President Obama's love-in (transcript here) with Prime Minister Netanyahu today demonstrates that the adage that "politics stops at the water's edge" does not apply to the Middle East. The President invited Netanyahu to Washington to get relations back on course (i.e., make AIPAC happy) as we go into the critical fundraising quarter for the November elections.
When it comes to all matters relating to Israel, foreign policy is politics. And politics is fundraising.
That is how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's meetings with President Obama and other administration officials this week should be viewed. Nothing significant has changed since Obama last met with Netanyahu and conveyed his displeasure with Israeli behavior. Israel is still expanding settlements in Jerusalem, still expelling Palestinians from their homes, and still maintaining the blockade of Gaza. Of course, the blockade has been eased but only after the IDF attacked the flotilla, killing 8 Turks and one American. (Has any American's death ever gone as unprotested as this one?)
Nonetheless, it was all smiles at the White House today. It was embarrassing to watch.
David Makovsky, who works for the AIPAC cutout, the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, explained what's going on in today's Washington Post. "As we get closer to the midterm elections, if there was a gap, it's narrowing.... I think the blowup in March between Obama and Netanyahu has led each side to realize that they've gone too far, and they've got to dial it down."
Makovsky's opening reference to the "midterm elections" is the key. The United States has to make things right with Israel or the Democratic Party will pay a price, quite literally. Israel's loquacious ambassador, Michael Oren, correctly predicted that, unlike the last White House meeting between Netanyahu and Obama, there would be photographers on hand to record the two leaders making nice. And those photographs will go to all the right people.
"We are going to have a lot of photographers," Oren said. Laughing, he added: "There are going to be more photographers there than at the Academy Awards."
Of course, neither side (with the exception of loose cannon Oren) is likely to admit that this meeting is about politics. They will say that they are about getting negotiations started, although with Israel busily expanding settlements in Jerusalem, it is hard to see how that will happen.
The Palestinians have no great incentive to negotiate with a prime minister whose government solidly opposes any dismantling of settlements, not now and not ever. They can be forgiven for believing that the Washington meeting is a charade, designed to appease a lobby whose members are threatening to punish the Democrats unless Obama capitulates with a smile.
And, of course, that happened. Obama even said that Israel will continue to get a pass on nuclear proliferation issues because "given its size and the threats against it, Israel has unique security requirements."
This World Cup goes to AIPAC yet again!
Some readers think I exaggerate the influence of the lobby. I don't (I used to work at AIPAC and on its favorite stomping ground, Capitol Hill and I know how it operates).
The latest evidence of the fear and trembling produced by the lobby was evidenced last week when it was revealed that General David Petraeus was upset and worried by a column I wrote in March. I praised him for testifying that the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict threatens all US interests in the Middle East, including our troops. (All the information below comes from a column by Phil Weiss of Mondoweiss, who has possession of the original emails).
The story starts on March 16, 2010 when Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests... Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.
I then wrote a Foreign Policy Matters piece praising Petraeus for telling the truth about how the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate hurts America. It was called "On the Middle East, It's Palin vs Petraeus."
Almost immediately, a State Department official named Michael Gfoeller forwarded my article to Petraeus with a simple message; "Sir: FYI. Mike."
Nineteen minutes later Petraeus sent my piece to Max Boot, the uber-neocon Wall Street Journal columnist:
From: Petraeus, David H GEN MIL USA USCENTCOM CCCC/CCCC To: Max Boot Subject: FW: On the Middle East: It's Palin vs Petraeus As you know, I didn't say that. It's in a written submission for the record...
Petraeus meant that the words I quoted cited were not in his oral statement. They were in a 56-page document, titled "Statement of General David H. Petraeus, U.S. Army Commander, US Central Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the posture of US Central Command, 16 Mar 2010."
Of course, the statement submitted for the record is the official statement. It is the statement that was cleared for use by his superiors. It is policy.
Boot responded four minutes later:
"Oh brother. Luckily it's only media matters [sic] which has no credibility but I think I will do another short item pointing people to what you actually said as opposed to what's in the posture statement."
Then six minutes later, Petraeus sends his idea for a strategy to answer those who might take offense at his suggestion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict harms US interests:
From: Petraeus, David H GEN MIL USA USCENTCOM CCCC/CCCC 2:37
Thx, Max. (Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?! And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in mid-Apr at the Capitol Dome...)
Boot says that citing Petraeus' friendship with Wiesel would not be necessary because "you're not being accused of being an anti-Semite."
Not only was I not accusing Petraeus of being an anti-Semite, I was praising him for stating, on the record, what most of the top brass believe - that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the perception that the United States is reflexively on Israel's side, is bad for America. Nor did I distort anything Petraeus said. His only complaint is that he didn't actually "say" the words but included them in his testimony. In other words, I characterized his words correctly. And that worries him!
But then Max Boot comes to Petraeus' rescue and posts (in Commentary, where else?) a blog post called "A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel." His whole defense of Petraeus consists of the fact that I quote from a "posture statement" (his official statement) not his spoken words. He then goes on to say that the last thing Petraeus believes is that "settlements had to be stopped or that Israel is to blame for the lack of progress in negotiations."
Whatever. The story here is not that Petraeus believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict negatively effects US interests throughout the Middle East (he clearly does) but the panic that ensues when those sentiments are ascribed to him.
Why the panic? Why the rush to consult neocon Max Boot? Why the nervousness?
You tell me.
President Obama and Congress are infinitely more susceptible to these fears than a four star General (who is constitutionally immune from political pressure). If Petraeus gets this rattled, what can you expect from politicians?