'The smallest minds and cowardliest hearts': Is Congress clapping for apartheid?

Mark Twain once described members of Congress as having "the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes." Twain's mordant assessment provides a parsimonious explanation for the predictably rapturous reception that Bibi Netanyahu received there yesterday. All one can say about the vast majority of our courageous elected officials is that they aren't genuine friends of Israel, because every burst of applause was another nail in the coffin of the Zionist dream.  

Why? Because Netanyahu's central message yesterday was an emphatic rejection of a genuine two-state solution. While professing to be willing to make major sacrifices for the sake of peace, his lengthy list of preconditions made it abundantly clear that he thinks Israel is entitled to rule the Palestinian population in perpetuity-even when it becomes numerically larger than Israel's Jewish citizens -- and that the United States should back this effort no matter what. And even though the only alternatives to a two-state solution are 1) further ethnic cleansing, 2) a binational, one-state democracy, or 3) permanent apartheid, Congress is just fine with that.

It would be both tiresome and fruitless to fisk Netanyahu's speech in its entirety, but you can find intelligent commentary on it here, here, here, and here. And don't miss Lara Friedman's hilarious annotated version here. Among his various applause lines, my personal favorite was the claim that Israel has to keep its settlements because 650,000 people (i.e., about 10 percent of Israel's population) now live in them. (It's not entirely clear where Netanyahu got that number, as most estimates of the settler population put it "only" half a million or so.)

The key point, however, is that the settlements didn't sprout spontaneously, and the settlers themselves didn't just show up by accident. On the contrary, the vast majority of the settlers are there because every Israeli government since 1967 has actively promoted and subsidized the colonization of the West Bank, even though this policy is contrary to international law and at odds with measures such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. Not only does 242 say that Israel should withdraw from territories occupied in the Six Day War (the French version of the official text  says "the territories") but it begins by emphasizing "the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force." The United States played a key role in drafting the resolution, and then effectively ignored its implications for the next forty years.

Some people still believe that settlement building was just a wacky project undertaken and backed primarily by religious extremists and by rightwing parties like Likud. In fact, colonization of the West Bank began under the Labor-led governments in the 1960s and 1970s, and governments of all stripes have backed it without exception. Read Gershom Gorenberg's Accidental Empire, Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land, or Shlomo Gazit's Trapped Fools, and you will learn that settlement building was a deliberate policy designed to "create facts," so that future prime ministers like Netanyahu could claim it was simply impossible for Israel to withdraw.  And the location of key settlement blocs like Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim were chosen to secure Israeli control over key aquifers and make it difficult-to-impossible to create a viable Palestinian state. 

As I said in my previous post, Israel faces a choice -- a two-state solution or apartheid -- and it is now crystal-clear which one Netanyahu has chosen. I see this situation as genuinely tragic, as he is condemning several more generations to live in bitter conflict and putting his own country's future at risk. That's his privilege, I suppose, but America's blind support for this foolish policy is also a serious threat to U.S. national security. So if your Congressman or Senator was clapping loudly yesterday, you might drop him or her a note and ask why they care more about subsidizing an illegal and unjust occupation than they do about America's long-term welfare and well-being. You'll probably discover that Twain was on to something.

Stephen M. Walt

The Choice

I was wrong.  I thought it made little sense for President Obama to deliver a speech to the AIPAC policy conference, because he'd lose points globally if all he did was pander, and he'd face a firestorm at home if he told the truth and offered up a little tough love. Plus, I thought it was a little demeaning for a sitting president to appear in front of any foreign policy lobbying group. 

But Obama was cleverer than that, which is one of the countless reasons why he is president and I am not. Instead of choosing between pandering and speaking truth to power, he did both.

Specifically, he offered up the usual bromides about shared values and ironclad commitments, and put down various markers about the U.N. vote and Hamas and security that were obviously intended to defuse suspicions. He also used the opportunity to expose how his critics-including Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu-had deliberately mischaracterized what he had said in his speech at the State Department last Thursday, especially his reference to the 1967 borders as a baseline for negotiations.

But the important part of the speech was when he told AIPAC what everyone knows: Israel and its die-hard supporters here in the United States have a choice. Down one road is a viable two-state solution that will guarantee Israel's democratic and Jewish character, satisfy Palestinian national aspirations, remove the stigma of looming apartheid, turn the 2007 Arab Peace Plan into a reality and ensure Israel's acceptance in the region, facilitate efforts to contain Iran, and ultimately preserve the Zionist dream. Down another road lies the folly of a "greater Israel," in which a minority Jewish population tries to permanently subjugate an eventual Arab majority, thereby guaranteeing endless conflict, accelerating the gradual delegitimization of Israel in the eyes of the rest of the world, handing Iran a potent wedge issue, and making the United States look deeply hypocritical whenever it talks about self-determination and human rights.

The speech also tells you how much Obama has learned since taking office. After being repeatedly humiliated by Netanyahu and the lobby ever since the June 2009 Cairo speech, Obama has learned that he can't take them on directly. By necessity, therefore, he's now relying on the indirect approach. His strategy is to keep pointing out what is palpably obvious: the alternative that Netanyahu and AIPAC propose is simply not going to work, and the costs of trying to pursue it will only increase with time. And because this argument has the merit of being true, more and more people are going to be convinced by it.

It would be better, of course, if a great power like the United States could use its considerable leverage directly, in order to bring the parties to an agreement.  Indeed, it would have been far, far better had the U.S. done so during the Oslo peace process, instead of acting like "Israel's lawyer."  But given political realities in the region and the lobby's continued influence here in the United States, what Obama did yesterday was probably the best one could hope for.   I doubt it will be enough, but it was better than I expected.