Thanks to their highly controversial recent publications, former President Jimmy Carter and the academic tag-team of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have become persona non grata in much of the American Jewish community. Carter’s Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid argued that Israeli settlement in the West Bank—not terrorism, nor the ascendancy of Hamas—is the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy argued that U.S. policy in the Middle East is primarily driven by “American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests.”
Yet while the American Jewish community was busy debating whether these authors were anti-Semitic, conspiratorial, or simply misguided, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was apparently leafing through the two bestselling tomes for sound-bite material. Consider Olmert’s bizarre press statements following last week’s Annapolis Conference, in which he framed his pursuit of negotiations with terms perfectly agreeable to Cater, Walt, and Mearsheimer.
First, Olmert conceded to Carter’s claim that Israel faces a choice between peace or apartheid, saying:
If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.
Then, borrowing a page from the Walt-Mearsheimer playbook, Olmert argued that Israel must choose peace over apartheid to satisfy its supporters in the United States, who are essential to the Jewish state’s survival; as he told Haaretz:
The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.
Olmert should be taken to task for his carelessness. For starters, perhaps he needs to be reminded of his primary constituency. Olmert represents Israelis, and will need Israelis’ broad support to make the painful concessions that peace will require. It is truly hard to imagine Israelis being swayed by the prospective loss of American Jewish moral support for their government’s decisions, particularly when peace carries substantial risks for their personal security, first and foremost.
Furthermore, Olmert should be reminded of his secondary constituency: Palestinians, who will hardly be motivated to support peace with an Israeli prime minister who frames negotiations as a means of avoiding institutionalized racism. At least one Egyptian newspaper was aglow with headlines noting that the Israeli Prime Minister compared his state to apartheid South Africa. This is public diplomacy at its worst.
Olmert is going to have to learn to better represent Israelis and more effectively address Palestinians if forthcoming negotiations are to have any chance. On the other hand, in case negotiations fail, Olmert has done a good job of opening up a future position as a Middle East Fellow at the Carter Center.