Monday, August 17, 2009

An Israeli lobby Panic

by Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- Is the Israeli lobby in the United States in panic mode? The Obama administration hit the ground running when it took office in January, quickly appointing George Mitchell as a special envoy to Arab-Israeli peace-making, and making it clear that President Obama himself would devote time and energy to the goal of a comprehensive peace plan.

Not surprisingly, an American-Israeli disagreement on Israel’s settlements in occupied Arab lands materialized quickly, and may well expand into a full-blown showdown. The United States says it is making equal demands of Arabs and Israelis. But Israel and its zealot-like allies and proxies in the United States argue that Washington is putting undue pressure on Israel alone.

The unknown wild card in this is “The Lobby” -- the pro-Israel lobby in the United States -- a combination of American formal organizations and individual politicians who argue Israel’s case so strongly that they are often seen as putting Israeli interests ahead of their own American interests. It remains unclear how the pro-Israel lobby will kick into action to shield Israel from the increasingly vocal demands in the United States that Jewish settlements and the Zionist colonization enterprise in occupied Arab lands must stop in order to allow the peace negotiations to start.

When it used its immense firepower to stop the nomination of Chas Freeman for a senior US intelligence post a few months ago, the pro-Israel lobby showed how it can achieve its ends by a combination of public character assassination and some behind the scenes subtle blackmail of certain Congressmen and women -- those who would expect to lose their position in the next election if they did not go along with the pro-Israel line. That was probably a warning signal that the pro-Israel groups remain strong, and will flex their muscles again and continue to assert their traditional control of American policy in the Middle East whenever they feel the time is right.

Then, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington recently, he was apparently shocked by the strong consensus in Congress supporting Obama’s demand for Israel to freeze its settlements and colonies. Congress is the key instrument and victim of the Israeli lobby, which is mostly handled by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Other pro-Israel groups in Washington, like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also play a role in promoting a pro-Israeli position by the US government and in the public debate.

These and other groups that comprise the pro-Israeli lobby are successful because most American public officials are too fearful to fight back -- for they know from experience that they would be likely to lose their positions were they to do so. But when the American president asserts that a certain policy is in the strategic national interest of the United States, the pro-Israel lobbyists tend to lose their firepower, and find it difficult to oppose official US policy.

This may be happening now in Washington, as Obama’s team pushes ahead with its insistence on a total colonization freeze by Israel, and the traditional pro-Israeli Congressional voices are heard to be supporting the president. It is difficult for pro-Israeli forces to oppose a very popular president who defines his Middle East policy in terms of promoting a fair peace between Arabs and Israelis because this is good for both parties and is also in the national interest of the United States.

An interesting new case suggests that some pro-Israeli maniacs in Washington are losing their cool -- this comes in the form of their opposition to Barack Obama bestowing the Presidential Medal of Honor on Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and a widely respected international human rights advocate. Some Jewish groups and members of Congress feel that Robinson has shown a persistent anti-Israel bias in her work as a human rights advocate. US Representatives Eliot Engel and Shelley Berkley, among others, feel that during her days as UN human rights commissioner she was one-sided in her criticism of Israel and allowed the global debate on human rights to include anti-Israeli sentiments (such as at an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, which included widespread criticism of Israel by national delegations, causing the American and Israeli delegations to walk out).

The Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC have also criticized the award to Robinson. She told an Israeli newspaper this week that she was “surprised and dismayed” by the protests, which she called “old, recycled, untrue stuff.”

She is universally admired for her commitment to universal human rights, and her criticisms of Israelis and Arabs alike reflect her sense of an obligation to speak out whenever fundamental norms of law and decency are broken by states or non-state groups. For key elements in the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to attack such an internationally respected individual as Mary Robinson is a pretty strong sign of panic.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.