Daniel Levy
International Herald Tribune (Opinion)
October 16, 2007 - 12:42pm

After seven lean years, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are back on the agenda for a planned summit meeting next month in Annapolis, Maryland. Intriguingly, the return of the peace process coincides with an unusual public debate taking place in America regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship following the attention received by a book about the Israel lobby.

The debate triggered by the authors, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, has understandably touched on raw emotions and too often degenerated into name-calling. But it has also aired a rather important question: Is the special relationship as currently pursued actually healthy for either Israel or America?

Addressing that challenge and achieving a constructive outcome in Annapolis are two sides of the same coin. Of course the Palestinians too will have a say in how things unfold, but the undeniable asymmetry between occupier and occupied places the onus on the former, and its enabler.

On the Israel side, the relationship delivers the very dubious luxury of misbehavior without consequences. It also denies Israel's leaders an external impetus and excuse for taking necessary, if unpopular steps.

Settlements, land confiscations, the resulting anger, violence and internal moral decay: Many Israelis now recognize that the entire accessories catalog of a continued occupation is terribly self-destructive.

But instead of organizing an intervention, Israel's best friend indulges the addiction. The fiction is maintained that Israel can coexist snugly with greater Israel; and the Muslim world, from Sahara to Sumatra, is fed the daily bloody Palestinian soap opera.

On the U.S. side, the relationship encourages Lilliputian politics on an issue that, especially post 9/11, touches defining foreign policy and security concerns. The failed framing of the war on terror, for instance, becomes more difficult to recast.

To address the root causes and legitimate grievances that facilitate anti-American mobilization and jihadi recruitment and embarrass allies requires a recognition of the role of the Israeli occupation. If that is a "no go" area for politicians, then the pushback against current policy is severely handicapped.

The choice is not an unattractive and unrealistic all-or-nothing, America as Israel's best friend or America turning its back on Israel. Rather, can the special relationship be deployed to more mutually beneficial effect with the United States, at Annapolis for instance, vigorously pushing a dignified two-state solution and engaging if necessary with stakeholders that are shunned by Israel?

The existing, unhelpful reality is perpetuated by many factors, but three stand out in the current terrain. First, the traditionally liberal American Jewish community has outsourced leadership on Israel-related issues to an increasingly hawkish right-wing minority. It's part diaspora guilt and identity politics, part fear mongering that is both effective and great for fundraising, and part the justifiable liberal tendency to be multi-issue, campaigning and donating across a range of worthy causes. The liberal majority often avoid the internal community headache of being progressive on Israel. Not so the single-issue Israel zealots.

A second and increasingly powerful factor is the evangelical Christian Zionist right. Their philo-Zionism has a disturbing little anti-Semitic twist to it (once the Jews are all gathered in the promised land they either die or convert), but this inconvenient truth is overlooked by those who have welcomed them as allies in the American Jewish establishment. A rich vein of populist Islamophobia also now plays into the equation.

The final factor is the strong and mutually supportive cooperation built between the neocons and their benefactors in the U.S. and certain right-wing politicians and think tanks in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky both have more of a constituency in Washington than in Jerusalem. These long-cultivated links have been most effectively deployed since 9/11.

The urgent challenge is to construct a competing alliance. To steal a page from the hawks' playbook, let's call it Sanity Watch. The political leadership of the center-left in both Israel and America is unlikely to rise to the challenge. The drive for a coalition of sanity may have to come from civil society.

On the Israeli side, the peace camp would need to rediscover its voice, its confidence, and to prioritize reaching out to potential allies in the United States. Americans, both Jewish and non-Jewish, will have to feel a sense of ownership of this issue. No one in history ever washed a rental car.

Although it is a stretch, the devastation and instability wrought in the region by recent policy offers a moment of opportunity. Middle East peace or the lack thereof now impacts not only American troops serving in the region, but also homeland security.

Copy writers should be able to find a popular formula that expresses Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution as a vital U.S. interest. And for American Jews there might be an additional impetus: saving Israel from the slow death of occupation deluxe. For all its influence and - for argument's sake - good intentions, the existing "pro-Israel" community has not helped deliver what is most vital for Israel's future: permanent agreed borders and an end of conflict. Sanity Watch has its marching orders.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017