By Francis A Kornegay Jr
US President Barack Obama, in his struggle to fashion a transformative foreign policy by reshaping the balance of America’s relationships in the Middle East, faces formidable resistance from Israel’s right-wing Likud government allied with the most reactionary Republican-controlled US Congress in recent memory. There are, however, two missing dimensions that must be inserted into Obama’s equations regarding Iran and Israel within the context of the framework accord between Tehran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany): the Palestinians, and the level of black support for Obama’s Middle East policy.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, cynically uses an alleged Iran nuclear existential threat to distract international attention from Israel’s main problem: the Palestinian national question. This despite his intelligence establishment regarding the Iranian nuclear programme with much less alarm. At the same time, the US African-American political establishment within Obama’s Democratic Party constituency appears to be ‘missing in action’ instead of acting as a core base of support for Obama’s attempt at a complicated resetting of Middle East policy.
The absence of American black political leadership in the debate over Obama’s Middle East change agenda focusing on an Iran nuclear deal must seriously be considered within the context of the polarised balance of political forces confronting Obama. These include a powerful Likud-Republican Party alliance that has successfully destabilised a once solid bipartisan Israel lobby dominating the US Congress; a congressional Democratic Party divided over whether to support Obama’s Iran diplomacy or to follow the Likud-Republican lead aimed at undermining the nuclear deal; a powerful minority of billionaire plutocrats financing the Likud- Republican alliance (and rightwing Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016). Yet, as powerful as these forces are, the Israel lobby has never been as vulnerable as it currently is, and this is mainly because of Netanyahu. His belligerent intransigence in blocking a peace agreement with Palestinians, and his abrasive opposition to any nuclear accord with Iran, coupled with his exploiting partisan polarisation in American politics – including implacable anti-Obama hatred among Republicans – is unintentionally exposing how detrimental the Israel lobby is to US interests, and emphasising that the interests of the USA and Israel are not identical.
Netanyahu, in the process, has divided the Jewish community, drawing rebukes from some of its leading Senate members. He has also managed to sharply divide Israelis. This almost cost him the re-election; he was saved by his last-minute renouncing of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, and his racist pandering to a constituency fearful of Arab voter mobilisation in Israel. Revealingly, the opprobrium caused by Netanyahu’s fear mongering among many Americans and Israelis over how this would impact the close US-Israeli relationship was not shared by Republicans. Little wonder since Republicans are seized with anti-black and anti-Hispanic voter suppression that is backed by a Supreme Court that has gutted the Voting Rights Act.
Given this unique set of converging circumstances, a concerted mobilisation in support of Obama’s Iran diplomacy could reshape the domestic politics of US Middle East policy that is currently dominated by the Israel lobby. A critically important consideration in this dynamic is how the intensity of political polarisation instigated by Netanyahu and his Likud-Republican alliance over an Iran deal has rendered ineffective accusations of anti-Semitism against those opposed to the confrontational anti-Iran and anti-peace policies of Tel Aviv. Netanyahu’s oppositional coalition to Obama, and the disrespect he and Republicans exhibit toward the US president, are substantial enough in the USA to overcome accusations of anyone being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
Keeping in mind that a major aim of Netanyahu in opposing any diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear programme is to distract the USA and the international community from focusing on the urgency of an Israeli-Palestinian resolution, there are a number of openings emerging to challenge current Middle East policy. This requires identifying the weak links and potentialities in devising an Obama-Iran support strategy that resonates in other areas of Middle East policy as well, principally in supporting an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. The weak link in the Netanyahu coalition is the congressional Democratic Party. This is where pressure could be exerted on Obama’s behalf with a strategic insertion of black political support for him on Iran, accompanied by pressure to shift policy emphasis toward the plight of Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.
The nexus between exerting pressure on congressional Democrats and black mobilisation in support of Obama on Iran is underlined by the strategic role of Jewish Democrats in the House and Senate linked to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the need for the Congressional Black Caucus to erect a political firewall of support around Obama that promotes an alternative Middle East policy agenda. New York senator Chuck Shumer, the likely successor to Nevada senator Harry Reid as Senate minority leader, has already expressed support for a bill requiring any Iran nuclear deal to be approved by Congress – in violation of the president’s constitutional prerogatives in conducting US foreign policy. Should a final deal be reached in June between Iran and the P5+1, it will not be a treaty subject to Senate ratification. Shumer’s support for this anti-Iran deal breaker could prove decisive in a Senate bid to override Obama’s certain veto.
The liberal activist community has already mobilised in support of Obama. Does the Congressional Black Caucus have the courage to lead this battle in batting for America’s first black president on this legacy issue and, in the process, turn it into a policy challenge to Netanyahu and the Israel lobby on the issue of Palestine? A visible black intervention would heighten contradictions for Democrats looking to jump on the Netanyahu-Republican bandwagon. If Shumer and other Democrats join Republicans in a bid to undermine Obama’s Iran policy, thereby isolating the USA internationally, the Caucus must devise a counter strategy that not only publically supports an Iran nuclear deal but goes beyond to:
- call on the USA to support a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East; and
- prevail upon Israel, as a nuclear weapons’ state, to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as Iran has done.
As a corollary to an Iran deal aimed at promoting peace in the Middle East, the Obama administration should more closely align its policy on Israel with that of its European allies, some of whose parliaments are recognising Palestinian statehood. In that vein, since Netanyahu has tried to ‘walk back’ his statement that there would never be a two-state solution as long as he is prime minister, the Obama administration must:
- require Tel Aviv to make good on this by ceasing all settlement building and expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, failing which the USA will refrain from using its UN Security Council veto to shield Israel from criticism; and
- support a French UN Security Council resolution laying out the terms and parameters of a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and a Palestinian state and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus should elevate its support for Palestinian statehood to be on par with its anti-apartheid South African solidarity campaign. It should:
- support the international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and settler expansionism;
- initiate exchange visits with Joint List members of the Israeli Knesset, and act as a bridge between Arab Knesset members and US Congress members;
- partner with Iranian-Americans, Palestinians and other progressive stakeholders in convening a congressional conference on an alternative US Middle East policy; and
- mobilise black communities, institutions and organisations as well as university student constituencies in support of these positions.
African Americans have largely been invisible in the debate over Obama’s foreign (and domestic) policy and national security strategy. Yet there is a close interrelationship between a transformative foreign policy and the domestic agenda Obama has tried, with difficulty, to advance in shaping his legacy over implacable Republican and rightwing reactionary resistance. Black America has a stake in helping Obama advance a progressive agenda on Iran and the Palestinians, issues which provide the Caucus with an opportunity to enhance its relevance.
* Francis Kornegay is senior fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue-University of South Africa, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre of Scholars, and a former staffer of Congressional Black Caucus members.