Advocates of Middle East peace are circulating a letter in the U.S. House of Representatives, urging President Obama to "continue your strong efforts to bring U.S. leadership to bear in moving the parties toward a negotiated two-state solution." The key word is "strong." It's easy enough to say we want peace and a two-state solution. To take the steps necessary to make it happen, including putting serious pressure on Israel, is something else again. That's what it means for a leader to be strong.
Bill Clinton once said: "When times are uncertain, people would rather have a leader who is strong and wrong than one who is weak and right." The Israel-Palestine situation now is most uncertain. But it gives the president and the Congress a unique opportunity to be both strong and right. More precisely, the government of Israel is giving them that opportunity.
It may look like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing base are using the U.S. president for their own purposes -- engaging in a charade of negotiations while steadily gobbling up more Palestinian land in the West Bank, including Jerusalem. Most recently, Netanyahyu celebrated "Jerusalem Day" with a speech proclaiming: "We will continue to build and develop ourselves in Jerusalem," while Jerusalem mayor Nir Barakat declared: "The municipal borders of Jerusalem are not negotiable and building will continue across all of the city under Israeli sovereignty."
As if to give teeth to that rhetoric, Israel's Public Security Minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, told the Knesset that Israel will demolish Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem in the coming days. He acknowledged that demolitions had been postponed in recent months so as not to harm U.S. efforts to get peace talks started. Yet just as those talks were beginning, with both sides admonished by the U.S. to avoid any "provocative actions," Aharonovitch defiantly declared: "There is no directive for police not to implement the demolition orders. ... If there was a postponement, it has now ended."
The Israeli right appeared to be thumbing its nose at Obama, in much the same way that they embarrassed vice-president Joe Biden by announcing new construction while he was in Jerusalem in March. That might seem to demonstrate that Israel holds the power and can do whatever it pleases despite American objection, as many observers in this country choose to believe.
Yet it's easy enough to see the whole situation from the opposite angle: By publicly defying Obama's demand for no provocation by either side, the Israelis are giving him a wonderful opportunity to step in forcefully and get tough on the world stage. And Obama can do that, if he wants to. Israel depends on the U.S. for military, economic, and above all diplomatic support.
A serious demand from Washington to curb the Jerusalem provocations would scare most Israelis into demanding that their government obey. As the prominent Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner, who is certainly no dove, recently wrote, if Obama "signalled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu's domestic support would quickly evaporate."
But the signal would have to be clear, powerful, and non-negotiable -- just the kind of signal that most Americans like to see their government sending in a time of uncertainty like the one we are passing through now. And most Americans could be persuaded that a demand to cease destroying Palestinian homes is not merely strong but right. Regardless of their overall view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most would understand that once another government makes a promise to the United States, that promise must be honored. Fulfilling a promise is right; breaking it is wrong. Obama could state the case that simply and come out looking both strong and right.
Of course the administration must weigh this potential political gain against the risk that comes with any pressure a U.S. president puts on Israel: a counterattack from the hawkish "Israel lobby." That counterattack was once so dreaded that presidents rarely ventured any criticism of Israel at all.
Now the Israel lobby's power is clearly waning. That's recognized even in elite political circles in Israel, where Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said: "Netanyahu should have taken into account the change within the American Jewish community. Their support for Israel is decreasing," and they are not likely to support Israel's provocative building projects in Jerusalem, he added.
The crucial political battleground is in Congress, where the Israel lobby likes to flex its muscle, threatening presidents that they'll pay for any pressure on Israel by losing votes for their most prized measures. The lobby has traditionally signaled that threat by having huge numbers of legislators sign letters to the president, urging him to do whatever Israel wanted.
One sign of the Israel lobby's decline is the shrinking number of legislators -- especially Democrats -- who will sign its letters. Last month, a typical "stand with Israel" letter was signed by a sizeable majority of House members. But the number was strikingly smaller than in the past, because fully 91 Democrats -- almost a third of the House Dems -- refused to sign.
A month earlier, 54 members of the House, all Democrats, signed a letter urging the president to call for the lifting of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza, a number that no one could have imagined a year or two ago. Dems in the House are starting to stand up to the Israel lobby, finding out what it feels like to be strong and right.
Now there's that new letter in the House, initiated by Reps. Delahunt (MA), Kind (WI), Price (NC), and Snyder (AR), urging Obama to "continue your strong efforts to bring U.S. leadership to bear in moving the parties toward a negotiated two-state solution." The pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby J Street is putting its weight behind the letter, but finding it an uphill battle. "It is unbelievably difficult to get members of Congress to sign on," J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami admits.
Yet it's difficult only if members of Congress do not hear from their constituents. A vast majority of Americans now believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a negative impact on U.S. interests. They want to see the U.S. get involved to end the conflict. However the issue is not high enough on most people's list of political priorities to move them to act -- not even to take the simple step of calling or emailing their representatives.
Perhaps they are waiting for their president to take the first step, to be strong and right. But he's not likely to take that political risk until he sees the people taking steps that are strong and right.
Perhaps they feel that something as simple as calling a congressional office is a piddling gesture in the face of such an immense problem. That's a very understandable feeling. But no one is going to wave a magic wand and create peace. Changing the course of U.S. Middle East policy is like the changing the course of an ocean liner. It happens slowly, far too slowly. Yet there is no other way than the agonizingly slow slog through the political process. Even the smallest gesture does make a difference.