Why the US applauds Israeli defiance
By Rupert Cornwell, Thursday, 26 May 2011
Accounts vary on whether Benjamin Netanyahu received 28 or 29 standing ovations during his address to the US Congress on Tuesday. But the exact figure scarcely matters. Suffice it to note that they were two or three more than the 26 Barack Obama received in his last State of the Union address. The New York Times drily noted yesterday that “at times it appeared that lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up”.
If you needed a primer on the sheer impossibility of Middle East peace-making, the last week has provided one. It began when Mr Obama stirred a tempest by stating the blindingly obvious – that an Israel/Palestine settlement should be based on the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps. It ended with the spectacle of Mr Netanhayu’s ecstatically received address.
Mr Obama is probably the least well disposed to Israel of recent American presidents, and “icy” is a polite term to describe his relations with Mr Netanyahu. But, just like his predecessors, his hands are tied by a Congress that is reflexively and overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel.
The former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan once referred to Capitol Hill as “Israeli-occupied territory” – and you don’t have to buy the rest of that acerbic old bounder’s nativist and isolationist philosophy to accept that, on that point at least, his words have never rung truer. Of the 435 members of the House, maybe half a dozen are what we would call “pro-Palestinian”, and the proportion is probably about the same in the 100-strong Senate.
Get past its bromides about “generous” land concessions and “painful compromises” in any settlement, and the Netanyahu speech was as tough as they come. It contained absolutely nothing new and was riddled with pre-conditions – on refugees, an Israeli military presence along the Jordan and above all on the indivisibility of Jerusalem – that banish hopes of re-starting the “peace process” for months, if not years. Yet Congress cheered it to the rafters.
Netanyahu spoke like a man who believes Israel is in the driving seat and that, the longer the present impasse continues, the stronger by default its position will grow. Israel was an island of democracy and stability in the midst of an Arab world in turmoil, the Prime Minister declared, implying that it would be madness to do anything to let the contagion enter its house.
Others (including Mr Obama) would argue that the Arab Spring makes a new initiative from Israel more urgent than ever, to reach accomodation with the Palestinians. If a democratic government were to emerge in Egypt, Israel’s most important Arab neighbour, it would be far less likely to go along with the existing cold peace accepted by hard-nosed military men like Hosni Mubarak. For Netanyahu, however, that is just one more reason to raise the drawbridge.
Both Democrats and Republicans lapped up his every word. There are many reasons for the overwhelming Congressional support for Israel. Democrats, the main recipients of the Jewish vote, are traditionally strong supporters of the Jewish state. But Christian conservatives, ever more important in Republican politics, are pro-Israel for their own religious reasons.
More generally, Americans identify with Israel and the narrative of its history. The sense of comradeship is heightened by the sense of a shared threat from terrorism. Mr Netanyahu played that card too this week, referring to the militant Hamas group as “the Palestinian version of al-Q’aida”. By contrast, the Palestinian case barely gets made. And last but not least, there is the “Israel lobby”. Whether its power is real or purely imagined makes little difference. No American politician wants to be on the wrong side of it, least of all when elections loom.
The sub-plot to the week’s events has been the vote on Palestinian statehood scheduled in September at the UN General Assembly. That vote would be purely symbolic, but symbolic acts can have vast and unpredictable consequences. That is why Mr Netanyahu is determined to prevent what his defence minister has called a “diplomatic tsunami” and one reason Mr Obama was more forthright in his keynote Middle East speech was to persuade European countries to oppose recognition, and thus ensure the US would not be totally isolated.
But the argument is ever harder to sustain. If everyone (including Mr Netanyahu) agrees on the principle of a two-state solution, why not hold a UN vote? If there is not to be a vote, then there must be a genuine prospect of new peace negotiations that are actually going somewhere. But these last few depressing days in Washington have surely made that prospect more remote than ever.