Paul Pillar

The Ineffable Lobby

[amazon 0374177724 full]Lately one hasn't heard much of the screaming against the observation that supporters of a certain Middle Eastern state exercise influence over U.S. policy that is well out of proportion to what a clear focus on U.S. interests would dictate. That's because the observation doesn't get voiced very much.  The screaming reached a crescendo three years ago when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their book on the subject.  Evidently the vituperation, often accompanied by reckless charges of anti-Semitism, that was heaped on those two scholars and anyone else daring to make similar observations about this dimension of the making of U.S. foreign policy has been sufficient to keep the subject out of most discussions among polite company.  

But I can't help noticing that in commentary about construction of Israeli settlements in occupied territory and the role this construction is playing in impeding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, some of the same quarters that have been quickest to shout down the idea that the powerful lobby in question exists have been providing some of the clearest evidence that it does exist and continues to shape important aspects of U.S. policy.  When President Obama earlier this year attempted to insist on a cessation of settlement construction in the interest of facilitating peace talks, he was berated for taking a stand that supposedly was unreasonable and unwise and then, after he duly backed down in the face of Benjamin Netanyahu's recalcitrance, was told that his mistake was not in backing down but instead in ever making an issue of settlement construction in the first place.  Now, amid discussions over the expiration of Netanyahu's moratorium on settlement construction, the U.S. position is again one of pointing out the unhelpful effects of resuming construction activity but stopping short of doing anything that would be effective in ending the Israeli recalcitrance.  And again we hear from supporters of Israeli policies that the United States ought to bow not only to Israeli behavior but to the preferences on this issue of the hardest line elements in Netanyahu's coalition government.  Those elements are represented most visibly by Foreign Minister (and West Bank settler) Avigdor Lieberman, who on Tuesday treated the United Nations General Assembly to the spectacle of a speech in which he renounced the final status negotiations to which his own government supposedly is committed.   

Why wouldn't it make just as much sense to be this accommodating to hardliners on the Palestinian side?  It wouldn't make sense, of course, and the current asymmetry doesn't make sense either unless there were something about the substance of the issue in question that would warrant such a tilt.  But if anything, every aspect of what makes sense--legally, morally, and diplomatically--from the standpoint of U.S. interests and the interest of peace in the Middle East argues for a tilt against any more settlement construction.  (On what is morally right, I commend David Rothkopf's thoughtful piece on the subject.)  The use of conquered and disputed territory for the economic and religious fulfillment of citizens of the conquering side is unjustifiable, narrows the negotiating space, and in this case does absolutely nothing to safeguard the security of Israel.  If the purpose isn't the religious and economic fulfillment or the creation of new facts, then it is to provide an excuse for breakdown of the negotiations.  If it isn't that, then it is a bargaining chip for the Netanyahu government to wrest from the United States other things it is interested in.  And if it isn't that, then the recalcitrance is mainly a way for Netanyahu to maintain his overall bargaining strength by showing that he will not back down from his earlier stated determination to make the moratorium a one-time only proposition.

A U.S. policy that is as solicitous as it has been of such an Israeli posture, especially given the priority that Mr. Obama seems otherwise to place on successful peace talks, is utterly baffling without taking into account that lobby we're not supposed to talk about.  "We cannot accept the American position that says it is against settlements but doesn't lead to an end to them," says Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath.  "I am surprised that America is unable to stop them."  It should be able to stop them, but I'm not surprised that it hasn't.