Several years after leaving government, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post titled "Israel's Lawyer." The article was an honest effort to explain how several senior officials in U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration (myself included) had a strong inclination to see the Arab-Israeli negotiations through a pro-Israel lens. That filter played a role -- though hardly the primary one -- in the failure of endgame diplomacy, particularly at the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000.
Unsurprisingly, the piece was hijacked in the service of any number of agendas, especially by critics of Israel only too eager to use my narrow point about the Clinton years to make their broader one: America had long compromised its own values and interests in the Middle East by its blind and sordid obeisance to the Jewish state and its pro-Israeli supporters in the United States.
Here we go again. Election years seem to bring out the worst -- not only in politicians, but in advocates, analysts, and intellectuals too. Nowhere are the leaps and lapses of logic and rationality greater than in the discussion of Israel, the Jews, domestic U.S. politics, and the Middle East. Once again, we're hearing that a U.S. president is being dragged to war with Iran by a trigger-happy Israeli prime minister and his loyal acolytes in America.
Before we lose our collective minds (again), it might be useful to review some of the myths and misconceptions about domestic U.S. politics and America's Middle East policies that still circulate all too widely in Europe and the Arab world -- and sadly in the United States too. Here are a half-dozen of the worst ones.
1. The White House is Israeli-occupied territory.
The idea that American Jews in collusion with the Israeli government (and, for some time now, evangelical Christians) hold U.S. foreign policy hostage is not only wrong and misleading but a dangerous, dark trope. It coexists with other hateful -- and, yes, anti-Semitic -- canards about how Jews control the media and the banks, and the world as well. It's reality distortion in the extreme, with little basis in fact. The historical record just doesn't support it. Strong, willful presidents who have real opportunities (and smart strategies to exploit them) to promote U.S. interests almost always win out and trump domestic lobbies.
Indeed, when it counts and national interests demand it, presidents who know what they're doing move forward in the face of domestic pressures and usually prevail. Whether it's arms sales to the Arabs (advanced fighter jets to Egyptians or AWACS to Saudis) or taking tough positions on Arab-Israeli negotiating issues in the service of agreements (see: Henry Kissinger and the 1973-1975 disengagement agreements with Israel, Egypt, and Syria; President Jimmy Carter, Camp David, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1978 and 1979; and Secretary of State James Baker and the 1991 Madrid peace conference), administrations have their way. The fights can be messy and politically costly, but that doesn't preclude policymakers from having them.
No U.S. president would pick a fight with a close ally, particularly one that had strong domestic support, without good reason and a clear purpose. To wit, President George H.W. Bush and Baker's decision to deny the Israelis billions of dollars in housing-loan guarantees because of settlement construction on the eve of the Madrid conference made sense. It sent a powerful signal to the Israelis and Arabs at a critical moment that America meant business. President Barack Obama's war with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a settlement freeze didn't: One was a productive fight with a purpose, and the other was an unproductive one with no strategy. At the end of the day, Obama got the worst of all outcomes: He pissed off the Israelis and the Palestinians, and he got no negotiations and no freeze. That Obama was seen to have backed down in the end only made matters worse, making it appear that he lost his nerve with Netanyahu. Even so, none of this means the Israelis run the White House. Obama's failure was much a result of a self-inflicted wound.
2. The U.S.-Israel relationship rests on shared values alone.
Israel's critics believe that without domestic politics, there would be little to the U.S.-Israel special relationship. Israel's supporters, meanwhile, like to believe that politics has little to do with it. Neither is right. The U.S.-Israel relationship is a curious marriage of shared values, national interests, and domestic politics.
Sure, common values are at the top of the list. There's no way the bond between Washington and Jerusalem would be as strong and as durable these many years without broad public belief that it was in America's national interest to support a fellow democracy. These shared values more than anything else -- not Israel’s importance as an strategic ally -- is the foundation of the bond.
Since 1950, only 22 countries have maintained their democratic character continuously -- and Israel's one of them. That the Jewish people have a very dark history of persecution and genocide and that millions of Americans have powerful religious connections to Israel and the Holy Land has only made the sell easier and the bond stronger.
But let's not kid ourselves -- and activists at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other Jewish organizations don't. Without the strong vocal support of a unified American Jewish community that brings pressure to bear in Congress, assistance levels to Israel would not be nearly as high as they have been for so long. AIPAC not only assiduously guards the pre-existing pro-Israeli tilt among the American public, but it also defines for much of the Jewish and political establishment what it means to be pro-Israel in America today. Its clout on Capitol Hill sends a powerful message to elected officials, many of whom already share general sympathy with Israel and who have no desire to cross swords with a powerful lobby that might jeopardize what they've come to Washington to do: advance their constituents' interests.
3. Lobbies are evil.
The United States' Founding Fathers were very worried about factions with special interests. But lobbies and special interests advocating causes -- from guns to tobacco to senior citizens -- aren't some kind of dark cabal plotting in a cloakroom. They are a natural part of America's democratic political system and, yes, part of a culture that has many excesses that bend the system and often reflect the seamier aspects of U.S. politics. But good luck trying to eliminate the practice of citizens and groups organizing to press their elected representatives to support an issue. The U.S. system -- whatever the Founders intended -- was a natural for lobbing and special pleading.
I'm not sure that has ever been clearly understood in the Middle East or in Europe, where lobbies are viewed as some nefarious force operating in the shadows with the aim of holding U.S. foreign policy hostage. When a former Arab diplomat I know once referred to the U.S. Congress as the Little Knesset, he was not only mocking a system -- he was jealous too. Arab Americans only wish they could marshal AIPAC's power.
America's foreign policy -- like its unruly politics-- is forged in a competitive arena of many voices, influences, and interests. But let me be clear: I don't want the American Jewish community controlling Washington's Middle East policy; nor do I want it run by Congress or regional specialists in the State Department for that matter.
Here's where a willful, smart president with a sound strategy is critically important -- both in exercising constitutional powers and in responding to the practical reality that the executive branch is the only actor in the U.S. system that can guide and lead the country abroad. Indeed, the power of the pro-Israel community recedes the farther away you get from Capitol Hill. The pro-Israel community has a powerful voice, but it doesn't have a veto.
4. His Jewish advisors made him do it.
This charge -- which has been leveled at senior officials in both Clinton's and George W. Bush's administrations -- that presidents are controlled by a tiny group of American Jewish advisers is as absurd as it is pernicious. I speak from personal experience. I admit it freely: Several Clinton administration officials, including me -- with the best of intentions -- adopted an approach to the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in 1999 and 2000, both on substance and on process, that reflected Israeli needs far more than those of the Palestinians. These views, however, gained currency not because the president's advisors, who happened to be American Jews, were pushing them, but because they made sense to a non-Jewish president with great sensitivity for the Israelis -- and a great deal for the Palestinians too.
Some of these same advisors worked for Bush 41 and Baker too, yet policy turned out quite differently, much more balanced and tougher on Israel (take, for example, the denial of loan guarantees). The fact is that policy advisors -- to paraphrase The Eagles in one of the band's better love songs -- don't take policymakers anywhere they don't already want to go. Here is where adult supervision is essential. Indeed, it's ultimately the responsibility of the president to sort through these views and determine which ones make sense and which ones don't -- and then to make the best decision possible. The key is to have a variety of views. To blame senior official X as the primary reason a president supports Israel or favors this approach or that is absurd.
Obama is no lawyer for Israel. If he chooses not to push his confrontation with Netanyahu, it's not because an advisor with a pro-Israel agenda is whispering in his ear; it's because the president has his own political agenda, has other priorities, or realizes the fight won't produce the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations he seeks. In the Obama administration, you'd better believe that it's the president who runs things.
5. Election-year politics are driving Obama to war with Iran.
You've heard the rap many times. Election-year politics erode a president's room to maneuver, chain him to collecting votes, and increase the odds substantially that political interests will trump the country's. This year's presidential election has been dominated by the economy, but when foreign policy has intruded into the campaign, it has been on one issue: Iran. It's erroneous, however, to conclude that because it's an election year, Obama is being pushed to war -- either by Republicans or by the pro-Israel community. Sure, he has toughened his rhetoric, but whether that's smart politics or smart policy (to keep the Iranians under pressure) isn't clear. It's probably both.
The fact is, this president doesn't do anything quickly or recklessly -- or under pressure. He's the deliberator-in-chief. And as he ponders, one thing is clear: The last thing he needs leading up to an election he has a very good chance of winning is a war in the Middle East. And an Israeli strike or an American one that would bring on $200 a barrel oil, thus raising prices at the pump and deflating the fragile U.S. economic recovery, is not something Obama wants. Whatever the Israeli prime minister got from the president in their meeting this month at the White House, it wasn't a green -- or even a yellow -- light to strike Iran's nuclear sites.
6. Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.
There's no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn't Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel -- not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel's story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel's behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without a strategy.
If Obama is emotional when it comes to Israel, he's hiding it. Netanyahu obviously thinks he's bloodless. But then again, the U.S. president can be pretty reserved on a number of issues. Obama doesn't feel the need to be loved by the Israelis, and perhaps American Jews either. Combine that with a guy who's much more comfortable in gray than in black and white, and you have a president who sees Israel's world in much more nuanced terms, which is clearly hard for many Israelis and American Jews to accept. In Obama's mind, Israel has legitimate security needs, but it's also the strongest regional power. As a result, he believes that the Israelis should compromise on the peace process, give nonmilitary pressures against Iran time to work, and recognize that despite the uncertainties of the Arab Spring, now is the time to make peace with the Palestinians.
If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that's the point: He probably won't have the chance. If he gets a second term, he'll more than likely be faced with the same mix of Middle East headaches, conflicting priorities, narrow maneuvering room, and the swirl of domestic politics that bedevils him today. If the U.S. president fails to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace, it will be primarily because the Israelis, the Palestinians, and Barack Obama wouldn't pay the price, not because the pro-Israel community in America got in his way.