George Mitchell's job as Middle East Special Envoy has got to be terribly frustrating for a man whose life story has been one success after another.
But the Israel-Palestine conflict tends to be a career destroyer. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was the most popular political figure in the United States when he went to the region to kick-start negotiations during the George W. Bush administration.
He accomplished nothing largely because Israel-firsters back in Washington (Elliot Abrams played the leading role) let the Israelis know that they did not have to pay attention to Powell. He didn't speak for the administration. Later Abrams said that he viewed his role in the administration as blocking any moves that the Israelis didn't like.
President Clinton didn't do too well on Israel-Palestine either. Yes, he encouraged PLO chief Yasir Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to pursue Oslo but, when it came time to cement a deal, Clinton dropped the ball.
The list is much longer than that but there is no need to belabor the point. Everyone knows that successive administrations (with the exception of President Jimmy Carter's) have made very little progress toward ending the occupation that began in 1967.
I know I'll be accused of oversimplifying but I believe that there is one prime reason for these failures and it does not lie in the Middle East. It is here in Washington.
The reason the United States continues to fail on the Israeli-Palestinian track is because of the power of the lobby in Washington. And by lobby I don't only mean the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I mean AIPAC plus it friends throughout Washington who, even without speaking directly to AIPAC or the Israelis, know instinctively what the Israelis want -- preserving the status quo, i.e. the occupation.
I doubt Elliot Abrams needed to call the lobby to get his marching orders. He simply knew, from long experience, what made Israeli officialdom happy. He has his own internal AIPAC which guides him on all matters relating to Israel and the Palestinians.
Fortunately Elliot Abrams is no longer in power. Like the other neocons - all with internal AIPACs implanted in their chests - he is out of power for the time being. But others, not neocons but holding neoconnish views on Israel, remain in government.
How else to explain George Mitchell's failure? His history tells us that he is a strong and effective mediator. The diplomat who made Protestant and Catholic extremists not only agree to peace,but lay down their arms is not the kind of guy to be intimidated by the likes of Binyamin Netanyahu -- a prime minister who leads a weak government and has never demonstrated any kind of deftness as a leader.
And yet the American team - including Mitchell - flinched when Netanyahu balked at President Obama's demand for a settlement freeze. A settlement freeze is really very little. In fact, it is nothing more than a symbolic gesture of good faith which would only serve the purpose of getting negotiations started.
But when Netanyahu said "no," we caved. And then Secretary Clinton made things worse by praising Netanyahu for "unprecedented" concessions. Then, as if that was not enough, we repudiated the Goldstone report on war crimes in Gaza and, as if even that wasn't enough, we demanded that the Palestinian Authority do the same. Then the roof caved in.
What's going on?
Again it's back to the lobby. Policymakers throughout the government operate as if the lobby is always looking over their shoulders. Yes, a few, like Elliot Abrams, follow their own internal AIPACs, guarding the status quo out of the misplaced view that the status quo is best for Israel. And others actually talk to AIPAC and/or the Israelis to hear the "line" directly.
But most simply anticipate what the lobby's reaction to any policy will be. And, if they conclude it will be negative, act preemptively to quash the policy. The lobby does not have to tell them not to confront Israel over settlements or Goldstone. They do it on their own, not for AIPAC or for Israel but out of the mistaken notion that they are protecting their principals (most notably the President) from the political damage they believe the lobby can do.
This has all played out horribly in the Obama administration.
Right now, negotiations look dead in the water. President Abbas is resigning and a third intifada is being planned. Meanwhile, American interests throughout the entire Muslim world are being damaged as both Arabs and non-Arabs see how utterly indifferent America seems to be about the oppressive occupation (the only issue in the world about which all Muslims are in agreement).
Unless this changes, not only will we further endanger American forces in the region and our economic interests, we will also fuel the forces of terrorism which, unless checked, will again blow back on us here at home.
The occupation (and especially the settlements) do infinitely more for Al Qaeda than they do for Israel and certainly more than they do for us. Supporting the occupation is, in its effects, a favor we do for Al Qaeda and Muslim radicals everywhere. And yet we keep doing it because the lobby insists. Why?
One has to wonder if there are any people around the President (or Secretary of State or Mitchell) who understand a simple truth. The President is infinitely more powerful than any lobby.
Back when I worked at AIPAC, the head of the organization told me this: "You know what I think is going to happen. One day the President of the United States will get on television to announce a peace plan that will get Israel out of the occupied territories and establish a Palestinian state in exchange for ironclad security guarantees for Israel. If he did that, everyone would fall in line behind the President. Congress, the Jewish community and, in fact, AIPAC would too. What choice would we have," he said. "We are not going to war with a President who has the backing of the American people which he would have."
The man who told me that was AIPAC's founder, IL Kenen. That was over thirty years ago. His vision for the future still hasn't happened. But it will have to. Otherwise the lobby, and all those people who instinctively follow it, will prevent peace from ever happening.
Of course, powerful lobbies and interest groups dictate most of the policies of our government, not just this one. It is just that this one is a matter of life and death. What a system!
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Crossposted on the PALESTINE NOTE which is the best blog (updated around the clock) devoted exclusively to Israel and Palestine.