For those too young to have been alive at the time or whose memories became fogged with age, in June 1961 – less than six months after being inaugurated – a very young President John F. Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna. By the end of the session, the wily Russian peasant concluded that the wealthy, well-bred Kennedy was weak, indecisive, and accommodating.
As a result, Khrushchev decided he could alter the balance of power in the world by stationing missiles in Cuba aimed squarely at the United States as leverage to get the West to abandon Berlin. Fifteen months later, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation.
Today, President Obama meets Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, with nearly as much at stake. If Obama does not forcefully tell Israel the new facts of life in the Middle East, it is very likely there will likely be a region-wide war before the end of Obama’s first term, according to the authoritative Juan Cole.
AIPAC’s Long Shadow
The two men come to today’s meeting with very different agendas.
Obama wants to reach an accord with Iran to help ensure stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan, something that won’t happen unless Israel stops colonising the West Bank, reaches a peace deal with Syria so it stops meddling in Lebanon and backing Hezbollah, and becomes serious about negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu wants to destroy Iran’s nuclear potential, push Israeli settlement and control over the West Bank all the way to the Jordan River, ignore Syria, isolate Gaza, and leave the Palestinians without a state to call their own.
Lurking unseen in the Oval Office making Obama’s situation even more complex than it is already is the ever-present shadow of AIPAC, the enormously powerful neo-con lobbying force that essentially dictated America’s Israeli policy all during the Bush presidency. It also has many friends – and recipients of its lush campaign contributions – on Capitol Hill.
As a result, AIPAC insists framing any Washington discussion of Middle East policy in a way that equates rationality with being anti-Israel. In effect, discussing Israel in any terms other than those mandated by AIPAC is akin to arguing economics with a Communist who insists that the debate begin with the premise that capitalism is evil per se.
That’s not a policy debate; it’s Kabuki theatre.
Obama has his work cut out for him. The president looks for common ground while Netanyahu is a notorious bully; indeed, Bill Clinton complained that Netanyahu thought that he was the superpower.
But one can support Israel’s right to exist – as I do – and still push it hard to adopt a more realistic view of the region. If the nation’s long-range goal is to secure a safe and lasting peace with its neighbours, then Israel has to be willing to see the world from the other side of the negotiating table as well as from its own. Not since Menachim Begin has Israel had a government willing to do so.
The first step would be to get Israel to tone down its rhetoric against Iran and stop making plans to attack under the guise of stopping President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s supposed desire to wipe Israel “off the face of the map.” The problem is that Ahmadinejad never said any such thing. For one thing, an Iranian friend assures me there is no such idiom in Farsi. For another, the Iranian president was speaking of the ideological collapse of Zionism and he equated it to the fall of Communism under the old Soviet regime.
Contrary to the view of Israeli right-wingers, an attack on Iran would not bring about its collapse but engulf the entire region in flames. Hopefully, Rahm Emanuel will attend the meeting so he can use his penchant for colourful language – remember, at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the night before Mother’s Day, Obama said Emanuel is not accustomed to using the word “day” after the word “mother” – to drive home forcefully a point Obama undoubtedly will make more subtly.
The key to today’s meeting is Obama getting Netanyahu to agree to negotiating a Palestinian state. This morning at his blog, Informed Comment, Dr. Cole writes:
“Netanyahu’s talk of improving the economic lives of Palestinians instead of giving them a state is nonsense. Statelessness prevents economic security and progress. And people aren’t just motivated by material things. Palestinians want a concrete manifestation of their national identity, just as everyone else does.
“Only a viable Palestinian state resolves this huge decades-long mess in the short to medium term. I think it may be too late but am willing to see what Obama has in mind.”
No doubt the joint news conference will be filled with conciliatory words and pledges of co-operation. But don’t be fooled by the diplomatic niceties: If Jerusalem will not budge on its denial of a Palestinian state, Washington’s hope for peace in the region will be short-circuited by Israel’s short-sighted thinking and lack of courage.