Both Likud Party members in Israel as well as their Americans supporters – including members of both parties in the U.S. Congress – are beginning to complain that the Obama administration is unduly "interfering" in Israeli politics by insisting on a full cessation of settlement growth. The Jerusalem Post today reports: "US President Barack Obama's administration's criticism of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's policies has crossed the line into interfering in Israeli politics, top Likud ministers and MKs said Tuesday." Yesterday, Politico's Ben Smith similarly documented that "the administration’s escalating pressure on Israel to freeze all growth of its settlements on Palestinian land has begun to stir concern among Israel’s numerous allies in both parties on Capitol Hill."
Smith quotes several Israel-protective Democrats warning that Obama is either close to broaching -- or has already broached -- what one of them, Rep. Anthony Weiner, calls the "line between articulating U.S. policy and seeming to be pressuring a democracy on what are their domestic policies." Other than a handful of Democrats on civil liberties issues, there has been almost no public criticism of Obama from Congressional Democrats; all it took was some light pressure exerted on Israel for that to happen.
There are several points highlighted by these growing complaints about Obama's actions:
(1) This first point applies equally to those complaining that the Obama administration is unduly "interfering" in private companies seeking government bailouts as it does to those complaining of Obama’s "interference" with Israeli settlement policies. A country, a company or an individual has every right to remain free of "interference" from others as long as they remain independent of the party seeking to "interfere." But if one chooses instead to become dependent on someone else or seeks help and aid from them, then complying with the demands of those providing the aid is an inevitable price that must be paid – and justifiably so.
This is a basic lesson which most people learn in adolescence or young adulthood. Teenagers who tell their parents that they are not compelled to comply with parental dictates are typically met with the response that this is so only if they want nothing from their parents, but as long as they seek financial support, then the parents have the right to demand certain actions in return.
Similarly, businesses are free to make whatever decisions they want about how they are to be run -- as long as they remain independent. But if they go to a bank – or the federal government -- and plead for a loan, then the lender is perfectly justified in imposing all sorts of conditions ("we’ll lend to you only if you spend more responsibly, refrain from paying your executives more than X, not use the funds for Y," etc.). If banks and other companies want to be free of what conservatives and libertarians complain is undue influence from the federal government, then they shouldn’t seek loans and bailouts from the federal government.
Identically, if Israel wants to be free of what it and some of its U.S. supporters call "interference" from the Obama administration, that’s very easy to achieve: Israel can stop asking for tens of billions of dollars of American taxpayer money, huge amounts of military and weapons supplies for its various wars, and unyielding American diplomatic protection at the U.N. But as long as Israel remains dependent on the U.S. in countless ways, then Obama not only has the right -- but he has the obligation -- to demand that Israel cease activities which harm U.S. interests.
Continuing settlement expansions that the entire world recognizes as illegal – what Time’s Joe Klein accurately calls "taking territory that the rest of the world, without exception, considers Palestinian" -- clearly harms U.S. interests in all sorts of ways, as Obama himself has concluded. He would be abdicating one of his primary responsibilities in foreign policy -- maximizing U.S. national security rather than those of other countries -- if he failed to demand that Israel cease this activity and if he failed to use U.S. leverage to compel compliance with those demands.
(2) While hypocrisy and double standards are far too common in our political discourse to highlight every time they appear, the notion being pushed by Likudniks in Israel and the U.S. -- that it is wrong for one country to "interfere" in the politics of another democracy -- is far too ironic to ignore. Does anyone remember what the U.S. did -- and continues to do -- in order to punish the Palestinians for electing the wrong party (in elections that we demanded) and to bring down their democratically elected government:
Under new guidelines issued April 12 by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control, U.S. citizens and organizations must cease all transactions with the Palestinian government, its ministries and institutions operating under their control.
The Treasury directive noted that Hamas is classified as a terrorist entity, and it ordered U.S. citizens to conclude all contacts with the Palestinian Authority by Friday, unless specifically permitted to continue.
"U.S. persons are prohibited from engaging in transactions with the Palestinian Authority unless authorized, and may not transfer, pay, withdraw, export or otherwise deal in any assets in which the Palestinian Authority has an interest unless authorized," the document said.
The order does not apply to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the Fatah party, or non-Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Today’s article from The Jerusalem Post notes that Kadima officials are worried that a perception by Israelis of undue interference from Obama -- whether the perception is justified or not -- will strengthen Netanyahu’s government due to resentment by Israeli voters. We might want to remember that lesson when it comes to Palestinians specifically and other countries generally: citizens in other countries tend not to like it when we try to dictate to them who should govern them and who shouldn't, and the attempt often emboldens support for the very people we oppose.
That said, American aid to all countries -- including Israel -- is accompanied by an obligation on the part of American officials to ensure that the aid recipients aren't acting contrary to U.S. interests. Independent, for those who purport to care about Israeli interests: just as few things helped Israeli security more than Jimmy Carter’s Camp David peace treaty with Egypt, does anyone actually doubt that few things would advance Israeli interests more than a cessation of settlement activity and a peace agreement with the Palestinians?
(3) How serious Obama is about applying real pressure to Israel remains to be seen, but it’s hard to deny that these initial steps are encouraging. When is the last time there were public rifts of this sort between the American and Israeli governments? Obviously, Israelis are taking Obama’s pressure quite seriously, as are many of his Israel-centric supporters in the U.S. Those who want Obama to continue to depart from the Bush administration’s blind support for Israeli actions should continue to make themselves heard, since those who desire a continuation of that blind Israeli support certainly intend to. As Politico’s Smith reported:
The pro-Israel lobby AIPAC last week got the signatures of 329 members of Congress, including key figures in both parties, on a letter calling on the administration to work "closely and privately" with Israel — in contrast to the current public pressure.
As Andrew Sullivan said about this: “What Obama faces in the Middle East, if he is to move the peace process forward, is a very powerful force against him. It's called AIPAC."
Even the mildest pressure on Israel by Obama will be met with extreme political attacks – as Bush 41 and Jim Baker learned many years ago when they were bowled over by bipartisan outrage at their attempt merely to condition American loan guarantees to Israel on a cessation of settlement growth. Read this 1991 New York Times article by then-reporter Tom Friedman to see how the same dance has been going on for decades regardless of which party is in control:
A bitter political fight took shape today in Washington as Israel and some of its Congressional supporters ignored President Bush's appeal to delay a request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help settle Soviet Jews and made clear that they would push for quick Congressional approval. . . . In addition, the Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and a broad coalition of Jewish organizations in the United States, made clear that they too would fight the President on the issue.
AIPAC is now even issuing veiled threats of a primary challenge to the superb freshman Rep. Donna Edwards for alleged insufficient devotion to Israel.
Whatever Obama’s ultimate intentions are, the early change in tenor, the recent actions of the last several weeks, and his reliance on George Mitchell (praised by Jimmy Carter, J Street and even Noam Chomsky) as his envoy all signal that he is serious at least about making the public case that Israeli settlement expansions are wrong and counter-productive. If he is to do more of that, he will need political support at least as vigorous and vocal as the opposition already emerging from the bipartisan AIPAC faction that has dictated U.S. actions in this area for decades.
UPDATE: The Atlantic's Chris Good has an interesting report today about the gradually growing influence of J Street at the expense of AIPAC in Congress.