John Mearsheimer: Move Over AIPAC lecture
May 21, 2011
The Lobby and the Israel-Palestine Conflict
It is a pleasure to be here at the Move Over AIPAC Conference. I would like to thank Medea Benjamin and Rae Abileah of Code Pink for inviting us, and all of you for coming out to this important event. I have great respect for what you are doing to change US Middle East policy and I wish you the best of luck in that endeavor.
As Steve indicated, I am going to speak about the lobby’s influence on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Specifically, I am going to argue that the lobby, working hand in hand with Israel, makes it virtually impossible for the US to push forward a two-state solution, which is not only in the best interests of the US, but of Israel and the Palestinians as well.
In fact, we have now reached the point where, regrettably, the two-state solution is a fantasy. The West Bank and Gaza, which would have been the home of a Palestinian state, are now being incorporated into a Greater Israel, which will be an apartheid state bearing marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa.
I believe that this outcome will prove disastrous for Israel over the long term, and will also do serious damage to American foreign policy for years to come.
Let me explain how I reached these conclusions by starting with some big picture points.
The Middle East is the most important region of the world for the US today, and within that region, Israel is the most important country for Washington. As Steve noted, we have a special relationship with Israel that has no parallel in recorded history. Furthermore, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the issue that we care the most about in our dealings with the Jewish state.
Regarding that issue, it is important to recognize that every American president since 1967 has opposed settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza, which are commonly called the Occupied Territories. Yet no president has been able to put serious pressure on Israel to stop building settlements, much less dismantle them. Perhaps the best evidence of America’s impotence is what happened in the 1990s during the Oslo peace process. Between 1993 and 2000, Israel confiscated 40,000 acres of Palestinian land, constructed 250 miles of connector and bypass roads, doubled the number of settlers, and built 30 new settlements. President Clinton did hardly anything to halt this expansion. Indeed, the United States continued to give Israel billions of dollars in foreign aid each year and to protect it at every turn on the diplomatic front.
Since the start of the Oslo peace process in 1993, the US has not simply been opposed to settlement building; it has also been deeply committed to pushing forward a two-state solution as the best way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Obama is certainly dedicated to those two goals.
This leads to the obvious question: why are American leaders so committed to stopping settlement building and achieving a two-state solution?
There is both a strategic and a moral rationale behind our policy.
Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians – which we support by giving Israel money and diplomatic protection at every turn – is – not surprisingly – one of the main causes of our terrorism problem.
Israel’s backers maintain that U.S. support for Israel had nothing to do with 9/11. But this claim is simply not true. Consider the motivations of Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who the 9/11 Commission describes as the “principle architect of the attacks.” According to the Commission, “KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experiences there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” Numerous independent accounts have also documented that Osama bin Laden was deeply concerned about the Palestinians’ dire situation since he was a young man, and the 9/11 Commission reports that he wanted the attackers to strike Congress, because he saw it as the most important source of support for Israel in the United States. The Commission also tells us that bin Laden twice wanted to move up the date of the attacks because of events involving Israel – even though doing so would have increased the risk of failure.
Former President Bill Clinton has recently speculated that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides the impetus for about half of our terrorism problem. And President Obama, Vice President Biden and General David Petraeus have all made comments that make clear that Israel’s colonization of the Occupied Territories is doing serious damage to American interests in the Middle East and surrounding areas.
And earlier this year, President Obama’s former national security advisor,
General James Jones, told an audience in Israel that “I’m of the belief that had God appeared in front of President Obama in 2009 and said if he could do one thing on the face of the planet, and one thing only, to make the world a better place and give people more hope and opportunity for the future, I would venture that it would have something to do with finding the two-state solution to the Middle East.”
In short, there is no hope of ending our terrorism problem and improving America’s standing in the Middle East if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not resolved. That will only happen if there is a two-state solution; it certainly will not happen if Israel turns itself into an apartheid state, and the special relationship remains in place.
There is also a powerful moral rationale behind the two-state solution.
What the Zionists and later the Israelis have done to the Palestinian people since the UN put forth its plan to partition Mandatory Palestine in November 29, 1947 is one of the great crimes of modern history. They ethnically cleansed about 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 and then cleansed roughly another 200,000 Palestinians when they captured the West Bank in 1967. Israel has not only refused to allow the Palestinians to have a viable state of their own, but prominent Zionists like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Chaim Weizmann have gone so far as to argue that there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.
Palestinians who live inside Israel today are treated like second-class citizens, while those in the West Bank and Gaza effectively live in an apartheid state. It is worth noting that a number of South Africans who have visited the Occupied Territories have said that the Palestinians live in worse conditions than blacks did in white-ruled South Africa. And let us not forget that the Goldstone Report concluded that Israel committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead.
The bottom line is that it is imperative for both strategic and moral reasons for the US to push forward a two-state solution.
President Obama, of course, fully understands this logic, which is why, after taking office in January 2009, he and his principal foreign policy advisors began demanding that Israel stop all settlement building in the Occupied Territories, to include East Jerusalem, so that serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians could begin.
In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear that Israel intended to continue building settlements and that he and almost everyone in his ruling coalition opposed a two-state solution.
Netanyahu, of course, won this fight. The Israeli prime minister not only refused to stop building the 2500 housing units that were then under construction in the West Bank, but just to make it clear to Obama who was boss, in late June 2009, he authorized the building of 300 new homes in the West Bank. Netanyahu refused to even countenance any limits on settlement building in East Jerusalem, which is supposed to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. By the end of September 2009, Obama publicly conceded that Netanyahu had beaten him in their fight over the settlements. The president falsely denied that freezing settlement construction had ever been a precondition for resuming the peace process, and instead he meekly asked Israel to please exercise restraint while it continued colonizing the West Bank. Fully aware of his triumph, Netanyahu said on September 23, “I am pleased that President Obama has accepted my approach that there should be no preconditions.”
The Obama administration engaged Israel in a second round of fighting over the settlements in the spring of 2010, after the Netanyahu government embarrassed Vice President Biden during his visit to Israel by announcing plans to build 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu rejected President Obama’s request to stop building settlements in East Jerusalem. “As far as we are concerned,” he said on March 21, “building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv. Our policy on Jerusalem is like the policy in the past 42 years.” One day later at the 2010 AIPAC Conference he said: “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement; it’s our capital.”
Netanyahu won that fight too. He was invited to the White House in early July 2010, where President Obama embraced him and papered over their differences about settlement building in East Jerusalem.
Shortly thereafter in the early fall of 2010, there was a third confrontation between Netanyahu and Obama. The president had finally been able to start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in early September. But the Palestinians were threatening to walk away from the talks if Israel ended its 10-month partial freeze of settlement building in the West Bank later that month. Obama pleaded with Netanyahu to continue the limited freeze, and even offered him a generous aid package just to continue it for three more months. But the Israeli prime minister rejected his requests and the Palestinians eventually walked away from the peace talks.
In sum, Obama has gone toe-to-toe with Netanyahu on three separate occasions and the president has lost each time.
This leads to the obvious question: why did Obama lose? One might think the president should have been in an ideal position to put significant – if not enormous – pressure on Israel to allow the Palestinians to have their own state. The United States, after all, is the most powerful country in the world and it should have great leverage over Israel because it gives the Jewish state so much diplomatic and material support. But clearly Obama had hardly any leverage over Netanyahu, who beat the president hands down all three times.
Many of Israel’s defenders like to argue that the American people identify closely with Israel and put significant pressure on their leaders to support it generously and unconditionally. Thus, there is no way that any president can win a fight with an Israeli leader.
But there is abundant evidence showing that this is not true. Various polls over the last few years indicate that over 70 percent of Americans think that the U.S. should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and according to a poll released by the BBC two months ago, 41 percent of Americans think that Israel’s influence in the world is “mainly negative.” Moreover, 60 percent of Americans have said in one poll that the United States should withhold aid to Israel if it resists pressure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In short, a clear majority of Americans do not favor the special relationship and would back Obama if he leaned on Israel to stop expanding the settlements and accept a Palestinian state.
The real reason that Netanyahu has the upper hand over Obama is the Israel lobby, which invariably sides with Israel against the United States when the two states have conflicting interests. And because the lobby is enormously powerful, no president will pick a fight with it. Remember that Alan Dershowitz said that it “is perhaps the most effective lobbying and fund-raising effort in the history of democracy”
Regarding the two-state solution, most Israelis are opposed to making the sacrifices that would be necessary to create a viable Palestinian state, and there is little reason to expect them to have an epiphany on this issue anytime soon. This attitude is certainly reflected in the present Israeli government. Prime Minister Netanyahu, after all, has made a career of fighting against the two-state solution. Not surprisingly, a poll done in mid-March found that 78 percent of the members of his Likud party oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.
If there was no lobby, Obama could bring massive pressure to bear on Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians and allow them to have a viable state of their own. But there is, and the lobby simply will not allow the president to put serious pressure on Israel. The clearest evidence of its influence on the Obama administration is the presence of Dennis Ross inside the White House. Ross has a passionate attachment to Israel and over the course of his career he has worked for various institutions in the lobby like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is widely regarded as a fervent advocate of Israel’s positions inside the White House. Indeed, Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, recently said that, “Dennis is the closest thing you’ll find to a melitz yosher, as far as Israel is concerned.” A melitz yosher is a Hebrew phrase for advocate. Aaron David Miller, who served with Ross during the Clinton administration, famously said that he and Ross too often acted as “Israel’s lawyers” during the Oslo negotiations.
Ross, of course, is not just one of many Middle East experts in the Obama administration. He is one of the most powerful – if not the most powerful – advisors that Obama has on matters relating to Israel and the Middle East. As we now know, he has triumphed over his major competitor, George Mitchell, who just resigned from the administration. All of this is to say that a man who routinely acts as Israel’s lawyer is wielding great influence on the making of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. Of course, Dennis Ross is just the tip of the iceberg. It is no wonder that the president cannot put meaningful pressure on Israel to force it to change its policies toward the Palestinians.
The end result of the lobby’s success at thwarting a two-state solution is that there is going to be a Greater Israel that bears marked resemblance to white-ruled South Africa. Israelis and their American supporters invariably bristle at the comparison to apartheid South Africa, but that is their future if they create a Greater Israel while denying full political rights to an Arab population that will soon outnumber the Jewish population in the entirety of the land.
Indeed, two former Israeli prime ministers have made this very point. Ehud Olmert, who was Netanyahu’s predecessor, said in late November 2007 that if “the two-state solution collapses,” Israel will “face a South-African-style struggle.” He went so far as to argue that, “as soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is now Israel’s defense minister, said more recently that, “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”
Other Israelis, as well as Jimmy Carter and Bishop Desmond Tutu, have warned that if Israel does not pull out of the Occupied Territories it will become an apartheid state resembling white-ruled South Africa. But if I am right, the occupation is not going to end and there will not be a two-state solution. That means Israel will complete its transformation into a full-blown apartheid state over the next decade.
In the long run, however, Israel will not be able to maintain itself as an apartheid state. Like racist South Africa, it will eventually evolve into a democratic bi-national state whose politics will be dominated by the more numerous Palestinians.
The main problem that Israel’s defenders will face is that it is impossible to defend apartheid, because it is antithetical to core Western values. How does one make a moral case for apartheid, especially in the United States, where democracy is venerated and segregation and racism are routinely condemned? It is hard to imagine the United States having a special relationship with an apartheid state. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the United States having much sympathy for one. It is much easier to imagine the United States strongly opposing that racist state’s political system and working hard to change it. Of course, many other countries around the globe would follow suit. This is surely why former Prime Minister Olmert said that going down the apartheid road would be suicidal for Israel.
What is truly remarkable about this situation is that organizations like AIPAC are effectively helping Israel commit national suicide. What makes this situation even more astonishing is that there is an alternative outcome which would be relatively easy to achieve and is clearly in Israel’s best interests: the two-state solution. It is hard to understand why Israel and its American supporters are not working overtime to create a viable Palestinian state and why instead they are moving full-speed ahead to build Greater Israel, which will be an apartheid state. It makes no sense from either a moral or a strategic perspective. Indeed, it is an exceptionally foolish policy. Thank you.