It is well-known outside the United States that a key obstacle, if not the key obstacle, to Israeli/Palestinian peace is the relationship between Israel and the United States. To say that the U.S. “supports Israel” severely misstates the problem: the key problem is the perception and the reality that the U.S. almost unfailingly protects the Israeli government from the negative consequences of anti-Palestinian policies, such as the recent military assault on Gaza, so that while rhetorically the U.S. is committed to peace, in practice the incentives that have been created and maintained by U.S. policy have had the effect of constantly pushing the Israeli government towards more confrontation with the Palestinians, rather than towards accommodation. Just as a Wall Street banker who expects a U.S. government bailout will take dangerous risks since he is protected from the potential negative consequences of those risks, so Israeli government leaders, faced with choices between “risks for peace” and “risks for war” will tend to choose “risks for war” since the U.S. government is perceived to provide a blanket insurance policy against “risks for war” while no such insurance is perceived to exist for “risks for peace.”
The key immediate question then for people in the United States concerned about Israeli-Palestinian peace is altering the character of the insurance policy. Just as Washington must demand policy changes in exchange for insuring Wall Street banks, so Washington must demand policy changes in exchange for insuring Israeli government policies. In either case, the failure to demand policy changes spreads systemic risk, since the insurance effectively makes the failed policies into policies of the U.S. government.
Could public opinion in the United States have an impact? While Americans are in general significantly misinformed about the Israel-Palestinian conflict due to the fact that most reporting of the conflict in the United States takes place through the prism of U.S. government policy, it is still the case that there is a significant gap between public opinion and U.S. government policy, whether because the media reporting is not nearly as unbalanced as the U.S. government policy, or because more reasonable instincts among the public tend to counteract somewhat the bias of the media, or both.
On December 31, Rasmussen reported that Americans were “closely divided” over whether the Israel should be taking military action in Gaza. 44% said Israel should have taken military action, while 41% said it should have tried to find a diplomatic solution. Among Democrats, only 31% backed military action, while 55% said Israel should have tried to find a diplomatic solution. Among Republicans, 62% backed military action, while 27% said Israel should have tried to find a diplomatic solution.
These views were not effectively represented in Congress. When, week after the Rasmussen poll, a resolution effectively endorsing the Israeli assault – that’s how it was, quite predictably, reported in the press, and therefore that was the effective result – was considered by the Senate, it was passed by voice vote. When it was considered by the House, it passed 390-5, with four Democrats and one Republican voting no and 22 Democrats voting “present” – in effect, a politically cautious no vote (many Members who voted “present” had publicly criticized the Israeli assault.) So, being charitable and counting the “present” votes as “no,” the vote was 390-27, or 94% to 6%, in favor of Israel’s military action, in contrast to the 44% to 41% (or 52% to 48%, excluding those who didn’t answer) that might have been predicted if Congress were reflecting public opinion. Among Democrats, it was 90% to 10% voting in favor of military action in the House, as opposed to 55% to 31% against military action among Democrats generally (64% to 36% excluding non-answerers); among Republicans in the House, the vote was 99% to 1% in favor of military action, as opposed to 62% to 37% among Republicans generally (70% to 30%, excluding non-answerers.)
In July 2008, a poll published by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland asked: “In the Israel-Palestinian conflict, do you think [the US] should take Israel’s side, take the Palestinians’ side, or not take either side?” 71% of Americans surveyed answered: “Not take either’s side.”
Of course, this is not the only issue where Congress diverges sharply from public opinion. It is well-known that a well-financed, disciplined, and focused lobby can outweigh broad public opinion. However, in addition to this dynamic, it is also true in this particular case that lobbying on the other side is handicapped by a gap in infrastructure.
In particular, there is a voice missing: an organized effort acting in DC, and supported by grassroots action outside of DC, to begin to move the parameters of the insurance policy. On the one hand, there are inside-DC groups that have been working diligently to try to change the debate. But these groups have been unable politically to raise the all-important question of US pressure on the Israeli government. On the other hand you have groups outside of DC that are quite happy to raise the question of pressure, but have been so far unable politically to push for anything strategic. “Stop aid to Israel” may be an emotionally satisfying demand in the context of a demonstration, but it is a totally irrelevant demand in the context of Washington. If one had a meeting with a Member of Congress about “stopping US aid to Israel,” the effective response would likely be: come back when you are ready to stop wasting my time.
If one considers precedents of how progress has been made on similar issues in Congress in the past, the logical thing to do at this stage would be to push for an amendment that would condition a part of US aid to Israel on compliance with an important aspect of stated US policy. In this year’s funding cycle, for example, US military aid to Israel is expected to increase. The increase, or even part of the increase, could have real conditions attached.
The principal determinant of what real conditions would be attached in a meaningful effort would be the opinions of Members of Congress who were willing to do so. But there are some obvious candidates.
An obvious example would be to condition part of US military assistance on certification by the President that all Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank has ceased. This condition is obvious because 1) it is widely considered a key precondition of any meaningful “peace process” 2) it is already stated US policy 3) it is verifiable 4) it is already a condition of the “road map” 5) Senator Mitchell, in his 2001 report on the causes of the second intifada, identified Israeli settlement expansion as a key cause of violence and predicted that violence would resume if settlement expansion were not stopped – as it wasn’t. So, such a condition would actually implement existing US policy and would actually strengthen Mitchell’s hand as a negotiator.
It is important to note that such a campaign – like Rocky’s first fight – should be judged a significant success if it takes place at all. In other words, if in 2009 even a handful of Members of Congress were willing to publicly support an amendment that would condition even a small part of US aid to Israel on verified implementation of US policy on an issue important to peace – such as cessation of settlement expansion in the West Bank – and if there were a significant public mobilization on behalf of such an amendment, it would significantly change the dynamics of the US-Israel relationship, and lay the ground for expanded efforts to do so in the future. There are about 50-60 Members of Congress who have indicated by past actions that they might at least be willing to consider such a step. If a third of them actually did so, it would be noticed. But first they have to be asked in a way that would make them consider it to be a live proposition, and that is the piece that has been so far missing.