Does Israel's Former Foreign Minister Regard the U.S. Lobby as a Pillar of His Country's Foreign Policy?

One of the tables at Thursday night’s debate over the Israel lobby at Cooper Union will reunite three men who negotiated, unsuccessfully, at Camp David in 2000. Shlomo Ben-Ami negotiated for Israel. And Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk negotiated for the United States.

The talks ended disastrously. Israeli P.M. Ehud Barak made major concessions re the status of Jerusalem. But his offers on the West Bank fell short of Palestinian demands. And indeed the Jerusalem discussions led to Ariel Sharon’s famous symbolic visit to the Temple Mount, and the Palestinians’ bloody intifadah.

This Thursday night, Ben-Ami, Ross and Indyk will take the side that there is no Israel lobby, or that its powers are vastly overstated by Walt and Mearsheimer. But their presence at the 2000 summit raises an important issue.

In the middle of the talks, Barak “called important allies in the American Jewish community, urging them to mobilize pressure against the Palestinians through the Clinton Administration.” That is according to John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff, who is quoted in Clayton Swisher’s great book on the talks, The Truth About Camp David.

Podesta: There were a bunch of [Barak’s] people who had—Sandy [Berger, national security adviser] got the take on this more than I did—but some of his allies in the political community, mostly Jewish Americans, were calling in and this and that. I think [Clinton] basically didn’t talk to anybody…

This and that. I love that.

Barak also talked to Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, who were both running that fall, and who needed the American Jewish community. “Gore’s campaign advisers did make phone calls to Camp David,” Swisher reports. And in Hillary Clinton’s memoirs (again, per Swisher), she recounted how “Barak even called me asking for any ideas I might have to convince Arafat to negotiate in good faith.”

What kind of political pressure were Barak and Gore and Hillary mobilizing here? What understandings did they reach?

A month or so after the talks ended, but while Bill Clinton was still hoping to broker a deal, the Jerusalem Post carried a story that alleged (again, Swisher) that Clinton was “wavering on a plan to grant custodianship of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians” out of fear that it could hurt the campaigns of his wife and Al Gore. “What if most American Jews don’t like it?… It doesn’t take that many votes to bring down Hillary Clinton,” the Jerusalem Post quoted a “source close to the negotiations” as saying.

The point of all this should be obvious. The purpose of a summit is that leaders are brought together to exercise leadership, to deal with one another one to one, isolated from political concerns. But the Camp David process was swayed from the beginning by American political considerations, and pro-Israel voices. One of Swisher’s themes is that the Clinton Administration, backed by the American Jewish leadership, tended to be more hawkish and inflexible than the Israelis themselves. (And for his part, Arafat reportedly had to talk to other Muslim leaders before cutting any deal touching on Jerusalem’s holy sites.)

I don’t think Indyk and Ross are going to come clean on these political issues. Both guys formerly worked for AIPAC, both have shown themselves to be advocates for uncritical backing of Israel.

But Shlomo Ben-Ami is a different story. He’s a superb historian, and one theme of his latest book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, is quite similar to a view held by the historian who’ll be sitting across from him this Thursday night, Tony Judt. Both men have observed that Israel’s reliance on a superpower—lately the U.S.—is a key element of Israeli policy, one that has enabled it to defy the opinion of its Arab neighbors. In Judt’s critical view, the blank check Israel has gotten from the U.S. has made the state into an irresponsible adolescent that doesn’t care about the consequences of its actions.

Ben-Ami’s view is more nuanced, but he says that “the persistent drive of the future State of Israel for a strategic alliance with a Western power[…] reflected the inherently Western-orientated inclination of Zionism. The implicit assumption was that Israel could not, some also believed that it should not, peacefully integrate within the Arab Middle East…”

Amazingly, Ben-Ami says that the big difference between Israel’s ’56 war and the ’67 war is that in ’56 Israel relied on fading western powers (France and England), whch forced her to give up the territorial gains of war; but by ’67 she was depending on the U.S. and “was allowed by America to keep her territorial gains as a bargaining card.” Thus: 40 years of occupation, a true tragedy for all concerned. (The same enabling took place last summer, during the Lebanon war, when the Israeli press reported that Israel was going to call on American Jewish leaders to lean on the Bush Administration to give Israel all the time it wanted in Lebanon.)

How does this bear on Thursday’s debate? Someone should ask Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Foreign Minister, how much interaction there was during the 2000 summit between the Israeli team and domestic American political actors. Why was Barak talking to candidates Hillary Clinton and Al Gore? Why were American Jewish leaders calling Clinton? What pressures were they bringing to bear? And centrally: Isn’t American support for Israel a “pillar” (as Ben-Ami puts it in his book) of Israel’s foreign policy; and does not the Israel lobby in the U.S. provide the essential footing to that pillar?