Thursday, March 26, 2009

A few thoughts on the Middle East

This post is occasioned by my friend Leanderthal, the Lighthouse Keeper. You can find his blog here.

Lee first came to my attention with a comment he posted about some of my thoughts on Israel. He is very concerned about war and peace in the Middle East (as we all should be), and particularly by the influence he sees in what he and others call the Israel Lobby. More particularly, he is concerned that in his view the Israel Lobby has a lock on American policy toward the region, preventing the United States from staking out any new position. That's a valid point.

What is the "Israel Lobby?" Not surprisingly, it is defined by its critics. It's centerpiece is AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC doesn't make any bones about its stance: go to its website and you'll see that it bills itself as "America's Pro-Israel Lobby." Another part of what is often considered the Israel Lobby, although perhaps not so strident as AIPAC is the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. (I can't help but wonder if anyone has been turned down for membership, because he or she is the president of a minor Jewish organization.) Then there is a less formal network of intellectuals and pundits (the terms may be partially interchangeable) and other machers. They are, of course, allied with many members of Congress, and have had the ear of vital members of all administrations as well.

One thing that ought to be noted is that most of those who raise alarums about the Israel Lobby oppose American policy in the Middle East more than they care about those who speak for Israel; I don't place Leanderthal in that group, but it would be fallacious to deny that they exist. The real objection of such people is not so much the Israel Lobby as its effectiveness. In the end, many of them are not friends of Israel.

Let me hasten to make clear that no one need be a friend of Israel to be a responsible participant in the debate over Middle East policy, although I have trouble taking seriously those who wish for the elimination of Israel from the list of the world's nations except, perhaps, as part of a very long-range hope that someday Israelis and Palestinians will freely and peacefully choose to be part of a single state. I don't happen to think that is likely to happen, ever (the dissolution of the Netherlands into what is now that country and Belgium, in 1830, was over issues not nearly as deep as those that divide Palestinians and Israelis, and I haven't heard calls for re-unification of the Low Countries), but one could make an intellectually respectable argument for it.

I should also note that debate over the role of the Israel Lobby, and the making of American policy, are perfectly legitimate topics. Indeed, American Jews debate them fiercely. Check out the Israel Policy Forum and the writings of blogger M.J. Rosenberg, who frequently differ with and often vociferously criticize the doings of the lobby. I have also disagreed frequently with the chauvinistic and unthinking attitude of some of Israel's more vociferous supporters.

But here's the thing: Right now, how much can US policy change? Don't the realities on the ground trump the desire for a bold new direction and push a debate about how Israel tries to affect American policy into the background?

For many years, I would daydream about what I would say to Israelis and Palestinians if I were the occupant of the Oval Office. As the first Jewish president, I would have some extra weight with the Israeli prime minister, and I would use it to tell him or her a few home truths. I would say that the time for settlements in the West Bank had passed, and that the time to remove them had arrived. I would tell the prime minister that the Palestinians have to get a state that pretty much runs along the borders of the West Bank in 1967, artificial as those were. For the settlers, I would suggest cash incentives and land--to the extent that a tiny state like Israel could find some--to induce them to move. For those who refused, I would advise telling them that, from a certain date a few years hence, they could live under Palestinian rule. I would make clear that Israel has to treat its Arab citizens the same way that it treats its Jewish ones. To the Palestinian prime minister--undoubtedly suspicious of this Jew in the White House--I would offer friendship and firm support for a Palestinian state. But I would tell him (it is hardly likely to be a woman at any time in the near future) that he had to suppress the violent elements in the Palestinian polity. No peace deal will work if people are firing rockets into Israel. And those who are still refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan more than sixty years after the division of the British mandate have to give up the hope of return. Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Half a loaf is better than none, and so is half a land.

Would this frank talk prove the key to peace? Questionable at any time. (You may note that my home truths did not include Jerusalem, about which I have some ideas, but which is the hardest nut of all to crack.) But now? For the present, at least, my ideas are those of a dreamer at best, or maybe a crackpot. Given what happened in Gaza when Israel abandoned it, who could expect the Israelis to give unfettered domain in the West Bank to the Palestinians. Given the actions of Israeli settlers and police in the West Bank, how long a road must be traveled be before Palestinians find enough hope, let alone trust, to live in peace with their neighbors? Yet how can we expect Israel to give up security in the hope of peace? And all that is without regard to the recent fighting in Gaza. Given the power of the rejectionists of Hamas, Hezbollah and the right wing in Israel, who can envision a stable peace?

In the Middle East today, the parties, with the U.S. as the essential intermediary, need to devise the first small steps toward an ultimate accord. That will entail a complex, difficult and probably slow process that needs ingenuity and much patience.

But beside that, debates over the Israel Lobby seem like a distraction.


Leanderthal, Lighthouse Keeper said...

Thanks for including a link to my blog. I suspect that you have many more readers than I, so perhaps I'll see some new traffic.

I was with you, with one exception, until you relegated debates about the Israel Lobby to a distraction. That's too dismissive for me. I want to be clear about what I object to, and it's not Israelis, nor Jewish supporters in this country. M.J. Rosenberg, Roger Cohen and others are great examples of people I admire and respect. I object to the part of the Israeli Lobby that promotes accepting anything Israel does, especially propaganda and actions of the hard line Likud party, and the settler zealots. With Netanyahu plus Barak forming a government this will be a continuing problem, with AIPAC leading the cheering. So you might say that I do object to their effectiveness, but mostly how they accomplish it; the buying of political loyalties in Washington. There are too many stories over the years of politicians talking, off the record, about actually fearing AIPAC, fearing that they will be kneecapped like Charles Freeman if they don't kneel at the AIPAC altar. In a way it's a reverse protection racket. We'll give you big campaign bucks for your loyalty on our issues. If you cross us we'll ruin you. The common terms are bribery and blackmail.

Thanks again for citing my blog and supporting some of my positions.

I hope you don't find my willingness to debate this topic a distraction. You are my trusted and faithful tutor on all things Israel.

Leanderthal, Lighthouse Keeper

The Old New Englander said...

You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. And I tried to make it clear that I don't believe you are one of those with another agenda--i.e., those who may wish to harm Israel. Nor did I mean to suggest that discussion of the Israel lobby (it's Israel, not Israeli; for the most part, it's composed of Americans) is a distraction. Rather, I wonder if it is effective at this point, given where the two sides are. It may well be that the debate you want does need to be held, if the US is to influence changes in policy--perhaps even on both sides.

Leanderthal, Lighthouse Keeper said...

Based on your recent clarification I suspect that we are in agreement for the most part. Certainly the conditions on the ground are entrenched, and will be difficult to change, especially with the new government being formed.

You are right to correct my use of the term Israeli Lobby. It is a largely American group to be sure.