The crisis of the Israel lobby

Israel/Palestine
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All around us are signs that the Israel lobby is about to take it on the chin in November. Netanyahu injected himself into our presidential race, and Romney accused Obama of throwing Israel “under the bus.” I thought the alarmism would work. It hasn’t. Obama defied Netanyahu, and he’s not paying a political price for it.

The American Jewish Committee’s poll says that Romney is capturing 27 percent of the Jewish vote– not much more than the 22 percent McCain got. In Ohio, neoconservative challenger Josh Mandel is about to be crushed by Democratic incumbent Senator Sherrod Brown, Amy Schiller at Daily Beast reports, despite Mandel’s pro-Israel appeals:

His campaign claimed that “Sherrod Brown and President Obama have lost the faith of Jewish Democrats.” Mandel told me that Brown’s extensive support from J Street made him “more of a Palestinian sympathizer than a true friend of Israel.”

Ohio Jews aren’t buying that. As the AJC poll says, most American Jews put Israel at a distant third or fourth among the issues that they vote on. 

OK, so the lobby has stumbled. What does the future hold? A few observations and predictions:

–The lobby didn’t dissolve, it split

This is not the end of the lobby. No, this is a victory for J Street and the liberal Zionist community, which fervently believes in the U.S. continuing to give tons of money to Israel and overlooking the atrocities of the occupation.

–The rightwing lobby is already regrouping for a battle royal on Iran.

Yes the lobby has lost, but it’s not as if Obama has shifted his policy on Iran, he’s just put it off by a few months. Israel supporters Martin Indyk, David Brooks, Dennis Ross, and Jeffrey Goldberg have all assured us lately that Obama is ready to attack by next spring. Even “Bomber boy” Bill Kristol has embraced Obama’s Iran policy, surely anticipating that Obama is going to win. And Tony Karon and David Bromwich have both warned that Obama has painted himself into the corner on such an attack.

So the next battle with the lobby will unfold in months to come. Goldberg has warned shrilly that Obama could change his mind. He fears that all the talk of deterrence from sober pundits like Bill Keller and Trudy Rubin will take hold. As it should. And will the new liberal wing of the lobby endorse such a shift? I doubt it.

–The handshake on the White House lawn

Three years ago J Street and the liberal Zionists said that they would drive a wedge in public opinion on the settlements issue, and Obama could come out against settlements and hold the majority of the Jewish community. They were wrong. Obama had to fold on settlements because the rightwing Jewish community organized against him and the liberal Zionists, and neoconservative appeals found a sympathetic audience even among liberal Jews (the ancient issue; the same liberals rationalized Jewish terrorism in the mandate period). 

I believe J Street and Americans for Peace Now were just ahead of their time; that they will be able to drive that wedge now, and Obama will come out against settlements.

Indeed, if Obama had any guts he’d be teeing this issue up now, so that he can claim a “mandate” come November 7. To what end? Antony Loewenstein said lately that there could be a handshake on the White House lawn in the second term, between Abbas and an Israeli counterpart– to produce a Bantustan state.

And if you give Palestinians a Bantustan state, nothing is going to change. There won’t be peace.

So the lobby has cracked, I agree. But the real battle is over Zionism itself. When will American Jews form a political bloc against an ideology that fosters discriminatory policies in the Middle East that they would never tolerate in the U.S.? Until that process happens, the lobby will just keep regrouping. The liberal Jewish community will continue to frame the issue as an argument between neocons and liberal Zionists. No anti-Zionists allowed!

The best news from this election is that if you politicize this issue– allowing it to be debated– public opinion will drive the politicians’ conversations to the left because Americans don’t like our tilted policy. That debate has a long way to go.

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