When Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) announced her support of the nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, she assured President Obama that his signature foreign policy victory would withstand a congressional challenge. With victory assured, many are trumpeting a victory over some very powerful forces, led by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), by far the most effective foreign policy lobby in Washington.
The sense of victory, however, needs to be tempered. Anyone who believes that securing the Iran nuclear agreement in Congress might have an effect on United States policy and its potential actions regarding the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip needs to take a deep breath.
Celebrating the victory on the Iran nuclear deal in Haaretz, Peter Beinart wrote: “On national security, Obama has changed the terms of debate. And there is nothing Benjamin Netanyahu or AIPAC can do about it.” The success the deal’s supporters had in framing the Iran nuclear deal as an American security issue made a very big difference politically. But while no one, for or against the deal, ever forgot that Israel has a major stake in the outcome, this debate was primarily about American, not Israeli, security.
That contrasts sharply with the issues of Israel’s occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank and its ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. Many who support a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians try to make the case that ending the occupation is an American national security interest. But, despite this argument’s endorsement by top national security and military leaders, it’s not as self-evident as it is in the case of a nuclear-armed Iran. Moreover, where Iran was correctly viewed as a shared concern between Israel and the United States, many view the Israel-Palestine conflict, at least in part, as an internal Israeli matter. As a result, many advocates and lawmakers, see the Israel-Palestine issue primarily through the lens of support for Israel, for better or worse.
That’s not the only difference. If President Obama, or his successor, were to try to push hard on Israel to rein in its settlement program, he or she would have to pursue that effort gently, doing nothing that might affect the close military and intelligence cooperation with Israel that has long been a policy priority of the United States. Contrary to what some believe, the defense policy regarding Israel is not driven by nor the invention of AIPAC; it is very much a longstanding and firm policy of every American administration since Kennedy.
So where Obama could push full force on the Iran issue, dealing with Israel and the Palestinians is much trickier. True, Israel needs the United States more than the United States needs Israel, but the domestic politics of pressuring Israel make this a fight that even a President must consider extremely carefully. He or she must be prepared to go all in, as Obama did on the Iran agreement. Anything less will fail or even backfire, as Obama himself learned early on when he called for a settlement freeze in his first year on the job. In that case, Netanyahu refused, and Obama backed down. (This may have even fed Netanyahu’s mistaken belief that he could win a fight over Iran.)
In many accounts of the Iran nuclear drama over the past months, one thing that has been played down or even obscured is the role progressive groups played in the public debate. True, pro-deal forces could not mount anything like a $20 million public campaign, but groups like J Street, the Ploughshares Fund, Americans for Peace Now, MoveOn.org, the Foundation for Middle East Peace and the Arms Control Association, among others, were able to get the supportive message out to key audiences in Washington and the progressive media.
That being said, the efforts would not have amounted to much without being backed by the strong commitment of the White House to this deal. Rare indeed have been the occasions when any president has been so forceful on the matter of Israeli-Palestinian peace. When they have, they have often borne political scars even after leaving office. Jimmy Carter, whose tireless efforts at Camp David in 1979 permanently removed the lone serious military threat to Israel in the region, is the obvious case in point.
As Carter shows, even when the outcome is immensely favorable to Israel, political resentment can remain for a president who pushes hard on Israel to do something it does not wish to do. The current playing field is even tougher. Where Americans could at least look at Hassan Rouhani as someone who presented a different Iranian face, Mahmoud Abbas (who is increasingly viewed as intransigent, or at least incapable and unwilling to make a deal) and Hamas, an entity listed as a terrorist group by the State Department, are the faces of Palestinians that Americans see.
That’s the playing field AIPAC and other anti-diplomacy groups departed from on the Iran issue. As they return to it, their hand will come back strengthened. One of a number of consolation prizes AIPAC will get from the Iran deal fight is that many of the Democrats who vote in favor of the deal will feel that they owe Israel something for it. Whether that feeling comes from political pressure or because they see the deal as opening Israel to risks that the United States must compensate for, Israeli requests from Capitol Hill (whether they are connected to Iran or not) are going to find a much more sympathetic hearing despite the ongoing bitter taste Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tactics have left in the mouths of many Democrats.
That’s not all AIPAC comes out of this with. Progressive forces are going to have their hands full if they want to try to turn this momentum toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. At the same time that effort is underway, they will also have to contend with efforts in Congress to gut or introduce poison pills to the Iran deal. We’re already seeing some texts making the rounds on the Hill in the early drafting stages. Key Democrats, including some like Mark Warner (D-VA), have already made it clear that despite voting in Obama’s favor on the deal itself, they intend to back such legislation, which will surely be led by powerful senators who oppose the deal, such as Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
Working against those efforts while also trying to push Israeli-Palestinian peace will be extremely challenging. For that reason, the sense of triumphalism in some quarters needs to be tempered. However, it must not be so tempered that pro-peace forces do not act. It simply means they must act wisely.
While Israel’s concerns over Iran will generate goodwill on the Hill, Democrats must be reminded that Israel’s concerns and the Israeli Prime Minister’s are not the same. They need to be reminded that Israeli security experts have been largely supportive of the Iran deal, and it is Israel’s politicians who are against it. More to the point, they must be reminded how Netanyahu has behaved during this debate and that this cannot go unanswered.
How then to proceed? The guiding principle that needs to be hammered home in every congressional office is absolute support for Israeli security and absolutely none for the settlements. These two points need to be inseparable if any progress is to be made before Obama leaves office. The United States, in Obama’s waning days, needs to make it clear that those two points are the bedrock of our relationship with Israel. In the words of Lyndon Johnson, Israel must be reminded that it “will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.” The United States must be clear that stopping and even rolling back settlements are as fundamental to our approach as our commitment to Israel’s security.
Based on that principle, the Obama Administration can act on its own or through the United Nations to reinstate the guiding principles of a two-state solution. That solution must include East Jerusalem and, yes, the Gaza Strip. This makes it trickier, to be sure. But if the United States can also fold this question into a regional plan that includes a battle against the Islamic State, containing Iran according the current deal, and the Arab Peace Initiative that promises normalized relations with Israel, the security benefits for Israel are as obvious as they are astronomical.
That, however, is an end goal. In the initial stages this autumn, the key will be to find ways to bolster the confidence of the Israeli public in a way Netanyahu cannot deny while preserving the Iran deal and trying to revive some hope for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This won’t be accomplished because AIPAC was weakened in the Iran nuclear fight. Instead, it can come about because progressive forces were strengthened and unified and found smart ways to counter a lobby that is both well-funded and very good at what it does.
Mitchell Plitnick is Program Director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Previously, he was Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (2008-2010) and Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace (2002-2008).