When Benyamin Netanyahu last came to Washington as Prime Minister of Israel the setting was quite different. Back then, President Bill Clinton was distracted, beset by scandals that culminated in his impeachment. Republicans, who had formed a partnership with Netanyahu's Likud party in opposition to both Clinton and the Labor Party-led Oslo Peace Process, were in control of both houses of Congress. And while many American Jews were uncomfortable with Netanyahu's anti-peace posture, there were only faint voices heard in opposition to his policies.
What a difference a decade can make.
In 2009, Netanyahu met a US President who had won election by a handsome margin, and whose victory helped his party expand their control over both the Senate and the House of Representatives. A popular President, Obama has wind in his sails, and has demonstrated both the vision and commitment to make real change on many issues-including the Middle East.
At their White House press briefing last week, Netanyahu may have been stubborn, but Obama, too, held his ground. Addressing his remarks directly to the cameras, the US President lectured Netanyahu about the steps that must be taken: "all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations they previously agreed to," "settlements have to be stopped," "if the people of Gaza have no hope, if they can't even get clean water…if the border closures are so tight it is impossible for reconstruction or humanitarian efforts to take place, then that is not going to be a recipe for [the] peace track to move forward," and much more.
But it wasn't only a new and tougher President that Netanyahu ran into last week, it was also a very different Jewish community. A recent poll of American Jews commissioned by J Street, the Jewish pro-peace lobby, found that substantial majorities of American Jews (in the 70% range) support President Obama and support a two-state solution that includes a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and some limited "right to return." In addition, a strong majority oppose settlement construction and opinion is split down the middle on whether or not to cut aid to Israel if they become an obstacle to achieving peace!
It has been clear for many years now that majority opinion in the Jewish community was not represented by AIPAC's hawkish voice. This pro-peace orientation has taken an institutional form, and is now stronger and more vocal than it was a decade ago. Groups like J Street, Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v'Shalomare, are active, working not only within the Jewish community, but also in coalition with Arab Americans to change US-Middle East policy. The efforts of this pro-peace lobby were on display this week for Netanyahu to see.
Even before the Prime Minister's arrival in Washington, the Israel Policy Forum published full page ads in major US newspapers which urged President Obama to use his meeting with Middle East leaders to insist on a number of steps, including:
- A freeze on West Bank settlement construction, the dismantling of superfluous checkpoints and illegal settlements, and the cessation of demolitions of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem;
- The immediate reconstruction of Gaza with a focus on civilian needs, and the local economy;
- The pursuit of a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors, including Syria, using the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for negotiations.
Also last week, a number of the pro-peace groups joined together in support of a congressional letter to the President. The letter was specifically designed to counter an earlier letter circulated by AIPAC which had called on the President to leave the parties to negotiate among themselves without US interference. The AIPAC letter asks nothing of Israel, instead putting stiff burdens exclusively on the Palestinian side, making fulfillment of these a prerequisite for statehood.
The letter by pro-peace Members of Congress, on the other hand, was dramatically different in tone and substance. It expressed concern with settlements, "tensions in Jerusalem and other changes on the ground [which] threaten the opportunity for a two-state solution." Since "left to themselves, the parties have been unable to make progress," the peace letter urges the President to become directly engaged in peace-making. And then, in a bold move, the letter notes that while building Palestinian capacity in the economic and security sectors are important goals, "these goals can be effectively realized over time once a Palestinian state has been created."
It is clear the AIPAC still remains a powerful lobby with a strong voice and strong support in Washington. The 280 or so congressional signatures on their letter is evidence of that strength. But the fact is that AIPAC is no longer uncontested in Washington, as evidenced by the near 70 (and still growing) list of congressional endorsers compiled by the pro-peace organizations. All this means that Washington is changing. The environment for Middle East peace making is better than it was a decade ago-with a strong President determined to take on big issues and pro-peace groups within the Jewish community working, with Arab Americans, to support the President's efforts. Would that the environment among Israelis and Palestinians were as ripe.
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