How do we know the power of the lobby is undiminished? Each time President Obama pressed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the issue of a settlement freeze, Obama was forced into a humiliating retreat. That would not have happened had it not been for the behind-the-scenes machinations of the lobby.
That’s John Mearsheimer’s argument.
Not for a second do I doubt the existence and power of the lobby, but in this instance I think Mearsheimer is actually undermining his and Stephen Walt’s overarching argument about the extent of the lobby’s influence.
To portray Obama as a victim of the lobby is to avoid looking at the effect of two other major factors: Obama’s political skills and political instability in Iran.
Obama went into a fight without carrying weapons. He put pressure on Netanyahu yet neither threatened any consequences if the Israeli leader refused to yield, nor took any kind of punitive actions (beyond petty insults like withholding photo-opportunities) when Netanyahu stood his ground.
Even if the president was constrained in terms of the weapons at his disposal — the lobby as always keeps Congress in its pocket, meaning that legislative pressure is unavailable — he had recourse to more than sternness. He could for instance have derived leverage from Goldstone. In other words, he could have made American support for Israel at the UN conditional on a settlement freeze.
Aside from these types of tactical errors Obama made in terms of how he wielded the power of the presidency, the other factor that seriously undermined his strategy for challenging Netanyahu was the impact of political unrest in Iran resulting from the disputed 2009 presidential elections.
As the Iranian regime set about crushing the Green Movement, Obama became an awkward and passive spectator. For good reasons he believed that there was very little the US could constructively do to support Iran’s embattled democracy movement, yet that created the perception that having been tough on Israel he was now being soft on Iran. In what appeared to be an effort to counter that perception he essentially abandoned his tough love approach to Israel. Thereafter, it became all carrots and no sticks when dealing with Netanyahu.
The lobby no doubt took satisfaction at this turn of events and helped push the claim that Obama must not be tough on Israel while soft on Iran, but this was secondary to the effect of what was playing out on the streets of Tehran.
So, even if I would agree that the lobby’s power is largely undiminished, Obama’s failed Middle East strategy is very much a train wreck of his own making. To say that the lobby tied his hands, simply lets him off the hook.