Five years ago this week, John Mearsheimer and I published "The Israel Lobby" in the London Review of Books. Our goal in writing the article (and subsequent book) was to break the taboo on discussions of the lobby's impact on U.S. foreign policy, and to transform it into a topic that people could talk about openly and calmly. Because we believed the "special relationship" that the lobby had promoted was harmful to the United States and Israel (not to mention the Palestinians), we hoped that a more open discourse on this topic would move U.S. Middle East policy in a direction that would be better for almost everyone.
Did we succeed?To read the full article, click here.
Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel's continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn't question Israel's legitimacy, didn't declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn't call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with "secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.
There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.
Yet even now, with the peace process and the two-state solution flat-lining, the Obama administration couldn't bring itself to vote for a U.N. resolution that reflected the U.S. government's own position on settlements. The transparently lame explanation given by U.S. officials was that the security council isn't the right forum to address this issue. Instead, they claimed that the settlements issue ought to be dealt with in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the security council should have nothing to say on the issue.
This position is absurd on at least two grounds. First, the expansion of settlements is clearly an appropriate issue for the security council to consider, given that it is authorized to address obvious threats to international peace and security. Second, confining this issue to "direct talks" doesn't make much sense when those talks are going nowhere. Surely the Obama administration recognizes that its prolonged and prodigious effort to get meaningful discussions going have been a complete bust? It is hard to believe that they didn't recognize that voting "yes" on the resolution might be a much-needed wake-up call for the Israeli government, and thus be a good way to get the peace process moving again? Thus far, all that Obama's Middle East team has managed to do in two years is to further undermine U.S. credibility as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and to dash the early hopes that the United States was serious about "two states for two peoples." And while Obama, Mitchell, Clinton, Ross, and the rest of the team have floundered, the Netanyahu government has continued to evict Palestinian residents from their homes, its bulldozers and construction crews continuing to seize more and more of the land on which the Palestinians hoped to create a state.
Needless to say, the United States is all by its lonesome on this issue. Our fellow democracies -- France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, India, and Colombia -- all voted in favor of the resolution, but not the government of the Land of the Free. And it's not as if Netanyahu deserved to be rewarded at this point, given how consistently he has stiffed Obama and his Middle East team.
Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation is on a roll, doing his best to help the United States move toward a more sensible Middle East policy and to conduct a more civilized public discourse on that difficult topic. He made two important contributions in the past week, and I want to call your attention to both.
Item No. 1: Steve and several of his associates have sponsored an important open letter, co-signed by an impressive list of former government officials, journalists, and academics. The letter calls for the United States government to support a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's continued efforts to build or expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The normal U.S. practice is to veto such resolutions, even though the official U.S. government position is that settlement construction is illegal and an obstacle to peace. Given that the peace process itself is going nowhere, however, supporting such a resolution would be an important symbolic act that would signal to the Netanyahu government that it cannot act with impunity. It would also remind the rest of the world that the Obama administration isn't just a lap dog when it comes to these issues and that Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 wasn't just empty rhetoric.
More importantly, voting for this resolution is not an "anti-Israel" act, though it would undoubtedly be seen as such by most groups in the "status quo" lobby. The signatories to the letter were no doubt primarily concerned with advancing U.S. interests, but in this case the long-term interests of the United States and Israel are identical. As many Americans and Israelis now realize, the settlement enterprise has been a costly blunder for Israel. By making a two-state solution more difficult (and maybe impossible), it even threatens Israel's long-term future. Although no government likes open criticism or Security Council censure, backing this resolution is an easy way for the United States to help Israel begin to rethink its present course and strengthen our tarnished credentials as an honest broker.
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Keeping up with Jeffrey Goldberg's errors is like trying to dam the Gulf Stream, and responding to his repeated smears is a mug's game. I suppose I could quote a bunch of snarky comments about him too, and we could have a nasty blogosopheric food fight for the entertainment of our readers. But I prefer to focus on the issues, instead of the name-calling that is J.G.'s stock-in-trade.
His latest silly sally is to chide me for my saying that there is no meaningful "Arab lobby" in Washington. As evidence, he points out that various Arab states have paid a lot of money to various public relations firms, in a rather transparent attempt to gain some influence in Washington. The question to ask is whether these activities produce "meaningful" influence on key foreign policy issues, especially when you compare them with the lobbying groups on the other side.
Once you ask that question, of course, his case collapses. Let's look at the vast influence that the "Arab lobby" has wielded in recent years.
1. It is undoubtedly the all-powerful Arab lobby that ensures that Israel gets $3-4 billion in economic and military aid each year, even when it does things that the United States opposes, like building settlements. And were it not for the Arab lobby, the United States would be putting a lot of pressure on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and come clean about its nuclear arsenal.
2. It was the vaunted Arab lobby that convinced President Bush to delay a U.N. ceasefire resolution during the Lebanon War of 2006, so that Israel could try to finish off Hezbollah and continue bombing civilian areas in Lebanon. Pressure from the Arab lobby also convinced Congress to pass a resolution backing Israel to the hilt, and to remove language from the original draft that called for both sides to "protect civilian life and infrastructure."
3. When Ambassador Charles Freeman was nominated to chair the National Intelligence Council in 2009, the vast Arab lobby promptly launched a successful smear campaign to deny him the post, running roughshod over his outnumbered and powerless defenders at the New Republic, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic Monthly, and Washington Post.
4. When Obama asked Israel to implement a settlement freeze in 2009, the Arab lobby promptly swung into action and drafted open letters warning the President not to put any pressure on Israel. These resolutions passed overwhelmingly in both Houses, another sign of the Arab lobby's political clout.
5. When Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008, the Arab lobby was there to prevent the U.S. from interfering. And when the Goldstone Report raised the issue of possible Israeli war crimes in that war, the Arab Lobby no doubt called the Obama administration and told it to condemn the report, which it promptly did.
The good news is that the Obama administration has withdrawn its humiliating attempt to bribe Israel into accepting a 90-day extension of the (partial) settlement freeze. Not only was this negotiating ploy one of the more degrading moments in the annals of U.S. diplomacy, it also had scant chance of success. To their credit, Obama's Middle East teams finally figured this out -- a few weeks later than most observers -- and pulled the plug on the deal.
The bad news, however, is that it's not clear what their next move is. Everyone now realizes that the United States cannot play the role of a fair-minded mediator in this conflict, and the early hopes that Obama would adopt a smarter approach have been repeatedly dashed.
This situation isn't good for anyone -- not the United States, not Israel, and not the Palestinians. It is increasingly likely that a genuine two-state solution isn't going to be reached, and as I've noted before, the United States will be in a very awkward position once mainstream writers and politicians begin to recognize that fact. Once it becomes clear that "two states for two people" just ain't gonna happen, the United States will have to choose between backing a one-state, binational democracy, embracing ethnic cleansing, or supporting permanent apartheid. Those are the only alternatives to a two-state solution, and no future president will relish having to choose between them. But once the two-state solution is off the table, that is precisely the choice a future President would face.
This failure will further complicate our efforts elsewhere in the region. As former President Bill Clinton remarked a few weeks ago, solving the Israel-Palestine problem "will take about half the impetus in the whole world -- not just the region, the whole world -- for terror away. . . It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done." It is also clear from the recent WikiLeaks releases that our Arab partners want the United States to do something about Iran, but they remain deeply concerned by the Palestinian issue and they recognize that progress on Israel-Palestine would go a long way to reducing Iran's regional influence.
Unfortunately, there's little reason to expect any sort of breakthrough, which means that local forces and dynamics are going to be exerting greater weight. When others believe that the United States is in charge of the "peace process" and leading it in a positive direction, they sit back and let Uncle Sam do the work. But now that Obama's team has failed, local actors will take matters into their own hands and U.S. influence is likely to diminish further. Why wait for Washington to deliver a deal when it is obvious that it can't?
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the events of the past two years have done a lot to clarify both where we are and where we are headed. One can take no joy from that, because the current path is bound to produce more needless suffering in the short to medium term, and maybe beyond. But dispelling the myths and illusions that have obscured our vision is of some value, and in this case, one didn't even need WikiLeaks to figure out what's going on.
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I never cease to be amazed at how virtually any criticism of Israel can cause Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic to go bananas and make all sorts of wild charges. This tendency is especially evident when someone writes about the Israel lobby. It is usually best to ignore him, because he seems incapable of getting the simplest facts right. But occasionally I feel the need to set the record straight.
Goldberg's forte is character assassination, and his main weapons are name-calling and misrepresenting his opponents' arguments. Instead of calling me a "Jew-baiter" (a despicable accusation for which he has no grounds), as he has in the past, his latest sally calls me a "neo-Lindberghian," again implying that I am an anti-Semite. This is a serious charge -- the political equivalent of calling someone a racist or child molester -- and you'd think a respectable journalist would go to some effort to document the label before using it. You'd think he'd supply a lengthy array of quotations from my writings and speeches to prove his point. Goldberg cannot do this, however, because no such evidence exists.
Goldberg doesn't know me; doesn't know my history, relatives, friends, students, and close associates, and has no idea what I really think about any of these questions. Judging by what he writes about my work, he doesn't even know what I've written. For example, he claims that the book that John Mearsheimer and I wrote on the Israel lobby describes a "nefarious, all-powerful Jewish lobby." and that we "love to capitalize the word 'Lobby.'" Both statements are demonstrably false, as he would know if he had bothered to examine the issue.
We portray the lobby as a legitimate interest group like many others and emphasize that its activities are a normal part of democratic politics in America (pp. 13-14, 112, 150). We explicitly reject the term "Jewish lobby" (p. 115) and we don't capitalize the word lobby anywhere in the 484-page book. Indeed, the only place we ever capitalized that word was in our original London Review article; but we openly acknowledged in our subsequent response to critics that this usage was misleading and have not done so in any of our subsequent writings.
Journalists are supposed to be concerned with truth and accuracy. But Goldberg is clearly incapable of being objective or open-minded when the subject is Israel, which is why he quickly descends to innuendo and fabrication when dealing with anyone who criticizes that country's policies, questions America's special relationship with the Jewish state, or raises doubts the activities of the Israel lobby. He invents false charges for a simple reason: It would be impossible to smear us if he had to rely on what we actually said. So he has to make things up.
Goldberg is also wrong when he says the latest WikiLeaks revelations discredit our arguments about the lobby's role in encouraging a war with Iran. We argued that if the United States were foolish enough to start a war against Iran, it would be largely due to the influence of Israel and especially the lobby. Both Israel and its hardline supporters here in the United States have been relentless in their efforts to push the United States to confront Iran, and to keep the military option at the ready. There is nothing in WikiLeaks that changes that assessment. Yes, there has also been pressure from some Arab leaders, such as the king of Saudi Arabia, to use force against Iran. There are also prominent voices in the Arab world warning that this step would be disastrous. But the key point is that these Arab leaders have much less influence on the United States than Israel does.
First, Arab leaders cannot make the case for war in public, because their publics oppose this course of action. Israel, on the other hand, is constantly making the case for war directly and overtly. Second, Israel has a powerful lobby in the United States that has been working overtime to push the United States to strike Iran. Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states have no meaningful lobby in Washington, which is why their repeated requests that the United States do something to end Israel's illegal occupation and harsh treatment of the Palestinians have fallen on deaf ears for decades.
It is Israel and the lobby, not the Arabs, that are shaping the discourse on Iran, and it is disingenuous for Goldberg to suggest otherwise. Does he not know about the origins of "dual containment," as recounted in recent books by Kenneth Pollack and Trita Parsi? Is he unaware of AIPAC's successful effort to kill the CONOCO oil deal with Iran in 1995, or the lobby's role in pushing the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, not to mention the 2010 version of unilateral U.S. sanctions? Has he forgotten his own recent writings, which warned that top Israeli leaders were contemplating war with Iran in early 2011?
Bear in mind that we still do not know if Iran is actively seeking an overt nuclear weapons capability or not. The December 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which has not been superseded by a new estimate, said that Tehran was not trying to build nuclear weapons. And the evidence we have in the public record about Iran's nuclear program does not show in any conclusive way that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal. One can hardly rule out the possibility, of course, but neither should we simply assume that Tehran is hell-bent on building an actual weapon. It is even possible that these Arab leaders are so concerned that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons in part because they have been influenced by the efforts of Israel and the lobby to hype the Iran threat, just as they hyped the WMD threat from Iraq in the earlier part of this decade.
Perhaps I take Goldberg too seriously, and I should just ignore his regrettable tendency to distort the views of those with whom he disagrees. If Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly get to spout dangerous nonsense, why can't Goldberg? Yet it is important to point out what he is doing, because he is a textbook case of the lengths to which many defenders of Israel will go in order to convince Americans that they must support it no matter what. Like the Cuban-American lobby, the gun lobby, and other narrow interest groups, the Likudnik wing of the Israel lobby isn't really interested in truth or even a fair-minded discussion of the issues. They just smear their targets with made-up accusations, knowing that if you throw enough mud, some of it is bound to stick.
I suspect that what really ticks Goldberg off is this: My co-author and I (and a few others) have had the temerity to write critically about the political role of "pro-Israel" forces (both Jewish and non-Jewish) in America today. This is a topic that the goyim aren't supposed to talk about openly. It's fine for Goldberg to write at length about this topic, or for former Forward editor J. J. Goldberg, to devote an entire book (which is well worth reading) to it. But when a non-Jew writes about this issue, and suggests that these groups are advocating foolish and self-defeating policies, then that person must of course be an anti-Semite. If Jews express similar doubts, they must be labeled as "self-hating" and marginalized as well.
Please. I really do understand this sort of tribalism and up to a point, I'm sympathetic to it. Given Jewish history -- and especially the dark legacy of genuine anti-Semitism -- it is unsurprising that some people are quick to assume that any gentile who criticizes the present "special relationship" must have sinister motives, even when there's no actual basis for the suspicion. But that sensitivity doesn't make the elephant in the room disappear, and given that America's Middle East policy affects all of us, the various factors that shape that policy ought to open to fair-minded discussion devoid of name-calling and character assassination.
So yes, Jeffrey, there is a powerful "Israel lobby" (though it's not "all-powerful"). Yes, many individuals in the lobby think the United States should do whatever it takes--including the use of military force -- to eliminate Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities. They aren't the only people who think this, but they have been among the loudest and most persistent voices advocating this course of action. And yes, like most (all?) lobbies, some of the policies that it promotes are not in the best interests of the country as a whole. These facts are so obvious and so easy to document that it's no wonder that a zealot like Goldberg prefers to throw mud whenever somebody points them out.
I've been trying to figure what I think of the latest attempt to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. For the most part I agree with FP colleague Marc Lynch -- it's hard to see how this is going to lead anywhere. Even if you get a 90-day extension of the partial freeze on settlement building, nobody thinks you can get a viable final-status agreement in that time period. The best you could hope for is some sort of agreement on borders, but even there I'd be pretty pessimistic.
But let me put aside my usual skepticism and ask a different question: What can the Obama team do to maximize the chances of tangible progress? They've already given Israel a lot of carrots up front: a promise of F-35 aircraft, a pledge to never, ever, ever raise the issue of a settlement freeze again, and a guarantee that we will keep defending Israel in the United Nations, and probably a bunch of other goodies too. Plus, we agreed to leave East Jerusalem out of the deal, even though this is a major irritant on the Palestinian side. All told, Netanyahu got a pretty big reward for being recalcitrant. At first glance, there's not much to stop him for halting some (but not all) settlement building, digging in his heels for 90 days, and then going back to business-as-usual.
Here's the rub: given the power of the Israel lobby, it's unrealistic to think that the Obama administration would be able to put any overt pressure on Israel. Congress will make sure that Israel gets its annual aid package, and die-hard defenders like Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) will make it impossible for Obama to use the leverage that is potentially at his disposal. And as noted above, those same forces will make sure that the United States continues veto any unfavorable resolutions in the U.N. Security Council and deflects international efforts to raise question about Israel's nuclear program.
So what's a president to do? Obama and his team have a huge incentive to make this latest gamble pay off. Obama has been backtracking ever since his Cairo speech (which can't be pleasant), George Mitchell is probably worried his long career as a public servant will end in abject failure, and I'll bet Middle East advisor Dennis Ross would like to prove that he's not really "Israel's lawyer" after all. And surely everybody on the team knows that another cave-in will completely derail any hope of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Islamic world. But given that overt pressure is out, what cards do Mitchell, Ross, Clinton, and Obama have to play?
Here's my suggestion: assuming direct talks do resume under U.S. auspices, tell the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority that the United States is going to keep a very careful record of who did and said what, and the United States will not hesitate to go public in the event that anybody starts making ridiculous demands, indulging in delaying tactics, or refusing to make reasonable concessions. Unlike Camp David 2000, where nothing was written down and no maps were exchanged (at Israel's insistence), this time we are going to prevent anybody from doing a lot of spin-control after the fact. In other words, the United States tells everyone we are going to act like an honest broker for a change, and if either side refuses to play ball, we are going to expose their recalcitrance in the eyes of the international community. Most importantly, this declaration can't be a bluff: if the talks bog down, the administration has to be prepared to go public.
And remember: The goal here is a viable Palestinian state, not a bunch of disarmed and disconnected Bantustans. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have all made it clear a viable state for the Palestinians is the only alternative that the United States can get behind. It is what the original U.N. partition plan in 1947 called for, and all the other alternatives (binational democracy, ethnic cleansing, or permanent apartheid) are either impractical or directly at odds with U.S. values.
This approach might actually work, because public discourse on this subject has begun to open up and it is increasingly difficult to spin a one-sided story. (See here for a recent example.) Moreover, many Israelis are growing worried about what they see as a growing international campaign to "delegitimize" their country. The best way to counter that alleged campaign is to end the occupation and establish internationally recognized borders. By contrast, if Israel is seen as the main obstacle to peace, international criticism is bound to increase. Given these concerns, a threat to make the negotiating process public might actually have some bite to it.
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I wouldn't call it a "shellacking," but President Barack Obama's trip to Asia wasn't a stunning triumph either. He got a positive reception in India -- mostly because he was giving Indians things they wanted and not asking for much in return -- and his personal history and still-evident charisma played well in Indonesia. But then he went off to the G-20 summit in Seoul, and got stiffed by a diverse coalition of foreign economic powers. Plus, an anticipated trade deal with South Korea didn't get done, depriving him of any tangible achievements to bring back home.
What lessons should we draw from this? The first and most obvious is that when your own economy is performing poorly, and when you are still saddled by costly burdens like the war in Afghanistan, you aren't going to have as much clout on the world stage. After half a century or more of global dominance, some Americans may still expect the president to waltz into global summits and get others to do what he wants (or at least most of it). But that is harder to do when you've spent the past ten years wasting trillions (yes, trillions) in Iraq and Afghanistan while other states were building their futures, and have dug yourself into a deep economic hole.
Second, the geopolitics of the trip are important, as Robert Kaplan lays out in a good New York Times op-ed this morning. I don't agree with everything he says (in particular, I think getting out of Afghanistan would reduce the need to accommodate Pakistan and simplify efforts to forge a closer relationship with India) but most of his points ring true to me.
Third, the other event this week was yet another flap between the United States and Israel, and it's not as unrelated to the situation in Asia as you might think. At about the same time that Obama was making yet another eloquent speech about the need to improve relations between the United States and the Muslim world, Israel was announcing still more construction in East Jerusalem. Just what Obama needed, right?
When Obama said this step was "counterproductive" (now there's tough language!), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retorted that "Jerusalem is not a settlement; it is the capital of Israel." In fact, Israeli construction in East Jerusalem is no different than a settlement in the eyes of the rest of the world, because no other government recognizes Israel's illegal annexation of these lands.
And then what happened? Netanyahu sat down for nearly a full day of talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who proceeded to say (for the zillionth time), that the U.S. commitment to Israel's security was "unshakeable." She then declared that the U.S. position on future talks will seek to "reconcile the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements" (my emphasis).
Translation: the Obama administration is back in business as "Israel's lawyer," and the man who first coined that phrase -- former U.S. negotiator Aaron Miller -- said as much, referring to Clinton's statement as "the beginning of a common U.S.-Israeli approach to the peace negotiations." Given that Netanyahu has made it clear that East Jerusalem is not negotiable and that his own vision of a two-state solution is a set of disconnected Palestinian statelets under de facto Israel control, this is not an approach that is going to lead anywhere positive. And like his Cairo speech, Obama's remarks in Indonesia will soon be dismissed as more empty phrases.
So where's the connection between this issue and our strategic position in Asia? Indonesia is a potentially crucial partner for the United States (if you want to see why, take a look at the sea lanes in Southeast Asia), and it is also a moderate Muslim country with history of toleration. Yet the Palestinian issue resonates there too, and makes it harder for the Indonesian government to openly embrace the United States. As Kaplan notes in his Times op-ed, "China also plays on the tension between the West and global Islam in order to limit American influence there. That is why President Obama's mission to rebrand America in the eyes of Muslims carries benefits that go far beyond Indonesia and the Middle East."
What Kaplan doesn't say is that the United States' one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians is an important source of the "tension" that China is exploiting. As the deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group, Masdar Mas'udi, put it last week: "The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world… Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."
So the next time you read about some senator or congressperson denouncing any attempt to use U.S. leverage on both sides to bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ask yourself why they are trying to undermine the U.S. effort to bolster its strategic position in a region that ultimately matters far more to U.S. security and prosperity. And by making it harder to achieve a workable two-state solution that would preserve its democratic and Jewish character and enhance its international legitimacy, they aren't doing Israel any favors either. Indeed, the remarkable thing about these zealots is that they are managing to undermine the United States' security and Israel's long-term future at the same time.
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One of the silliest things ever written was F. Scott Fitzgerald's statement that, "There are no second acts in American lives." Fitzgerald obviously wasn't around to witness the lives of Oliver North, Elliot Spitzer, G. Gordon Liddy, Elliott Abrams, or Madonna's entire career. I'm even betting Tiger Woods manages a pretty successful second act after his own embarrassing melodrama.
If Fitzgerald were alive today and studying the United States' Middle East policy, he'd never have written such a silly line. I refer to Laura Rozen's latest Politico column, entitled "On the Mideast: Waiting for Superman." Rozen suggests that the Obama administration is thinking about bringing former Clinton-era official Martin Indyk into the government to jump-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian talks. She also speculates about the possibility of using former president Bill Clinton as some sort of a special envoy, an idea that has been recently advanced by New America Foundation's Steve Clemons.
Waiting for Superman? More like Waiting for Godot.
There's little doubt that the Obama's administration's handling of Mideast affairs has been an embarrassing failure, but it is hard to see how these personnel moves would help. Nothing personal, but didn't these guys have the chance to produce an Israel-Palestinian peace in the 1990s -- when conditions were a lot more favorable -- and didn't their efforts end in near-total failure? (That goes for Dennis Ross too, who is already a key player on this issue in the current administration, and who seems to be repeating his past mistakes.) Clinton, Indyk, and Ross were handed a golden opportunity with the Oslo Peace Accords back in 1993, and they spent the rest of the 1990s squandering it. They had plenty of help from the Israelis and Palestinians, but the U.S. record during that decade is hardly one that inspires confidence.
Let's also not forget that Indyk was the chief architect of "dual containment," a remarkably foolish policy that achieved the neat trick of putting the United States at odds with two countries (Iran and Iraq) that also hated each other. It also forced the United States to keep large air and ground forces in the Persian Gulf, thereby contributing to the rise of al Qaeda. And as both Ken Pollock and Trita Parsi have shown, a primary motive for dual containment was reassuring Israel about Iran, so that it would be more forthcoming in the peace discussions. Gee, that worked out great, didn't it?
As for the former president, it's clear he recognizes the value that a peace deal would bring, and I don't question his sincerity on this issue. But his own track record isn't encouraging either. The number of Israeli settlers more than doubled during his eight years as president, and he didn't lift a finger to stop it. Moreover, he persuaded Yasser Arafat to go to the hastily-prepared Camp David summit by promising Arafat that he would not be blamed if the talks didn't succeed. But when the talks collapsed, Clinton walked out to the microphones and put all the blame squarely on Arafat, in violation of his earlier promise and contrary to the available evidence. (Arafat was partly to blame for Camp David's failure, but so were the United States and Israel.) That act of political vengeance contributed greatly to the myth that Israel has "no partner" for peace, a belief that has undermined all subsequent efforts to end this tragic conflict.
When it comes to the United States' Middle East policy, in short, there are an infinite number of "second acts." In a country of 300 million people, you'd think we could find a few fresh faces to handle these issues, instead of retreads who have been tried and found wanting. Instead, we keep recycling the same people (mostly for domestic political reasons), who adopt more-or-less the same negotiating strategy, yet somehow we expect a different, happier ending. And so we get the same familiar melodrama, and like any tragedy, the play always ends badly.
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Last week, Laura Rozen of Politico reported that Mideast envoy George Mitchell's chief of staff, Mara Rudman, was resigning to take a job with USAID. Her article suggested that it was a sign of friction in Clinton's Middle East team, and for all I know that's correct. But the real problem isn't "friction" inside Obama's team; the problem is that nobody there seems to have any idea what they are doing.
I used to think that the 2000 Camp David Summit was the most ill-prepared and mishandled peace discussion in Middle East history -- which is saying something -- but I'm beginning to think that Obama and his team are making a serious try at breaking that dubious record. First they raise expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, then undercut their own credibility by retreating steadiliy in the face of Israeli intransigence, until they end up literally begging and bribing Netanyahu to continue a settlement slowdown (not freeze) for a mere two months.
Question: Is this how a smart great power behaves?
Answer: Not if it wants to get anything done or be taken seriously.
Rudman's departure, however, is essentially meaningless. There is no evidence that anyone in the Obama team is committed to doing what it takes to actually get a meaningful deal, and so there won't be one. Full stop. You'd have to fire the whole lot of them and start over, and appoint people who were willing to get really mad when they were repeatedly diddled by a client state, and who didn't think that the best way to negotiate was to give one side a lot of goodies up front (in exchange for very little), while expecting the other side to accept a lot of promises to be redeemed at some unspecified point down the road (and maybe never).
Unfortunately, the odds that Obama will clean house and bring in a new team are about the same as the odds of my sprouting wings and flying to the moon. And the result, as I've said before, will be not "two states" but one, with all the attendant difficulties that this outcome will produce for all concerned. So I guess Rudman should be congratulated for having the good sense to abandon this charade. My question remains: Why hasn't George Mitchell done the same?
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Back in 2007, a couple of political scientists wrote the following:
One might think that U.S. generosity would give Washington considerable leverage over Israel's conduct, but this has not been the case. When dealing with Israel, in fact, U.S. leaders can usually elicit cooperation only by offering additional carrots (increased assistance) rather than employing sticks (threats to withhold aid)." (pp. 37-38)
They offered several examples to illustrate this phenomenon, and quoted Israeli leader Shimon Peres saying that: "As to the question of U.S. pressure on Israel, I would say they handled us more with a carrot than with a stick."
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Yesterday the Jerusalem Post reported that the Obama administration has offered Israel a generous package of new benefits if it will just extend the settlement freeze for another two months. The source for the report was David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a key organization in the Israel lobby. Makovsky is also a co-author with Obama Middle East advisor Dennis Ross, so presumably he has accurate knowledge about this latest initiative, which is said to take the form of a personal letter from Obama to Netanyahu.
Assuming this report is true, it marks a new low in U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Just consider the message that Obama's team is sending the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu has been giving Obama the finger ever since the Cairo speech in June 2009, but instead of being punished for it, he's getting rewarded for being so difficult. So why should any rational person expect Bibi's position to change if this is what happens when he digs in his heels?
Although failure to achieve a two-state solution is ultimately much more of a problem for Israel than for the United States, we have been reduced to begging them and bribing to stop building settlements -- please ... please ... pretty please? ... and then only for a mere 60 days.
Not only is the United States acting in a remarkably craven fashion, it's just plain stupid. How will this latest bribe change anything for the better? What do we think will have changed in two months? Remember that there isn't even a genuine freeze right now, only a slowdown, which means that a deal will be just a little bit harder in two months than it is today. Does Obama think his bargaining position will be stronger after the midterm elections? And if construction resumes, what then?
Back when direct talks were announced, I said they wouldn't go anywhere, and I've made it clear in the past that I think this situation is a brewing tragedy for all concerned. And then I said I hoped the Obama administration would prove me wrong. Looks like there's little danger of that, alas.
P.S. Haaretz has reported that Netanyahu is not inclined to accept the administration's offer, which leaves us right where we started. That is to say, with little hope that this latest round of talks will lead anywhere. The real question is: When will the United States try a different approach?
UPDATE: Ha'aretz now reports that the White House is denying that any letter was sent outlining the conditions originally identified by Makovsky, thought it does not say that the information was not conveyed in some other way. If the entire report is bogus then new puzzles arise: where did Makovsky get these ideas? Was it a trial balloon? An attempt to make policy via leaks? An attempt to show that Netanyahu was being really stubborn? I have no idea, but unless the whole thing was just a hallucination on Makovsky's part (and that's hard to believe), then it reinforces the idea that the Obama Middle East team is improvising wildly and/or not on the same page.
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I'm sure most of you are "shocked, shocked" to hear that the Israeli government rejected U.S. requests that it extend the so-called freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. Never mind that it wasn't a real freeze (i.e., it didn't stop existing projects or the expulsion of more Palestinians from East Jerusalem, etc.); the partial halt in new authorizations did have a certain symbolic value. By refusing to extend it, the Netanyahu government has shown that it cares more about continuing the 43-years-and-counting process of colonization than it does about achieving a final peace deal.
At this point, Obama's Middle East team will try to come up with some sort of face-saving maneuver to keep the negotiations alive. Translated: they need a fig leaf to conceal how badly they've bungled this issue. Because putting serious pressure on Israel is anathema (especially in an election year), they will have to get Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stay at the table even as construction resumes, so that he can watch the bulldozers make a "viable state" impossible while the talk, talk, talk continues. They may succeed in keeping the charade going, but it will be a pyrrhic victory that changes nothing.
Two key points should be kept in mind as you watch this diplomatic train wreck.
First, one of the great myths of Middle East diplomacy is the old cliché that "the United States can't want it more than the parties do." This excuse for inaction is trotted out whenever the United States fails to exercise the enormous potential leverage at its disposal, and it's just plain silly. There's no reason why the United States can't want a settlement more than Israel or the Palestinians do, particularly if the two sides are so mired in dysfunctional politics or old Likudnik dreams that they need to be pushed hard to make a deal. Unfortunately, this conflict isn't just about them; it's also about us. And when U.S. interests are at stake, we can want a solution just as much -- and maybe even more -- than they do.
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President Obama is hosting a dinner for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Sept. 1, in order to kick off the new round of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. As regular readers know, I don't think this effort will go anywhere, because the two sides are too far apart and because the Obama administration won't have the political will to push them towards the necessary compromises.
Furthermore, there are now a few hints that the Obama administration is about to repeat the same mistakes that doomed the Clinton administration's own Middle East peacemaking efforts and the Bush administration's even more half-hearted attempts (i.e., the "Road Map" and the stillborn Annapolis summit). Last week, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth provided a summary of a conference call between Obama Middle East advisors Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and David Hale and the leaders of a number of influential American Jewish organizations. According to the article (whose accuracy I cannot vouch for), the goal of the direct talks will be a "framework agreement" between the two sides that would then be implemented over a period of up to ten years.
Excuse me, but haven't we seen this movie before, and isn't the last reel a bummer? This idea sounds a lot like the Oslo Accords, which also laid out a "framework" for peace, but deferred the hard issues to the end and repeatedly missed key deadlines. Or maybe it's another version of the Road Map/Annapolis summit, which offered deadlines and bold talk and led precisely nowhere. Or perhaps what they have in mind is a "shelf agreement" -- a piece of paper that sits "on the shelf" until conditions are right (i.e., forever). It is this sort of charade that has led veteran observers like Henry Siegman to denounce the long-running peace process as a "scam," and Siegman is hardly alone in that view.
Here's the basic problem: Unless the new "framework" is very detailed and specific about the core issues -- borders, the status of East Jerusalem, the refugee issue, etc., -- we will once again have a situation where spoilers on both sides have both an incentive and the opportunity to do whatever they can to disrupt the process. And even if it were close to a detailed final-status agreement, a ten-year implementation schedule provides those same spoilers (or malevolent third parties) with all the time they will need to try to derail the deal. I can easily imagine Netanyahu and other hardliners being happy with this arrangement, as they would be able to keep expanding settlements (either openly or covertly) while the talks drag on, which is what has happened ever since Oslo (and under both Likud and Labor governments). Ironically, some members of Hamas might secretly welcome this outcome too, because it would further discredit moderates like Abbas and Fayyad. And there is little reason to think the United States would do a better job of managing the process than it did in 1990s.
The great paradox of the negotiations is that United States is clearly willing and able to put great pressure on both Fatah and Hamas (albeit in different ways), even though that is like squeezing a dry lemon by now. Fatah has already recognized Israel's existence and has surrendered any claims to 78 percent of original Mandate Palestine; all they are bargaining over now is the share they will get of the remaining 22 percent. Moreover, that 22 percent is already dotted with Israeli settlements (containing about 500,000 people), and carved up by settler-only bypass roads, checkpoints, fences, and walls. And even if they were to get an independent state on all of that remaining 22 percent (which isn't likely) they will probably have to agree to some significant constraints on Palestinian sovereignty and they are going to have to compromise in some fashion on the issue of the "right of return." The obvious point is that when you've got next to nothing, you've got very little left to give up, no matter how hard Uncle Sam twists your arm.
At this point, the main concessions have to come from Israel, simply because it is the occupying power whose presence in the West Bank and whose physical control over Gaza makes a Palestinian state impossible. Some readers may think this characterization is unfair, but the issue isn't so much one of "fairness" as one of simple practicality. How do you possibly create "two states for two peoples" if Israel doesn't withdraw from virtually all of the West Bank?
MENAHEM KAHANA/ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
If you think today's announcement that the Israelis and Palestinians are going to resume "direct talks" is a significant breakthrough, you haven't been paying attention for the past two decades (at least). I wish I could be more optimistic about this latest development, but I see little evidence that a meaningful deal is in the offing.
Why do I say this? Three reasons.
1. There is no sign that the Palestinians are willing to accept less than a viable, territorially contiguous state in the West Bank (and eventually, Gaza), including a capital in East Jerusalem and some sort of political formula (i.e., fig-leaf) on the refugee issue. By the way, this outcome supposedly what the Clinton and Bush adminstrations favored, and what Obama supposedly supports as well.
2. There is no sign that Israel's government is willing to accept anything more than a symbolic Palestinian "state" consisting of a set of disconnected Bantustans, with Israel in full control of the borders, air space, water supplies, electromagnetic spectrum. etc. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that this is what he means by a "two-state solution," and he has repeatedly declared that Israel intends to keep all of Jerusalem and maybe a long-term military presence in the Jordan River valley. There are now roughly 500,000 Israeli Jews living outside the 1967 borders, and it is hard to imagine any Israeli government evacuating a significant fraction of them. Even if Netanyahu wanted to be more forthcoming, his coalition wouldn't let him make any meaningful concessions. And while the talks drag on, the illegal settlements will continue to expand.
3. There is no sign that the U.S. government is willing to put meaningful pressure on Israel. We're clearly willing to twist Mahmoud Abbas' arm to the breaking point (which is why he's agreed to talks, even as Israel continues to nibble away at the territory of the future Palestinian state), but Obama and his Middle East team have long since abandoned any pretense of bringing even modest pressure to bear on Netanyahu. Absent that, why should anyone expect Bibi to change his position?
So don't fall for the hype that this announcement constitutes some sort of meaningful advance in the "peace process." George Mitchell and his team probably believe they are getting somewhere, but they are either deluding themselves, trying to fool us, or trying to hoodwink other Arab states into believing that Obama meant what he said in Cairo. At this point, I rather doubt that anyone is buying, and the only thing that will convince onlookers that U.S. policy has changed will be tangible results. Another round of inconclusive "talks" will just reinforce the growing perception that the United States cannot deliver.
The one item in all this that does give me pause is the accompanying statement by the Middle East Quartet (the United States, Russia, the EU and the U.N.), which appears at first glance to have some modest teeth in it. Among other things, it calls explicitly for "a settlement, negotiated between the parties, that ends the occupation which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel and its other neighbors." It also says these talks can be completed within one year. Sounds promising, but the Quartet has issued similar proclamations before (notably the 2003 "Roadmap"), and these efforts led precisely nowhere. So maybe there's a ray of hope in there somewhere, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans here in the United States will continue to make pious statements about their commitment to a two-state solution, even as it fades further and further into the realm of impossibility. Barring a miracle, we will eventually have to recognize that "two-states for two peoples" has become a pipe-dream. At that point, U.S. leaders will face a very awkward choice: they can support a democratic Israel where Jews and Arabs have equal political rights (i.e., a one-state democracy similar to the United States, where discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity is taboo), or they can support an apartheid state whose basic institutions are fundamentally at odds with core American values.
Equally important, an apartheid Israel will face growing international censure, and as both former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have warned, such an outcome would place Israel's own long-term future in doubt. If that happens, all those staunch "friends of Israel" who have hamstrung U.S. diplomacy for decades can explain to their grandchildren how they let that happen.
As for the Obama administration itself, I have only one comment. If you think I'm being too gloomy, then do the world a favor and prove me wrong. If you do, I'll be the first to admit it.
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If you are worried that the United States might be foolish enough to attack Iran, then you might take comfort from Jeffrey Goldberg's lengthy and alarmist Atlantic article on the subject. Based on a flock of mostly anonymous interviews, Goldberg has concluded that odds are better than 50-50 that Israel will attack Iran sometime next spring. Given his track record as a Middle East analyst -- particularly when it comes to the wisdom of using force -- you might be justified in viewing that prediction as a sign that war was in fact quite unlikely.
I've said plenty already about the reasons why Iran is not a grave threat that justifies preemptive war, and why neither the United States nor Israel should be thinking about a military strike, so I don't feel compelled to dismantle Goldberg's restating of the hawks' case yet again. And I don't have to, because others have already done so quite ably.
Instead, I'd just like to highlight what's really going on here. Although Goldberg does not explicitly call for the United States to attack Iran and is careful to acknowledge the potential downsides of this option, the tone and thrust of the article is clearly intended to nudge the Obama administration toward an attack. He emphasizes that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities would be very difficult for Israel (some analysts think it is it is essentially impossible), but says it would be easy for the United States. He reminds us that Obama has repeatedly said that Iran with nuclear weapons would be "unacceptable," and suggests that both Israel and various Arab states have real doubts about Obama's toughness.
The implication is clear: "If you meant what you said, Mr. President, and you don't want people to think you're a wimp, you'd better get serious about military force."
In short, a central purpose of this article is to mainstream the idea that an attack on Iran is likely to happen and savvy people-in-the-know should start getting accustomed to the idea. In other words, a preemptive strike on Iran should be seen not as a remote or far-fetched possibility, but rather as something that is just "business-as-usual" in the Middle East strategic environment. If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
You'll recall that a similar process of "mainstreaming" occurred over Iraq: What at first seemed like the far-fetched dream of a handful of out-of-power neoconservatives in 1998 had become a serious option by 2001. By 2003, aided in no small part by the efforts of journalists such as Goldberg, the idea had been embraced by liberals and others who should have known better.
Thus, articles like this one (and some other recent sallies), are intended to box Obama in, and create a win-win situation for the war party. If Obama eventually caves, they get the attack on Iran that they (wrongly) believe is necessary to ensure Israel's survival. If Obama doesn't take the bait, they can beat him up for being spineless. And by portraying him as soft on Iran, they make it even more difficult for Obama to exert the kind of pressure on both sides that is necessary to bring about a genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
In our 2007 book on the Israel lobby, John Mearsheimer and I wrote (emphasis added):
Although there is still some chance that President Bush will decide to attack Iran before he leaves office, it is impossible to know for sure. There is also some possibility, given the inflexible rhetoric of the presidential candidates, that his successor will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hard-liners there continue to predominate. If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel's behalf, and the lobby will bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy."
As one would expect, Goldberg wrote a rather hysterical negative review of the book when it came out, and he enjoys calling us names and leveling unfounded accusations. It is therefore somewhat surprising that he is now doing his best to demonstrate how right we were.
Even though I am on vacation with my family this week, I was planning to blog today about the Washington Post's stunning series on the extraordinary expansion of America's intelligence apparatus since 9/11. It is outstanding investigative journalism, and its authors -- Dana Priest and William Arkin -- deserve enormous kudos. I'll share my thoughts on this matter later this week.
Instead of writing today about quality journalism, I unfortunately have to write about an article that fits squarely at the other end of the journalism spectrum. I refer here to the nasty column in Tablet magazine by Lee Smith, denouncing Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Philip Weiss, Jim Lobe and me for being "career Jew-baiters" and serving as facilitators of anti-Semitism.
As one might expect, the piece is long on invective and innuendo but almost completely devoid of meaningful evidence. Its only real value is to once again demonstrate the usual tactics that many of the so-called defenders of Israel employ against anyone who is critical either of Israel's actions or of America's special relationship with Israel.
The first thing to observe about Smith's screed is that even though he accuses me and my fellow bloggers of being anti-Semites and "Jew-baiters," his article contains not a scintilla of evidence that Sullivan, Greenwald, Weiss, or I have written or said anything that is remotely anti-Semitic, much less that involves "Jew-baiting." There's an obvious reason for this omission: None of us has ever written or said anything that supports Smith's outrageous charges.
Smith therefore has to resort to a new and bizarre form of "guilt-by-association." He attacks the four of us-and me in particular-by looking at some of the anonymous reader comments that appear in response to some of our posts. He finds that a few of those individuals who comment make some extreme statements, which he uses to argue that we are deliberately fostering anti-Semitism on our blogs. In other words, we must be anti-Semites because a handful of people whom we don't even know -- because their identities are secret -- are commenting on our posts. (It's not clear how this applies to Sullivan, by the way, because his blog doesn't have a comments thread.)
Via Ben Smith at Politico, we learn that the usual suspects have started yet another organization whose objective is to promote a hard-right, Likudnik agenda in the Middle East. The new group apparently intends to go after anyone who thinks U.S. Middle East policy has been less than totally successful in recent years, and who is willing to think for themselves (and U.S. interests), instead of reflexively echoing the positions favored by AIPAC and other groups in the "status quo" lobby.
To be more specific, Smith reports that hardline neoconservatives such as William Kristol, Michael Goldfarb, Noah Pollak, and Rachel Abrams have joined forces (again) with rightwing Christian evangelical Gary Bauer to establish a new group: the "Emergency Committee for Israel." The group says it is going to target candidates in key Senate and Congressional races, along with the Obama administration. It is directing its initial salvo (in the form of a TV ad) at Congressman Joe Sestak (D-PA), who defeated incumbent Arlen Spector in the Democratic primary and is now running for the Senate. Sestak was targeted because he had the temerity not to sign an AIPAC-sponsored letter awhile back, and though he's a strong defender of Israel, he's been critical of Israel's counterproductive blockade of Gaza.
The ironies here are remarkable. For starters, you have some of the same geniuses who dreamed up and sold the Iraq War -- one of the dumbest blunders in the annals of U.S. foreign policy -- joining forces with someone who thinks U.S. Middle East policy ought to be based on his interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. They're going after a retired three-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, who also happens to have a Ph.D. in political economy and international affairs from Harvard. Given their track record over the past decade, this is actually a stunning endorsement of Sestak's candidacy. Criticism from these folks is like having Lindsay Lohan complain about your lifestyle choices, or having BP president Tony Hayward offer advice on environmental safety and public relations.
What is even more ironic is the group's paranoid name: the "Emergency Committee." Its members must think Israel is in real trouble, but what they don't seem to realize is that it is their advice that has helped lead to its current difficulties. Israel has been following the Likudnik/neoconservative/Christian Zionist program for several decades now, with vocal backing from the likes of Kristol, Pollak and Bauer, and the United States has been providing it with unconditional support for this self-destructive course.
Contrary to what many people think, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not win a great political victory over President Obama during their little love-fest last week. Sure, Obama has largely abandoned his early insistence that Israel stop building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and he's made it clear that his administration won't use U.S. pressure to bring about a genuine two-state solution. Contrary to his early rhetoric, Obama is proving to be just like most of his predecessors, and for essentially the same reason.
Last week was a tactical win for Bibi but yet another strategic misstep, because, as his predecessor Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have both acknowledged, only a viable two-state solution can prevent Israel from becoming a full-fledged apartheid state. This development will force the Palestinians to seek full political rights within this "greater Israel." And as Olmert warned back in 2007, "once that happens ... the state of Israel is finished."
As Jerome Slater pointed out on his own blog last week, the reason Obama couldn't do the right thing was the power of the lobby, and that includes the endless machinations of folks like Kristol and Bauer. They are right to think that Israel is in deep trouble and that it's likely to get worse. What they don't get is that it is to a large extent their fault.
Bottom line: If you want to kill off any prospect for peace, ensure that Israel's current difficulties multiply, and reinforce anti-Americanism throughout the region, by all means back any of the candidates that the "emergency committee" endorses.
URIEL SINAI/AFP/Getty Images
I suspect some readers are expecting me to comment on today's meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but I actually don't have that much to say about it. I think it's a largely meaningless public relations exercise, a kiss-and-make-up session designed to show that U.S-Israeli relations are still just fine and intended to keep "pro-Israel" dollars flowing into the Democratic Party's coffers in the run-up to the November mid-terms. I don't expect Bibi to make any serious concessions today and I doubt Barack will put any serious pressure on him. Instead, look for lots of smiles and handshakes, accompanied by frothy statements about "shared values" and "unbreakable commitments." Then you can switch channels, turn the page, or head for a different website.
There is only one big question here: is there going to be a genuine two-state solution or not? In other words, is Israel going to withdraw from most of the lands it occupied in 1967, end the siege of Gaza, and permit the Palestinians to establish an independent state of their own on those lands, including a capital in East Jerusalem? If so, then the rest of the Arab world will recognize it, its stigma as an occupying power will end, and U.S. relations with the Arab and Islamic world will improve significantly. It won't solve all our problems, of course, but it would be a major step forward.
If a two-state solution fails, however, then Israel will become a full-fledged apartheid state and will increasingly be seen as one. It will face growing international censure, liberal Israelis will be more inclined to emigrate, and the United States will continue to pay a significant price for the "special relationship."
President Obama understood all this when he took the oath of office,
but he's been in full retreat mode ever since his Cairo speech in June
2009. Unless today's meeting yields some unexpected results, it's
mostly a waste of time. And time is running out.
It couldn't be more predictable. Back when Israel and Turkey were strategic allies with extensive military-to-military ties, prominent neoconservatives were vocal defenders of the Turkish government and groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and AIPAC encouraged Congress not to pass resolutions that would have labeled what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Turks during World War I a "genocide." (The "Armenian lobby" is no slouch, but it's no match for AIPAC and its allies in the Israel lobby). The fact that the ADL was in effect protecting another country against the charge of genocide is more than a little ironic, but who ever said that political organizations had to be ethically consistent? Once relations between Israel and Turkey began to fray, however -- fueled primarily by Turkish anger over Israel's treatment of the Palestinians -- the ADL and AIPAC withdrew their protection and Congressional defenders of Israel began switching sides, too.
Last week Jim Lobe published a terrific piece at InterPress Service, detailing how prominent neoconservatives have switched from being strong supporters (and in some cases well-paid consultants) of the Turkish government to being vehement critics. He lays out the story better than I could, but I have a few comments to add.
First, if this doesn't convince you that virtually all neoconservatives are deeply Israeli-centric, then nothing will. This affinity is hardly a secret; indeed, neocon pundit Max Boot once declared that support for Israel was a "key tenet" of neoconservatism. But the extent of their attachment to Israel is sometimes disguised by the claim that what they really care about is freedom and democracy, and therefore they support Israel simply because it is "the only democracy in the Middle East."
But now we see the neoconservatives turning on Turkey, even though it is a well-functioning democracy, a member of NATO, and a strong ally of the United States. Of course,Turkey's democracy isn't perfect, but show me one that is. The neocons have turned from friends of Turkey to foes for one simple reason: Israel. Specifically, the Turkish government has been openly critical of Israel's conduct toward the Palestinians, beginning with the blockade of Gaza, ramping up after the brutal bombardment of Gaza in 2008-2009, and culminating in the lethal IDF attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. As Lobe shows, a flock of prominent neoconservatives are now busily demonizing Turkey, and in some cases calling for its expulsion from NATO.
Thus, whether a state is democratic or not matters little for the neocons; what matters for them is whether a state backs Israel or not. So if you're still wondering why so many neoconservatives worked overtime to get the U.S. to invade Iraq -- even though Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan or Pakistan -- and why they are now pushing for war with Iran, well, there's your answer.
As I've said repeatedly, there's nothing wrong with any American feeling a deep attachment to a foreign country and expressing it in politics, provided that they are open and honest about it and provided that other people can raise the issue without being accused of some sort of bigotry. The neocons' recent volte-face over Turkey is important because it reveals their policy priorities with particular clarity, and Lobe deserves full points for documenting it for us.
One last comment. Neoconservatives usually portray American and Israeli interests as essentially identical: In their eyes, what is good for Israel is good for the United States and vice versa. This claim makes unconditional U.S. support seem like a good idea, and it also insulates them from the charge that they are promoting Israel's interests over America's. After all, if the interests of the two states are really one and the same, then by definition there can be no conflict of interest, which means that the "dual loyalty" issue (a term I still don't like) doesn't arise.
I hold the opposite view. I believe that the "special relationship" has become harmful to both countries, and that a more normal relationship would be better for both. Right now, the special relationship hurts the United States by fueling anti-Americanism throughout the region and making us look deeply hypocritical in the eyes of billions -- yes, billions -- of people. It also distorts our policy on a host of issues, such as non-proliferation, and makes it extremely difficult to use our influence to advance the cause of Middle East peace. President Obama's failures on this front -- despite his repeated pledges to do better--make this all-too-obvious. At the same time, this unusual relationship harms Israel by underwriting policies that have increased its isolation and that threaten its long-term future. It also makes it nearly impossible for U.S. leaders to voice even the mildest of criticisms when Israel acts foolishly, because to do so casts doubts about the merits of the special relationship and risks incurring the wrath of the various groups that exist to defend it.
Although the United States and Israel do share certain common interests, it is becoming increasingly clear that their interests are not identical. This situation puts die-hard neoconservatives in a tough spot, as it could force them to choose between promoting what is good for America or defending what they think (usually wrongly) will be good for Israel. And insofar as prominent neocons continue to beat the drums for war, it behooves us to remember both their abysmal track record and their underlying motivations.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
Back in May 1967, the Egyptian government led by Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered a blockade of the Straits of Tiran, cutting off Israeli shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba. This action crossed a "red line" for Israel, and was a major escalatory step in the crisis that led to the Six Day War. President Lyndon Johnson considered sending U.S. warships or some sort of international flotilla to challenge the blockade and defuse the crisis. But even though the United States had previously given Israel certain assurances about protecting freedom of navigation in the straits, Johnson ultimately declined to take decisive action to defend Israel's navigation rights. The United States was already bogged down in Vietnam and Johnson feared getting trapped in another volatile conflict. So he dithered, and Israel ultimately chose to go to war instead.
Had Johnson used U.S. naval forces to challenge the blockade, the Six Day War might not have occurred. Egypt would not have dared to challenge U.S. warships, of course, and sending a U.S. fleet to break the blockade would have given Nasser a way to back down but save face (i.e., he would have been backing down to a superpower, and not to Israel). And had the Six Day War been averted, many of the problems we are wrestling with now -- including the disastrous occupation of the West Bank -- might never have arisen.
Remembering this previous failure got me thinking: why doesn't the United States use its considerable power to lift the blockade of Gaza unilaterally? It's clear that the blockade of Gaza is causing enormous human suffering and making both the United States and Israel look terrible in the eyes of the rest of the world. It has also failed to achieve any positive political purpose, like defeating Hamas. So why doesn't the United States take the bull by the horns and organize a relief flotilla of its own, and use the U.S. Navy to escort the ships into Gaza? I'll bet we could easily get a few NATO allies to help too, and if money's the issue, we can get some EU members or Scandinavians to help pay for the relief supplies. And somehow I don't think the IDF would try to stop us, or board any of the vessels.
The advantages of this course of action seem obvious. The United States has been looking both ineffective and hypocritical ever since the Cairo speech a year ago, and many people in the Arab and Islamic world are beginning to see Barack Obama as just a smooth-talking version of George W. Bush. By taking concrete steps to relieve Palestinian suffering, Obama would be showing the world that the United States was not in thrall to Israel or its hard-core lobbyists here in the United States. What better way to discredit the fulminations of anti-American terrorists like Osama bin Laden, who constantly accuse us of being indifferent to Muslim suffering? The photo ops of U.S. personnel unloading tons of relief supplies would go a long way to repairing our tarnished image in that part of the world. Remember the Berlin airlift, or our relief operations in Indonesia following the Asian tsunami? Doing good for others can win a lot of good will.
Second, having the U.S. and NATO take charge of a relief operation would alleviate Israel's security concerns. The Israeli government claims the blockade is necessary to prevent weapons from being smuggled into Gaza. That is surely a legitimate concern, but if the United States and its allies are bringing relief aid in, then we can determine what goes on the ships and we obviously won't bring in weaponry.
But wait a minute: wouldn't bringing relief aid to Gaza end up strengthening Hamas? Not if we arrange for the relief aid to be distributed through the United Nations or other independent relief agencies. Some of it might end up in Hamas's hands indirectly but most of it won't, and reducing the level of deprivation and suffering would undercut the influence Hamas gains as a provider of social services.
It's true that a relief operation of this sort will probably require some U.S. officials to have some minimal dealings with Hamas, but this would actually be a good thing. If the United States is really serious about a genuine two-state solution, it is going to have to bring Hamas into the political process sooner or later and this is a pretty low-key, non-committal way to start. And while we're at it, we can tell them to get busy fixing that Charter of theirs and take a humanitarian gesture or two of their own, such as releasing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
In short, using American power to end the blockade of Gaza could be a win-win-win for everyone. The United States (and Obama himself) would demonstrate that we really did seek a "new beginning" in the Middle East, and correct the impression that the Cairo speech was just a lot of elegant hooey. Israel's security concerns would be addressed, it would look flexible and reasonable, and we would be providing Netanyahu with an easy way to extricate himself from a position that is increasingly untenable. (It's one thing for him to lift the blockade himself, but quite another to do it at Washington's behest). And of course the long-suffering population of Gaza would be much better off, which should make us all feel better.
The more that I think about it, the more attractive this approach looks. All it takes is an administration that is willing to take bold action to correct a situation that is both a humanitarian outrage and a simmering threat to regional peace. That probably means that it has zero chance of being adopted. And of course you all know why.
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
By now you'll all have heard about the IDF's unwarranted attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, a fleet of six civilian vessels that was attempting to bring humanitarian aid (i.e., medicines, food, and building materials) to Gaza. The population of Gaza has been under a crippling Israeli siege since 2006. Israel imposed the blockade after Gaza's voters had the temerity to prefer Hamas in a free election held at the insistence of the Bush administration, which then refused to recognize the new government because it didn't like the results.
Late Sunday night, IDF naval forces and commandos attacked one of the unarmed ships in international waters, killing at least ten of the peace activists and injuring many more. IDF spokesman claim that the use of force was justified because the passengers resisted Israel's efforts to board and commandeer the ship. Other Israeli officials have sought to portray the activists, whose ranks included citizens from fifty countries, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a former U.S. ambassador, and an elderly Holocaust survivor, as terrorist sympathizers with ties to Hamas and even al Qaeda.
My first question when I heard the news was: "What could Israel's leaders have been thinking?" How could they possibly believe that a deadly assault against a humanitarian mission in international waters would play to their advantage? Israel's government and its hard-line supporters frequently complain about alleged efforts to "delegitimize" the country, but actions like this are the real reason Israel's standing around the world has plummeted to such low levels. This latest escapade is as bone-headed as the 2006 war in Lebanon (which killed over a thousand Lebanese and caused billions of dollars worth of damage) or the 2008-2009 onslaught that killed some 1300 Gazans, many of them innocent children. None of these actions achieved its strategic objective; indeed, all of them are just more evidence of the steady deterioration in Israel's strategic thinking that we have witnessed since 1967.
My second question is: "Will the Obama administration show some backbone on this issue, and go beyond the usual mealy-mouthed statements that U.S. presidents usually make when Israel acts foolishly and dangerously?" President Obama likes to talk a lot about our wonderful American values, and his shiny new National Security Strategy says "we must always seek to uphold these values not just when it is easy, but when it is hard." The same document also talks about a "rule-based international order," and says "America's commitment to the rule of law is fundamental to our efforts to build an international order that is capable of confronting the emerging challenges of the 21st century."
Well if that is true, here is an excellent opportunity for Obama to prove that he means what he says. Attacking a humanitarian aid mission certainly isn't consistent with American values -- even when that aid mission is engaged in the provocative act of challenging a blockade -- and doing so in international waters is a direct violation of international law. Of course, it would be politically difficult for the administration to take a principled stand with midterm elections looming, but our values and commitment to the rule of law aren't worth much if a president will sacrifice them just to win votes.
More importantly, this latest act of misguided belligerence poses a broader threat to U.S. national interests. Because the United States provides Israel with so much material aid and diplomatic protection, and because American politicians from the president on down repeatedly refer to the "unbreakable bonds" between the United States and Israel, people all over the world naturally associate us with most, if not all, of Israel's actions. Thus, Israel doesn't just tarnish its own image when it does something outlandish like this; it makes the United States look bad, too. This incident will harm our relations with other Middle Eastern countries, lend additional credence to jihadi narratives about the "Zionist-Crusader alliance," and complicate efforts to deal with Iran. It will also cost us some moral standing with other friends around the world, especially if we downplay it. This is just more evidence, as if we needed any, that the special relationship with Israel has become a net liability.
In short, unless the Obama administration demonstrates just how angry and appalled it is by this foolish act, and unless the U.S. reaction has some real teeth in it, other states will rightly see Washington as irretrievably weak and hypocritical. And Obama's Cairo speech -- which was entitled "A New Beginning" -- will be guaranteed a prominent place in the Hall of Fame of Empty Rhetoric.
How might the United States respond? We could start by denouncing Israel's action in plain English, without prevarication. We could help draft and push through a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's action and calling for an international commission of inquiry to determine what happened. And if American intelligence was monitoring the flotilla -- and it should have been -- we should make any information we collected available to the commission. We could also cancel or suspend elements of our military aid package to Israel. And we could say loudly and clearly that the blockade of Gaza is illegal, inhumane and counterproductive, and openly press Israel and Egypt to lift it immediately.
But even strong measures like these won't solve the underlying problem, which is the conflict itself. I've learned not to expect much from this administration when it comes to pushing the two sides toward a settlement, as Obama talks a good game, but doesn't follow through by putting meaningful pressure on the two sides. This latest incident, however, might convince Obama that he was right to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the front burner when he took office, and wrong to cave into Netanyahu when the latter dug in his heels last summer (2009) and again this past spring. The result of those retreats was a waste of precious time, while the situation in the Occupied Territories deteriorated.
Because time is rapidly running out on a two-state solution, Obama should seize this opportunity to explain to the American people why a different approach is needed and why bringing this conflict to an end is a national security priority for the United States. He should also explain why using U.S. leverage on both sides is in Israel's interest as well as America's interest. And he will need to bring some new people on board to help him do this, because the team he's been using has spent more than a year without achieving anything. (If his economic team was this decisive, our economy would still be spiraling into the abyss.) Getting the so-called "proximity talks" restarted doesn't count, because those discussions are a step backwards from earlier face-to-face negotiations and because they are likely to fail.
A third thought has to do with Israel itself, and especially its present government. How are we supposed to think about a country that has nuclear weapons, a superb army, an increasingly prosperous economy, and great technological sophistication, yet keeps more than a million people under siege in Gaza, denies political rights to millions more on the West Bank, is committed to expanding settlements there, and whose leaders feel little compunction about using deadly force not merely against well-armed enemies, but also against innocent civilians and international peace activists, while at the same time portraying itself as a blameless victim? Something has gone terribly wrong with the Zionist dream.
Fourth, this incident is a litmus test for the "pro-Israel" community here in the United States. One of the reasons why Israel keeps doing foolish things like this is that it has been insulated from the consequences of these actions by its hard-line sympathizers in the United States. AIPAC spokesmen are already bombarding journalists and pundits with emails spinning the assault, and we can confidently expect other apologists to prepare op-eds and blog posts defending Israel's conduct as a principled act of "self-defense." And if the Obama administration tries to proceed in any of the ways I've just suggested, it can count on fierce opposition from the most influential organizations in the Israel lobby.
In this context Peter Beinart's recent article in the New York Review of Books is even more salient, especially his question:
The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference should ask themselves what Israel's leaders would have to do or say to make them scream "no." ... If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?"
Over the next few days, keep an eye on how politicians and pundits line up on this issue. Which of them thinks that Israel "crossed a line" and deserves criticism -- and maybe even sanction -- and which of them thinks that what it did was entirely appropriate? Ironically, it is the former who are Israel's friends, because they are trying to save that country before it is too late. It is the latter whose misguided zeal is leading Israel down the road to further international isolation -- and maybe even worse.
I was overseas when Peter Beinart’s article on "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment" appeared on the website of the New York Review of Books and started an immediate hullabaloo. I read it quickly online but had little time to reflect on it or to post a reaction. My copy of the NYRB was waiting when I got home, however, and I’ve now had time to digest Beinart’s article and some of the reactions to it. What follows is a belated response, in the form of a few comments and two questions.
Overall, I thought it was an important contribution to a long-overdue debate. He doesn’t say much that is new, of course, but he says it well. Moreover, Beinart is a well-connected individual with demonstrable pro-Israel credentials, which makes it harder for critics to accuse him of being a self-hating Jew or having some deep-seated animus toward Israel.
I also thought his essay reaffirmed several of the points that John Mearsheimer and I made in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Though he does not say so explicitly, Beinart clearly recognizes that what he calls the "American Jewish Establishment" has a significant influence on U.S. Middle East policy and especially on our “special relationship” with Israel. After all, if the attitudes and activities of that "Establishment" were of little consequence, there would be no reason for Beinart to write the article in the first place. He clearly hopes that his article will convince its leaders to abandon their role as unthinking cheerleaders for Israel and adopt a more critical stance. He believes that this is the best way to save Israel from itself.
Beinart also recognizes that some of this "Establishment’s" influence derives from its efforts to shape public commentary about Israel. In his words, "groups like AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace." "Scold" is far too weak a word for the baseless and sometimes vicious attacks that some groups and individuals dish out against those with whom they disagree. Still, his basic point is on the money.
Finally, his overall prescription dovetails with some of our own recommendations, and especially the idea that the key organizations in the lobby need to rethink the positions that they have held for many years. The issue, as we made clear in our book, was not the existence of a powerful "pro-Israel" community in the United States. Rather, it was the specific policies that the most powerful of these groups were defending and/or promoting, policies that we believed were harmful to the United States and Israel alike.
It took a certain amount of guts for Beinart to publish this article, and it is to his credit that he has been willing to engage the predictable chorus of critics without flinching. I’m not about to join his adversaries, but I would like to raise two questions.
First, he writes that "the heads of AIPAC and the Presidents' Conference should ask themselves what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make them scream 'no.' After all, [Avigdor] Lieberman is foreign minister, Effi Eitam [who openly favors ethnic cleansing in the West Bank] is touring American universities, settlements are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population; half of Israeli Jewish high school students want Arabs barred from the Knesset. If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?"
It’s an excellent question, but Beinart does not answer it and he should. Nor does he say what policies he would advocate once Israel crossed his red lines (wherever they are). In subsequent interviews, in fact, he has acknowledged the tension between his own liberal convictions and his Zionist beliefs, and said that he is willing to compromise the former (somewhat) in order to preserve the latter. He ought to say more, however: Just how far is he willing to sacrifice the one to preserve the other? More importantly, he does not tell us where he stands on the "special relationship"; nor does he identify the circumstances, if any, where he would recommend that the United States either distance itself from Israel or put strong pressure on it to change its policies.
In short, I’d like Beinart to answer the same question I asked Aaron David Miller. What does he think the United States should do should it become clear that a genuine “two-state” solution is not going to happen?
Second, Beinart’s essay is primarily directed at the American Jewish community, which is understandable. Yet I’m curious as to whether he thinks this is a topic that all Americans should engage with, or whether he thinks (as some do) that it is a topic on which non-Jews should remain largely silent. My own view is that the special relationship has a profound impact on American foreign policy and therefore it is a subject that all Americans should care about very much and be able to discuss openly -- without being unfairly attacked -- even if they a critical of Israel’s actions and America’s unconditional support for them. No group should enjoy a privileged position in that debate. I wonder if Beinart would agree.
In any case, the best thing about Beinart’s essay is that he decided to write it, and that the NYRB chose to publish it. It is a sign of a more open discourse on this important subject, and it is long overdue. The United States faces vexing challenges in the Middle East, and the only way to develop policies that will work better is to have an open discussion of past failures. Beinart deserves our thanks for his thoughtful contribution to that effort.
From the New Yorker profile of Haim Saban:
His greatest concern, [Saban] says, is to protect Israel, by strengthening the United States-Israel relationship. At a conference last fall in Israel, Saban described his formula. His 'three ways to be influential in American politics,' he said, were: make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets."
Presumably Abe Foxman will now denounce Saban for peddling noxious anti-Semitic stereotypes about "Jewish influence." My view is different: I think Saban is just a smart businessman who cares a lot about a single issue and understands how the American system of interest group politics works.
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If you're feeling cheerful these days and would like to be brought down to earth, go read about the Greek financial crisis. Or you could read Aaron David Miller's essay in the current FP. It is a disheartening read on several levels: Miller is in effect saying that the peace process is dead, yet his analysis also unintentionally illustrates the myopia that has doomed U.S. efforts for twenty years or more.
Miller is by all accounts a decent and fair-minded individual and a dedicated public servant. I've had a few interchanges with him over the past few years and have found him to be both thoughtful and genuinely on the side of peace. But while I share his pessimism about the future, his account of our current situation is rife with blind spots and contradictions. And it is strangely silent on the most telling question of all: What will we do when "two states for two peoples" is no longer possible and everybody is forced to admit it?
Miller's main message is that the United States simply lacks the capacity to advance the peace process at present. Give up the "peace process religion" he suggests, it just ain't gonna happen. He offers a familiar laundry list of obstacles (divisions among the Palestinians, the dysfunctional nature of Israeli politics, the absence of strong leaders, other regional issues looming larger, the United States is now chastened by its difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc.). But none of these elements explain why the United States cannot exercise the enormous potential leverage that it has over the relevant parties.
Miller admits that "domestic politics" (i.e., the Israel lobby) constrains what the U.S. government can do on these issues, but he insists that the lobby "does not have a veto over U.S. foreign policy." Yet in the very next paragraph, he writes "we've lost the capacity to be independent of Israel, to be honest with it when it does things we don't like, to impose accountability, and to adopt positions in a negotiation that it might depart from Israel's." Gee, how come? Sounds a lot like a veto to me. And if you read the fawning speech that National Secuity Advisor James Jones gave at WINEP last week, it's clear that Obama & Co. believe that it is still politic to appease the lobby whenever they can.
Moreover, for all his pessimism about the future, Miller never asks if the United States should distance itself from an Israel that is in the process of becoming an apartheid state. Instead, he still believes "America is Israel's best friend and must continue to be. Shared values are at the heart of the relationship, and our intimacy with Israel gives use leverage and credibility in peacemaking when we use it properly."
There are three problems here. First, all that "intimacy" doesn't' seem to be giving us very much leverage these days, and Miller's whole essay is in fact devoted to explaining why continuing to push the peace process is a waste of time. OK, but who cares if we have "leverage" and "credibility" if we're not going to use it?
Second, being Israel's "best friend" shouldn't mean giving it unconditional support, especially when doing so reinforces Israeli policies (like settlement-building) that threaten U.S. interests and Israel's own long-term future. Being a true friend means telling the truth when a friend's actions are misguided, but as Miller recognizes, our capacity to "be honest" has mostly evaporated.
Third, Miller invokes the familiar mantra of "shared values," but without asking whether the values we share are now diminishing. American values don't include confiscating land from Palestinians, throwing thousands of Palestinians in jail without trial, and carving up the occupied territories with separate roads, a wall, and hundreds of check-points. America's values are "one person, one vote," but that's not the reality in Greater Israel today and that is certainly not what Bibi Netanyahu has in mind for the future. Miller doesn't think the peace process has any future -- and he may be right -- but he still believes the United States should give Israel several billion dollars each year in economic and military aid and provide it with consistent diplomatic protection, even in the face of events like the Gaza War or the pummeling of Lebanon in 2006.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of Miller's cri de coeur is its silence about the future. The situation is not static, and if there is no peace process, there will be no two-state solution. As both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have warned, if there is no two-state solution, then Israel will be an apartheid state and it will face growing international censure and an internal struggle for Palestinian political rights. When that happens, Olmert noted in 2007, "the state of Israel is finished."
Reading Miller's essay, I could not help but think of Great Britain. The British did a masterful job of screwing things up in Palestine between 1919 and 1947, and then they decided the whole business was "too hard" and washed their hands of the matter. Miller is understandably unhappy with the track record of U.S. peacemaking efforts, and he is in effect throwing up his hands as well. I can understand his reaction and even sympathize with his feelings, but it's not going to make things any better. In fact, the situation is likely to get worse, and history will judge us harshly for our contribution to it. Telling President Obama to stand aside now is irresponsible advice, because we are a central player in this conflict so long as the "special relationship" continues. Standing aside now also guarantees a worse outcome for all concerned.
So here's the question I'd really like Miller to address: if it becomes clear that "two states for two peoples" is no longer an option, what does he think U.S. policy should be? Should we then favor the ethnic cleansing of several million Palestinian Arabs from their ancestral homes, so that Israel can remain a democratic and Jewish state? (By the way, that would be a crime against humanity by any standard.) Or should we then press Israel to grant the Palestinians full political rights, consistent with America's own "melting-pot" traditions? (That is the end of the Zionist vision, and may be unworkable for other reasons). Or should we back (and subsidize) their confinement in a few disconnected enclaves (in Gaza, around Ramallah, and one or two other areas in the West Bank), with Israel controlling the borders, airspace, and water resources? (This is the apartheid solution, and it's where we are headed now.) I fear that some future president will have to choose between these three options, and it would be interesting to know what an experienced Middle East negotiator like Miller would advise him or her to do then.
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If you would like to read a textbook example of a dust-kicking operation, please look at Robert Satloff's heated response to my recent post explaining the problems that can arise when top-level foreign policy officials have strong attachments to a foreign country. I seem to have struck a nerve.
There are only two important issues here, and Satloff ignores both of them. First, do some top U.S. officials -- and here we are obviously talking about Dennis Ross -- have a strong attachment to Israel? Second, might this situation be detrimental to the conduct of U.S. Middle East policy?
Regarding the first question, there is abundant evidence that Ross has a strong -- some might even say ardent -- attachment to Israel. These feelings are clearly on display in his memoir of the Oslo peace process, and they are confirmed by his decision to accept a top position at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (WINEP) -- an influential organization in the Israel lobby-upon leaving government service in 2000. As Middle East historian Avi Shlaim put it in his own review of Ross's book:
Ross belongs fairly and squarely in the pro-Israel camp. His premises, position on the Middle East and policy preferences are identical to those of the Israel-first school. Indeed, it is difficult to think of an American official who is more quintessentially Israel-first in his outlook than Dennis Ross."
Furthermore, Ross served in recent years as chairman of the board of the Jewish People's Policy Planning Institute, a think-tank established by the Jewish Agency, which is headquartered in Jerusalem. Satloff does not mention this key fact, but the implications are unmistakable. Why would anyone take such a job if they did not have a deep-seated commitment to Israel?
There is nothing wrong with Ross (or any other American) working for WINEP or chairing the board of an organization like JPPPI. As I've emphasized in my previous writings on this topic, I also see nothing wrong with Ross or Satloff, or anyone else for that matter, working to promote America's "special relationship" with Israel. The same is true for those individuals who support the Cuban-American National Foundation, the American Farm Bureau, the National Rifle Association, or the Indian-American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA). Others may disagree with the policies that these interest groups push, but so be it; that's how the American political system works. Thus, Satloff's claim that I am engaged in some sort of McCarthyite witch-hunt is false.
This brings us to the second question: While all Americans certainly have the right to hold different attachments and to express them openly, is it a good idea for someone with a strong attachment to a foreign country -- in this case, Israel -- to be given responsibility for making and executing U.S. Middle East policy?
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Last week, the online journal Politico published a story by reporter Laura Rozen on certain divisions within the Obama administration on Middle East policy. What made the story especially explosive was a quotation from an unnamed administration source describing senior White House aide Dennis Ross as being "far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests."
As one might expect, this statement raised the old specter of "dual loyalty," and from several directions. Critics of Ross suggested that he was guilty of it, while defenders complained that he was being tarred with a familiar anti-Semitic slur. Indeed, Rozen subsequently updated her story with a statement by NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough defending Ross and underscoring "his commitment to this country and to our vital interests," an obvious attempt by the administration to head off the issue before it gained traction.
How should we think about the "dual loyalty" question, either in this context or in many others? To me this is a tricky issue that ought to be handled with some delicacy, and we ought to employ a different vocabulary to discuss it.
One might start by remembering that the phrase "dual loyalty" has a regrettable and sordid history, given its origins as a nasty anti-Semitic canard in old Europe. Accusing anyone -- and especially someone who is Jewish -- of "dual loyalty" is bound to trigger a heated reaction, and for good reason. Furthermore many people believe patriotism (i.e., love of one's country) is a profoundly important value, so any behavior that seems to be at odds with that principle carries powerful negative connotations. In a world where nationalism remains a potent doctrine, casting doubt on anyone's loyalty is a serious charge.
More recently, however, scholars have used the term "dual loyalty" in more analytical and neutral fashion, based on the obvious fact that all human beings have multiple loyalties or attachments. Most of us feel a strong attachment to our own country, for example, but we also feel a sense of loyalty to family, friends, religion, ethnic groups, sports teams, etc.). Patriotism is only one of these competing loyalties, and does not necessarily trump the others. The novelist E. M. Forster famously remarked that if forced to choose between betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he would have the guts to betray the latter, and a 2006 Pew survey of Christians in thirteen countries found that 42 percent of U.S. respondents saw themselves "as Christians first and Americans second." All this is just to remind us that "loyalty" to a country is just one of the many attachments that we all feel.
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I've been fighting the temptation to weigh in on the current "crisis" between the United States and Israel -- Lord knows I've already said a lot on this issue over the past few years -- but a few comments are in order.
As one would expect, hard-line groups in the Israel lobby like AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, JINSA and WINEP are now trying to pin the blame for the rift on the Obama administration. They want to portray Obama as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state, in order to force him to back off the same way he did during last summer's confrontation with Netanyahu over a settlement freeze.
This view has it exactly backwards. Whatever you might think of its strategy or its tactics, the Obama administration has been genuinely committed to achieving a two-state solution before it is too late. This polichy is not an act of hostility toward Israel; on the contrary, it is an act of extraordinary friendship for Obama to keep this difficult item on an already overcrowded agenda. As former prime minister Ehud Olmert and current defense minister Ehud Barak have warned: If the two-state solution fails, the Palestinians will be occupied forever and Israel will become an apartheid state. Instead of helping Israel drive itself off a cliff -- as George W. Bush did -- the Obama administration is trying to prevent that disastrous outcome. And because Obama's team understands that the relentless expansion of Israel's illegal settlements is making a two-state solution increasingly difficult to realize, they believe that a halt to settlement building is a key part of a successful peace process. That includes East Jerusalem, by the way, whose annexation by Israel in 1967 is regarded as illegal by the rest of the world, including the United States.
Achieving a two-state solution is obviously in America's strategic interest as well, because it would remove one of the major sources of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world. The vast majority of Muslims reject al Qaeda and its murderous methods, for example, but they share its harsh views about U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A two-state solution won't solve all of our problems in the region, of course, but it would make a lot of them easier to address. It's clear that the U.S. military, which now has a lot of experience in the region, thinks so too. As Centcom commander General David Petraeus told the Armed Services Committee earlier today:
The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [area of operational responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
A two state solution is also the best guarantee of Israel's long-term future. By showing real backbone this time and explaining to the American people why his approach is right, Obama could be a true friend to the Jewish state.
Netanyahu, AIPAC and the rest of the "status quo" lobby don't get that, and neither do narrow-minded politicians like Joe Lieberman or John McCain. They seem to think it is okay for Israel to keep expanding its control over Palestinian lands and that the United States should back Israel's actions no matter what it does. When disputes arise they should be handled privately, because, as Lieberman put it, the U.S. and Israel are "family." Not true, of course: the United States and Israel are separate countries whose interests are not always identical, and sometimes it makes sense to air those differences in public. The "Christian Zionists" are even worse: They think Israel should control these lands forever in order to fulfill their wacky interpretation of Old Testament prophecy and bring the "end-times" closer. Never mind what happens to Israel itself in the process.
In fact, these people are false friends of Israel, because their recommended course of action will keep it on its current dangerous path. So when you hear them defend the special relationship, or when they accuse Obama or Mitchell or Biden or Clinton of putting unwarranted pressure on Israel, ask them what their long-term solution is. Do they think Israel should control all the territory that once was Mandate Palestine? If so, do they favor a one-party democracy in which Jews and Arabs get equal voting rights, or an apartheid state in which Jews rule over stateless Palestinians? Or are they in favor of ethnic cleansing, the same way that former House Speaker Dick Armey was? Or perhaps they support Netanyahu's bizarre version of "two-states," where Israel keeps all of Jerusalem and confines the Palestinians to a handful of dismembered Bantustans under Israeli control? Those are the only alternatives to a viable two-state solution, and if you don't like them, then you should give Obama credit for his efforts and hope that he holds his ground this time. Because time really is running out.
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I was out-of-town giving a guest lecture when Vice-President Biden arrived in Israel, so I didn’t have a chance to blog about the interesting reception he received. Biden is well-known as a great friend of Israel, and his objective was to smooth over the recent frictions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government and to jump-start indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So Biden began his visit by reaffirming America’s “absolute total unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”
His reward was to get blind-sided by the announcement that Israel's Interior Ministry had authorized the construction of another 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem. (Israel annexed E. Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War, but this seizure is not recognized by the international community -- including the United States). Given that the Palestinians hope to locate their capital there if a two-state solution is ever reached, this announcment was -- to put it mildly -- not a friendly gesture.
Aides to Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu have claimed that this announcement was an oversight and that Bibi was not aware that his own Interior Minister was going to make it. I don’t believe that -- and neither does Biden’s staff -- but even if it's true, it's really a secondary issue. Netanyahu did not disavow the announcement or reverse the decision (which is not surprising, given that he has long supported continued Israeli expansion in E. Jerusalem). Moreover, Ha’aretz reported today that the 1,600 homes are just a drop in the bucket, and that the Israel government is planning to build 50,000 (!) homes there over the next few years. In short, the announcement was either an attempt to derail the talks before they get started or a blatant gesture of contempt for the Obama administration itself.
You can read various reactions to the brouhaha here, here, and here. I'll confine myself to three comments.
First, why should anyone be surprised by this sort of "in-your-face" reception? The Netanyahu government has been stonewalling Obama ever since the Cairo speech, and so far the only price they have paid was some tut-tutting that they were being "unhelpful." Some observers used to maintain that Israeli prime ministers got in trouble at home if they didn’t get along with the U.S. president, but Bibi's popularity seems to have been enhanced by his spats with Obama and Mitchell. If Biden was expecting a love-fest when he arrived, he just hasn’t been paying attention.
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John Judis at The New Republic has taken issue with a post of mine from last week, in which I suggested that former Prime Minister Tony Blair's testimony to Britain's Iraq War investigation was consistent with the interpretation that John Mearsheimer and I advanced in our book on the Israel lobby. To his credit, Judis is mostly interested in evidence and he doesn't stoop to the same level of character assassination that some of our critics do. He does accuse me of not having read the Blair transcript, which is not true; at the same time, it appears he has not read our book or my post very carefully.
First, I made it clear in my post that Blair's comments were not a "smoking gun" that proved we were right, and I neither suggested nor implied that Blair's testimony demonstrated that Bush went to war at Israel's urging or to accommodate the Israel lobby. I merely noted that Blair had said that concerns about Israel were part of the discussion, and that Israeli officials were consulted as part of the conversation. Indeed, after summarizing Blair's testimony, I wrote:
Notice that Blair is not saying that Israel dreamed up the idea of attacking Iraq or that Bush was bent on war solely to benefit Israel or even to appease the Israel lobby here at home. But Blair is acknowledging that concerns about Israel were part of the equation, and that the Israeli government was being actively consulted in the planning for the war."
In short, Judis is attacking me for claims I did not make. He suggests that perhaps the Bush administration was just informing Israel of its plans, which is certainly possible, but we have other evidence-including several Israeli accounts-suggesting that Israeli intelligence was also providing Washington with information that reinforced the case for war. (See here, pp. 235-36).
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In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens adds his voice to the growing chorus eager for a heightened confrontation with Iran. Right now they just want more sanctions -- though he seems to think airstrikes would be just dandy too -- and he quotes a few like-minded pundits claiming that the government is really fragile and that sanctions or airstrikes might tip it over the edge. Never mind that there is a wealth of scholarly literature suggesting that airstrikes don’t have that effect (especially when the regime in question didn’t start the war) and that economic sanctions are not a very powerful coercive tool against most adversaries, unless one is very, very patient. (And remember that we aren't going to get tougher multilateral sanctions at this point, especially after the decision to sell more arms to Taiwan.) Stephens also assumes that Iran is dead-set on getting an actual nuclear weapon (it might be, but it might also just want to get close), and that if it does, its neighbors will inevitably follow (they might, but there are also good reasons why they might not).
But rest assured that if sanctions don’t work, Stephens will be calling for military action. Stephens is the former editor of the Jerusalem Post, a well-connected neo-conservative, and one of the many pundits who helped cheerlead us into the disastrous war in Iraq. Is he really someone whose advice we ought to be paying attention to now? It would be one thing if he were offering a new set of prescriptions, but learning from past mistakes doesn’t seem to be part of the neocon playbook.
But for now, his piece is really just one more data point we should put in our files and remember. As somebody wrote a few years ago (see page 305):
The [Israel] lobby is also likely to make sure that the United States continues to threaten Iran with military strikes unless it abandons its nuclear enrichment program. Given that this threat has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work in the future, some of Israel’s American backers, especially the neoconservatives, will continue to call for the United States to carry out the threat. ... There is also some possibility ... that [Bush’s successor] will do so, particularly if Iran gets closer to developing weapons and if hardliners there continue to predominate. If the United States does launch an attack, it will be doing so in part on Israel’s behalf, and the lobby would bear significant responsibility for having pushed this dangerous policy.”
Caveat: Because no lobby "controls" U.S. foreign policy (a point we've made repeatedly and that critics routinely ignore), military action of the sort that Stephens & Co. are pushing isn't inevitable. But if it does happen, you'll know who played a key role in bringing it about.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.