The status quo lobby (SQL) is getting worried. Very worried.
It knew that President Barack Obama was determined to move aggressively on his Middle East peace agenda but never imagined that he would be this bold. He telephoned the Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi leaders on his first full day in office.
He did an extensive television interview with Al Arabiyyah to directly reach out to the Arab world. He appointed George Mitchell as his Middle East Special Envoy to put together a deal. He's going to Cairo to address the world's Muslims from the capital of the Arab world. And next week, he begins meeting in Washington with key Arab leaders (including the Palestinians) and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
And he has abandoned one-sided statements of enthusiastic support for everything Israel does (along with ritualistic condemnations of Palestinians), which has been the rather transparent stock-in-trade of all previous administrations since Grover Cleveland's. (Slight exaggeration). During the campaign he promised to be an honest broker, and he is living up to that promise. He is in no one's pocket.
And then there is Iran. He said last year that he would pursue diplomacy with Iran and that is what he is doing. No one is going to box him into either going to war with the Iranians (or condoning an attack by any other party) unless he believes that there is absolutely no alternative to war and that the war would achieve its purported goals. He will not be steamrolled.
None of this is really a surprise. It is, in fact, precisely why the neocons wept last November as the returns came in. Obama was their absolute last choice and, from their point of view, they were right.
One would not expect the status quo lobby to take all this lying down and they aren't. Certainly the thousands of AIPAC delegates who gathered in Washington early this month gave no evidence of sweet surrender.
While Vice President Joe Biden received polite applause when he endorsed Obama's efforts to advance the peace process, it was Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor who repeatedly brought the delegates to their feet with repeated condemnations of the very idea of seeking accommodation with Arabs and Muslims.
The crowd adored Cantor who managed to invoke the Holocaust, gas chambers, and cattle cars in his shameful and hysterical call to arms. Cantor cynically demonstrated that there are indeed limits on how far one may go when exploiting the emotions of a Jewish audience for partisan profit, and then cheerfully crossed them. He literally said that "men are pointing guns at Israel, indeed at Jews everywhere, promising to kill us."
He said that Ahmadinejad's goal is not merely building a bomb but "killing all the world's Jews." Imagine. An American politician born in 1963 in Richmond, Virginia (last under outside "threat" by the Union Army in the 1860's) tells a crowd of secure, comfortable Americans that they are in as much physical danger as the Jews of Eastern Europe whose children were slaughtered in front of their eyes--and they cheer! (I'm sure Cantor loves this country but he might want to avoid suggestions that, for Jews, it bears resemblance to Europe in the 1940's.)
As is often the case with these events that call themselves "pro-Israel," most of the emotion was produced by contemplating the atrocities of the dead past, rather than celebrating the wonders of Israel's living present or hopes for its future. For these people, the triumphant Israel of the film "Exodus" has been replaced with the horrors of "Schindler's List" or "Sophie's Choice." (And they wonder why their kids just aren't so interested!)
In any case, all the negative emotion was bound to lead somewhere and this week it became clear where.
This week, the self-same Eric Cantor joined House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in circulating a letter to their colleagues urging President Obama to abandon the whole idea of brokering Middle East peace.
According to today's Washington Post, the letter originated not with the two House Members but with AIPAC. (When Post columnist Al Kamen opened the attachment to the e-mail sent by Cantor and Hoyer to their colleagues, he noticed it was named "AIPAC Letter Hoyer-Cantor May 2009.pdf.")
Kamen asks: "Is that how this stuff works?" Answer: yes.
This letter is not a case of the "same old, same old." In the past, the SQL pretended to support U.S. engagement in the peace process. It differed with Israel Policy Forum and J Street, and the other pro-negotiations groups, over what the goals of engagement should be.
But, as American organizations, the SQL could not very well tell the President of the United States to avoid diplomacy and simply march lockstep behind Israel's policies. I mean, how can an American organization tell an American President that his job is simply to support one side in an international conflict--a conflict that negatively impacts American interests--and not try to resolve it.
But that is precisely what the AIPAC letter says. It can be distilled down to two messages: "Mr. President, Butt Out." And "don't even think of leaning on Netanyahu."
The letter tells the President to let Israelis and Palestinians deal with their conflict on their own, knowing full well that without the U.S. playing the "honest broker" role, they won't.
The AIPAC letter sounds like it is calling for a Palestinian state to be worked out by the two sides. But its authors know full-well that no Israeli government (even a peace government) is going to risk enraging the right by agreeing to a Palestinian state unless it is the United States that is insisting upon it. The AIPAC letter does not envision a Palestinian State. Quite the contrary, its intent is to delay that state until there is no possibility of it ever being established.
It argues that America's job is to serve as "trusted mediator and devoted friend of Israel." It concedes that "no doubt our two governments [sic] will agree on many issues and disagree on others. The proven best way forward is to work closely and privately together both on areas of agreement and especially on areas of disagreement."
Got that? America should be a mediator, but only if it takes Israel's side on every issue and pre-clears its positions with Israel.
It then sets forth a litany of actions that the United States should tell Palestinians to take in order to advance an agreement, but offers not one word about anything that Israel might do.
It holds that once the Palestinians build their economy, and government institutions, and create a veritable Vermont, then, and only then, will they be eligible for statehood. In fact, the reverse is true.
America's 13 colonies bore no resemblance to a nation state until after the United States was created. Statehood is, in fact, a prerequisite for effective governance not some sort of incentive held out as a gift after effective governance is achieved.
The letter comes out of an alternative universe, a bizarro world (Cantor's world?) in which the Israelis are in deep peril while powerful Palestinians are in charge and growing more powerful and dangerous every day. A Martian might read it and assume that the Palestinians are occupying Israel and recklessly building settlements to perpetuate their occupation.
I don't need to take this any further. If you want to read the Cantor-Hoyer letter, here it is. If past is prologue, lots of House members will hold their noses and sign it in time for it to be presented to Obama just prior to his meeting with Netanyahu. (Netanyahu already has his copy, so that he can pull it out when he wants to check Obama by saying "but your Congress is on my side").
Of course, there is an alternative approach. Israel Policy Forum and J Street are urging Members of the House to get behind a letter to the President that is being circulated by Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN), Charles Boustany (R-LA) and Russ Carnahan (D-MO). The two letters could not be more different. Cantor-Hoyer believes that the status quo is just fine and that Barack Obama should simply let whatever happens happen. The Cohen-Boustany-Carnahan letter contends that America's help is essential.
Cohen-Boustany-Carnahan states that, "As friends of Israel, we believe that an end to the conflict is critical to Israel's long-term security and survival as a Jewish and a democratic state, and we are steadfastly committed to its realization. We also believe that America best serves our historic friendship with Israel when it is actively working to de-escalate conflict and advance peace, and that our relationships throughout the Arab and Muslim world will be strengthened through a negotiated agreement that ends the conflict."
Two letters. Cohen-Boustany-Carnahan is predicated on the idea that the United States can help Israel end a deadly conflict that is destroying it. The other believes that helping Israel requires America to turn its back.
Only one of these letters is pro-Israel. That is Cohen-Boustany-Carnahan. Here it is.
As for Cantor-Hoyer, it should be relegated to a museum somewhere--a museum dedicated to the America of the bad old days, before we had a President who viewed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a national security issue rather than a gimmick to raise campaign funds.
Even if it had all 435 House members as signatories, that is all the Cantor letter is. The good news is that virtually every Representative who signs it knows it. It was not written to be taken seriously as a policy recommendation. And it won't be.