For too long, U.S. policy toward Israel has been controlled by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), a group that demands unequivocal support for all Israel’s policies even when they are indefensible. AIPAC’s power was on display last month when a resolution was brought before the United Nations Security Counsel demanding an immediate halt by Israel to the building of settlements on Palestinian land.
The resolution put the Obama administration in a difficult position. The United States has repeatedly voiced its belief that Israel’s continued settlement building is an obstacle to peace and a violation of international law. In fact, Washington recently offered Israel an extra $3.5 billion in aid to freeze settlement building for 90 days in order to restart the peace process.
The U.N. resolution had more than 100 cosponsors and was supported by all 14 other members of the Security Council, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany, all U.S. allies who share our mission to assure a peaceful and safe future for Israel. British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed the group consensus, saying it is “precisely because of” concerns for the security of Israel and “the stability of the region around her” that Britain supports the resolution.
The U.S. had three choices. It could support the resolution. It could abstain and let it go forward to a vote. Or it could block the resolution with a veto. This decision came at a critical time when growing street protests in the Middle East have exposed the gap between America’s rhetoric about democracy and freedom, and the reality of our support for dictators.
But Israel opposed the resolution and AIPAC demanded that the United States veto it. Leaders in Congress, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, all parroted AIPAC’s demand.
The Obama administration sought a way out of the dilemma. The President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on the phone to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, urging him to withdraw the resolution and to accept instead a U.S.-proposed nonbinding “presidential statement.” Abbas refused to withdraw the resolution, and on February 18, the United States vetoed it.
As expected, the U.S. veto sparked anger throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and AIPAC issued a press release noting “our appreciation” for the Obama administration’s veto.
The administration’s explanation for blocking the resolution – that it risked “hardening the positions of both sides” – is unlikely to convince anyone, especially in this age of WikiLeaks. The “Palestine Papers” released on Al Jazeera show that during the last 10 years, Palestinian negotiators have been willing to give away large parts of East Jerusalem while getting nothing in return from Israeli negotiators. Consequently, it is impossible to imagine how pressuring Israel to stop building settlements could be an impediment to peace.
AIPAC is a victim of its own success. Its army of lobbyists, op-ed writers and big-money campaign donors have been rated above the National Rifle Association in effectiveness. It can get both Congress and the executive branch to blindly support Israel and shut down any debate that might expose the folly of that policy. The consequence is that the hardliners in Israel have been given the green light to colonize the West Bank and East Jerusalem, foreclosing the possibility of a settlement with the Palestinians, while the U.S. continues to talk about a “peace process” and a “two-state solution” but no one listens anymore to what we say.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara said that the Vietnam War taught him that “if we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merit of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.” When it comes to Israel, the U.S. often finds itself standing alone. Yet because AIPAC demands unequivocal support for Israel, our leaders refuse to re-examine their reasoning.
For American Jews to be true friends to Israel, they must stop supporting AIPAC. The sands are shifting in the Middle East. The days are gone when the United States could assure the security of Israel simply by ignoring the views of all of its neighbors and then supporting rulers who know how to keep their people quiet.