Commentary Magazine


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Obama and Kerry’s Lobby in Israel

In the course of the past month, a persistent campaign appears to have been taking place, away from public attention, to change the thinking of Israel’s defense establishment. The State Department’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Martin Indyk, and his officials have been meeting with a number of Israeli security personnel and IDF generals to discuss their thinking on future Israeli territorial compromise. Indyk, who was also part of Middle East peace negotiations under President Clinton, has reportedly been seeking to convince Israel’s defense officials of the wisdom of plans that would seek to bring about a full Israeli withdrawal from such key strategic areas as the Jordan Valley. To be sure, these lobbying efforts are not being focused on Israeli parliamentarians, but they aim to impact the position of a constituency no less politically decisive.    

There is a great irony in all this. As Seth Mandel highlighted yesterday, amidst the ongoing battle of wills over Iran sanctions, the Obama administration currently appears to be operating under the impression that the Israeli government is telling the American Jewish community what to think and that, in turn, American Jews are determining what congressmen believe and how Congress ultimately votes. As has already been pointed out, it is bizarre and disturbing that the administration would buy into this version of events over the far more simple explanation that members of Congress, perfectly able to think for themselves, might have just concluded that the Obama administration’s policy of holding off on Iran sanctions is fundamentally flawed. Either way, what officials appear to so object to is the notion that a foreign government would seek to influence U.S. policy via another constituency. The point being that if the government of one state wishes to have a say on the policies of another, then the proper and above-board way to approach this is through open and direct diplomatic channels.

Fine. But how then to explain the Obama administration’s own efforts to determine events in Israel, by bypassing the Israeli government and seeking to influence a third party? As the Daily Beast has reported, the reservist generals involved in those meetings that have taken place so far have not given any reason to believe that Indyk and his team are being particularly forceful or aggressive in how they have approached this strategy. Yet, by pursuing a sustained campaign of pushing State Department views on territorial compromise in the Jordan Valley to Israel’s security establishment, Indyk and his officials are not only seeking to determine the views of those who advise the Israeli government on these matters, but they are also lobbying a group in Israel who have a tremendous amount of leverage over Israeli public opinion.

Leading Israeli defense officials regularly and publicly make their views on the key security matters of the day widely known within the Israeli public discourse. In a country where the military plays such a visible role in the day-to-day survival of the state and the safety of its citizens, the views of these men matter and carry extraordinary clout. U.S. officials undoubtedly realize that if they can play a decisive role in shaping what these individuals believe, then they stand a considerable chance of influencing where much of wider Israeli society stands on these issues, thus undercutting the negotiating position of Israel’s elected government.

And this is not the first time that the Obama administration has tried such lobbying of Israel’s military. Last month there were reports circulating of Indyk and his staff seeking to dissuade IDF generals from publicly speaking out about the concerns they have regarding Israel’s security and Secretary of State Kerry’s peace plan.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government have made very clear that Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley is simply not a feasible option. Such a move would leave Israel dangerously exposed on its eastern border, with nothing to prevent the flow of arms from as far as Iran all the way to the hands of militants sitting on the West Bank’s hilltops over looking Ben Gurion Airport and the major population centers of Israel’s coastal plain.

Yet, from what has been leaked from negotiations so far, it is becoming apparent that Kerry and those of his diplomats involved in negotiations may well be sympathetic to Palestinian demands for a total Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley. Sensing that the Netanyahu government has no intention of compromising on this aspect of Israel’s security, it would now appear that the State Department strategy is to win friends and influence people in a place that will give them the most leverage over the Israeli government and its negotiating position.