Palestine as America's next Vietnam? Like all historical
analogies, it's far from perfect. We aren't about to send the U.S. Army
to the West Bank or Gaza to kill and die in a war that can't be won.
Where else in the world, though, is American weaponry and political
power so obviously used to suppress a Viet Cong-like movement of
national liberation (a bill the Taliban hardly fit)?
And what other conflict is as politically divisive as the
Israeli-Palestinian one? More than the Afghan War, the struggle at the
heart of the Middle East evokes the kind of powerful passions here that
once marked the debate over Vietnam, pitting hawks against doves. Not
that the progressive media are yet portraying it that way. They're more
likely to give us an increasingly outdated picture of an all-powerful
Jewish "Israel lobby," which supposedly has a lock on U.S. policy and
dominates the rest of us.
In fact, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, the political
landscape is far more complex, fluid, and unpredictable. Yes, the
election day just past saw a wave of hawkish Republicans with
a penchant for loving Israel to death swept into Congress, but the
hawks' amplified voice is also likely to energize a growing alliance of
Religious Hawks vs. Religious Doves
This election was not a Jewish triumph. Most of the GOP congressional hawks (if they aren't from Florida)
come from constituencies with only a sprinkling of Jews. They seem
eager to make Israel a symbolic test case, as if supporting the
hard-line Israeli government against Obama administration "betrayal" proves their strength in protecting America.
In the wake of November 2nd, a prominent Israeli columnist wrote
that Republicans believe in "patriotism, Judeo-Christian Values,
national security... and associating Arabs and Muslims with terrorism... a
worldview that is usually consistent with pro-Israel sentiments." Those
are certainly "pro-Israel sentiments" as defined by the old Israel
lobby that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt analyzed
so sharply. That lobby still wields plenty of power with its loud media
megaphone, and it will welcome the recent success of its flag-waving,
fear-mongering GOP allies.
Here's a new reality, however: The hawkish Israel lobby is no longer
the true face of the Jewish community. According to midterm exit polls,
most American Jews stuck with their traditional loyalty to the
Democratic Party and, far more important, they are visibly developing a
new idea of what it means to be pro-Israel. Today, three-quarters of
American Jews want the U.S. to lead Israelis and Palestinians toward a
two-state solution; nearly two-thirds say they'd accept Obama
administration pressure on Israel to reach that goal.
Republicans entering Congress will learn what I recently heard a
Jewish congressman explain. Few non-Jewish legislators pay close
attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When it comes up, they
usually turn to their Jewish colleagues for advice. Once, the Jews they
consulted were likely to simply parrot the American-Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC) line. Now they're likely to say, "Well, AIPAC
says this, but J Street says that. You decide."
J Street is the
most prominent player in the dovish, newly developing coalition that
already represents the views of most Jews. When Barack Obama invited top
Jewish leaders to the White House in the summer of 2009, the heads of
two smaller organizations, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, were at the table
too. These are the most visible voices for American Jews who don't want
to see their own government enabling Israeli governmental policies that
The Christian community is split into competing lobbies as well, with hawks led by Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and doves by Churches for Middle East Peace
(CMEP). CUFI makes more noise and gets more press attention. But CMEP
is an impressive coalition of 22 national church groups, including some
of the largest denominations and the nation's largest umbrella
organization of Protestants, the National Council of Churches.
there are doves, both Jewish and Christian, who promote direct action
rather than political lobbying as the route to change. The movement
to use boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to pressure Israel to
change its policies on the Palestinians didn't really take off until the
Presbyterian Church endorsed the concept. More Christian groups have
now joined this campaign, as has Jewish Voice for Peace,
among other Jewish groups. Such direct protest also gets plenty of
support from left-leaning doves not moved by any religious faith.
So far this alliance has not mounted the massive demonstrations that
were a hallmark of Vietnam-era doves. The new strength of the hawks in
Congress, however, might someday provoke the doves to take to the
Elite Doves vs. Elite Hawks
As in the Vietnam era, today's policy debate has not been restricted
to groups of outsiders. It's reaching deep into the foreign policy
establishment. Top editors of the New York Times recently visited Israel, talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and came home to write an editorial
putting most of the blame on the Israeli leader. They urged him to
renew the moratorium on expanding settlements and immediately settle on
the borders of a Palestinian state.
Just two days after election day, when everyone else was still talking domestic politics, the Times gave Bill Clinton op-ed space
to say that "everyone knows what a final agreement would look like" -- a
coded message from the secretary of state's husband to the Jewish
state's prime minister that it's time to end the occupation, withdraw
settlements, and share Jerusalem. Two former national security advisors,
Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have publicly urged
Barack Obama to "outline the basic parameters for a Palestinian state"
-- a coded message to the president that it's time for a U.S.-imposed
solution in the Middle East (assumedly based on Clinton's parameters).
Of course, the elite hawks are fighting back. Neoconservatives (whose
obituaries are always premature) have created an international alliance
that calls itself "The Friends of Israel Initiative." With friends like these, the doves claim, Israel doesn't need enemies.
The elite debate extends into U.S. military and intelligence
communities which have worked closely with Israel for decades. It's a
safe bet that there are powerful hawks in those circles who don't want
to put pressure on Israel because it might jeopardize those
relationships. But top military leaders have been issuing warnings in private and in public
about the dangerous consequences the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could
have for U.S. interests in the region, and implying that the president
should be pressuring Israel to bring the conflict to an end.
Both hawks and doves
have found jobs in the Obama administration. "The question of how much
the United States is offering [Israel], and what it is asking for in
return, is being fiercely debated within the White House and the State
Department," the New York Timesreported
-- which is undoubtedly one reason that the administration has been
bobbing and weaving on Israel and Palestine with no clear policy
direction in sight.
Another reason is the political risk involved. Though domestic issues
dominated this year's campaign season, the Republicans still stake
their claim on being the party of tough guys, and they look for every
opportunity to paint the Democrats as soft on national security. If
Obama wavers on Israel, the GOP is ready to pounce and he knows it.
Republicans are always eager to run against
"the '60s," and efforts to move Israel to the peace table have become
yet another symbol of "the '60s" in the GOP imagination. It's no
coincidence that, just after he won the Florida Senate race, the Tea
Party's rising star Marco Rubio announced that he was packing for a trip to Israel.
On the other hand, a president stymied in the domestic sphere is
always tempted to make his historical mark with major foreign policy
initiatives where he has more freedom. As Lara Friedman of Americans for
Peace Now points out,
this president will be criticized for abandoning his original demands
on the Israelis just as much as for pursuing them, so he might as well
"double down on his Middle East peace efforts." If he does that, the
doves will have Obama's back. And a triumph at the peace table could
shift attention away from the morass of Afghanistan in just the way
Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China overshadowed the continuing slaughter
An Unpredictable Complex System
There's one more interesting analogy between the present Middle
Eastern conflict and Vietnam. Both have triggered the passions of hawks
and doves who otherwise would not pay much attention to foreign affairs.
Every day, a few more doves start asking why the U.S. suppresses the
Palestinian urge for national liberation and self-determination.
From there, it's just a short step to asking
other questions: Why does the Obama administration echo Israel's
frightening but unproven claims about "the Iranian threat" and leave so much room for talk of war? Why does the U.S. continue to demonize Hamas, rebuffing
its efforts to moderate its stand and resume a truce with Israel? Why
do government and media figures so regularly reduce the endless
complexities of the Middle East to a simple morality tale of good guys against bad guys? And how can that enhance the security of the American people?
Just as during the Vietnam War years, such questions about U.S.
policy in one region lead to even larger questions about the American
stance in the world -- and sooner or later, some of those questioners
will dare call it imperialism. Any victory for the doves on the question
of policy toward Israel will also be a victory in the ongoing struggle
between competing visions of foreign policy, and no one can say where
the growing movement of doves might lead.
In fact, no one can say anything with any degree of certainty about
the future of this issue. It is now what the Vietnam debate once was: a
complex, perhaps even chaotic, system, where every action provokes
Will a more Republican-leaning Congress change policy? Perhaps. But
who knows exactly how? The more the hawks push, the bigger and more
appealing the target they offer to the doves. As the issue only
polarizes, ever more American Jews may feel pushed out of their tactful
We could end up with a new media picture entirely: gentile hawks
urging Israel to maintain its hard-line stance versus a Jewish community
leaning toward compromise and peace. Under those circumstances, the
average citizen, who figures that Jews know best about Israel, might be
unlikely to sympathize with the hawks.
That's not a prediction, just one among many possibilities in a
complex system that's inherently unstable and so unpredictable. In other
words, there's no reason for doves to feel powerless. Election Day 2010
may look like a victory for the hawks, but it could turn out to be a
step toward their long-term defeat.