Sunday, March 30, 2008

McPeak, Obama and the "Israel Lobby": Why the Right is Wrong, Gidon D. Remba

A new tempest in a teapot has broken out over remarks from 2003 unearthed by a conservative magazine about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Gen. Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak, Senator Barack Obama’s campaign co-chair. The Republican Jewish Coalition claims that McPeak “blames American Jews rather than Palestinians” for the failure of the peace process.

The Obama campaign issued the following statement on McPeak: "Senator Obama's longstanding commitment to Israel is clear to anyone who has reviewed his voting record, read his speeches or looked at his policy papers. As he has said, his support for our democratic ally Israel is based on America's national interests and our shared values. Neither Senator Clinton nor Senator Obama agrees with every position their advisors take, and in this case Senator Obama disagrees with General McPeak's comments."

The RJC says this is not enough and that Sen. Obama should remove Gen. McPeak. The RJC calls McPeak’s comments from the 2003 interview “offensive” and in its second press release on the subject in 24 hours says that “more telling are the comments General McPeak made to The Oregonian on Wednesday, March 26 [2008] when he said he 'stood by his position that U.S. policy in the Mideast is influenced by pro-Israeli voters'"…The issue is not whether American Jews have any influence, the issue is who is to blame for the problems in the Middle East. General McPeak blamed American Jews in 2003 and he blames them still today. It is painfully clear he does not understand the offensive nature of these comments.”

McPeak’s sin is that he does not subscribe to the dogma that Israel is always the righteous victim and the Palestinians are nothing if not evil terrorists; that all right and good inures to Israel and all wrong falls on the Palestinians. The Republican Jewish Coalition, like the Israeli and American Jewish right, will countenance only the most simplistic Manichean view of the conflict: Israel is the innocent angel and the Palestinians genocidal demons. Israel can do no wrong, nor can any Israeli policy be objectionable or possibly dim the prospects for peace.

McPeak pointed to the role that Israel’s West Bank settlements play in obstructing a two-state solution, and the support Israel’s settlement project receives in some American Jewish quarters. These forces help to reinforce a laissez faire American approach to Israeli construction beyond the Green Line, even as US officials regularly bloviate about the “unhelpfulness” of Israel's long-running West Bank extravaganza. Gen. McPeak rightly challenged the central taboo of the Jewish right’s worldview. (Even some on the Israeli Labor party’s right-wing, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have bought into to this, in Barak's case, self-serving, black-and-white portrait.)

But once we acknowledge that US policy in the Mideast is influenced by pro-Israeli voters in the American Jewish community, as even the RJC admits, it’s hard to see why it should be offensive to grant that the way in which that influence is exercised does not always serve Israel’s or America’s interests. It would come as a great surprise to AIPAC, widely considered to be among the most successful and influential lobbies in Washington, that it, and the American Jews it represents, have no influence on US policy vis-à-vis Israel. But as far as the RJC is concerned anything an American Jewish organization lobbies for must ipso facto be as good for Israel and America as hummus and apple pie.

The RJC irresponsibly conflates McPeak’s acknowledgement of that political reality, and his criticism of the misguided policies it sometimes abets, with the recklessly flawed Carter-Walt-Mearsheimer view. (I’ve debunked both Carter and Mearsheimer/Walt in previous publications, while recognizing the grain of truth in their views). But this trio ill-served their own cause by giving a bad name to a well-founded thesis held by many staunchly pro-Israel Jews: that AIPAC and fundamentalist Christian Zionists often exercise their influence and that of the citizens they represent in ways that are harmful to Israel’s security, and may even clash with the Israeli government’s policies. To affirm this one needn’t swallow the wholesale warped worldview of Carter, Mearsheimer and Walt: that Jews have excessive influence on US policy, or that the "Israel lobby" or Jewish neocons betrayed the United States by goading American leaders to invade Iraq for Israel’s sake. But such is the RJC’s standard MO: tar all moderate and liberal pro-Israel Jews by collapsing their views into the most egregious and wrong-headed theories of the far left, and then attack the moderates for buying into the whole noxious mix.

In reality, American Jews do not have enough influence on US policy: the moderate majority is, in fact, not well represented by the mainstream pro-Israel lobbying organizations. It is therefore welcome news that, according to news reports, a moderate pro-Israel lobby is, at long last, now aborning.

Gen. McPeak told the Oregonian on March 26 2008 that “he worked closely with the Israeli military as an Air Force officer and considers himself a strong ally of Israel. But, he added, "the way to get to peace is to find some way out of the box canyon that Israel has built for itself with the West Bank settlements. . . . And it is just a fact that the [pro] Israeli vote -- or the Jewish vote -- is something that all politicians have to consider."

The American Jewish Committee’s Annual Survey of Jewish Opinion for 2007 (November 6-25, 2007) found that while 46% of American Jews favored the establishment of a Palestinian state “in the current situation,” 43% oppose. Let’s set aside, for the purposes of this discussion, how the wording of this question influenced the respondents’ replies, and take the result at face value. Other polls have shown broader American Jewish support for a two-state solution and a robust American role in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

This poll suggests that there is a significant minority of American Jews which opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. Given that American Jews are concentrated in major states like New York and Florida, and have among the highest percentages of voter turnout of any religious or ethnic group in the U.S., it is unsurprising that an administration which seeks to invest political capital into brokering a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement will need to be concerned about the significant minority of Jewish voters—particularly in those two states—who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, one of the primary outcomes of such negotiations.

Significant American Jewish opposition to US engagement in brokering peace negotiations is indeed a factor in the failure of the Bush Administration, and previous administrations, to become more actively involved in peace efforts, even now as it pursues the “Annapolis peace process.” But still, McPeak is wrong: the neoconservative ideology of the Bush Administration has been the overriding reason why for the last seven years it has not assumed an active role in backing or brokering Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Under that doctrine—held by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush—the US must first vanquish radical states like Iraq, Syria and Iran, sapping the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists they underwrite; peace negotiations must be deferred until the radicals have been neutered by force of arms.

As it faces its final year in search of a legacy, left with the dismal results of its polices from Iraq to Iran, Lebanon and Gaza, the Bush administration--mugged by reality--has been forced to do an about face and, after seven years of malign neglect, had little choice but to get behind a new attempt at Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. This it has done despite the finding of the recent AJC poll that a significant minority of American Jews opposes the intended outcome of those negotiations: a two-state peace deal eventuating in a Palestinian state. The grand failure of its Middle East strategy after eight years is an awful legacy to bequeath the Republican party, this country, and America’s allies from Israel to pro-Western Arab states. Seizing even the appearance of triumph from the jaws of chaos and defeat trumps the wishes of a divided American Jewish public. The opinion of the wider American public as it enters a new presidential election, and the judgement of history, is a far greater burden to bear.

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