Where is Black America?

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. Here, it may be illuminating to digress into some historical background. This involves the saga of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Israel lobby’s attempts to manipulate African-American opinion on Middle East policy.

Anyone wishing to research this sidebar in the domestic politics of American foreign policy need go no further than 1970. That was the year that politically conscious black internationalists woke up one morning to a full-page ad in major newspapers on ‘Black Americans Support Jet Planes to Israel”! Just about every member of the Black Caucus and a slew of other prominent African-American leaders had their names listed as supporters of this ad which caused many of us to see ‘red’! The CBC and its founding chairman, Charles C. Diggs, Jr. would pay a dear price when, in 1972, Diggs made the first bid to set up a black-led Africa lobby to spearhead anti-apartheid activism by convening the African-American National Conference on Africa. Black leaders ‘supporting jet planes for Israel’ came back to haunt what became a rowdy jamboree at Howard University disrupted by ultra-militant black activists, ending in a decision that no ‘on-going structure’ would emerge from the conference. This ‘ongoing structure’ would have been Diggs’ Africa lobby rather than the separatist ‘black lobby for Africa and the Caribbean’ of neo-Garveyite vintage that became TransAfrica.

In the event, the toxicity of Middle East policy was beginning to be driven home within the activist spectrum of African-American politics. ‘Black Americans Support Jet Planes for Israel’ had been orchestrated by iconic organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin. It was Rustin along with other members of Social Democrats USA like current president-for-life of the National Endowment for Democracy, Carl Gershman, who became the early backbone of the heavily Jewish-influenced neoconservative movement which, in turn, became a major force in the Israel lobby via the American Jewish Committee’s Commentary magazine.

When this author served on Capitol Hill as Congressman Diggs’ personal aide on foreign affairs (1975-1980), it became clear one day that Israel lobby attempts to manipulate the CBC had not been totally laid to rest. A newsletter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) showed up with the names of some Black Caucus members placed in support of a letter being circulated likening the plight of black South Africans to the plight of Israel! An investigation among CBC aides revealed the letter had been drafted in the office of otherwise progressive activist Congresswoman from New York, Bella Abzug.

Fortunately, only a minority of Black Caucus members had signed on to this preposterous AIPAC piece of propaganda. This prompted a crisis meeting among CBC aides and African-American foreign policy activists. What emerged was the drafting of an even-handed CBC policy statement on US-Mideast policy. It featured support for Palestinian statehood and called for withdrawal of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – all on par with support for the survival of Israel and linking Israel’s existential future to that of Palestine.

Unfortunately, with African-American political emphasis understandably focused mainly on domestic issues confronting black America and the continuing salience of race in America’s politics, foreign policy has never gained priority attention on the domestic black agenda. Moreover, the institutional racist exclusion of independent-minded black intellectuals from America’s national security think-tanking and policy apparatus reinforces this ‘invisibility.’ The upshot is that Obama has no genuine black policy intellectual ‘brain trust’ for balancing other influences in mediating pressures he faces within and outside government on critical foreign as well as domestic issues – and which could help him navigate congressional land and fault lines through the Black Caucus.

The Caucus should be at the epicentre of the White House-Congress nexus on critical issues, foreign and domestic. Yet the Caucus itself via its foundation lacks the policy think-tanking heft needed in propelling the CBC into engaging as a major player in the brutal cut-and-thrust of Washington policy struggles. The fact that other institutional resources like the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies and TransAfrica are either in bankruptcy and disrepair and/or have marginalized themselves onto the ideological fringes of mainstream policy discourses further weakens the Caucus and the black political establishment within the Democratic party generally.

When you add celebrity intellectual grandstanders like Cornel West who feel ‘betrayed’ by Obama for not serving as president of black America instead of America in its entirely for which he was elected and re-elected, it is little wonder that not only does Obama find little to rely on among his black constituency but that constituency itself is overly distracted from focusing on the consequential national and global issues Obama must confront. This takes one to one of the most consequential issues facing the Obama presidency and its legacy: the Middle East conundrum where the Iran nuclear issue and the future of US-Irania occupies the apex of Obama’s foreign policy/national security agenda.

Within the geopolitical cauldron and domestic political mine-field has emerged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu at the head of an integrated Likud-Republican party-AIPAC juggernaut challenging Obama’s Iran nuclear diplomacy every step of the way, a consequential struggle that will determine whether and how Washington adapts to the complex multipolarity of a global order in transition. Meanwhile, Democrats in both houses of Congress, because of the potency of the Israel lobby and forced onto the back-foot by the manner in which Netanyahu and House Speaker John Boehner have turned support for Israel into a polarizing partisan issue, are divided and ambivalent about whether or not to support Obama on the Iran nuclear deal.

This is where the Black Caucus could play a critical role in running interference for Obama within the congressional Democratic delegation in tandem with liberal activist opponents of the campaign to wreck such a deal. Here, an Israel-Palestinian ‘peace process’ linkage to the politics of Democratic support for the Likud-GOP anti-Iran deal coalition could complicate this coalition’s anti-Obama ambitions.

Netanyahu has cynically used an alleged Iran nuclear 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. Yet, the African-American political establishment within Obama’s Democratic party constituency appears ‘missing in action’ instead of acting as a core base of support for Obama’s attempt at a complicated resetting of Middle East policy. On the other hand, the Israel lobby opposing this reset (along with Saudi Arabia) has never been as vulnerable as it is currently.

This is mainly because of Netanyahu. His belligerent intransigence 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. The interests of the US 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. Here, 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 AIPAC, and the need for the CBC 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 mobilized in support of Obama. Does the Congressional Black Caucus have the courage to lead this battle in going to bat 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 bandwaggoning with the Netanyahu forces and the GOP. 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:

* oppose a military option in addressing the Iran nuclear issue;

* call on the USA to support a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East;

* 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;

* The Obama administration should 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 Black Caucus should elevate its support for Palestinian statehood to be on par with its anti-apartheid South African solidarity campaign. It could:

* 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, in the final analysis, been invisible in the debate over Obama’s foreign 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.