Editorial note: What follows is the text of a speech delivered at the MidCoast Forum on Foreign Relations in Rockport, Maine, on April 21, 2008. Click here for Part 1.
Bush caved. Shortly after the Lobby launched its campaign against the White House, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer announced that the president believed Sharon was "a man of peace" this, as Powell returned to Washington in defeat and the IDF continued to occupy Palestinian lands, in defiance of Washington.
The Lobby kept up the pressure on Bush, relentlessly pushing Congress and mobilizing its supporters in the streets. A huge rally was held in Washington: Netanyahu, Republican congressional leaders, House Minority leader Dick Gephardt, and Paul Wolfowitz spoke. The latter was booed when he dared mention the suffering of the Palestinians. Netanyahu made a well-publicized visit to Congress in mid-April, where he met with 40 senators and lobbied them to override the administration’s objections and pass a resolution in support of the Israelis. Arafat was condemned, "solidarity with Israel" reasserted, and a congressional delegation on a visit to Israel held a press conference and asked Bush to stop pressuring the Israelis to negotiate with Arafat. The coup de grace was delivered by the House appropriations committee, which was considering an extra $200 million for Israel in order to fight terrorism. Bush tried to stop it and Powell took the lead in opposing it, but to no avail: it passed overwhelmingly, and a reluctant Bush signed the bill.
What had happened was that the Israelis had outflanked the White House and established effective veto power over U.S. policy in the Middle East. The president’s capitulation was complete. In the summer of 2002, Bush gave a speech on the Middle East in which he called for new Palestinian leadership: Arafat, he strongly implied, had to go. The Israelis were jubilant. Their longtime effort to isolate and neutralize the non-Islamist leadership of the Palestinians had succeeded at last.
However, the second point of Bush’s speech was not so pleasing to the Israelis: the president called for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005. The "Road Map" was born. Mahmoud Abbas replaced Arafat, who stepped aside, and the so-called Quartet released the details of the plan just as the U.S. invasion of Iraq was taking place.
The Israelis, for their part, kept a low profile vis-à-vis the Road Map. Bush was at the height of his popularity: the postwar problems of Iraq had yet to manifest themselves, and support for his policies was at an all-time high. Rather than strike, the Lobby watched and waited. While Sharon made friendly noises about the Road Map and claimed he was ready to move on it, in private his advisers were criticizing it, and Sharon himself told his cabinet the president’s peace plan was "irrelevant." Settlement activity continued, as did the gradual annexation of the West Bank.
Sharon said nothing in public, but the Lobby sure did. Both Abe Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein expressed reservations about the plan at a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, and AIPAC the Lobby’s premier action group authored a letter to the president, signed by the usual congressional amen corner, that asked him not to put pressure on Israel to go along with the Road Map and demanded that the Palestinians move against the militants before Israel would be forced to make a single concession.
AIPAC and the other pro-Israel lobbying groups did not actively oppose the Road Map at this point, but neither did they support it. This left the field open to the anti-Road Map crowd. And it just so happened that the Israelis chose this moment to renew their campaign of targeted assassinations, although Sharon had promised Powell that this would end. The day after Hamas expressed interest in a cease-fire, Israel tried but failed to kill Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi. Clearly, Sharon was trying to torpedo the Road Map.
When Bush offered some mild criticism of these actions, the Lobby struck back. Tom DeLay threatened to sponsor a congressional resolution offering, in effect, unconditional support to the Israelis, over the president’s head. Bush met with a number of the Lobby’s leaders on June 11, and the next day the White House was completely turned around. Israel was once again supported, no matter what. The issue, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, wasn’t Israel, it wasn’t Sharon it’s the "terrorists" who were trying to stop the peace process from moving forward.
Once again, Bush was put in his place by the Lobby.
Another flare-up occurred with the so-called "security fence" started by the Israelis in 2003 ostensibly to protect its citizens against terrorist acts, but in reality to create a situation on the ground where Israeli expansionism was made irreversible, peace process or no peace process. Bush expressed his displeasure at a joint press conference with Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas, saying that the wall would be a "problem" and an obstacle to the peace process. A few days later, however, standing with Sharon at the White House, the president said nothing as the Israeli prime minister declared that he would do his best to minimize the problems created by the wall for the Palestinians. However, Secretary Powell made the point that the wall looked rather like an attempt to steal yet more Palestinian land, and Condi Rice chimed in with the idea that the U.S. should deduct the cost of the wall from $9 billion in loan guarantees Congress had already voted for Israel. The whole brouhaha wound up costing the Israelis some $4 million a drop in the bucket in the context of the billions spent each year on U.S. aid to Israel.
When the Israelis started making noises about expelling Arafat from the West Bank and forcing him into exile, the Americans said this would be "unacceptable" and the Israelis backed down. But these two minor victories were but a prelude to the main battle over the Road Map, which Sharon was determined to destroy with his policy of "unilateral disengagement." What this meant, it turned out, was an imposed "settlement" that gave the Palestinians Gaza and much less than they were entitled to on the West Bank. There would be no Palestinian state: Sharon’s chief adviser declared that the Israelis wanted to "freeze the process."
George W. Bush did not utter a peep of protest. Instead, he described Sharon’s action as "a bold courageous step," and, on April 14, announced that U.S. policy had changed: instead of returning most or even a good deal of the occupied territories and letting Palestinian refugees return to their homes, Israel would be allowed to maintain the status quo. In the meantime, the Israelis continued to build new settlements and expand old ones, while their campaign of targeted assassinations scotched any attempt to reignite the peace process.
The death of Arafat and the election of Abbas as the new Palestinian leader did little to change the situation. Bush was already committed to Sharon’s unilateral plan, and the plan for a Palestinian state was effectively doomed even as a breath of democracy swept through the Holy Land. Sharon refused to negotiate with Abbas, and the lack of American support effectively undercut the Palestinian leader’s position. This led to the triumph of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. It looked like Sharon, as the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz put it, was the campaign manager for Hamas. As Hamas emerged victorious, Sharon didn’t have to even keep up the pretense of being interested in negotiating: his flat-out refusal appeared reasonable.
The Israeli strategy of "unilateral disengagement" imploded when the Palestinians continued rocket attacks and in June ’05 captured an Israeli soldier. The failure of disengagement was underscored by the second Lebanese war, when Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had by then taken the place of the incapacitated Sharon, discovered that there was and is no way to seal off the Israelis from their Palestinian problem.
At the tail end of 2006, Condoleezza Rice initiated an effort to restart the peace process. This occurred in tandem with the revival of the Arab League’s 2002 proposal, pushed by the Saudis, which envisioned a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian issue: all 22 members of the Arab League would make peace with Israel and establish formal relations. In return, Israel would return to the 1967 borders, return the Golan Heights, and negotiate a "just solution" to the Palestinian refugee problem.
The Saudis were getting nervous about Iran, which had been unleashed in Iraq by the American invasion. They were eager to contain Tehran, which was gaining influence with some Palestinian factions. The Israelis, however, were not interested. Neither, it seems, were the Americans, who did nothing to push the Israelis to compromise. Rice’s trip to Jerusalem was an embarrassing failure: neither Olmert nor Abbas would appear at a joint press conference with her. A return trip, in March 2007, was also a flop. Any negotiations would end in Israel giving up most of the West Bank and that, above all, is what the current Israeli government does not want. That’s why they won’t negotiate with the moderates such as Abbas who have shown a genuine desire for peace. Why should they want peace, when war has served them so well?
Another obstacle to peace, aside from the intransigence of the Israeli government, is the hard-line stance of the Israel lobby in this country. Whenever the prospect of peace raises its ugly head, there they are to cut it off. The neoconservatives inside the administration notably Elliott Abrams, John Hannah, and David Wurmser have actively undermined the least movement in the direction of a political settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Abrams is very close to two of Olmert’s top aides: Yalom Turbowitz, Olmert’s chief of staff, and Shalom Turgeman, Olmert’s chief diplomat. As Daniel Levy, a former adviser in the prime minister’s office, points out, "If Rice is getting too active with her peacemaking quest, then T + T can always be dispatched to Elliott Abrams at the White House, who in turn will enlist Cheney to keep the president in tow."
Rice and the State Department have been effectively marginalized in this administration, and this is especially true when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, just as Mahmoud Abbas has been marginalized in the occupied territories, where he continues to suffer from the lack of any real prospect for a Palestinian state.
It is hardly in America’s national interest to continue this state of affairs. We are up against a terrorist enemy that uses our unconditional support of Israel as one of its main recruiting devices second only to the war in Iraq. America’s Israeli-centric policy in the Middle East reinforces al-Qaeda’s contention that the U.S. is out to destroy Islam, humiliate the Arab people, and impose what it calls "Crusader-Zionist" hegemony on the region. Our policy destabilizes the Arab governments in the region who are our allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the current government of Lebanon. It in no way serves our purposes to have this open sore continue to fester. And yet every attempt to heal this wound has been met with opposition from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in our midst, and the poisons issuing forth from this wound continue to infect the whole region, including Iraq.
The U.S. which has no compunction about pressuring client countries to toe the line has not done so with Israel. Quite the opposite: it is the U.S. that has toed the Israeli line, and that is due entirely to the power of the Israeli lobby in Congress, in the political parties, in the Washington think tanks, and in the media. I have taken the example of the Palestinian problem as an example of how the Israel lobby distorts American foreign policy and turns the policymaking process against the very purposes it was meant to accomplish advancing the national interest. Yet this distortion takes places on a much wider scale, not just in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also when it came to the Iraq war, our policy toward Iran, our relations with Syria, and virtually every issue of consequence in the region.