I enjoy blogging for Foreign Policy, and one of the strengths of this site is that there's clearly no party line. So permit me to take issue with several items recently posted by my FP colleagues.
1. Over the weekend, Oren Kessler had an interesting piece on the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline Jabotinskyite father Benzion, who passed away last week at the age of 102. I don't doubt that the father-son relationship has a lot to do with Bibi's political predilections, but too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the individual here. Specifically, there is a tendency to blame Israeli expansionism and intransigence on the Likud Party, or on Bibi himself, or even on the divided and fractious nature of Israeli coalition politics. If only Israel had a different PM, so the argument runs, we'd see a turn away from settlement expansion and renewed hope for a two-state solution.
This line of thinking ignores the simple fact that settlement expansion has occurred under every Israeli government since 1967: Labor, Likud, Kadima, unity coalitions, etc. And these activities haven't been mere passive acquiescence: Each of these governments actively backed settlement expansion with subsidies, military protection, and expanded infrastructure. It's true that some Israeli leaders have been more open to some sort of two-state deal (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in particular), but neither leader put a completely acceptable deal on the table and both only got close to doing so when they were lame ducks about to leave office. And both continued to expand settlements while they were supposedly negotiating, which only made attempts to reach a deal harder.
Netanyahu just called for early elections, and he's likely to win a new term. But I'm not sure this development makes much difference, given the obstacles that have already been created to any meaningful form of two-state solution.
2. Dan Drezner has written several smart posts about the "surprising resilience" of Sino-American relations, as demonstrated by how the two governments handled the Chen Guangcheng case. I agree with his assessment of the diplomacy surrounding this particular incident, but I would caution against drawing any long-term conclusions from it. The real issue in Sino-American relations is not how the two governments deal with current bilateral, regional and global issues, but how they will be handled if the balance of power continues to shift. For all the publicity about China's rapid rise, it is still decidedly weaker than the United States is and it has considerable incentive to avoid major tests of strength. What worries realists is not what China might do this year, or even next year, but what a more powerful China might do in the decades ahead.
As I've emphasized before, it is entirely possible that Sino-American relations will continue to be handled in a sensible and mature fashion for many decades to come, if you assume that both sides are led by sensible and mature leaders and never by rabid nationalists, impulsive neoconservatives, or inexperienced officials who like to go with their "gut instincts." But over the longer term, how likely is that?
3. Last week Aaron Miller offered up five "bad ideas" for screwing up the Middle East. Rather than comment on his list (which I did find disappointing), I'll just offer a sixth: consistently placing U.S. Middle East policy in the hands of the same people who've repeatedly failed to achieve peace despite having lots of opportunities, and making reflexive support for the "special relationship" a litmus test for service in the U.S. government.
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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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.
SAIF DAHLAH/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.