Rupert Cornwell: Obama won't restrain Israel - he can't

His error has been not to think through the clout of America's pro-Israel lobby

Share
Related Topics

All you can say is, we've been here before. "Who the **** does he think he is? Who's the ******* superpower here?" Bill Clinton spluttered in fury to his aides back in 1996. The "he" in question was Benjamin Netanyahu, then as now the Prime Minister of Israel.

Barack Obama, a cooler character than the last Democrat to be president, may not have used quite such salty language about the behaviour of the current Netanyahu government that has so incensed the US. One thing though may safely be predicted. Mr Netanyahu will get away with it.

More than a week on, the in-your-face effrontery of the announcement that a new swathe of Israeli homes will be built in disputed East Jerusalem still amazes. Not only was it another pre-emptive strike on one of the toughest issues to be resolved in the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to which even Mr Netanyahu pays lip service. It came just 24 hours after painstaking diplomatic efforts by Washington had secured agreement on "proximity talks" in which both sides agreed to talk to each other, albeit indirectly. The fate of even these modest contacts are now in the balance.

And it came at the very moment that Vice-President Joe Biden – a true friend of Israel if ever there was one – was in the country promising America's "absolute, total and unvarnished" commitment to Israel's security. Mr Netanhayu maintains he was blindsided by the announcement. But close friends don't treat a superpower protector like that.

Worse still, Mr Netanyahu raised his two fingers just when there was an opportunity to move the tectonic plates of the Middle East crisis. Israel and the moderate Arab states are united in their fear of a nuclear-armed Iran bestriding the region. Serious progress on the Palestinian dispute would not only remove the biggest obstacle dividing them; it would also blunt Iran's most potent appeal to the region's Islamic population, as the one champion Palestinian rights that dared stand up to the Israeli and American oppressors.

Now that opportunity has all but vanished. For the Palestinians and other Arabs, Israel's move has confirmed what they suspected all along, that the Jewish state – at least under its present management – is concerned not with concessions, even symbolic ones, but with creating facts on the ground. Mr Netanyahu however believes he can call Mr Obama's bluff and ride out the storm. The plan to build 1,600 settlements, he says, will go ahead, whatever Washington's demands to the contrary. And on all counts, he's probably right.

And the reasons for such confidence? The first is his calculation that for Washington, whatever its anger at Israel's behaviour, the need for strategic co-operation with its closest ally in the Middle East against the Iranian nuclear threat will trump its concern for the Palestinians – even if the two issues are connected. The second is his confidence that the President will never ultimately defy the mighty pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

Beyond the shadow of a doubt, Mr Obama is more sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians than any recent president. In his Cairo speech last June, he spoke movingly of the daily humiliations faced by a people living under occupation: the situation for the Palestinian people, he said, was "intolerable." He followed up by demanding a total freeze on settlements, as proof the Israelis were serious about a peace deal.

But Mr Netanyahu said no, and the Obama administration, essentially folded. It was forced to content itself with a limited and partial freeze, from which East Jerusalem was excluded. When Hillary Clinton praised this modest step as "unprecedented," disappointed Palestinians and Arabs concluded that for all the fine words in Cairo, it was business as usual in Washington. When push came to shove, the proclaimed "honest broker" tilted invariably and irretrievably in favour of the Israelis.

Mr Obama's defenders now say that if he misplayed his hand, it was because he had too much on his plate, obliged to corral up crucial healthcare votes one moment, plot the future of the US banking system the next, and then make a flawless move in the three-dimensional chess game that is Middle East policy. In fact, his greatest error was not to think through the clout of America's pro-Israel lobby.

When the university professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy in 2007, some intitial reaction was scornful. Critics dismissed the book's thesis as exaggeration at best, sheer fantasy at worst. There was no sinister lobby, only the instinctive collective sympathy felt towards Israel by ordinary Americans.

But power lies in the perception of power, and no organisation in Washington is perceived to wield more power than AIPAC, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee. For proof, look no further than January 2009, when most of the rest of the world was horrified at the Israeli offensive in Gaza. At that moment the US House of Representatives, by a vote of 390 to five, chose to blame the entire crisis on Hamas.

Now the lobby is working to defuse the present row, naturally on Israel's terms. First AIPAC expressed its "serious concern" at events, reminding (or perhaps warning) of the "vast bipartisan support in Congress and the American people" for the US/Israeli relationship. Then the Israeli ambassador here issued a statement claiming he had been "flagrantly misquoted" in reports saying he had warned his staff of the worst crisis in 35 years between the two countries. By Tuesday evening Ms Clinton herself, who last week was accusing Mr Netanhayu of insulting the US, poured further oil on the already quietening waters: "I don't buy the notion of a crisis."

And there we have it. The settlements in East Jerusalem will go ahead whatever the US thinks. The proximity talks, even if they do proceed, are doomed in advance. And next week AIPAC holds here what it bills as the largest policy conference in its history. The Israeli Prime Minister will be in town to address it, so will Ms Clinton.

President Obama however will be about as far away as possible, on a long-planned visit to Indonesia and Australia. And probably just as well. Grovels, even the most elegant grovels, are not an edifying spectacle.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

M&E Construction Planning Manager: Surrey

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Car, Pension, Healthcare: Progressive Recruitment:...

M&E Construction Planner Solihull

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

PHP Developer - MySQL, RDBMS, Application Development

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: PHP Developer - MySQL, RDBMS, Applicatio...

SAP Business Analyst - Data Migration, £75,000, Manchester

£60000 - £75000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP B...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Turkish women have been posting defiant selfies of themselves laughing at their deputy PM's remarks.  

Women now have two more reasons to laugh in the face of sexism

Louise Scodie
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star