Obama defeats the Israel Lobby

In 1983 or thereabouts, during my four year stint at AIPAC, the powerful organisation that is the main component of the pro-Israel lobby, I asked Tom Dine, its executive director, if a president of the United States could ever successfully challenge Israel's behaviour even in cases when US national security interests were clearly at stake.

My question related specifically to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that began in 1967 and which seemingly made an Israeli-Palestinian agreement impossible. It also was, as it is now, the primary source of Arab and Muslim anger against the United States.

The reason for my question was my fear that the power of the lobby was such that a president could not prevail against it.

Even matters that did not directly affect Israel like US arms sales to allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, would meet massive resistance from Israel, the lobby and its huge chorus of supporters in Congress.

How, I asked Dine, could the United States ever get Israel to actually yield occupied territory if it became clear that the Arabs were ready for peace, as in fact became the case after the 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO?

Dine responded that although he hoped the day would come when Israeli leaders (and hence the lobby) would be ready for "compromise", he did not think a president could make Israel do anything it didn't want to do given the power of the organisation he led and "our friends in Congress".

But then he added a caveat: "Of course, if a president pushed hard enough, and told the American people that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was damaging US interests and that he had a plan to end it, he would prevail."

He elaborated: "By that I mean AIPAC would have no choice but to support him. We can never defeat a president who reaches over the heads of AIPAC and Congress and invokes his prerogatives as president of the United States or, even more, the national interest.

The logic behind Dine's thinking was simply that American Jews would never allow themselves to be perceived as putting Israel's interests over America's because (1) that would be bad for Jews and (2) American Jews are Americans before they are anything else.

It is fine to strongly support the Israeli government even when it is at odds with the US government - but only up to a point. The point is when that support clearly contradicts US interests, as defined by the president. 

That is why the lobby was so outraged when Reagan administration officials suggested the lobby's opposition to an arms sale to Saudi Arabia represented the wrong answer to the question of "Reagan or Begin?" That little phrase - "Reagan or Begin" - won the battle for the administration.

That is why any criticism of the lobby that even hints at the lobby's putting Israel's interests above America's produces such fury, hence the recent hysteria over the use of the term "Israel Firster".

American Jews will not tolerate the suggestion that they are anything but good Americans. Fighting a president over a national security issue is simply not sustainable.

Although a president's choice for Secretary of Defence is not in really a national security issue, it does get to the question of an American president and his security prerogatives. After all, the Department of Defence personifies US national security. Once President Obama made clear that he would nominate Hagel, the game was over.

Of course, the lobby claims that it actually did not fight to prevent the naming of Hagel. That is just silly. As someone who worked at AIPAC, in Congress and the State Department for 20 years, I know more than most that, when it comes to the Israel issue, nothing happens without the lobby's involvement.

AIPAC is, like most professional lobbies, highly protective of its role. Its associates and friends, widely quoted in the media as demanding that Hagel not be appointed, would never have been so aggressive without AIPAC's go-ahead. That is how it works. It always has.

Frankly, I am surprised that the president went ahead over the lobby's opposition. I am well-known for my belief that it could not be beaten, although I have always offered the caveat that it would be if a president fought back hard.

Obama did, and Chuck Hagel will almost surely be the next Secretary of Defence.

That is good news but far less significant than the implications for peace. As Dine told me all those years ago, if a president pushes for a peace agreement that advances US interests while not harming Israel's, he will prevail.

That means that he can insist on an end to the occupation and the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the lands Israel has occupied since 1967. As long as Israel's security is not put at risk (and no president would put it at risk), the president will prevail. This is especially the case because an end to the occupation (with security guarantees for Israel and the new state) would advance Israel's security not damage it.

The lobby will not be able to block a president determined to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on terms fair to both sides. It is like the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, said: "If you will it, it is no dream."

It is, as Obama demonstrated with Hagel, just a matter of will.

MJ Rosenberg served as a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow with Media Matters Action Network and prior to that worked on Capitol Hill for various Democratic members of the House and Senate for 15 years. He was also a Clinton political appointee at USAID.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJayRosenberg