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Tomgram: Ira Chernus, Is Palestine America's Next Vietnam?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn't been alone in playing for time when it comes to American policy, that's for sure. (Think, for instance, of our Afghan War commander General David Petraeus.) But Netanyahu played out the pre-election months with some skill and much shuffling of feet, as he officially pondered Obama administration proposals to reinstitute a settlements freeze in return for copious concessions. All the while, of course, West Bank building has been ramping up, as the 2010 elections crept ever closer. Now, it's happened and let's be blunt: it's a good moment for him and his policies -- in Washington. The new crew of Republicans who were swept into Congress seem to consider fealty to him and his right-wing government the sine qua non of political life.

Right now, for the prime minister, 2012 looks even brighter. So don't expect lots of compromises at the negotiating table (that nobody's even close to these days) from Netanyahu and company. Still, despite the look of things, despite the rightward drift in both Israel and the United States, there are unexpected undertows in both places, which make politics in Washington and Tel Aviv (and let's not forget Ramallah) remarkably unpredictable, as TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus explains. (By the way, catch him discussing the American Jewish community and the struggle for peace in the Middle East in a Timothy MacBain TomCast audio interview by clicking here or, to download it to your iPod, here.) Tom

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Will the GOP's Victory Energize Mideast Doves?
Every Action Provokes a Reaction

By Ira Chernus

Palestine as America's next Vietnam? Like all historical analogies, it's far from perfect. We aren't about to send the U.S. Army to the West Bank or Gaza to kill and die in a war that can't be won. Where else in the world, though, is American weaponry and political power so obviously used to suppress a Viet Cong-like movement of national liberation (a bill the Taliban hardly fit)?

And what other conflict is as politically divisive as the Israeli-Palestinian one? More than the Afghan War, the struggle at the heart of the Middle East evokes the kind of powerful passions here that once marked the debate over Vietnam, pitting hawks against doves. Not that the progressive media are yet portraying it that way. They're more likely to give us an increasingly outdated picture of an all-powerful Jewish "Israel lobby," which supposedly has a lock on U.S. policy and dominates the rest of us.

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In fact, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, the political landscape is far more complex, fluid, and unpredictable. Yes, the election day just past saw a wave of hawkish Republicans with a penchant for loving Israel to death swept into Congress, but the hawks' amplified voice is also likely to energize a growing alliance of doves.

Religious Hawks vs. Religious Doves

This election was not a Jewish triumph. Most of the GOP congressional hawks (if they aren't from Florida) come from constituencies with only a sprinkling of Jews. They seem eager to make Israel a symbolic test case, as if supporting the hard-line Israeli government against Obama administration "betrayal" proves their strength in protecting America.

In the wake of November 2nd, a prominent Israeli columnist wrote that Republicans believe in "patriotism, Judeo-Christian Values, national security" and associating Arabs and Muslims with terrorism" a worldview that is usually consistent with pro-Israel sentiments." Those are certainly "pro-Israel sentiments" as defined by the old Israel lobby that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt analyzed so sharply. That lobby still wields plenty of power with its loud media megaphone, and it will welcome the recent success of its flag-waving, fear-mongering GOP allies.

Here's a new reality, however: The hawkish Israel lobby is no longer the true face of the Jewish community. According to midterm exit polls, most American Jews stuck with their traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party and, far more important, they are visibly developing a new idea of what it means to be pro-Israel. Today, three-quarters of American Jews want the U.S. to lead Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution; nearly two-thirds say they'd accept Obama administration pressure on Israel to reach that goal.

Republicans entering Congress will learn what I recently heard a Jewish congressman explain. Few non-Jewish legislators pay close attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When it comes up, they usually turn to their Jewish colleagues for advice. Once, the Jews they consulted were likely to simply parrot the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) line. Now they're likely to say, "Well, AIPAC says this, but J Street says that. You decide."

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J Street is the most prominent player in the dovish, newly developing coalition that already represents the views of most Jews. When Barack Obama invited top Jewish leaders to the White House in the summer of 2009, the heads of two smaller organizations, Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, were at the table too. These are the most visible voices for American Jews who don't want to see their own government enabling Israeli governmental policies that they oppose.

The Christian community is split into competing lobbies as well, with hawks led by Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and doves by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). CUFI makes more noise and gets more press attention. But CMEP is an impressive coalition of 22 national church groups, including some of the largest denominations and the nation's largest umbrella organization of Protestants, the National Council of Churches.

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Then there are doves, both Jewish and Christian, who promote direct action rather than political lobbying as the route to change. The movement to use boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to pressure Israel to change its policies on the Palestinians didn't really take off until the Presbyterian Church endorsed the concept. More Christian groups have now joined this campaign, as has Jewish Voice for Peace, among other Jewish groups. Such direct protest also gets plenty of support from left-leaning doves not moved by any religious faith.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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