The fact that US President Barack Obama sent White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to meet with the leaders of the pro-Israel lobbies in the US this week did nothing but feed speculation about how much power and influence these groups wield on US Middle East policy. The purpose of the meeting was to ask these groups to help convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze colony expansion in the Occupied Territories and facilitate the resumption of Middle East peace talks. If this meeting tells us anything it is that Obama may have discovered the limits of his power vis-à-vis Netanyahu's intransigence, and so resorted to asking the Jewish leaders in the US to help sway the Israeli premier. It is also a further demonstration that the power of the pro-Israel lobby has not receded under Obama, especially when it comes to formulating Middle East policies.

Last year, pro-Israel leaders fiercely criticised an academic study by two US scholars maintaining that America's Middle East policy is controlled by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other organisations that actively work to move US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.

Stephen Walt of the University of Chicago and John Mearsheimer from Harvard University examined the position of key US candidates ahead of the 2008 presidential elections. They found that among all foreign policy issues, on Israel one can be confident that the candidates will speak with one voice. "[S]erious candidates for the highest office in the land will go to considerable lengths to express their deep personal commitment to one foreign country — Israel — as well as their determination to maintain unyielding US support for the Jewish state. Each candidate will emphasise that he or she fully appreciates the multitude of threats facing Israel and make it clear that, if elected, the United States will remain firmly committed to defending Israel's interests under any and all circumstances. None of the candidates is likely to criticise Israel in any significant way or suggest that the United States ought to pursue a more evenhanded policy in the region."

After his election, Obama started to use the sort of language that made many wonder if Walt and Mearsheimer's argument was valid. Upon assuming power, Obama warned Israel that it must accept the two-state solution. He also denounced the building of colonies in the Occupied Territories and described it as illegal and illegitimate. He declared the tacit understanding between the Bush administration and the government of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon concerning the expansion of colonies as null and void. Israeli leaders and pro-Israel writers in the US were alarmed by the rhetoric of the Obama administration. But that was not the only thing that worried them.

Obama started to centralise power in the White House, marginalising pro-Israel Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while offering ever-clearer signs that Israel's status as a close American ally was imperilled. The National Security Council, which is located in the White House, was given the power to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international issues. National security head Jim Jones made it clear that he would be "in charge" and would have "open and final access to the president on all national security matters".

Jones had chilly relations with Israel when he served as presidential envoy to examine Israel's colony policy. He wrote a report described by Israeli officials as "very harsh". Under the Bush administration, the report was deep-sixed. Today, Israel suspects that it has been pulled from a filing cabinet and is already on people's desks in the White House.

Israeli writers have complained that Jones was not a favourable choice because of his "blatantly cool attitude" to Israel. As a result, pro-Israel circles in Washington started a smear campaign against him and he was accused of fostering personal trade relationships with the Gulf states.

When it comes to Israel, Jones is of the same school of thought as George Mitchell, the special envoy to the Middle East, who has also criticised Israel's policies in the Occupied Territories. Other Obama appointees — such as Samantha Power, who has been put in charge of working with multilateral organisations at the United States National Security Council, and Susan Rice, America's ambassador to the UN — have also been accused of exhibiting an anti-Israel attitude.

Putting ‘unfriendly' people in key positions within the administration, while excluding many of Israel's supporters, has caused a great deal of concern in Israel. Yet, Emanuel's meeting with the leaders of the pro-Israel lobby in the White House suggests that not much has really changed in US-Israeli relations. It also shows that Walt and Mearsheimer's study still provides the best description of the power and influence of the Jewish lobby over US Middle East policy.


Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in the Media and International Relations Faculty of Political Science and Media at Damascus University in Syria.