Six Big Lies About How Jerusalem Runs Washington

From the Jewish cabal to the Capitol Hill Knesset, the worst leaps of logic when it comes to Israel, U.S. politics, and the Middle East.

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.

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Reality Check

The Goldilocks Principle

No one's perfect, and surely not President Obama. But in the rough and tumble world of foreign policy, it's hard to argue he hasn't done most things just about right.

Gas prices and bad news from Afghanistan aside, the presidential gods seem to be looking more favorably on Barack Obama these days. Not only are job numbers rising, but as the campaign debates have revealed, the U.S. president's Republican opponents are having a hard time finding a sweet spot on which to attack his foreign policy. And here's why.

Almost four years in, Obama's approach to the world might seem like the poster child for dashed hopes, deflated dreams, and unrealized expectations. Yet the president's foreign policy also reflects a pretty impressive tale of competence in the rough and tumble world in which America now operates.

Despite some tactical blunders and far too much Panglossian rhetoric early on, Obama has gotten the big issues just about right, and like the unnamed English general who claimed that some of his greatest victories were the battles he never fought, Obama has managed to stay out of trouble too.

With the exception of killing Osama bin Laden, the president has had no spectacular victories -- but no spectacular failures either. Indeed, on balance, he has crafted a policy suited to his times and to American interests. Not too cold, not too hot on key issues, Obama has defined a mix of "just right" policies that would make Goldilocks proud.

It certainly didn't start out that way. Obama has always fashioned himself a transformational political figure destined to alter the arc of America's domestic and foreign policies. He came into office with the economy as his most important priority, which meant some retrenchment with regard to expending his time and America's resources abroad.

Still, as an internationalist by temperament and experience, Obama was a man of the world committed to improving America's image. Just as on the domestic side, where fixing the economy was to be accompanied by transformative social change, Obama wanted to do big things abroad.

If George W. Bush had sought to transform the world through regime change, preventive war, and the division of the world into Manichaean poles of good and evil, right and wrong, Obama set out to produce his own countertransformation -- largely through engagement, diplomacy, multilateral cooperation, high-sounding rhetoric, and the symbolic power of his persona.

Either it was a very smart approach designed to substitute words for deeds at a moment when resources and political capital for an active role abroad were in short supply, or it was a naive ideal out of touch with the realities of the cruel world the president had inherited.

Within days of his inauguration, the president would announce the first of two special representatives (for Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan) in what was to become an empire of envoys, and he set a high bar for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a higher one for a settlements freeze. In June 2009, he would drive the Arabs and Europeans wild with excitement and expectation with his speech in Cairo, raising their collective hopes that, finally, American policy toward the region would be fair and tough (toward Israel) and that the Arabs would finally get a hearing from a man who understood them. To America's adversaries, Iran and Syria, he seemed to offer serious engagement. And to the international community, in a 2009 speech in Prague, he offered a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Back on Planet Earth, Obama's foreign policy 1.0 proved long on good intentions and nice-sounding words but very short on strategy and results. It didn't last long. Within two years, the transformer-in-chief seemed to have been transformed himself: He proved unwilling to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, stepped up the drone war (over a three-year period, the president has approved at least 239 strikes, more than five times the 44 approved by his predecessor), stepped back from the settlement freeze and his fight with Israel over the peace process, toughened sanctions on Iran and kept them on Syria, and surged in Afghanistan. The president's 2.0 seemed a lot tougher and far less transformative.

That Obama took on some of the policies of a less reckless, less ideological, and much smarter version of Bush is indisputable. And the reason was pretty clear: In inheriting two wars (three, if you count the so-called global war on terror), the new president had very little room to maneuver.

Between the generals invested in a win, the Republicans waiting to pounce, and the deep commitment in American lives and treasure, not to mention the always present concept of U.S. credibility, early extrication was never an option. So Obama surged and doubled down on the good war in Afghanistan and got out of the bad one as quickly as possible in Iraq. Not much room for bold, transformative action here. Best to concentrate on fixing the economy and color between the lines.

Even without the parameters laid down by his predecessor, the world Obama had visions of transforming just wasn't going to cooperate. America wasn't in absolute decline, but its own broken economic house and the new competitiveness of a number of powers great and small made challenges to American leadership and power more than credible.

This new world is defined by asymmetrical wars in which tribal politics, ethnic divisions, and loyalties trump military power; by historical conflicts driven by trauma, memory, and religion, immune to the charms and persuasions of American diplomacy; by the presence of spoiler states like Iran and Syria with regional ambitions that conflict with America's own; by nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah that America can neither engage nor destroy; and by allies -- some close (Israel), some not so (Pakistan) -- that have proved to be tough traders when it comes to protecting their interests.

In this world, being loved counted for very little. Being respected -- even feared -- mattered far more. And the president was not nearly as respected, let alone feared, as he needed to be. Sadly, for the great power, president "yes we can" heard "no you won't" far too frequently. From Hamid Karzai to Nouri al-Maliki, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Mahmoud Abbas, everyone said no to America without much cost or consequence -- all of which undermined U.S. street cred.

Still, despite the flaws, uncertainties, messy outcomes, and screw-ups, an honest man or woman would have to say that Obama has fared pretty well in this less-than-brave new world. He isn't a transformer of U.S. foreign policy offering bold new visions or spectacular military victories or diplomatic triumphs. He's more the cautious actor searching quite deliberately for that middle ground between what's desirable and what's possible.

And he's getting better at it. His call to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 was a sound one. In doing so, he found the balance between what America's staying could possibly have achieved and the positive benefits of extrication from a war in which America's direct presence no longer really mattered. And even though he surged in Afghanistan, he's on a glide path toward extrication from a war that can't be won there too.

The same search for the middle was evident in Libya, where Obama found the right balance -- however messy it was -- between doing nothing and everything unilaterally. He assembled a coalition for cover (consisting of the U.N. Security Council, NATO, and the Arab League, too) that actually succeeded in removing Muammar al-Qaddafi without putting America in a position where it would have to own yet another Muslim country.

His reaction to the Arab Spring was another balancing act: try to get on the right side of historic political change, but understand that Washington's role and influence really aren't determinative anymore. Obama seems to understand intuitively that if you stand in the way of history's power you'll likely get run over by it. So he operated from the sidelines, supporting change in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, precisely where America belonged.

We see the same wise caution on Syria, where the president has rightly resisted the calls from Congress and the chattering classes for half-baked ideas that could get America in an encumbering, open-ended intervention with no clear goals. America may yet be drawn in, but it will only be after all other options have been exhausted and a strategy with clear goals, with responsibility shared with others, and without illusions emerges.

Iran may yet constitute Obama's greatest challenge. There may simply be no middle ground. But the president has found a "just right" Goldilocks approach for the moment. He has also bought time and space for diplomacy and the heightening of nonmilitary pressures on the Iranian regime. But unless the mullahs back down on the nuclear issue -- or the Israelis do -- we're drifting toward a confrontation.

All presidents make mistakes. The only question is whether they learn from them and make the necessary adjustments.

Barack Obama set out to end two wars and improve America's global image in the process. His goal was not to withdraw from the world, but to be wiser about how and where the United States projects its power. We can forgive him for setting expectations way too high and for overreaching, in large part because -- unlike his immediate predecessor -- he has steered clear of disaster. In the process, the president has learned to respect history's power, the future's uncertainties, and America's limitations. And for that he has made America's foreign policy all the stronger.

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