Ira Chernus, Is Palestine America's Next Vietnam?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t been alone in playing for time when it comes to American policy, that’s for sure.  (Think, for instance, of our Afghan War commander General David Petraeus.)  But Netanyahu played out the pre-election months with some skill and much shuffling of feet, as he officially pondered Obama administration proposals to reinstitute a settlements freeze in return for copious concessions.  All the while, of course, West Bank building has been ramping up, as the 2010 elections crept ever closer.  Now, it’s happened and let’s be blunt: it’s a good moment for him and his policies — in Washington.  The new crew of Republicans who were swept into Congress seem to consider fealty to him and his right-wing government the sine qua non of political life.

Right now, for the prime minister, 2012 looks even brighter.  So don’t expect lots of compromises at the negotiating table (that nobody’s even close to these days) from Netanyahu and company.  Still, despite the look of things, despite the rightward drift in both Israel and the United States, there are unexpected undertows in both places, which make politics in Washington and Tel Aviv (and let’s not forget Ramallah) remarkably unpredictable, as TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus explains.  (By the way, catch him discussing the American Jewish community and the struggle for peace in the Middle East in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

Will the GOP’s Victory Energize Mideast Doves? 

Palestine as America’s next Vietnam? Like all historical analogies, it’s far from perfect. We aren’t about to send the U.S. Army to the West Bank or Gaza to kill and die in a war that can’t be won.  Where else in the world, though, is American weaponry and political power so obviously used to suppress a Viet Cong-like movement of national liberation (a bill the Taliban hardly fit)?

And what other conflict is as politically divisive as the Israeli-Palestinian one? More than the Afghan War, the struggle at the heart of the Middle East evokes the kind of powerful passions here that once marked the debate over Vietnam, pitting hawks against doves. Not that the progressive media are yet portraying it that way. They’re more likely to give us an increasingly outdated picture of an all-powerful Jewish “Israel lobby,” which supposedly has a lock on U.S. policy and dominates the rest of us.

In fact, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, the political landscape is far more complex, fluid, and unpredictable. Yes, the election day just past saw a wave of hawkish Republicans with a penchant for loving Israel to death swept into Congress, but the hawks’ amplified voice is also likely to energize a growing alliance of doves.

Religious Hawks vs. Religious Doves

This election was not a Jewish triumph. Most of the GOP congressional hawks (if they aren’t from Florida) come from constituencies with only a sprinkling of Jews. They seem eager to make Israel a symbolic test case, as if supporting the hard-line Israeli government against Obama administration “betrayal” proves their strength in protecting America.

In the wake of November 2nd, a prominent Israeli columnist wrote that Republicans believe in “patriotism, Judeo-Christian Values, national security… and associating Arabs and Muslims with terrorism… a worldview that is usually consistent with pro-Israel sentiments.”  Those are certainly “pro-Israel sentiments” as defined by the old Israel lobby that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt analyzed so sharply. That lobby still wields plenty of power with its loud media megaphone, and it will welcome the recent success of its flag-waving, fear-mongering GOP allies.

Here’s a new reality, however: The hawkish Israel lobby is no longer the true face of the Jewish community. According to midterm exit polls, most American Jews stuck with their traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party and, far more important, they are visibly developing a new idea of what it means to be pro-Israel. Today, three-quarters of American Jews want the U.S. to lead Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution; nearly two-thirds say they’d accept Obama administration pressure on Israel to reach that goal.

Republicans entering Congress will learn what I recently heard a Jewish congressman explain. Few non-Jewish legislators pay close attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When it comes up, they usually turn to their Jewish colleagues for advice. Once, the Jews they consulted were likely to simply parrot the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) line. Now they’re likely to say, “Well, AIPAC says this, but J Street says that. You decide.”

J Street is the most prominent player in the dovish, newly developing coalition that already represents the views of most Jews. When Barack Obama invited top Jewish leaders to the White House in the summer of 2009, the heads of two smaller organizations, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, were at the table too. These are the most visible voices for American Jews who don’t want to see their own government enabling Israeli governmental policies that they oppose.

The Christian community is split into competing lobbies as well, with hawks led by Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and doves by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).  CUFI makes more noise and gets more press attention. But CMEP is an impressive coalition of 22 national church groups, including some of the largest denominations and the nation’s largest umbrella organization of Protestants, the National Council of Churches.

Then there are doves, both Jewish and Christian, who promote direct action rather than political lobbying as the route to change. The movement to use boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to pressure Israel to change its policies on the Palestinians didn’t really take off until the Presbyterian Church endorsed the concept. More Christian groups have now joined this campaign, as has Jewish Voice for Peace, among other Jewish groups. Such direct protest also gets plenty of support from left-leaning doves not moved by any religious faith.

So far this alliance has not mounted the massive demonstrations that were a hallmark of Vietnam-era doves. The new strength of the hawks in Congress, however, might someday provoke the doves to take to the streets.

Elite Doves vs. Elite Hawks

As in the Vietnam era, today’s policy debate has not been restricted to groups of outsiders.  It’s reaching deep into the foreign policy establishment. Top editors of the New York Times recently visited Israel, talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and came home to write an editorial putting most of the blame on the Israeli leader.  They urged him to renew the moratorium on expanding settlements and immediately settle on the borders of a Palestinian state.

Just two days after election day, when everyone else was still talking domestic politics, the Times gave Bill Clinton op-ed space to say that “everyone knows what a final agreement would look like” — a coded message from the secretary of state’s husband to the Jewish state’s prime minister that it’s time to end the occupation, withdraw settlements, and share Jerusalem. Two former national security advisors, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have publicly urged Barack Obama to “outline the basic parameters for a Palestinian state” — a coded message to the president that it’s time for a U.S.-imposed solution in the Middle East (assumedly based on Clinton’s parameters).

Of course, the elite hawks are fighting back. Neoconservatives (whose obituaries are always premature) have created an international alliance that calls itself “The Friends of Israel Initiative.”  With friends like these, the doves claim, Israel doesn’t need enemies.

The elite debate extends into U.S. military and intelligence communities which have worked closely with Israel for decades. It’s a safe bet that there are powerful hawks in those circles who don’t want to put pressure on Israel because it might jeopardize those relationships. But top military leaders have been issuing warnings in private and in public about the dangerous consequences the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have for U.S. interests in the region, and implying that the president should be pressuring Israel to bring the conflict to an end.

Both hawks and doves have found jobs in the Obama administration. “The question of how much the United States is offering [Israel], and what it is asking for in return, is being fiercely debated within the White House and the State Department,” the New York Times reported — which is undoubtedly one reason that the administration has been bobbing and weaving on Israel and Palestine with no clear policy direction in sight.

Another reason is the political risk involved. Though domestic issues dominated this year’s campaign season, the Republicans still stake their claim on being the party of tough guys, and they look for every opportunity to paint the Democrats as soft on national security. If Obama wavers on Israel, the GOP is ready to pounce and he knows it.

Republicans are always eager to run against “the ‘60s,” and efforts to move Israel to the peace table have become yet another symbol of “the ‘60s” in the GOP imagination.  It’s no coincidence that, just after he won the Florida Senate race, the Tea Party’s rising star Marco Rubio announced that he was packing for a trip to Israel.

On the other hand, a president stymied in the domestic sphere is always tempted to make his historical mark with major foreign policy initiatives where he has more freedom. As Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now points out, this president will be criticized for abandoning his original demands on the Israelis just as much as for pursuing them, so he might as well “double down on his Middle East peace efforts.”  If he does that, the doves will have Obama’s back. And a triumph at the peace table could shift attention away from the morass of Afghanistan in just the way Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China overshadowed the continuing slaughter in Vietnam.

An Unpredictable Complex System

There’s one more interesting analogy between the present Middle Eastern conflict and Vietnam. Both have triggered the passions of hawks and doves who otherwise would not pay much attention to foreign affairs. Every day, a few more doves start asking why the U.S. suppresses the Palestinian urge for national liberation and self-determination.

From there, it’s just a short step to asking other questions: Why does the Obama administration echo Israel’s frightening but unproven claims about “the Iranian threat” and leave so much room for talk of war? Why does the U.S. continue to demonize Hamas, rebuffing its efforts to moderate its stand and resume a truce with Israel? Why do government and media figures so regularly reduce the endless complexities of the Middle East to a simple morality tale of good guys against bad guys? And how can that enhance the security of the American people?

Just as during the Vietnam War years, such questions about U.S. policy in one region lead to even larger questions about the American stance in the world — and sooner or later, some of those questioners will dare call it imperialism. Any victory for the doves on the question of policy toward Israel will also be a victory in the ongoing struggle between competing visions of foreign policy, and no one can say where the growing movement of doves might lead.

In fact, no one can say anything with any degree of certainty about the future of this issue. It is now what the Vietnam debate once was: a complex, perhaps even chaotic, system, where every action provokes reaction.

Will a more Republican-leaning Congress change policy?  Perhaps.  But who knows exactly how?  The more the hawks push, the bigger and more appealing the target they offer to the doves. As the issue only polarizes, ever more American Jews may feel pushed out of their tactful silence.

We could end up with a new media picture entirely: gentile hawks urging Israel to maintain its hard-line stance versus a Jewish community leaning toward compromise and peace. Under those circumstances, the average citizen, who figures that Jews know best about Israel, might be unlikely to sympathize with the hawks.

That’s not a prediction, just one among many possibilities in a complex system that’s inherently unstable and so unpredictable. In other words, there’s no reason for doves to feel powerless. Election Day 2010 may look like a victory for the hawks, but it could turn out to be a step toward their long-term defeat.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.  Catch him discussing the American Jewish community and the struggle for peace in the Middle East in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.

Copyright 2010 Ira Chernus