State of the Union

Give Kerry a B for Effort

State Department photo, January 2, 2014

Is John Kerry’s effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian “framework” for peace (i.e. not an actual peace settlement) finally done? It seems to be, though one should not be surprised to see a last ditch formula allowing Kerry to continue. Not, to be sure, to continue actual negotiations between the parties, but to continue doing what he has been doing: trying to win Israeli agreement to some proposal vaguely hinting perhaps at some kind of Palestinian state in a middling future, then rushing over to Ramallah to try to sell it to the Palestinian Authority.

Everyone involved with the “peace process” fears what will happen when negotiations stop. The process, which began before Oslo in the 1980s, succeeding in getting the the Palestine Liberation Organization to rewrite its charter, recognize Israel, and commit itself to a two state solution, seems finally to be over. Most politicians the world over know of no other way to even think of the Middle East. Giving up on it is to step into an unfamiliar dark room, which is why one can’t rule out some absolutely-final-last-call-this-time-we-mean-it effort to breathe new life into the corpse.

There was a good reason why the peace process was American-sponsored. While the actual number of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs residing in historic Palestine has been roughly equal for some time, the balance of power between the two sides—in terms of wealth and weaponry—may have been 100 to 1 in Israel’s favor. One reason for the imbalance is that Israel was sponsored by the United States, provided with American weapons and money and diplomatic support to a degree that literally has no parallel in the history of statecraft. The theory was that this support gave the United States “leverage.” which it could use to persuade Israel to embrace a two state solution which the Palestinians, as the much weaker party, couldn’t manage by themselves. The solution would lie along parameters which everyone knows and has known for nearly two generations. (They are succinctly summarized in Tuesday’s New York Times editorial, which calls for Kerry to finally “move on” to other pressing diplomatic matters.) But this leverage, it has turned out, was fanciful. The United States could never actually use it; both Democrats and Republicans felt too vulnerable to the political consequences. The one president who came closest to using it—the first President Bush, was a one term president. Democrats, probably more dependent than Republicans on campaign funds linked to the Israel lobby, backed off from using it as well. President Obama’s humiliation by prime minister Netanyahu in 2010 taught him a lesson in the realities of American politics.

So the peace process was left to cajoling. It is difficult not to respect John Kerry’s efforts and the doggedness of his pursuit. He understood the issues well, and was willing to raise rhetorical points about the costs to Israel of continued occupation to the extent that the Israeli Right came seriously to hate him. But he never had the real power of the American state behind him: he could never say to Israel, fine, do what you want, but America is not going to subsidize it any longer, nor have your back in the United Nations. The “special relationship” of American unconditional support for Israel was never up for negotiation. Kerry was a diplomat without any of the tools in the diplomat’s kit, remarkable since he was supposedly representing a superpower.

At this point, who can wish to revive the corpse? Israel doesn’t have a political majority that favors a genuine Palestinian state with contiguous territory, control of its own borders and its capital in Jerusalem; that is now beyond dispute. (Though certainly many Israelis, perhaps 40 percent, do favor such an outcome.) Since a pro-settler fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, every successive Israeli government has become more under the sway of settler ideology and political power. If Israelis once thought of the West Bank as a terrific bargaining chip, to be swapped for peace and acceptance in the region, that was long ago: most Israelis think of the territories as Judea and Samaria, inextricably part of Israel. And John Kerry and Barack Obama have established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they aren’t willing or able to do anything about it.

But that doesn’t put an end to the matter. The circumstances of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank are, for the most part, horrendous. Authors Peter Beinart and Hussein Ibish made this crystal clear last week at a Columbia University event. Chronicling the roadblocks—physical and bureaucratic—that obstruct Palestinian life every day, Ibish told the audience that there’s not a single person in this room who would accept living in such conditions without resisting. Beinart added,

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

Irrefutable as is this logic might be, in the absence of an American-led peace process, what will happen next? One view, put forth by Tony Klug and Sam Bahour in Le Monde Diplomatique is that Israel must be forced to choose whether the West Bank is occupied territory, or whether—after fifty years—the occupation has become permanent. Of course this would have been clarified long ago had not the obfuscations of the “peace process” allowed Israel to pretend the occupation was temporary. Israel denies the territory is occupied on legal grounds, which are accepted by no other country (though Sheldon Adelson has apparently persuaded some American politicians of Israel’s viewpoint). But if the West Bank is not occupied, it is annexed and part of Israel, and Israel will become legally what it already is de facto—an apartheid state—one with different laws for its different ethnic groups. As the occupation approaches the 50 year mark, it is time, the authors argue, to clear up the ambiguity.

There are any number of observers who believe that only when faced with the real possibility of Palestinians demanding the vote will Israel realize that it is perhaps “more Zionist” to allow them an independent state instead. In any case, without the shield of the “peace process” Israel will become more exposed to the rapidly growing BDS movement, which already scares Israel to death, and to the growing pressures in American churches (mainline and, increasingly, evangelical) which shudder at American support for blatant injustice in the Holy Land. The stunning new study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” produced by Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, would have been inconceivable a decade ago, and points to an inexorable reconsideration of Zionism in the light of Christian social justice teachings.

Basically, American diplomats have had a clear field for some 30 years to try to engineer a two state solution. One can respect their efforts—and we should all give John Kerry at least a B for tireless pursuit—and recognize that they would now do better to get out of the way.

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Ted Cruz and America’s “Nakba”

Gage Skidmore / cc

Many peoples have have a folk memory of great suffering branded into them. The Irish often recall the famines of the 1840s, in which a million died, in great part due to cruel and neglectful policies of the ruling British officials and absentee landlords. For African Americans, the middle passage and slavery—scarring the lives of millions—form an indelible cultural memory. Palestinian Arabs remember the Nakba, or catastrophe, in which three quarters of a million people were ethnically cleansed from their homeland. Of course the Holocaust, where six million Jews were murdered, has left a permanent imprint on contemporary Judaism.

For our part, we Americans have the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 American diplomats were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy for over a year by Iranian revolutionaries. Their plight has been memorialized in an award winning film, Argo. The the scars left by the episode remain raw today—as even today the U.S. Senate rose up as one to pass a bill to prohibit Iran from adding insult to injury by sending to the United Nations as an ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, a man who actually served as a French and English to Farsi translator for the young militants who engineered the embassy takeover nearly thirty-five years ago.

I am being, of course, ironic. The seizure of the American embassy in Tehran was illegal and wrong, as many Iranian officials argued at the time. The hostages were often subjected to psychological abuse. Yet Iran was in the middle of tumultuous and bloody revolution as various factions maneuvered for dominance in a fluid political situation. The embassy hostages became pawns in internal Iranian struggles. These were deadly: thousands had been killed before the Shah overthrown, and thousands more died, often by summary execution, in the months which followed Khomeini’s assumption of power. In the Tehran bloodshed department, the holding of hostages in the embassy was distinctly minor league.

Because the Carter administration wanted a) the safe return of the diplomats and b) to avoid alienating the Muslim world when it appeared, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few months after the embassy seizure, that a new and particularly dangerous phase of the Cold War had commenced, it appeared to have no good response. The result, for all the world to see, was an America that seemed helpless. Washington of course could have seized some Iranian territory or bombed targets in Iran. For reasons a and b, neither seemed preferable to doing what we actually did, essentially wait until Iran grew tired of holding the hostages. But the year of waiting was perceived, especially in Washington, as a year of humiliation and impotence, and Washington has never been able to get over it. Though the hostages themselves have returned unharmed and went on to lead productive lives, Washington continues to react as if an injustice of epochal scale was done to it. Fifty-two diplomats, held for 444 days, our American Nakba.

It was not particularly surprising that the senator who decided to wave the bloody, or at least unironed, shirts of the imprisoned diplomats over the issue of Hamid Aboutalebi’s appointment was Ted Cruz., the Texan Tea Party Republican who distinguished himself during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings by insinuating that the former Nebraska senator was in the pay of North Korea. In this instance, Cruz introduced legislation designed to bar Aboutalebi from obtaining a visa because he was a “terrorist.” He was joined by Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who has been working behind the scenes to scuttle President Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, mostly by introducing poison pill legislation in the Senate. Neither Cruz not Schumer discussed whether Aboutalebi carried out any terrorist activities in Australia, Italy, or Brussels (the European Union), the last three posts where Aboutalebi served as Iran’s ambassador.

Read More…

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Jeb Bush Follows in His Brother’s Footsteps

spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

Still to be thoroughly digested is last weekend’s spectacle of several prominent Republicans descending on Las Vegas in search of Sheldon Adelson’s blessing. The “Sheldon primary,” as the Washington Post dubbed it, did not go unnoticed. The Post ran a lengthy piece prior to the event focusing on the outsized role large donors now play in the aftermath of recent Supreme Court campaign finance decisions, as well as on Adelson’s stated desire to nominate a so-called moderate and electable candidate. J.J. Goldberg, a Forward editor and author of a perceptive 1996 book about Jewish power, played with the notion of whether or not it was an anti-Semitic “stereotype” to wonder about a rich Jew seeking to supervise the Republican nomination process:

Now, before you go accusing the Post (or me) of spreading anti-Semitic stereotypes, consider what the word means. Merriam-Webster defines “stereotype” as “an often unfair and untrue belief.” The World English Dictionary calls it “a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations.” Cardwell’s 1996 Dictionary of Psychology defines it rather more broadly as “a fixed, over generalized belief.” Nobody’s definition seems to include a straightforward recitation of facts that one would prefer remain hidden. That probably falls under the category of “a no-no.”

Jon Stewart mocked the Vegas confab, astonished that Adelson could squeeze from tough guy New Jersey governor Chris Christie a groveling apology for referring to the West Bank occupied territories as “occupied territories.” Stewart is perhaps the nation’s most visible critic of the Israel lobby, but he has ability only to make the young fans laugh at its power, not actually to challenge it. Humor may already have had some impact on the landscape. Last year Saturday Night Live produced, but did not air live, a skit depicting senators asking Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel whether he would fellate a donkey to demonstrate his loyalty to Israel. (The clip now seems offline but was widely circulated in the days following its production).

But most of the Sheldon primary commentary fell short of describing what Adelson hopes to gain from spending tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the Republican nomination. Pat Buchanan did observe that Adelson was no garden variety Israel supporter, but an advocate of an American nuclear first strike on Iran (in the desert, as a demonstration of what we will do to Tehran). The best indications are that Adelson’s main requirement for a candidate would be his readiness to engage America in war for Israel’s benefit. And though Adelson is an American citizen, he has not minced words about where deepest loyalties lie: he has said he regretted serving in the U.S. military, (as opposed to Israel’s) and told interviewers he hopes his youngest son could serve as a sniper in the Israeli army.

One shouldn’t really blame Adelson for this; he is free to be loyal to whatever country he wants and to advocate whatever wars he wants others to fight on its behalf. But the real question is about the Republican Party—why do its aspiring high office seekers feel that it is unproblematic to kiss Adelson’s ring. This was a party once accustomed to bathing itself in patriotism, and in truth it is impossible to imagine any past Republican president—including George W. Bush, he who filled his White House and Pentagon with neoconservatives—behaving in quite this way. Read More…

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Push For New Cold War Seems to Stall

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How goes the campaign to pep up Americans for a new Cold War? If the most recent polling on the Ukraine crisis is to be believed, not very well. According to a survey released yesterday by Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of Americans want the U.S. “to take a firm stand” against Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine, while 56 percent prefer that the United States “not get too involved in the situation.” Among “independents”—a category much scrutinized and coveted by political operatives of both parties—the skeptical-about-intervention numbers were highest of all: 62 percent versus 25 percent. A mere 16 percent of Republicans supported the certifiably insane position—”consider military options”—while the percentage among Democrats and independents so inclined barely topped the margin of error.

This polls comes after two weeks of intense anti-Putin propagandizing by the Iraq War Party, attempting to reconstitute itself a decade later. We have seen windy laments about American lack of moral backbone from Leon Weiseltier (Jim Sleeper provides a delicious takedown of the closeted neocon here) and “Putin equals Hitler” analogies from Richard Cohen and Hillary Clinton. We have seen the Washington Post and New York Times columnists bloviating against Russia’s Vladimir Putin almost every day, and the major television puff pieces celebrating the rebels who mounted an anti-democratic coup in Kiev’s Maidan Square. (Yes, the coup overthrew a terribly corrupt ruler, but why not simply wait for an election to get rid of him?)

But despite the media barrage, Americans simply don’t find Russia reasserting some sort of hegemonic position in Crimea much to be concerned about. Perhaps they think that what goes on in Crimea isn’t really any of our business. That’s something of a surprise—the sheer intensity of the anti-Putin media barrage made it seem likely that at least some sort of “tough” majority could be temporarily cobbled together in support of anti-Putin measures, but most Americans seem to have tuned it out. Overheated Beltway language implying a Putin blitzkrieg seems somehow unrealistic in the face of a Russian intervention that has not, as of this writing, resulted in the loss of a single life.

Why aren’t the American people following the clues of their media masters? It’s not entirely clear. But I would point to two powerful potential reasons: the real Cold War was about the spread of Communism, which Americans understood to be an evil system, not about hostility to Russia acting like a normal great power. Adam Gopnik makes the point (in a short essay of exceptional lucidity) here:

The point of the Cold War, at least as it was explained by the Cold Warriors, was that it wasn’t a confrontation of great global powers but, rather, something more significant and essential: a struggle of values, waged on a global scale, between totalitarians and liberals. Russia as a nation was incidental—if the Soviets had given up Marxism and on the utopian (or dystopian) remaking of the world, and had been content to act as a regular power, we would have had no war, cold or hot. That, anyway, was what the Cold Warriors claimed—indeed, those who saw Soviet ideology as mere Russian behavior were regarded as historically naïve. And here we are, with a restored Russia, paranoid about encirclement, increasing their leverage in the neighborhood. It may be ugly and it may be wrong, and Ukraine deserves the moral support that small nations always deserve when they are bullied—but it is also historically normal. If we become hysterical every time historical forces assert themselves, there will be no end to the hysteria.

Or, to put it another way (as Pat Buchanan did), there’s a difference between a Russian ruler who murders priests by the thousands and one who jails for a year the Pussy Riot ladies for committing sacrilege.

Then there are some very practical reasons to pause before joining up with the Beltway sanctions brigades. The Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, writing in Al Monitor, points to some issues which may arise if Washington pushes hard over Crimea. One is the fate of our troops in Afghanistan, who are resupplied in part through a Russian base in Ulyanovsk. Of course the troops could be resupplied through Pakistan, and could probably even exit through there if necessary. But it’s likely to be logistically far more difficult, and could potentially cost American lives. Then there is Syria, where Russian and American diplomacy has tentatively cooperated, at least on chemical weapons. And Iran, where Russia has pleased Washington by canceling previously agreed upon weapons sales. Obviously if faced with American hostility, Putin would reconsider Russian policies on all these issues according to his estimate of Russia’s interests.

One would hope the Obama administration would weigh this before accepting Bill Kristol’s invitation to ignite a new Cold War with Russia. We will see. Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “elected” by Victoria Nuland, if not by the Ukrainian people, is due for a White House visit today (Wednesday). When the invitation was tendered, Washington was roiling in anti-Putin, new Cold War frenzy. Since then, the American people have registered a cool message, and even CPAC, the right-wing young Republican organization, has given a straw poll victory to Rand Paul, the national candidate most wary of starting a new cold war. Bob Gates, a foreign policy stalwart of the last two administrations, has noted realistically that there’s not much anyone can do to sever Russia from Crimea, though of course we could shoot ourselves in the foot. It will be interesting to see whether Obama, a far cooler head than Kerry, Clinton, and of course Nuland, will be able to shift course and signal to the world that America’s global policies will not be tethered to a revolutionary nationalist regime of dubious stability which rose out of the barricades in Kiev.

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Our Entirely Self-Inflicted Ukraine Disaster

Victoria Nuland swearing in ceremony as Assistant Secretary of State. Photo courtesy State Department
Victoria Nuland swearing in ceremony as Assistant Secretary of State. Photo courtesy State Department

It must have been nearly 26 years ago, in the spring. On a Saturday, I was playing golf with my new boss, Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest. We were puzzling over Gorbachev, who was sounding and acting so damned reasonable. “It’s just counterintuitive” said Owen, and I of course concurred. Gorbachev’s behavior seemed to contravene everything I had learned in my fifteen or so years of reading intensely about Soviet communism, and Owen’s education was of course deeper still. That long bibliography, passionately devoured and fervently embraced: Adam Ulam, Medvedev, Orwell, Koestler, Raymond Aron, Solzhenitsyn, Nadezdha Mandelstam, dozens of articles in Commentary, Encounter, National Review-–all soon to be shifted to my mind’s attic. My Columbia University dissertation devoted to some minor but fascinating corner of the cultural Cold War, suddenly as timely as if it concerned the War of the Roses. I had come to The National Interest (then published by Irving Kristol) in no small part to fight communism, and now what was I going to do?

And yet of course, one couldn’t deny what a blessing it was. Suddenly the United Nations could get things done; we weren’t going to have an accidental civilization ending war; and Russia (Tolstoy, vodka, etc) could be appreciated without being some sort of dupe. On the first day the subway opened after 9/11, I overheard a young pretty blonde woman, Russian accent, flirting with her American beau as they stood in line to buy farecards. “So, ve are now going to be allies.” Poignant and delicious. And yet sad were the Yeltsin years: Russia seeming to disintegrate into alchoholism, falling birthrates, a great civilization, a core part of everyone’s mental architecture of the world, coming apart at the seams.

Looking around the American media in the past few days, I realize I am not very much in step with my countrymen. Stephen Cohen makes some sensible points about Putin’s obligations to Russia on PBS, saying basically, look Putin is not entirely the bad guy here, and no one should be trying to push Western institutions right up to Russia’s borders, and any responsible leader would have acted similarly , and the reaction–look at the comments!– is a kind of full-blown of rage. What drives it? Or more precisely, what is the motivation to try to drive the sphere of Western influence right up to Russia’s borders? Is it because our ambitions (and whose, exactly?) are insatiable? Because that seems to be it: we aren’t satisfied with the liberation of the satellites of Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, former Cold War flashpoints and now NATO members; with the reunification of Germany and under Western auspices, so that Berlin is now a virtual capital of Nato; with the Baltic states as NATO members too. There seemed to be no end to it. We have learned from Robert Gates’s memoirs that at the time, Dick Cheney was advocating not only for the dismantlement of the Soviet empire (accomplished) but of Russia itself. Cheney then lacked the power to try carry this out, but what would have been the plan if he had? Read More…

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On Ukraine, Cool the Triumphalism

I don’t recall ever feeling such ambivalence about a major political event. Of course it is impossible to not feel exhilarated at the toppling of a corrupt and mendacious Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovich, his flight to parts unknown with his much younger mistress in tow, impossible not to enjoy the press accounts of Ukrainians free to wander about and ogle his palace—the gold toilet, the imported exotic birds, the private golf course, the ridiculous furniture—this caricature of vulgarity, and given the circumstances which financed it, robbery as well. Of course there is much to admire in the young men and women who both waited it out and fought in Kiev’s Maidan, eventually triumphing when the police were no longer willing to defend the Yanukovich presidency. Most Ukranians—a distinct majority—want to move their country towards Europe; they see, and rightly so, post-communist Poland as a huge success. More naively, they believe that the West is a big candy mountain of capitalist plenty, ready to envelop their country into a cornucopia of prosperity.

Ukraine of course had its anti-Russian revolutions before, only ten years ago in fact. The makers of the Orange Revolution made such a mess of things with infighting and corruption that Yanukovich was legitimately voted into power in 2010. Now he has been ousted by young revolutionaries, but if you are a Russian-speaking Ukranian,—perhaps a third of population—you might well think of the Maidan crowds as street mobs with no legitimacy.

Today I attended a lunch forum, a Ukraine policy debate of sorts, at the Council for the National Interest. Speaking for Russia’s perspective was Andranik Migranyan, a “unofficial” advisor to the Putin government and director of a Russian foundation in New York. Representing the American side was Paula Dobriansky, a former ambassador under George W. Bush who in today’s Times lamented the Obama administration’s “absence of strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion, and an unwillingness to lead.”

Dobriansky was essentially using Weekly Standard talking points 101. Trouble is, there really is no more certainty that Ukraine would be any more democratic than Iraq. I suspect, without being prepared to debate the point, that Max Blumenthal is far too broadly negative in his portrayal of the Ukranian revolutionary movement as honeycombed with modern day neo-Nazis. But the fact is that Ukraine, for most of its recent history, has had a frightful political culture: basically the country has served as a hothouse and battleground to most some of the brutal forces in world history—communist and fascist both. The title of Timothy Snyder’s celebrated Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin gives a reasonable impression.

That history by itself would make the triumphant integration of “democratic” Ukraine into Western Europe an unlikely proposition. That would be the case whether Europe abrogated its own membership rules to give Ukraine membership on a fast track or left the country on an indeterminate candidate membership period.

But there’s another problem: much of Ukraine, perhaps a third of it, identifies not with the West, but with Russia. And vice versa. Read More…

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Non-Zionists With a Tailwind

We seem to be witnessing the remarkable early stirrings of a reevaluation of Zionism among American Jewish intellectuals. This process is parallel and perhaps symbiotic to the rethinking of America’s foreign policy relationship with Israel sparked by the best-selling The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy. But Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, as fairly standard two state solution advocates, don’t differ very much in their prescriptions from views typically expressed by State Department or most postwar American presidents. Now however, there’s a new phenomenon. The past months have seen publication of Max Blumenthal’s excoriating journalistic portrait of the advance of a quasi-fascist Israeli Right in Goliath; the New York Times‘ spotlighting of a small but important group of religious and orthodox Jews who are non-Zionist or nearly so; and now John Judis’s remarkable analysis of the forces converging on Harry Truman at the time of Israel’s birth in Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict. These are all the work of American Jews questionning whether Israel should exist as “Jewish state” with all that entails for the systemic violation of Palestinian rights. The very intensity with which the enforcers of mainstream “pro-Israel” orthodoxy have responded to this wave is itself a sign that the new voices have something of a tailwind behind them and are likely to be an increasingly important part of both the American Jewish and the broader American debate.

I would assume that much of the attention devoted to Judis’s work will be directed towards his portrait of President Truman and his ambiguity about supporting the particular Jewish state to which he served as midwife, as well to the unrelenting and crude political pressures the President was subjected to by the Zionist lobby. As Judis notes, Truman was a practical politician with ample experience in race relations and ethnically divided political communities. He favored without question the opening up of Palestine as a refuge for the tens of thousands of Jews languishing in displaced person’s camps after World War II. But he was not initially in favor of a Jewish state, in part because his top foreign policy advisors worried about antagonizing the oil rich Arab world and also because of his own sense of the American experience. Truman was, Judis relates, “a Jeffersonian Democrat who rejected the idea of a state religion—state religions were what had caused centuries of war in Europe. He didn’t think that a nation should be defined by a particular people or race or religion.” But he was also, as Judis makes very clear, a politician committed to his own reelection and that of his fellow Democrats. Reminders from the Zionists on his own staff and those outside the White House of the political dangers which would flow from refusing to accommodate Israel’s ever-expanding list of “asks” arrived relentlessly, and in the end Truman always bowed to them, protesting all the way. Read More…

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Victory Over AIPAC, What It Means, What It Doesn’t

Eli Lake here does a micro-analysis of AIPAC’s failure on its Iran sanctions bill. The timeline is confusing: AIPAC supported (and probably drafted, that’s how it’s usually done) the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer legislation designed to scuttle Obama’s Iran negotiations; then it appeared to back off, signaling through many channels that it wasn’t necessary to bring the bill (which gained 59 co-sponsors, a majority but not enough to break a filibuster or override a presidential veto) up for a vote immediately. This wasn’t AIPAC’s only mixed signal: AIPAC also appeared to attack Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic Congresswoman (and pro-Israel stalwart) representing an AIPAC stronghold in South Florida for not facilitating companion legislation in the House. Then it backed off from the attack and defended her. All this took place amidst an unprecedented public debate about sanctions and Iran diplomacy which put the organization under a spotlight; AIPAC lobbying for the bill was reported openly in the New York Times, an extremely rare occurrence. As a group which prefers to work behind the scenes and win its votes by overwhelming margins, this was a doubly uncomfortable situation.

Lake doesn’t try to draw big conclusions, but it is time for a reassessment. Is the eight hundred pound gorilla of Capitol Hill really weakened? On its way out? Was AIPAC always a bit of a paper tiger, which could be blown away as soon as an American president set his mind to it? These are critical questions, whose answers will shape American mideast policy for decades to come.

Between Obama’s phone call with Rouhani in October and the end of January, the nation’s key foreign policy players—lobbyists, legislators, journalists, indeed much of attentive public—fought an intense battle, set off by Bibi Netanyahu’s claim that the proposed interim deal with Iran was “bad and dangerous,” a great deal for Iran, terrible for everyone else. Netanyahu spoke before the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, urging American Jews to “stand up and be counted” against Obama’s effort. Israeli ministers flew to Washington to lobby Congress, joined by Israel’s ambassador Ron Dermer. Two months ago, Foreign Policy reported that Israel seemed to be winning an information war on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers spouted Israeli talking points (considered factually incorrect by the administration) about details of the interim deal with Iran. After a few weeks and several false starts, the Bibi-led forces coalesced behind the Kirk-Schumer-Menendez bill, a poison pill designed to ensure the Iran negotiation’s failure. And yet, after six weeks of intense maneuvering, AIPAC, whose leaders had once boasted of being able to round up seventy Senators in a single day, were unable to get past 59.

Over the past few months, AIPAC faced, for the first time ever, a broad and multilayered coalition of old and new forces. Read More…

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Lee Smith Anoints the New Kennan

Writing in Tablet, Weekly Standard editor and neoconservative Lee Smith sounds an alarm about the rising influence of realism in Obama’s foreign policy. He goes about this rather creatively. He claims, with  literary-historical license but no grounding in actual fact, that Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has become this generation’s Mr. X, the George Kennan figure who can produce a strategy that makes sense of the chaos of international events and provides a guide for how the United States should act. Many have aspired to be the new Kennan—Richard Haas, Fareed Zakaria, Anne Marie Slaughter he mentions—but Walt  has somehow succeeded.

One must note here that Walt, along with his co-author John Mearsheimer, plays a  unique role in neoconservative demonology. They are the top professors who produced a beautifully researched and written argument claiming that the United States’ Mideast policy was tilted askew by the Israel lobby, to the detriment of  American  interests.  When I wrote an essay praising The Israel Lobby, one neoconservative intellectual—an author who had been a friend for 20 years (and who was relatively tolerant of my opposition to the Iraq War) asked me how I could “praise such filth.” For this man who had fought every ideological battle imaginable both as a communist and an anti-communist, America’s special relationship with Israel merited its own special pedestal, beyond the politics of Right and Left. It couldn’t be questioned.

So perhaps by invoking Walt, Lee Smith may be using a kind of code, warning a pro-Israel Jewish audience—Tablet, I’m sure, has readers of many faiths and tendencies who find it interesting, as I do, but it is a Jewish interest webzine—that Obama may sound pro-Israel but his real views are tinged by hostility. (During the 2008 campaign, Obama took pains to denounce the argument  of The Israel Lobby, while making clear he had not and would not read the scary book.)

What is the evidence, if any, for Smith’s claim about Walt’s influence? First he summarizes some of Walt’s ideas, mainly that the United States would do better to be an offshore balancer in the Mideast (rather as it was during the Cold War) than to maintain an visible and intrusive presence tied to its “special relationship” with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Walt also favors diplomacy to ramp down the hostility with Iran. And lo and behold, Smith discovers, citing an interview Obama gave to David Remnick in the New Yorker, Obama believes the same thing! Obama tells Remnick he favors a kind of equilibrium in the Persian Gulf, where the Sunni and Shi’ite countries balance each other out. Surely, Smith reasons, that’s more than a coincidence.

My reactions to Lee Smith’s claim are twofold: “Would that it were true!” and then, “Maybe, there’s something to this.” Steve Walt has no connection to the Obama White House, but he does have a blog at Foreign Policy and writes fairly incisive pieces about foreign policy on at least a weekly basis. I doubt the gap  between Walt’s clarity of thought and persuasiveness of prose and that of his peers is as marked as that between George Kennan’s voice in 1946 and ’47 and others trying to make sense of American foreign policy at that time. But Walt is pretty compelling. Perhaps people in the White House read him. I hope so. Read More…

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The Kerry Peace Mission: An Unbalanced Balancing Act

Like many committed to a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, I feel an ambivalence about the John Kerry mission. The leaked contours of the “framework” agreement seem lopsided in favor of Israel, especially if Israel is allowed to keep the major settlement blocs of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumin. These settlements were designed in part to divide the West Bank into non-contiguous cantons and to cordon off Jerusalem from major Palestinian population centers—i.e., to prevent a viable Palestinian state.

Nevertheless, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority may be sufficiently worn down by the peace process to accept less than a viable state. Abbas has limited legitmacy—his party lost the last election (in 2006) it allowed to take place. But other Palestinian options are not great: they can embark on a long game, hoping that the boycott and divestment movement (BDS) against Israel continues to grow, and that an internationally isolated Israel will be compelled to negotiate on a more level field. But that’s a generation-long struggle, with no certain result. Meanwhile the degree of Palestinian suffering right now should not be underestimated; the Israeli occupation regime of checkpoints, home demolitions, imprisonment without trial, destruction of water resources, settlers destroying Palestinian crops with impunity, etc. is a constant grinding pressure on Palestinian life, and the rationale for any Palestinian leader to make a deal that could alleviate much of it is obvious. To be added, of course, are the blandishments of possible enrichment through crony capitalism: you can be sure that every member of the extended families of every key Palestinian negotiator are aware that a signed deal might put them squarely in the path of an international money stream. The Palestinians long ago agreed to accept half a loaf—a state on the West Bank and Gaza and a shared Jerusalem. Will they now go for the quarter loaf—a trisected and unviable territory they can call a state, in lieu of something better?

For his troubles, Kerry has received unprecedented abuse from the Israel right, a reaction which illuminates how little Israelis think of the United States as any sort of genuine ally. The composition of his negotiating team, described in some detail in a recent article in the Guardian, implicitly acknowledges that his mission is based almost entirely on placating the American Israel lobby and critics on the Israeli right: not only does it lack any Arab-Americans, or Muslims of any sort, but also seems astonishingly thin on American Catholics and Protestants. As a team which “looks like America” it certainly fails, but it is likely that the key constituencies in Congress and public opinion which have to be brought on board probably don’t care that it doesn’t. Kerry needs to be able to state that his diplomacy is good for Israel, and has negotiated accordingly. Even so, it’s not clear whether he will get Israel to agree to the terms he proposes. But if he does manage to produce an agreement loaded in Israel’s favor and squeeze acquiescence to it from Abbas, it remains an open question whether it will actually resolve the conflict, or be vulnerable to campaigns to reopen the negotiations, which will seem more reasonable as recognition of the unviability of what the Palestinians have actually gained inevitably sets in.

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