The Israeli Lobby Flexes Its Muscles, But to What End?

Remember the old saw about those who do not learn from history? Apparently the State Department didn't study the history of Middle East peace negotiations very carefully before issuing their ultimatum to Israel. As happened once before two decades ago, the Israeli lobby made the officials' mistake blow up in their faces.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a football coach-type ultimatum to Israel that it was "my way or the highway." If Israel didn't cave in and accept her demand that it withdraw from 13.1 percent of the West Bank, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not be invited to a meeting at the White House. Not only that, the United States would take its ball and go home, refusing to play in the Middle East anymore.

This approach was foolish on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start. First, what business was it of the United States to dictate to Israel how much it should withdraw? American Presidents have always said that it is for Israel to decide and this Administration formally put it in writing as part of the Hebron accords. Second, if you're going to pick a number seemingly out of the air, you should explain where you got it if you hope to get any support at all. Finally, threats aren't credible if everyone knows you can't back them up. Withdraw from the peace process? Get serious. What is Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk and the rest of the peace process team going to do, try to bring democracy to the Arab world?

By their clumsiness, the State Department brain trust managed to do the nearly impossible, create nearly unanimous Jewish support for the Netanyahu government. Congress also stood up to the President with a bipartisan group of 81 senators sending him a letter pointing out the error of his ways. The effect of the letter was to emasculate the Administration threat and show Bibi he could stand firm.

Not surprisingly, the Administration has subsequently done a pirouette and started sounding like Jackie Mason. We didn't issue an ultimatum, it was really just a friendly hint, a suggestion, it was a shmultimatum.

All of this unpleasantness could have been avoided if the supposed experts had reviewed Henry Kissinger's attempt to strong-arm Israel in 1975. He too claimed the Israeli government — led, ironically, by Yitzhak Rabin — was intransigent. Kissinger told the Israelis "the location of the line eight kilometers one way or other" wasn't very important. Out of frustration, the Ford administration then warned the Israelis that the "failure of the negotiations will have a far-reaching impact on the region and on our relations. I have given instructions for a reassessment of United States policy in the region, including our relations with Israel...."

Sound familiar?

The Israeli lobby vociferously objected to the intimidation tactic. In that case, 76 senators sent the President a letter that made clear it would not back up President Ford's threats with any sanctions against Israel. As my mentor, UCLA professor Steve Spiegel notes, Kissinger made a critical miscalculation that an agreement was possible at that time and tried to pressure Israel through the reassessment. Instead, he alienated the Israeli lobby and created false expectations among the Arabs. I'm sure when he revises his book, The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict, he'll write the same about this period in the Clinton Administration.

Both cases illustrated the strength and the limits of the Israeli lobby's influence. We are able to constrain administrations from going too far to pressure Israel, but we cannot force Presidents to adopt positions on the peace process that we want. Clinton, for example, has not backed off from expecting another Israeli withdrawal, he hasn't moved the embassy to Jerusalem and he hasn't repudiated his wife's statement in support of a Palestinian state.

Still, it is not in Israel's interests to fight with an essentially friendly Administration and we're seeing Netanyahu working toward a compromise. In his own Jackie Mason like way, he's trying to meet Albright's demands by saying, 13 percent endangers our security, but we might be able to withdraw from 11 percent now and 2 percent later, or maybe 9 and 4 or 10.23 next week and 2.77 more next Tu B'Shevat.

This crisis is unnecessary, and pushing Israel for further small redeployments only sows the seeds for a new impasse the next time a withdrawal is expected. Skip the preliminaries and go directly to the final status talks. Let Israel and the Palestinians hash out where the final border is going to be drawn now. If the United States wants to be helpful, it can host these final status talks at Camp David as soon as possible and stay out of the way unless it's invited to make suggestions.