By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
A few weeks ago, I ventured the theory that rather than the so-called “Israel Lobby” controlling the administration, it’s the administration that controls the Israel Lobby.
As evidence, I cited two recent episodes. Firstly, Secretary of State John Kerry’s much-vaunted effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations, which, to this date, have gone nowhere for much the same reason that past efforts have failed: the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel’s historic legitimacy by abandoning the so-called “right of return.” Nonetheless, American Jewish organizations faithfully broadcast Kerry’s message.
Secondly, the Obama Administration’s mobilization of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to garner support on Capitol Hill for limited air strikes against the Syrian regime. That also came to naught, largely because Obama himself was seduced by the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to cajole Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into giving up his chemical weapons.
Both the “Lobby” and the administration would likely reject the charge that one controls the other. Instead, they would portray the relationship as a two-way street, with lots of mutual backscratching going on.
But outside the fevered minds of Israel Lobby conspiracy theorists, it’s clear that the administration holds the cards. Consequently, an otherwise spectacularly unsuccessful president has pulled off one small achievement, by closing off any prospects for sustained opposition to his Middle East policies from the mainstream Jewish organizations. And in exchange, the White House will provide its leading lights, like Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, to speak at events sponsored by these same organizations in order to demonstrate to well-heeled donors that their influence remains intact.
From the White House’s standpoint, that’s a pretty good deal.
Which brings me to J Street, the leftist lobbying group that claims to be pro-Israel, and which has just held its annual policy conference. J Street wants to be seen as part of the Jewish mainstream, and its roster of speakers this year—among them Biden, Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Middle East negotiator Martin Indyk—certainly undermines the assertions of Jews on the right that its influence is marginal.
Nonetheless, J Street’s moment in the sun is the result of fortuitous political circumstances, rather than any ingenious strategy on its part. As the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo reported last week, the group has spent $100,000 reaching out to lawmakers to look kindly upon both Iranian diplomatic entreaties and Palestinian efforts to secure unilateral recognition—a stance that directly contradicts the administration’s commitment to direct talks.
As we are now at a juncture where the administration is attempting to engage Iran on a level not seen since the Islamic revolution of 1979, J Street’s willingness to persuade American Jews that the mullahs can be trusted comes in very handy. Leave aside, for the moment, the abysmal spectacle of a Jewish organization prettifying the outreach of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, who is as much of a Holocaust denier as his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, just not as bombastic. J Street has always had tin ear when it comes to anti-Semitism, as its dogma determines that Jew-hatred, along with Iran’s nukes and the Arab refusal to normalize relations with Israel, will disappear if only Israel would make territorial concessions to the Palestinian authority.
There are more important reasons for alarm at the administration’s alignment with J Street. One, there’s the pettiness: AIPAC’s efforts on Syria have been hung out to dry, while the White House is apparently unconcerned at J Street’s refusal to back Obama when he was dangling the prospect of air strikes against Assad.
Two, it’s emblematic of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy. Rather than maintaining our status as an unchallenged superpower, the emphasis is instead upon persuading nervous Americans that, unlike the evil George W. Bush administration, we are not going to go to war, and we are not going to tell foreigners what to do, even if their leaders are human rights abusing tyrants.
In other words, what we’ve seen over the last month is the rapid decline of American power. In this drama, J Street, much like other left-wing groups, is an enthusiastic cheerleader, nothing more.
The rest of us will have to calculate what that means for U.S. allies in the Middle East, not just Israel but the conservative Sunni regimes too. Their distrust of any deal with Iran will not be assuaged by Obama—and if they decide to take unilateral action without American support, we really will be saying, “Welcome to the New World Order.”
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.
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