Israel's American Constituency
Jim Lobe is Washington bureau chief for Inter Press Service. Reprinted with permission.
On his maiden visit to the United States as Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert received a first-hand look at the political muscle of the right-wing “Israel Lobby,” part of which used the occasion to launch a campaign to deter him from following through on plans to unilaterally evacuate tens of thousands of settlers living in the occupied West Bank.
Even as Olmert met with President George W. Bush at the White House Tuesday, the House voted by an overwhelming 361-37 margin to impose strict conditions on aid to Palestinians, as demanded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Washington's most powerful pro-Israel lobby.
Bush had opposed the measure on the grounds that it reduced his administration's flexibility in dealing with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and prodding its Hamas-led government to meet conditions for the resumption of direct aid and diplomatic exchanges. Administration officials said they will support a less draconian Senate version of the bill.
Other, more even-handed Zionist groups, including Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), also opposed the measure, arguing that its conditions for restoring aid to the PA were likely to increase the chances of a humanitarian disaster in both Gaza and the West Bank and strengthen hardliners in the PA.
“The AIPAC leadership has its own agenda,” said Lewis Roth, an APN spokesman, noting that the bill's conditions for restoring aid went beyond those set by Israel itself.
Olmert, whose Kadima party heads a coalition that includes the more-dovish Labor Party and two more right-wing parties, arrived in Washington in hopes of securing the strongest possible White House endorsement of his campaign pledge to dismantle isolated West Bank settlements as part of a “realignment” designed to consolidate existing settlement blocs close to the “Green Line” and establish Israel's “permanent” borders over the next several years.
Olmert has said—as he did in an exceptionally well-attended and enthusiastically-received speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday—that he prefers such a process be carried out as a result of bilateral negotiations with the PA, particularly its president, Mahmoud Abbas. However, he has also insisted that Israel would implement it unilaterally, if necessary, just as former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out Israel's “disengagement” from Gaza last summer.
“Should we realize that the bilateral track with the Palestinians is of no consequence, should the Palestinians ignore our outstretched hand for peace, Israel will seek other alternatives to promote our future and the prospects of hope in the Middle East,” he told Congress. “At that juncture, the time for realignment will occur.”
But Bush, whose weak political position and preoccupation with Iraq and Iran's nuclear program have made him uncharacteristically sensitive to the concerns of European and Arab allies, has been leery of explicitly endorsing any further unilateral measures. Instead, he has called for the revival of the three-year-old road map, which requires bilateral negotiations within a larger multilateral framework.
The problem, however, is that both Olmert and Bush have ruled out any negotiations with or aid to a Hamas-led PA until the Islamist party, which unexpectedly swept elections in January, meets three conditions: recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism and endorsement of all previous agreements negotiated between the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) or PA and Israel.
In the face of Hamas' refusal to date to do so, the administration has been pushing Olmert to start negotiations with Abbas. Despite Olmert's reported belief that the Palestinian president is politically far too weak to meaningfully commit the PA, his foreign minister met with Abbas for the first time last week, and he promised Bush to follow up with a summit soon.
“We hope he will have the power to be able to meet the requirements necessary for negotiations between us and the Palestinians,” he said at the White House on Tuesday.
In exchange, it appears that Olmert received a qualified endorsement for proceeding with an eventual unilateral “realignment” if the Palestinians fail to offer an adequate response. As noted by The New York Times , U.S. officials who last week labeled the plan merely “interesting” were more positive by the time the prime minister met Bush, who called it “bold” and “creative” during a joint press conference.
“Olmert got enough of a green light to go ahead with the planning and campaigning for the realignment when he returns to Israel,” Lewis Roth told IPS.
It was in this context, however, that the House took up the AIPAC-backed Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act. The bill would cut off all U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority and require all U.S. humanitarian aid to be channeled through non-governmental organizations, including U.N. agencies which would be subject to a series of audits to ensure that Hamas was not benefiting directly or indirectly from their assistance.
The measure would also require the administration to shut down all Palestinian diplomatic offices in the U.S., deny visas to PA officials, and bar all diplomatic exchanges between U.S. and Palestinian officials. It also declares Palestinian territory to be a “terrorist sanctuary,” which would make it far more difficult for U.S. companies to do business there, and instructs the U.S. representative to the World Bank to oppose humanitarian aid projects for Palestinians.
To restore aid, the president would have to certify that Hamas has not only met the three official U.S. conditions, but also has halted an anti-Israeli incitement and guaranteed financial transparency in its institutions.
“On this issue, Congress has shown its capacity for being totally irresponsible,” the Israel Policy Forum’s Stephen Cohen told Congressional Quarterly . “They're always passing bills that try to punish someone. They never think of anything they can do that offers anybody an incentive.”
Ironically, the vote came on the same day that the head of the Israeli military, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, fuelling a growing debate about the wisdom of Israel's efforts to isolate Hamas, told the Knesset that economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority were unlikely to reduce popular support for the Islamists, let alone result in their ouster from power.
Even while the House approved the bill, however, hard-line neoconservatives and leaders of the Christian Right here launched a strong attack on Olmert's “realignment” plans under the general theme that, in the words of one melodramatic full-page Washington Times ad paid for by far-right Americans for a Safe Israel, “Friends don't let friends commit suicide.”
Writing in The Wall Street Journal , former CIA Director James Woolsey warned hyperbolically that Israel's withdrawal from most of the West Bank would result in a ”West Bank terrorist state,” part of an “Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas axis (that) is quite explicit about a genocidal objective” against the Jews. Similar themes were sounded in Washington Times op-eds by Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney and the Heritage Foundation's Ariel Cohen.
Americans for a Safe Israel’s ad was signed by half a dozen Christian Right groups—a core constituency of Bush. It warned that realignment would “reverse the victorious miracles of (the) 1967 (Arab-Israeli War)” and violate “God's promise to the Jewish people,” asserting that “there is a moral duty for the United States to restrain the State of Israel from destroying itself.”