Who are Israel's true friends? (Hint: it's not AIPAC)

I've been fighting the temptation to weigh in on the current "crisis" between the United States and Israel -- Lord knows I've already said a lot on this issue over the past few years -- but a few comments are in order.

As one would expect, hard-line groups in the Israel lobby like AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, JINSA and WINEP are now trying to pin the blame for the rift on the Obama administration. They want to portray Obama as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state, in order to force him to back off the same way he did during last summer's confrontation with Netanyahu over a settlement freeze.

This view has it exactly backwards. Whatever you might think of its strategy or its tactics, the Obama administration has been genuinely committed to achieving a two-state solution before it is too late. This polichy is not an act of hostility toward Israel; on the contrary, it is an act of extraordinary friendship for Obama to keep this difficult item on an already overcrowded agenda. As former prime minister Ehud Olmert and current defense minister Ehud Barak have warned: If the two-state solution fails, the Palestinians will be occupied forever and Israel will become an apartheid state. Instead of helping Israel drive itself off a cliff -- as George W. Bush did -- the Obama administration is trying to prevent that disastrous outcome. And because Obama's team understands that the relentless expansion of Israel's illegal settlements is making a two-state solution increasingly difficult to realize, they believe that a halt to settlement building is a key part of a successful peace process. That includes East Jerusalem, by the way, whose annexation by Israel in 1967 is regarded as illegal by the rest of the world, including the United States.

Achieving a two-state solution is obviously in America's strategic interest as well, because it would remove one of the major sources of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world. The vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda and its murderous methods, for example, but they share its harsh views about U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A two-state solution won't solve all of our problems in the region, of course, but it would make a lot of them easier to address. It's clear that the U.S. military, which now has a lot of experience in the region, thinks so too. As Centcom commander General David Petraeus told the Armed Services Committee earlier today:

The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of operational responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."

A two state solution is also the best guarantee of Israel's long-term future. By showing real backbone this time and explaining to the American people why his approach is right, Obama could be a true friend to the Jewish state.

Netanyahu, AIPAC and the rest of the "status quo" lobby don't get that, and neither do narrow-minded politicians like Joe Lieberman or John McCain. They seem to think it is okay for Israel to keep expanding its control over Palestinian lands and that the United States should back Israel's actions no matter what it does. When disputes arise they should be handled privately, because, as Lieberman put it, the U.S. and Israel are "family." Not true, of course: the United States and Israel are separate countries whose interests are not always identical, and sometimes it makes sense to air those differences in public. The "Christian Zionists" are even worse: They think Israel should control these lands forever in order to fulfill their wacky interpretation of Old Testament prophecy and bring the "end-times" closer. Never mind what happens to Israel itself in the process.

In fact, these people are false friends of Israel, because their recommended course of action will keep it on its current dangerous path. So when you hear them defend the special relationship, or when they accuse Obama or Mitchell or Biden or Clinton of putting unwarranted pressure on Israel, ask them what their long-term solution is. Do they think Israel should control all the territory that once was Mandate Palestine? If so, do they favor a one-party democracy in which Jews and Arabs get equal voting rights, or an apartheid state in which Jews rule over stateless Palestinians? Or are they in favor of ethnic cleansing, the same way that former House Speaker Dick Armey was? Or perhaps they support Netanyahu's bizarre version of "two-states," where Israel keeps all of Jerusalem and confines the Palestinians to a handful of dismembered Bantustans under Israeli control? Those are the only alternatives to a viable two-state solution, and if you don't like them, then you should give Obama credit for his efforts and hope that he holds his ground this time. Because time really is running out.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

The Boston Study Group on Middle East Peace

It's been a eventful week for those of us who care about Israeli-Palestinian issues, and especially those who would like the United States to exert a more positive role in resolving this seemingly intractable conflict. (If you haven't done so already, be sure to read Mark Perry's remarkable piece on another part of the FP website.)  

I'll be posting a comment on recent events later today, but first I wanted to alert you to the official release of a joint product in which I am grateful to have been involved. For the past several years, I've been fortunate to participate in an informal study group on Middle East politics here in Boston, which met on a regular basis to discuss events in the region and ponder what might be done about them. The other members of the "Boston Study Group" were Prof. Lenore Martin of Emmanuel College, Prof. Herbert Kelman of Harvard's Department of Psychology and Social Relations, Prof. Henry Steiner from Harvard Law School, Prof. Harvey Cox from the Harvard Divinity School, Prof. Everett Mendelsohn from Harvard's History of Science department, Alan Berger of the Boston Globe, and Prof. Augustus Richard Norton from Boston University. Each member of the group has been studying these issues for many years, and several have been intimately involved in peace efforts for decades.

Although we didn't agree on every issue, every member of the group has been a strong proponent of a two-state solution and that conviction gave our efforts a certain unity of purpose. I learned an enormous amount from our discussions, and the camaraderie that developed within the group was wonderful. I'm grateful to the other members for including me in their deliberations, and for the many nuggets of wisdom that I gained from each of them.

Of course, given that this was a group of academics or professional writers, it was probably inevitable that we would eventually try to publish something. Our original idea was to produce a short primer on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and each of us drafted short papers on different aspects of the issue. We discussed each paper extensively and each author revised their original drafts in light of the group's comments. 

In the end, however, we decided it would be more helpful to draft a joint statement reaffirming the need for "two states for two peoples." Our hope was to lend additional support for President Obama's efforts to promote a two-state solution before it is too late, and events of the past week  merely underscore the need for decisive action. I'm pleased to report that both the joint statement and the supporting background papers have now been posted on the website of the Foreign Policy Association, under the title "Israel and Palestine: Two States for Two Peoples -- If Not Now, When?" You can download it here.