Don’t get me wrong. I’m on board. I’m in there with the American Jews who are reassuring Obama that we’ve got his back. But I have to say it’s all I can do to resist my cynicism when I read about Peace Process, version 5.0. (And for safety’s sake, let me just reiterate my blog’s disclaimer: I’m writing this merely as a snarky private citizen – not on behalf of any organization with which I’m affiliated.)
As I’ve written before, I’m encouraged by Obama and Clinton’s tough talk on the settlements. Nevertheless, I’ve increasingly been wondering if/how the administration would back up their tough words with meaningful action.
Thus I confess to a distinctly familiar sinking sensation when I read this in the NY Times this morning:
As President Obama prepares to head to the Middle East this week, administration officials are debating how to toughen their stance against any expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The measures under discussion — all largely symbolic — include stepping back from America’s near-uniform support for Israel in the United Nations if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel does not agree to a settlement freeze, administration officials said.
Other measures include refraining from the instant Security Council veto of United Nations resolutions that Israel opposes and making use of Mr. Obama’s bully pulpit to criticize the settlements, officials said. Placing conditions on loan guarantees to Israel, as the first President Bush did nearly 20 years ago, is not under discussion, officials said.
Call me cynical, but “symbolic measures” simply aren’t going to cut it. Not when you’re up against the juggernaut that is Israel’s settlement movement. (Read Akiva Eldar’s “Lords of the Land” if you think “juggernaut” is too strong a word.) And certainly not when you are dealing with the most pro-settlement Israeli administration in recent memory. Already several Israeli officials are complaining loudly that the demand for a settlement freeze is “unfair.” (“There are reasonable demands and demands that are not reasonable.” Bibi said today.)
I found it interesting that the NY Times article cited George H. W. Bush and the loan guarantees – now that brought back some memories. Remember the last time an American president tried to tie US aid to Israel’s settlement activity?
For many in the Jewish community, Bush’s presidency could be encapsulated in his offhand quip to reporters in September 1991 during an AIPAC lobbying effort on Capitol Hill in support of the proposed $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel: “I’m one lonely little guy” up against “some powerful political forces” made up of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.”
Bush had opposed the loan guarantees as long as Israel continued settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. The president finally agreed to a loan guarantee package in August 1992, requiring as a set-off any funds Israel spent to build housing or infrastructure in the territories. Despite this action, the political damage was done. The loan guarantee controversy later motivated Jewish opposition to President Bush, who received no more than 12% of the Jewish vote in the 1992 election (down from close to 35% in 1988).
More than fifteen years later, you’d still be hard pressed to find anyone in the American Jewish establishment supporting the withholding of aid to Israel under any circumstances. As I’ve written before, this is the “third rail” in the American Jewish community. But trust me on this: it may well be the only diplomatic stick that will get Israel’s attention at the end of the day.
Now is Obama up to that level of political courage? And even more to the point: will the American Jewish community still have his back if/when that time comes?