After a promising beginning, the Obama administration’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have reverted to the US norm—essentially unconditional support for Israel’s follies. In particular, Obama’s UN speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was dreadful. But while outrage is fully justified, we should also recognize the fact that Obama—and therefore we on the left as well—are in an impossible dilemma.
Let us suppose that instead of saying all the wrong things, Obama were to say all the right ones. Let us further suppose that he didn’t merely say all the right things, he actually did the right things, at least insofar as he had the power to do so. Suppose he said that from this moment on, the Obama administration would end all its diplomatic, political and moral support of Israel until it agreed to the international consensus two-state settlement? What would be the consequences?
First, Congress would refuse to support him, and so the administration would be unable to end U.S. economic and military support of Israel, by far the most important components of potential U.S. leverage.
Second, as in the past the outcome of both the presidential and congressional elections could turn on just 2-3% (or indeed, much less) of the electoral vote. That means that there is a huge risk that the next presidency and both houses of Congress will come under the control of a Republican party that is dominated by know-nothings and the lunatic fringe. That is unbearable to contemplate—it could result in the worst crisis in American history since the Civil War.
Third—and this is really the clincher—I fear that Israel is so far gone that even if Obama said and did all the right things, even if he was reelected, and even if the Democrats controlled both houses of congress, it would not move Israel in the right direction.
In my view, the withdrawal of American support might well result in an Israel that would become even more irrational and violent than it already is. Do we really think that the settlers and the large numbers of Israelis that support them would give up? There is little chance that the increasingly hardline Israeli police and military would or could enforce an end to the occupation—on the contrary some Israeli analysts fear that a military coup against a government agreeing to end the occupation would be a real possibility.
Alternatively, rather than responding favorably to serious American and international pressures, it is at least as likely that Israelis would conclude that everyone is against them anyway, so the hell with them all.
If this assessment is right, then we are asking Obama to adopt policies which are likely to fail in Israel, but which could easily have disastrous consequences for our own country. In short, if I were in Obama’s shoes today, I fear I would grit my teeth and do pretty much the same as he is doing.
But what about after the elections—supposing Obama is reelected? Would that free him up to take on Israel and its supporters in the U.S? For one thing, many of the domestic constraints would remain. Moreover, suppose the problem is more deeply rooted than in what many believe to be Obama’s cynicism (though I have been making the case that it is probably more appropriate to view it as realism). That is, how do we know that Obama is not merely making hardnosed concessions to the American political realities, but is himself ignorant of the true history and realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Suppose he actually believes in—or, at least, half-believes in—his nonsensical and infuriating rhetoric? After all, not even domestic political realities mandated that he choose Dennis Ross as his primary adviser on Israel.
In any case, it is hard to envisage any realistic near or middle-term set of circumstances that would result in Israel agreeing to the international consensus two-state settlement. Many who share this assessment conclude that therefore the goal should be a one-state settlement. It is a puzzling argument: all the factors that have destroyed a two-state settlement make a one-state settlement even less likely to occur. That is, no one-state advocate has explained why and how the Israelis would agree to give up a Jewish state in which they are a large majority and hold all the important sources of political, economic, and military power in favor of a democratic binational state in which the Palestinians would be the majority.
What, then, to do? Despite my own bleak analysis, I find it unbearable to conclude that nothing at all can be done. Over the longer run, it is possible that an international BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) might succeed. As I have argued, it also might backfire, but that is just a risk that morally must be run, in the hope that the pariah status of Israel would result in the South African outcome rather than the Samson one.
In the shorter run, however, Israel is beyond saving, whether by itself or by the United States. Therefore, I don’t see any alternative to what Obama is doing: right now it is this country that needs to be saved from itself.