Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Israel Lobby?

Alarms are clattering in the minds of pro-Israel American activists whose mission in life is to close all gaps between official Israeli and American positions. In the weeks leading up to the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which begins May 3rd in DC, the Obama Administration has made it clear that it doesn't much care what these activists think, and that it is willing to rebuff and challenge Israel when necessary.

Obama seems to understand that he need not be afraid of the big bad Israel lobby. Thus far, he has given the lie to the popular notion that Israel's hawkish supporters have a vice grip on American policy, and that any U.S. president who stands up to them is committing political suicide.

After Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell praised a comprehensive Arab League peace plan a few times, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called it a "dangerous proposal." The State Department is pushing another idea that is anathema to the Israelis and AIPAC: amending formulas for Palestinian aid to permit the U.S. to funnel money into a unity government that includes ministers from Hamas, even if Hamas itself doesn't meet western conditions for aid. Both Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Gates have publicly said that an Israeli attack on Iran would be ill-advised, even though ratcheting up tension with Iran is one of AIPAC's highest priorities.

Haaretz claims Obama has been readying Democratic allies in Congress for a possible public confrontation with the Netanyahu government. Neither side wants a public battle and it might not happen in the near future, but if it does, bet on Obama to win. Netanyahu cannot count on his friends in the U.S. to dissuade Obama from taking steps the president believes are in America's interests.

As part of the research for my book on America's Israel lobby, I tried to determine the likely political fall-out from a more evenhanded American approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I interviewed U.S. diplomats, members of Congress and their staffers, and American Jewish activists. Most of them agreed with Samuel Lewis, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who told me: "History shows that when presidents are determined to do something in U.S. interests, the [Israel] lobby folds. Congress folds. As Bush demonstrated, the White House can win the fight."

Lewis was referring to squabbles between President George H.W. Bush and the Israel lobby over loan guarantees to Israel, which Bush wanted to ensure were not used to free up money for Israeli settlements. Despite angry objections from Israel's supporters in the U.S., Congress gave Bush what he wanted on the loan guarantees in 1991. Nor did the Israel lobby prevent his administration from dragging Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir kicking and screaming to the Madrid peace conference in 1992.

Jimmy Carter also fought with Israel's supporters in the U.S, but that didn't stop him from implementing Middle East policies be believed in.

Of course there are political risks in arguing with Israel. One oft-cited warning to adventurous presidents is that Carter and Bush pere lost bids for re-election because they lost many Jewish votes. In fact, both would have been defeated anyway, mainly because of terrible recessions and the charisma of their opponents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. More important, Obama has political buffers that were not available to Bush or Carter, and will have more leeway to lean on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, instead of just one side.

In the last few years, American Jewish groups that want Obama to have this leeway have begun to flex their muscles in Washington, including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and Israel Policy Forum. J Street raised more money last year for Congressional candidates than any other Political Action Committee connected with Israel. The silent Jewish majority, whose views are more dovish than groups that purport to represent them in Washington, is finally being heard in the corridors of power. And in recent years, the groups that speak for it have begun to cooperate actively in Washington with church groups and a few Arab American organizations that share most of its goals.

This alternative political bloc is not nearly as loud as the status quo lobby, doesn't have as many resources, and can't match AIPAC's grassroots network. But it probably need not be as powerful as AIPAC and the rest of the conventional Israel lobby. One reason is that there is an increasing amount of resentment against AIPAC in Congress. As one former Senate staffer told me, "There is a lot of pent-anger. Lots of staff and members curse the box that AIPAC puts them in. They feel like they are forced to take positions they don't believe are in the best interests of Israel." So the angry waters have been rising, pressing against the dam, and just a little more encouragement might be sufficient to open the floodgates.

AIPAC's leaders do not want that to happen. They are terrified of a confrontation with an overwhelmingly popular American president who has passionate support from the American Jewish community. Their highest priority is solidifying America's short- and long-term relationship with Israel. For that, they need access to and good relations with bureaucrats in Foggy Bottom, the Pentagon and the White House. A public squabble with Obama and his team is not helpful to AIPAC staffers who need to get into the right rooms with the right people, and who need to get their board members into those very same rooms because that is an expected perk of voluntary leadership.

Right now, the disagreements between Israel and America involve mostly broad principles, not actual facts on the ground. Such disagreements can probably be defused with calm rhetoric. AIPAC is desperately trying to calm the waters when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is trying to rev up its troops to lobby for tougher sanctions against Iran, the most important issue on its agenda. That may well spark an argument with the Obama administration. But since it is about American policy, as opposed to Israel policies and behavior, it probably won't lead to a knock-down drag-out battle between the American and Israeli governments.

But eventually, Obama must decide if he is willing to press both Israelis and Palestinians to stop taking steps that will preclude the possibility of peace. He must decide whether to insist loudly and clearly that, like Palestinian violence and incitement, Israel's recalcitrant refusal to stop its settlements projects is unacceptable, and against American, Israeli and Palestinian interests.

If he stakes out that position, most American Jews -like most Americans--will support him, No doubt there will be noisy squalls from pro-Israel right-wingers in the U.S. But there is no reason for Obama or his Congressional allies to fear them.