The U.S.A. and the Middle Eastern Conflict: Foreign Policy and Domestic Interests
In an article which I published in Ha'aretz at the end of 1997, I told of a discussion between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Jewish American senator from New York, Gary Ackerman. The senator asked Netanyahu how he had reached a position in which he lacked all credibility in Washington. The prime minister replied with a question of his own: "From whom would you prefer to buy a used car - from me or from Yasser Arafat?" Ackerman responded without a trace of hesitation: "I would go by foot."
The following morning I received an agitated call from the senator. He said he knew that I was a serious journalist and though the conversation had taken place, it was quoted out of context and had been exploited for political reasons. The senator and Bibi were old friends and he did not think that Bibi was a liar. He has no doubt that the prime minister was extremely interested in the peace process. It was most important that I explain this to my readers.

The Peace Process as a Local Subject

Even at a time when the Israeli prime minister doesn't exactly enjoy peak popularity in the American Jewish community, no politician in a state where the Jews are as influential as in New York can afford to appear to be hostile, or even critical, toward the prime minister. For this could cost the politician millions of dollars and determine his fate in the coming elections. It was the publication of the story not in Hebrew but in the English edition of Ha'aretz (with the New York Herald Tribune), which reaches New York on the Internet, that disturbed the American politician.
This story demonstrates my thesis that in the eyes of American decision makers, the Middle Eastern peace process is first and foremost a domestic matter and only afterward, if at all, a matter of foreign policy. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and Syrian ruler Hafez al-Assad can persuade Ackerman and his colleagues that they support full peace with Israel in exchange for the return of all the territories which they lost in wars against Israel. There is, however, no chance that in the U.S. members of Congress, be they Jews or non-Jews, will speak even with the softest voice in favor of putting pressure on Israel to fulfill its role in a deal of this sort.

Partnership of Values?

The 1991 Gulf War finally removed the strategic argument from the arsenal of the arguments of supporters of Israel. The major contribution of Israel to the greatest American operation in the region was to refrain from any action. The greatest friends of Israel no longer pretend to argue that America is making a good military deal when it grants four billion dollars to Israel every year in security and civilian aid.
There remains the moral argument. Dubious episodes like the Bar-On affair (corruption in appointing the attorney-general) or the Meshal affair (an attempted assassination in Jordan) weakened this argument, which for years had buttressed American support for Israel. Many of the Israelis and Americans who speak of a "partnership of values" do not themselves believe in what they are saying.

Two Groups in Congress

In American politics, one can divide Congress members in Washington into two groups: those who think that the U.S.A. should distance itself from the Middle Eastern peace process as from other distant international subjects (Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan), and those for whom the peace process is of interest in the context of local politics. The first group - mainly isolationist politicians from the South - prefers that, whatever happens, the U.S.A. shouldn't interfere in the Israeli-Arab conflict. They fear that diplomatic intervention will inevitably lead to American military and economic input in the final arrangement, causing resentment among American parents and taxpayers.
The second group looks at this conflict through the slit of the ballot box, asking what is good for its voters. This rule is particularly true when we are speaking of an electoral region with many Jewish voters, or one replete with rich Jews (the Jewish community is a minority with no more than two percent of the population, but in mobilizing donations, mainly for Democratic candidates, it often counts for up to fifty percent). Many, if not most American Jews, continue to see Israel as just a victim of Arab hostility. Whoever asks for their support and money is advised unhesitatingly to afford full political support to the victim.
The "common fate" shared by American and Israeli Jews is not indeed as firm as it was. In recent times, the continuous debate between the government of Israel and the American Jewish leadership over changing the status of the Reform and Conservative communities has eroded what was almost a holy alliance between the two largest Jewish concentrations in the world, whether the Israeli prime minister is the moderate Shimon Peres or the hawkish Bibi Netanyahu ..

Solidarity with Israel

A careful declaration by Bill Clinton, considered the friendliest president toward Israel in recent years, that the position in the peace process doesn't assist the American effort against Iraq, is enough to cause even liberal Jewish organizations, like the American Jewish community, to rise in protest. American Jewry will in no way permit Israel to be damaged, even if many think that Israel erred in electing its leader. A leader like Netanyahu enjoys a free ride on this journey of solidarity.
Israel is of course not to blame for all America's troubles in the area, and with the Arab states. One should not accept the simplistic claim that all the problems of U.S. policy are connected with the special relations which it fosters with Israel and the almost official asymmetry characterizing its dealings with the Israeli-Arab conflict. U.S. policy in the Middle East suffers from a conservative and dogmatic approach, often reminiscent of a large ~d unwieldy ship which has difficulties in changing course. Along with this, the protracted weakness shown by the only great power in the world in dealing with the Oslo agreement arouses justified suspicion among the Arabs.

Madrid and Oslo

The asymmetry in the Israel-U.S.-Arab triangle also contributed to removing obstacles in the way of the Arabs to the negotiating table. The Madrid conference of October 1991 was made possible because the Gulf War proved to the Arab states that the era of the U.S.S.R. joining them against Israel and its U.S. patron was over. They understood that the U.S. would not present the territories to them on a silver platter and that they had better start playing with Israel and relying on the referee to observe reasonable rules. They took into consideration that these rules were significantly influenced by the special relations which the Israeli group had with the referee's family.
The crisis in the Oslo process engendered increased American involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In recent months, direct negotiations gave way to two parallel negotiating channels between the U.S.A. and each of the contending parties. Like it or not, America's credibility is now placed on the operating table. An Israeli refusal to implement a retreat from the territories and to freeze settlement will be considered in the eyes of the Arabs and of the whole world as a failure of American policy in the Middle East. In other words, for the greatest world power it would be a victory for internal over foreign policy, a victory for the "old local order" over the "new world order."

A Wealth of U.S. Interests

American policy in this region is founded on the aspiration to harmony between a wealth of interests, of which the peace process is only one: safeguarding low oil prices; blocking Iran and Iraq; strengthening friendly regimes like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey; fighting international terror and drugs; checking Islamic extremism; and promoting the peace process. When Israel delays this process, she undermines one of the bases on which the U.S.A.'s Middle East policy rests.
Israel and its American Jewish brethren did not determine the rules of play in Washington. They know how to use the rules for their benefit. The most difficult thing is to determine the dosage of the use of force and to understand its limitations. The asymmetry in the relations of the U.S.A. with the parties to the conflict in the Middle East can only be effective up to a certain limit. Beyond this it becomes cynical opportunism by political office-holders who would deny all responsibility for a failure of the peace process.

Pertinent Questions

Anyone finding it hard to believe that a minority of six million American Jews exercises a decisive influence over the policies of a great power with a population of 260 million must ask the questions: What motivates the U.S.A. to grant political, military and economic support to the small but relatively rich Jewish state (a yearly income per head of $16,000), support which in the best event does not contribute to U.S. interests? What would happen to the few tens of millions of dollars which the residents of Gaza ($1,200 income per head) receive, were Yasser Arafat to declare the annulment of the Oslo agreement and a return to armed struggle for the destruction of Israel?
There is also room to ask the question: How would things develop were the Arabs to have a strong, rich, devoted and efficient lobby like AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference, as well as some tens of Palestinian and Arab congressmen?