It was hard not to hear the Jewish-American establishment's collective sigh of relief last Friday, when the U.S. government announced it would be boycotting the United Nations human rights conference Durban 2. Not only was this the fulfillment of quiet pre-election promises by Barack Obama's advisors, it was also a major signal, proving that the new administration, which had initially caused concern by sending two diplomats to a Durban 2 preparatory meeting, has its heart in the right place. But it would be much too early to sound the all-clear.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to the region this week has been a significant indicator of what we can expect from Israel-U.S. relations in the coming months. The implications could be a major realignment in how major Jewish organizations express their support for Israel, as well as how they relate to their own governments.
While in Jerusalem, Clinton made all the right noises about friendship and commitment to Israel, but her most encouraging statement may have been something she said during a meeting with the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. She apparently expressed deep doubt that Iran would respond to Obama's diplomatic overtures.
In Jerusalem, observers interpreted this as meaning the Obama administration is planning to take a tougher stance on the nuclear threat than was previously thought.
Other things she had to say were less encouraging, especially for the incoming Netanyahu government. Clinton made it quite clear that whatever the new coalition's guidelines are, as far at the U.S. is concerned, the only game in town is the two-state solution, and it expects Israeli to work toward that end. Likewise, the administration backs negotiations with Syria, and is sending two senior diplomats there next week.
The bottom line is that Obama and team are going to be bullish about pressing Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan. This new tune is being taken up by other governments that portray themselves as friendly to Israel.
Britain has made a great point of leading the international battle against anti-Semitism, hosting a major conference on the subject two weeks ago. Meanwhile, it is boycotting anything to do with Israeli settlements. This week it announced its embassy in Tel Aviv would not be moving into a building owned by Africa-Israel, which has building projects across the Green Line.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously learned his love for Israel at the knee of his Zionist father; he could not be considered hostile to the Jewish state. Nor does it seem that Obama will be easily branded as such. An administration with a two-time Israel Defense Forces volunteer, Rahm Emanuel, as its central figure, won't be Israel-bashing.
What does seem to be happening is something much more difficult for Israel's supporters abroad, especially Jewish leaders - increasing pressure from the White House and Downing Street from people who care about Israel, but also think they know best how it should solve its problems.
Take, for example, two not very hypothetical scenarios. The Americans and the British lead a western coalition boycotting and lambasting Durban 2 and its resolutions, while demanding Israel make a long list of concessions to the Palestinians, starting with reopening the crossings into Gaza. Or six months later, when everyone realizes diplomacy has run its course and the Iranians are a screwdriver's turn away from the bomb, President Obama might give the order to strike - while trying to squeeze a commitment from an unwilling Netanyahu to relinquish the Golan. Who will the American and British Jewish establishments support in such a scenario?
There are precedents for these types of demands, mainly during the first Bush administration after the first U.S.-Iraq war, when Israel came under pressure over the settlements and negotiations with the Palestinians. But Bush the first and his secretary of state Jim Baker, who famously said "fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway," were easily dismissed as hopelessly hostile. In any case, they were just a short interlude between the Reagan and Clinton years. The new atmosphere in Washington will be much more difficult to dispel.
The major Jewish organizations' policy of supporting Israel's democratically elected government while remaining loyal to their home countries could be sorely tested in the coming months. The problem is likely to be exacerbated by Netanyahu's foreign minister - who is likely to be Avigdor Lieberman. He would be the first senior Israeli minister whom most of the American and European Jewish leadership will shun - passively, at least.
If the Obama-Clinton team succeeds in preserving its Israel-friendly image by getting tough on Iran, while pressuring Israel on the Palestinian and Syrian issues, and if the Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition steadfastly maintains its current positions, we could see an increasing number of Jewish leaders breaking ranks. Forced to choose between an increasingly isolated Israeli leadership and an administration aggressively pushing for peace, it will be interesting to see which ties are looser.
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