IF AT THE END OF 2010, anyone had asked me where the next major Middle East crisis would most likely occur, I could have offered them a rich menu of possibilities. There was Iraq, of course, where despite progress, it often felt as if a return to chaos was just a market bombing or militia attack away. The international sanctions we’d imposed on Iran in response to its nuclear program had started to cause some pain, and any defiance or desperation from the regime could lead to a confrontation that spun out of control. Yemen—one of the world’s true hard-luck cases—had become headquarters to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was now the deadliest and most active chapter of the terrorist network.
And then there were the few hundred miles of winding, contested border that separated Israel from the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Mine was hardly the first U.S. administration to lose sleep over those relatively thin pieces of real estate. The conflict between Arabs and Jews had been an open sore on the region for almost a century, dating back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British, who were then occupying Palestine, committed to create a “national home for the Jewish people” in a region overwhelmingly populated by Arabs. Over the next twenty or so years, Zionist leaders mobilized a surge of Jewish migration to Palestine and organized highly trained armed forces to defend their settlements. In 1947, in the wake of World War II and in the shadow of the Holocaust’s unspeakable crimes, the United Nations approved a partition plan to establish two sovereign states, one Jewish, the other Arab, with Jerusalem—a city considered holy by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike—to be governed by an international body. Zionist leaders embraced the plan, but Arab Palestinians, as well as surrounding Arab nations that were also just emerging from colonial rule, strenuously objected. As Britain withdrew, the two sides quickly fell into war. And with Jewish militias claiming victory in 1948, the State of Israel was officially born.
For the Jewish people, it was a dream fulfilled, a state of their own in their historic homeland after centuries of exile, religious persecution, and the more recent horrors of the Holocaust. But for the roughly seven hundred thousand Arab Palestinians who found themselves stateless and driven from their lands, the same events would be a part of what became known as the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” For the next three decades, Israel would engage in a succession of conflicts with its Arab neighbors—most significantly the Six-Day War of 1967, in which a greatly outnumbered Israeli military routed the combined armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In the process, Israel seized control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The memory of those losses, and the humiliation that came with it, became a defining aspect of Arab nationalism, and support for the Palestinian cause a central tenet of Arab foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Palestinians living within the occupied territories, mostly in refugee camps, found themselves governed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with their movements and economic activity severely restricted, prompting calls for armed resistance and resulting in the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Arab politicians routinely denounced Israel, often in explicitly anti-Semitic terms, and most governments in the region embraced the PLO’s chairman, Yasser Arafat, as a freedom fighter—even as his organization and its affiliates engaged in escalating and bloody terrorist attacks against unarmed civilians.
The United States was no bystander in all this. Jewish Americans had suffered generations of discrimination in their own country, but they and other Jews emigrating from the West to Israel still shared language, customs, and appearance with their white Christian brethren, and in comparison to Arabs, they still enjoyed far more sympathy from the American public. Harry Truman had been the first foreign leader to formally recognize Israel as a sovereign state, and the American Jewish community pressed U.S. officials to assist the fledgling nation. With the world’s two Cold War superpowers vying for influence in the Middle East, the United States became Israel’s primary patron—and with that, Israel’s problems with its neighbors became America’s problems as well.
Practically every U.S. president since then had tried to resolve the ArabIsraeli conflict, with varying degrees of success. The historic Camp David Accords, brokered in 1978 by Jimmy Carter, achieved a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt and returned Sinai to Egyptian control. The agreement, which yielded a Nobel Peace Prize for the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, and the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, also moved Egypt further out of the Soviet orbit and made the two countries critical U.S. security partners (as well as the largest recipients of U.S. economic and military aid in the world, by a wide margin). But it left the Palestinian issue unresolved. Fifteen years later, with the Cold War over and U.S. influence at its zenith, Bill Clinton brought Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat together for the signing of the first Oslo Accord. In it, the PLO finally recognized Israel’s right to exist, while Israel recognized the PLO as the rightful representative of the Palestinian people and agreed to the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which would have limited but meaningful governance over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Along with giving Jordan license to follow Egypt’s example and conclude its own peace deal with Israel, Oslo provided a framework for the eventual creation of an autonomous Palestinian state, one that, ideally, would coexist with a secure Israel that was at peace with its neighbors. But old wounds, and the lure of violence over compromise among factions on both sides, proved too much to overcome. Rabin was assassinated by a far-right Israeli extremist in 1995. His liberal successor, Shimon Peres, served for seven months before losing a snap election to Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, whose platform had once included total annexation of the Palestinian territories. Unhappy about the Oslo Accords, harder-line organizations like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad set about undermining the credibility of Arafat and his Fatah party with Palestinians, calling for armed struggle to take back Arab lands and push Israel into the sea.
After Netanyahu was defeated in the 1999 election, his more liberal successor, Ehud Barak, made efforts to establish a broader peace in the Middle East, including outlining a two-state solution that went further than any previous Israeli proposal. Arafat demanded more concessions, however, and talks collapsed in recrimination. Meanwhile, one day in September 2000, Likud party leader Ariel Sharon led a group of Israeli legislators on a deliberately provocative and highly publicized visit to one of Islam’s holiest sites, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It was a stunt designed to assert Israel’s claim over the wider territory, one that challenged the leadership of Ehud Barak and enraged Arabs near and far. Four months later, Sharon became Israel’s next prime minister, governing throughout what became known as the Second Intifada: four years of violence between the two sides, marked by tear gas and rubber bullets directed at stone-throwing protesters; Palestinian suicide bombs detonated outside an Israeli nightclub and in buses carrying senior citizens and schoolchildren; deadly IDF retaliatory raids and the indiscriminate arrest of thousands of Palestinians; and Hamas rockets launched from Gaza into Israeli border towns, answered by U.S.-supplied Israeli Apache helicopters leveling entire neighborhoods.
Approximately a thousand Israelis and three thousand Palestinians died during this period—including scores of children—and by the time the violence subsided, in 2005, the prospects for resolving the underlying conflict had fundamentally changed. The Bush administration’s focus on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror left it little bandwidth to worry about Middle East peace, and while Bush remained officially supportive of a two-state solution, he was reluctant to press Sharon on the issue. Publicly, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states continued to offer support to the Palestinian cause, but they were increasingly more concerned with limiting Iranian influence and rooting out extremist threats to their own regimes. The Palestinians themselves had splintered after Arafat’s death in 2004: Gaza came under the control of Hamas and soon found itself under a tightly enforced Israeli blockade, while the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, which continued to govern the West Bank, came to be viewed by even some of its supporters as feckless and corrupt.
Most important, Israeli attitudes toward peace talks had hardened, in part because peace no longer seemed so crucial to ensuring the country’s safety and prosperity. The Israel of the 1960s that remained lodged in the popular imagination, with its communal kibbutz living and periodic rationing of basic supplies, had been transformed into a modern economic powerhouse. It was no longer the plucky David surrounded by hostile Goliaths; thanks to tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military aid, the Israeli armed forces were now matchless in the region. Terrorist bombings and attacks within Israel had all but ceased, due in some measure to the fact that Israel had erected a wall more than four hundred miles long between itself and the Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, punctuated with strategically placed checkpoints to control the flow of Palestinian workers in and out of Israel. Every so often, rocket fire from Gaza still endangered those living in Israeli border towns, and the presence of Jewish Israeli settlers in the West Bank sometimes triggered deadly skirmishes. For most residents of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, however, the Palestinians lived largely out of sight, their struggles and resentments troubling but remote.
Given everything that was already on my plate when I became president, it would have been tempting to just do my best to manage the status quo, quash any outbreaks of renewed violence between Israeli and Palestinian factions, and otherwise leave the whole mess alone. But taking into account the broader foreign policy concerns, I decided I couldn’t go that route. Israel remained a key U.S. ally, and even with the threats reduced, it still endured terrorist attacks that jeopardized not only its citizens but also the thousands of Americans who lived or traveled there. At the same time, just about every country in the world considered Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories to be a violation of international law. As a result, our diplomats found themselves in the awkward position of having to defend Israel for actions that we ourselves opposed. U.S. officials also had to explain why it wasn’t hypocritical for us to press countries like China or Iran on their human rights records while showing little concern for the rights of Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation continued to inflame the Arab community and feed anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.
In other words, the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians made America less safe. Negotiating a workable solution between the two sides, on the other hand, stood to strengthen our security posture, weaken our enemies, and make us more credible in championing human rights around the world—all in one fell swoop.
In truth, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also weighed on me personally. Some of the earliest moral instruction I got from my mother revolved around the Holocaust, an unconscionable catastrophe that, like slavery, she explained, was rooted in the inability or unwillingness to recognize the humanity of others. Like many American kids of my generation, I’d had the story of Exodus etched in my brain. In sixth grade, I’d idealized the Israel described to me by a Jewish camp counselor who’d lived on a kibbutz— a place where everyone was equal, he said, everyone pitched in, and everyone was welcome to share in the joys and struggles of repairing the world. In high school, I’d devoured the works of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer, moved by stories of men trying to find their place in an America that didn’t welcome them. Later, studying the early civil rights movement in college, I’d been intrigued by the influence of Jewish philosophers like Martin Buber on Dr. King’s sermons and writings. I’d admired how, across issues, Jewish voters tended to be more progressive than just about any other ethnic group, and in Chicago, some of my most stalwart friends and supporters had come from the city’s Jewish community.
I believed there was an essential bond between the Black and the Jewish experiences—a common story of exile and suffering that might ultimately be redeemed by a shared thirst for justice, a deeper compassion for others, a heightened sense of community. It made me fiercely protective of the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own, though, ironically, those same shared values also made it impossible for me to ignore the conditions under which Palestinians in the occupied territories were forced to live.
Yes, many of Arafat’s tactics had been abhorrent. Yes, Palestinian leaders had too often missed opportunities for peace; there’d been no Havel or Gandhi to mobilize a nonviolent movement with the moral force to sway Israeli public opinion. And yet none of that negated the fact that millions of Palestinians lacked self-determination and many of the basic rights that even citizens of non-democratic countries enjoyed. Generations were growing up in a starved and shrunken world from which they literally couldn’t escape, their daily lives subject to the whims of a distant, often hostile authority and the suspicions of every blank-faced, rifle-carrying soldier demanding to see their papers at each checkpoint they passed.
By the time I took office, though, most congressional Republicans had abandoned any pretense of caring about what happened to the Palestinians. Indeed, a strong majority of white evangelicals—the GOP’s most reliable voting bloc—believed that the creation and gradual expansion of Israel fulfilled God’s promise to Abraham and heralded Christ’s eventual return. On the Democratic side, even stalwart progressives were loath to look less pro-Israel than Republicans, especially since many of them were Jewish themselves or represented sizable Jewish constituencies.
Also, members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful bipartisan lobbying organization dedicated to ensuring unwavering U.S. support for Israel. AIPAC’s clout could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country, and just about every politician in Washington— including me—counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors. In the past, the organization had accommodated a spectrum of views on Middle East peace, insisting mainly that those seeking its endorsement support a continuation of U.S. aid to Israel and oppose efforts to isolate or condemn Israel via the U.N. and other international bodies. But as Israeli politics had moved to the right, so had AIPAC’s policy positions. Its staff and leaders increasingly argued that there should be “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israeli governments, even when Israel took actions that were contrary to U.S. policy. Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as “anti-Israel” (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.
I’d been on the receiving end of some of this during my presidential campaign, as Jewish supporters reported having to beat back assertions in their synagogues and on email chains that I was insufficiently supportive of— or even hostile toward—Israel. They attributed these whisper campaigns not to any particular position I’d taken (my backing of a two-state solution and opposition to Israeli settlements were identical to the positions of the other candidates) but rather to my expressions of concern for ordinary Palestinians; my friendships with certain critics of Israeli policy, including an activist and Middle East scholar named Rashid Khalidi; and the fact that, as Ben bluntly put it, “You’re a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighborhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremiah Wright’s church.” On Election Day, I’d end up getting more than 70 percent of the Jewish vote, but as far as many AIPAC board members were concerned, I remained suspect, a man of divided loyalties: someone whose support for Israel, as one of Axe’s friends colorfully put it, wasn’t “felt in his kishkes”—“guts,” in Yiddish.