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MJ Rosenberg

MJ Rosenberg

Posted February 6, 2009 | 01:23 PM (EST)

Israel's Election: Not Our Problem


Next week's Israeli election will, no doubt, be viewed as delivering a blow, perhaps fatal, to the peace process. Powerful showings by both the Likud and the ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu parties will be read as an indication that Israel has decided to embrace extremist ideology with a vengeance.

That may be true. But it's really not our business. As Americans, our job is to promote policies that are best for America. Israel, a country that values its special relationship with the United States, is in no position to ignore the American government's wishes.

That is especially true when the president is remarkably popular both in this country and throughout the world. No matter who heads Israel's next government, it is President Barack Obama who holds 51 cards in the deck.

Israelis understand that. The last prime minister who went head-to-head with the president of the United States was Yitzhak Shamir. When President George H. W. Bush demanded a settlements freeze as a condition for aid, Shamir said "no." Within months he was out of office, replaced by Yitzhak Rabin with the furtive help of the Bush administration. Not surprisingly, Rabin quickly reversed Shamir's policy.

Israeli politics are not as simple as they appear. The Israeli voter tends to see no inconsistency between voting for a right-winger and simultaneously favoring the two-state solution.

Next week, many Israelis will vote for the right out of fury at Hamas and the desire to have leadership that will stand up to it.

That does not mean that they like the settlers or that they do not want the West Bank returned to the Palestinians. They simply want security. When they believe--and U.S. persuasion can help here--that they can have a deal that provides security, they will give up the West Bank and its settlements. Despite what the extremists say, a not-very-timid IDF will remove the settlers in days if not hours. That is because Israelis understand that retaining the West Bank ensures the loss of either Israel's Jewish identity or its democratic form of government (or both), within a generation.

Also not simple in Israeli politics is determining which of the candidates will be most amenable to diplomacy and which will dig in and say "no" to any ideas the United States will offer.

Certainly, Avigdor Lieberman, the Russian-born and raised leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, will oppose peace moves. His answer to the "Arab problem" is making Arabs' lives in Israel so miserable that they flee. He is a modern incarnation of Meir Kahane, whose party was so racist that it was banned from participating in Israeli elections. His current plan--to make every Arab sign a loyalty oath--is a prelude to "ethnic cleansing," and everyone knows it.

But Lieberman is not going to be prime minister. The next prime minister will be Binyamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, or Ehud Barak. Netanyahu is the farthest right of the three, but not significantly so. During the Gaza war, each of them emphatically supported military action and expressed little sympathy for the Palestinian civilians who were killed, including hundreds of kids. Simply put, all three are hawks.

It is easy to compare Barak and Netanyahu because each of them served as prime minister. Although Barak is famous for the "offer" he made to Arafat at Camp David (Palestinians say there was no offer), he proudly touts the fact that he made no territorial concessions to the Palestinians during his term in office.

Barak even refused to live up to withdrawals to which Israel had previously agreed. Not so with Netanyahu. He actually withdrew from territory and agreed to yield more at the Wye River Summit in 1998 (it was his agreement to do so that caused his government to collapse).

It can be argued that a right-wing prime minister like Netanyahu has a more difficult time resisting the United States than a prime minister perceived as moderate like Barak or Livni.

Golda Meir--along with Yitzhak Shamir--was the most inflexible leader Israel ever had. But she consistently managed to outfox President Nixon (to the detriment of both Israel and the United States) by looking and sounding moderate. Her right-wing successor, Menachem Begin, did not have Meir's advantage. When President Carter applied pressure, he caved (to the benefit of Israel and the United States).

Dovish types prepared to go into mourning over the coming right-wing victory should bear this history in mind when the election results come in next week. Things aren't always what they seem.

We might be closer to peace today if Netanyahu had kept his job in 1999, rather than losing to Barak. After all, President Clinton knew how to handle Netanyahu while he was thoroughly snowed by Barak. He "treated me like a goddamn wooden Indian," Clinton said of Barak. Clinton was referring to Barak's penchant for acting as if he, not Clinton, was the leader of the Free World.

But in Clayton Swisher's The Truth About Camp David--the best book about why Camp David collapsed--Clinton's press secretary Joe Lockhart recalls that Clinton vehemently disliked Netanyahu: "Netanyahu was one of the single most obnoxious individuals you're likely to meet. . . . He would open his mouth and you would have no confidence that anything that came out of it was the truth."

To put it politely, either Netanyahu or Barak would start out hobbled in dealing with President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It is no surprise that official Washington is hoping (against hope?) for Livni.

But, as I said, the Israeli election is not our business, just as our election wasn't theirs. (They preferred McCain while Americans, overwhelmingly, did not.)

Obama, Clinton, and Mitchell need to keep doing what they are doing, regardless of who wins. That is to push hard to re-start the diplomatic process with the goal of ending the occupation and achieving Israeli security and a viable, contiguous and independent Palestinian state. Determined American leadership can produce that result. If it can't, or won't, the fault will not lie with the new Israeli prime minister. It will be ours. (As for Lieberman, he should simply be ignored, as we ignore and boycott the extremists on the Palestinian side.)

But a president cannot do the job alone. He needs the American people behind him, and he needs Congress. Unfortunately, Congress tends to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not so much as a problem but rather as a cash cow for fundraising. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, tend to come together as one when it comes to telling the pro-Israel community what it thinks we want to hear (and will reward).

That has changed some in recent years thanks to efforts by organizations like Israel Policy Forum and our allies.

Last week, Representatives John Olver (D-Mass.), Lois Capps (D-Calif.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), along with sixty-one of their colleagues, wrote to President Obama urging immediate action by the United States to end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Judging from our phone calls to Capitol Hill, a clear majority would have signed the letter but feared antagonizing the lobby. In that context, sixty-four is a good number--especially when, in writing to Obama, we are preaching to the converted.

Next week we will be gathering co-sponsors for H. Res. 130, a resolution offered by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and thirty-one original cosponsors, offering strong support for George Mitchell's efforts to resolve the conflict.

Israel Policy Forum has joined with J Street, the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v' Shalom, Churches for Middle East Peace, and the Arab American Institute to push the resolution. If you want to know if your representative is a co-sponsor, just e-mail us. You can then call the Capitol at 202-225-3121, ask for your Representative, and urge him or her to back Obama and Mitchell by co-sponsoring H. Res. 130. As President Obama told me,"You can't expect me to respond to you if I can't hear you." Let's make sure he hears us loud and clear.

He's on our side. But a little reinforcement can only help.

MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center