand why Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers keep saying publicly that they'll never give in to U.S. pressure. They want to minimize their political risk, and (as a recent Washington Post headline put it) "Netanyahu's Defiance of U.S. Resonates at Home; Polls Show Resistance to Settlement Freeze." But the words that count most are the ones exchanged among the diplomats behind the scenes -- where, according to all indications, some progress is being made toward compromise by Israelis as well as Arabs.  

It's harder to understand why these reports of progress, and all the other encouraging signs of Israel concessions, are so widely overlooked by peace and justice activists. Perhaps the belief in Israeli intransigence heightens the sense of Israeli evil.  And let's face it. The more evil the enemy in a moral battle, the more pleasure we may get in waging that battle.  Perhaps some are even tempted by the lure of absolutism: If you are fighting an enemy that's absolutely evil, then you must be absolutely good.

But whatever the appeal of seeing Israel as immune to all pressure, it's a political mistake. Peace activists are most effective when they have an accurate assessment of the political realities they are dealing with.  In this case, the reality is that the most crucial decisions will be made in the White House, not in Jerusalem or anywhere else.  

They certainly won't be made in the offices of AIPAC. Yes, the right-wing "pro-Israel" lobby does carry weight in Washington, though more on Capitol Hill than at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. But at both ends its clout is weakening -- not because AIPAC pushes any less, but because the peace movement, especially the Jewish-American peace movement, is pushing more. Groups like J Street, Brit Tzedek, and Americans for Peace Now are real players in the political game for the first time, and the rules of the game itself are changing accordingly.

The most important new rule is that the team that pushes hardest can win. On the Middle East as on health care reform, the White House has its finger up, checking the political breezes. What Howard Dean knows about health care is equally true for the Israel-Palestine conflict: We should not let public words fool us into think that the battle is over, when in fact it is really just beginning. The public words are invitations to all of us to work harder than ever to push the administration in the direction of peace and justice.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog

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