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Hichem Karoui: Waiting for better days
May 28, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In politics, money matters. All the candidates for Congress or for presidency need huge sums of money to run their campaign across the United States. Shortage of money means curtailing one’s chances to succeed. That is why, the speech of Barack Obama (May 19) on the return to the pre-1967 borders was pretty courageous and entailing a political risk for him at only a few months from the next general election. The risk was calculated, though; and it seems that the speech aimed at two linked objectives: 1) trying to get the peace process out of the stalemate by passing a positive message to the Arabs; 2) launching a test balloon toward the Israeli government to assess its readiness for resuming negotiations on that basis.

In a meeting last week at the offices of The Gulf Today in Sharjah, with Miss Aysha Taryam and Mr Shaadaab S. Bakht, we discussed that without the killing of Osama Bin Laden, it would have been very difficult for President Obama to make such a speech, which practically put the US for the first time, since the beginning of the conflict, on the side of those who are serving the UN resolutions. The speech in itself was an omen and a sign that the USA is increasingly aware of the imbalance of its foreign policy regarding the injustice done to the Palestinians. We also agreed that Obama was somehow betting on his recent gains in popularity inside America, due to the success of his military operation against Bin Laden in Pakistan.

The reactions to the May 19th speech were just predictable. The Arabs welcomed this new approach, which they have been expecting since decades, as all the proposals of peace they made were based on the same scheme: “peace for land” means Israel’s acceptance of the UN resolution 242 stipulating the return to the 1967 borders.

The Israeli government almost cried to the “betrayal.” Netanyahu, probably the less gifted for peace among the Israeli leaders, jumped into the first jet for Washington to say simply to the US political elite: we will not return to the 1967 borders, because they are “indefensible.”

Of course, the flight to Washington was already scheduled for the 62nd birthday of the state of Israel, celebrated by AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. Obama and Netanyahu speeches at AIPAC, showed that there is little agreement on how peace talks could be resumed. As it was rightly observed, “there is not even a serious dialogue between Israel and the United States (not to mention the Palestinians) over how to realise peace.”

While Netanyahu and Obama’s statements provoked the return of the sceptic mood among the Palestinians, some Israeli observers considered the visit of their prime minister to Washington as a relative failure, since his purpose was to lure the Palestinians back to direct negotiations, thereby pre-empting their plan to approach the United Nations in September for recognition of statehood within the pre-1967 lines. Others considered his speech in Congress as a personal victory, and a poll commissioned by Maariv showed that his popularity rose slightly after his visit to Washington.

Anyway, the Obama approach to peace needs to be well understood. The US president took a risk gambling with his chances to keep his job in 2012, confronting a huge pressure from AIPAC. Without assuming that the Jewish lobby is acquired to the Israeli right-wing, it is all the same rare that it let down a prime minister, whatever the objections on his policies.

Now, it is true that the first mission of AIPAC is to defend Israel’s interests in the USA. The way to do it so far, has been through contributions to the electoral campaigns of the candidates of both parties. A little research on this issue over two decades, shows that since 1990, pro-Israel money contributed constantly more to the Democrats than to the Republicans: a total average of 67% to Democrats against 33% to Republicans. The dependence of Obama’s party on pro-Israel money is thus established at least insofar as it concerns Political Action Committees (PACs) and individual donations. The sources of money for both parties are much more varied actually, and may include industries and lobbies less patently affiliated ideologically with Israel and no less influent on foreign policy.

Obama’s victory in the 2008 general election was very much due to the success of his fund-raising campaign, which relied on “bigger donors and smaller donors nearly equally.”  He raised $745 million, and spent $ 730. When he became his party’s nominee, Obama declined public financing and the spending limits that came with it, making him the first major-party candidate since the system was created to reject taxpayers’ money for the general election.

Compare these data with John McCain’s fund-raising campaign. As he opted for the public financing system, he faced an $84 million limit on his spendings, which disadvantaged him. He raised only $368 million and spent $333 million.

In 2010, AIPAC, J Street, Zionist Organization of America, American Jewish Cmte, Republican Jewish Coalition, as top lobbying clients (out of 20 at least) totalised an amount of $2,749,992 as donations to the Congress. Among only the 5 top-recipients of this money are four senators of the Democratic Party and only a Republican representative.

If we go back to 2008, the Pro-Israel top-contributors to federal candidates and parties, totalised $13,886,379. When we look closely at the top recipients, we find that Senator Barack Obama comes in the first rank, with $1,163,222, immediately followed by Senator John McCain with $659,043. The third rank is occupied by Senator Hillary Clinton, with $596,075.

The repartition of the pro-Israel money in 2008 on all the members of the US Congress is as follows:

Democrats: $8,676,855
Republicans: $5,160,994
Others: $3,000

These are contributions from PACs and individuals giving $200 or more. The major industries and sectors of the economic life are not included in theses figures released by the Federal Election Commission on May 12, 2009.

Does this have an impact on politics and specifically on foreign policy? I have no doubt it does. If not, why call it “pro-Israel” money?

This is to explain that the US foreign policy is still largely influenced at the basis by the permanent needs of the elected leaders for funds; which are very often offered in return for something: that is the system of lobbying. And as long as this system exists and pro-Israel money is largely dominating, the Arab demands for fair balanced policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may still wait for better days.

The author, an expert on US-Middle EAst relations, is based in Paris

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