(photo credit: AP)
Whenever American Jewish leaders are invited to the White House to talk about Israel - as 16 were on Monday evening - the prime purpose of the invitation is not to give the machers an opportunity to sway the leader of the free world, though their views may be genuinely sought, but for the administration to diminish the prospect of them lobbying against the president's policies.
While none of Israel's leading Christian supporters - likely to sound a discordant note - was invited on Monday, the heads of relatively marginal groups lobbying for an American-imposed solution to the conflict were there, on a par with the leaders of mainstream political, religious, fraternal and philanthropic organizations.
Jewish personalities have been legitimately criticizing this or that Israeli policy since the 1950s, long before the "occupation" and settlements. When the settlement enterprise got under way after the 1967 war, American Jewish leaders were not enamored. But so long as the Arabs were perceived to be in a zero-sum conflict with Israel, Diaspora discomfiture over settlements was mostly muted. That changed when the perception became one of an emerging moderate Palestinian Arab leadership genuinely committed to a two-state solution.
Various administrations have since found it easier to pressure Israel into concessions by dissociating the pro-Israel community from Israeli West Bank policies, and by promoting American pressure as being in Israel's own best interest. Today, we are witnessing a "perfect storm" of diffuse US pressure on Israel.
Begin with the unyielding opposition to the settlement enterprise of every administration since Richard Nixon's. Add the growing sense among establishment figures that non-strategic settlements are an obstacle to peace. Consider that the overwhelming majority of American Jews have never once visited this country and have no understanding of the topography of the West Bank, or of Israel's legitimate security needs. Then throw in the emergence of self-proclaimed pro-Israel groups - stridently ideological, highly mobilized and well-funded - advocating an American-imposed solution to the conflict.
Never has criticism of Israel been less nuanced and more unhelpful to fostering peace.
Who can blame Barack Obama for exploiting this political environment to put the screws on Israel? Answer: Those who realize that the settlement-freeze issue is something of a red herring; that the non-zero-sum nature of Palestinian intentions is far from assured; and that it is the Palestinians who are inhibiting progress on a two-state solution.
AT MONDAY'S meeting, according to The Los Angeles Times, Obama told the Jewish leaders that public disagreements between the US government and Israel were useful leverage in the pursuit of peace. The AP synopsized Obama's position this way: Eight years of demanding Palestinian concessions produced no results; it was time to try a different tack.
If these accounts are accurate, it is depressing that Obama's words did not elicit respectful dissent. Rather, as one rabbinical attendee told reporters, he was keen to let the president have a go. Obama claimed that the media tended to play up disagreements with Israel while ignoring his demands of the Arabs. If so, that's probably because the administration's calls on Israel are public and strident, while those on the Arabs are hushed and diplomatic.
We're not suggesting that Obama is substantively less pro-Israel than most of his predecessors. But we are concerned over his refusal to embrace the 1967-plus strategy enunciated by his predecessor, at a time when his administration is demanding a freeze even to Israeli construction in Jerusalem areas captured in 1967. The furthest he seems willing to go is to hint that changes which have occurred since 1967 will inevitably influence final-status negotiations.
IF THE administration feels it faces no countervailing pressure, it will go on deepening the erroneous perception that settlements are the obstacle to peace. This alienates Israel's majority, which is willing to make painful territorial concessions, yet believes that ill-tempered calls for an unconditional freeze everywhere only encourage Palestinian intransigence.
Pro-Israel Americans should caution Obama not to lose the Israeli "street" as he seeks favor with the Arab one.
They need to say, loud and clear, that the principles enunciated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at Bar-Ilan University - essentially supporting Palestinian statehood within parameters that do not endanger Israel - deserve the administration's strong backing.