President Obama's capitulation last month to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was disheartening. But it was not surprising. Most American presidents, Dwight Eisenhower aside, wilt under the pressure of the Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in particular.
Obama briefly looked to be different. Yet with elections approaching, he abandoned earlier positions. Rather than treat Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories as a primary foreign-policy concern, the administration is playing domestic politics with it.
On July 6, with Netanyahu at his side in the White House, Obama stated, "So I just want to say once again that I thought the discussion that we had was excellent. We've seen over the last year how our relationship has broadened. . . . And I think a lot of that has to do with the excellent work that the prime minister has done. So I'm grateful."
The craven statement came after months of properly conveying U.S. opposition to Israel's settlement activities. The very success of these activities threatens to foreclose on the dwindling possibility of a two-state solution. Regardless of Netanyahu's limited endorsement of a two-state solution, there have been fears that he is not serious about peace and is just playing for time to entrench settlements.
The practice has a long history in his Likud party. A predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, admitted after his own defeat in 1992: "I would have conducted autonomy talks for 10 years, and in the meantime we would have reached one-half million souls in Judea and Samaria." Concern over Netanyahu's real intentions grew recently when a 2001 tape emerged of him saying, in essence, that he had played the Clinton administration for fools. "I know what America is," Netanyahu declared. "America is something that can easily be moved. . . . What were the Oslo Accords? . . . I was asked, before the elections: ‘Will you act according to them?' And I answered, ‘Yes, subject to mutuality and limiting the retreats.' ‘But how do you intend to limit the retreats?' ‘I'll give such interpretation to the accords that will make it possible for me to stop this galloping to the '67 [1949 armistice] lines.' "
Netanyahu then explained how his broad interpretation of "Defined Military Sites" brought the Oslo withdrawal process - land for peace - to a screeching halt. Netanyahu concludes, "The trick is to be there and pay a minimal price." That day has arrived again as Netanyahu foresaw. And, indeed, the prime minister has managed to dismiss Obama's simple prerequisite for the start of peace talks: freezing building in the occupied territories.
Instead, he substituted a faux 10-month freeze that The New York Times recently noted "offered no fundamental change of pace." Somehow, since the disastrous March visit of Vice President Joseph Biden to Israel - when he was greeted by the Interior Ministry's announcement that 1,600 new settlement homes would be illegally built in East Jerusalem - and Obama's snubbing of Netanyahu later that month at the White House, Netanyahu managed to get relations with the U.S. back on the right track. This was not due to dramatic new Israeli concessions but to the might of the Israel lobby and its ability to strike fear into the hearts of congressional Democrats with dubious election prospects.
Optimists who this spring thought that the military lobby might provide needed balance to the Israel lobby underestimated the latter. Expectations for a fundamental change from business as usual rose in April, when Obama maintained that resolving the Mideast conflict is not only in the interest of each party, "but it's also in the interest of the United States." He added, "It is a vital national security interest of the United States . . . because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."
On the face of it, the statement announced a new policy: The resolution of the conflict "is a vital national security interest of the United States." For those looking for a counterweight to the Israel lobby, little could be better than the president acknowledging resolution of the conflict as a national-security interest while knowing he had the backing of Gen. David Petraeus. In March, Petraeus testified, "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests." His underlying message could not have been plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American lives.
But the message was short-lived. Netanyahu's recent visit suggests that American foreign-policy interests will once again play second fiddle to the demands of AIPAC. Palestinian freedom and Middle East peace are the losers.
Naseer Aruri, a Palestinian-American, is chancellor professor (emeritus) of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.