State of the Union

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.

Posted in . Tagged , . 10 comments

An Opening to Challenge Hillary

Andrew Sullivan here sums up the monumental sense of inevitability surrounding Hillary Clinton’s capture of Democratic nomination of 2016. He quotes Chris Cillizza and Sean Sullivan from the Washington Post, and their numbers sound pretty convincing:

Clinton stands at an eye-popping 73 percent in a hypothetical 2016 primary race with Biden, the sitting vice president, who is the only other candidate in double digits at 12 percent. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has signed a letter along with a handful of other Democratic senators urging Clinton to run, is at 8 percent. And that’s it.

That lead is almost three times as large as the one Clinton enjoyed in Post-ABC polling in December 2006, the first time we asked the 2008 Democratic presidential primary ballot question.

Yet no one I know in progressive circles is the least bit excited about Hillary. Either she seems too old (which she may well be) or too much a captive of Wall Street neoliberalism (American inequality began to accelerate during the Clinton era) or is too close to the Israel lobby. Her refusal to endorse Obama’s diplomacy with Iran is suggestive evidence of the latter.

I would conclude that her hold on the nomination is solid, if she wants it, if there are no scandals surprises or health problems. Still, someone could make a real name for him or herself running against her from the Left. It’s not going to be Howard Dean, who is no spring chicken himself and has his own Israel lobby related problems, having opted to serve as an occasional spokesman for the Iranian terror group MEK. (Or, as it were, the organization, “formerly designated as” a terror group.)

But it could be someone younger, who also opposed the Iraq war and who (unlike Dean) stands against the various efforts to maneuver the United States into war with Iran. Such a candidate almost certainly would not win, but because the press needs a horse race, they would garner a massive amount of attention and emerge as a major national figure.

The obvious precedent is Pat Buchanan’s campaign against George H.W. Bush in 1992. It was obviously doomed not to succeed, running against a president whose approval ratings eighteen months before the election were sky high. But the campaign succeeded fabulously in building an organization and staking claim to an interrelated series of issues (in PJB’s case, non-intervention, immigration restriction, trade protectionism, as well as the “culture war” stuff.) There was plenty of running room on these issues, and the campaign set the stage for a much closer run in 1996. But a Democratic “progressive” in 2016 would have far more traction going up against Hillary. Who is going to take advantage of it? That’s one of the more interesting questions of next few years.

Posted in , . Tagged , , . 57 comments

De Blasio the Craven

During my time in New York City journalism, I had at least a passing acquaintance with two mayors. Ed Koch mostly—he wrote (and I lightly edited) a weekly column for the Post after he left City Hall, and we’d discuss the column frequently. I may have had four or five meals with him: once the two of us, other times in small groups. I’m not trying to suggest any real closeness, but Ed was a man I knew and liked. Rudy Giuliani was less likable, but he was friendly with the Post editorial page in the 90′s as both a candidate and mayor, and I was in small meetings or dinners with him at least a half dozen times.

Both were strongly pro-Israel: Ed as a Jew saw the emergence of Israel as a necessary and just response to the Holocaust. With Rudy it’s more difficult to say, except being pro-Israel was part and parcel of the neoconservative political views he held as mayor (with great success) and as a presidential candidate (with less success). Is it possible that Giuliani’s pro-Israel views were forged as a kind of compensation, a defense response to the whispered (and quite unfounded) imputations of anti-Semitism which swirled about him as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted Wall Street malfeasance in the 1980′s? Yes, quite possibly. I don’t think many kids emerge from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School saturated with intense Zionist commitment. Let us say Giuliani was completely sincere in his belief that it was better to be a very pro-Israel mayor of New York than a US attorney without pronounced views on Israel one way or another.

Be that as it may, Koch’s and Giuliani’s affection for Israel was public and obvious and in New York City politics, altogether unexceptional. And yet for the life of me, I cannot imagine for a second either man saying in public what New York mayor Bill de Blasio declared in a secret speech at AIPAC last week. In that speech de Blasio declared:

There is a philosophical grounding to my belief in Israel and it is my belief, it is our obligation, to defend Israel, but it is also something that is elemental to being an American because there is no greater ally on earth, and that’s something we can say proudly.

With one or two important exceptions, discussed below, reaction to this wild speech has focused exclusively on the secrecy. The event was not posted to de Blasio’s schedule, the press was not informed. The reporter from a small news outlet who managed to get inside to record it was later escorted from the room. De Blasio campaigned in part on bringing greater openness and transparency to City Hall, and here, barely two weeks into his mayoralty, he is discovered giving a secret speech to a high donor crowd. The landslide winning new progressive may still be in the honeymoon of his administration, but a stench of hypocrisy has begun to rise. Read More…

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 19 comments

The Iran Deal as an American Turning Point

U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers
U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers

It is too early to celebrate, but historians will note that the gears of history shifted during the past month. The United States and five major nations finalized a significant door-opening agreement with Iran. Despite mounting a substantial campaign, Israel and its American lobbyists (AIPAC, along with a large neoconservative and Israel-hawk media section) have thus far not managed to abort the diplomatic opening. The events signal not only an important opportunity towards forging a new relationship with Iran, an heretofore enemy and one of the largest and most advanced nations in the Muslim world, but signal a critical defeat for AIPAC, Washington’s most powerful foreign affairs lobby. The pro-Israel lobbying group has lost before, failing to block a major U.S. weapons sale to Saudi Arabia during the early years of the Reagan administration. But that defeat in the end mattered relatively little.

This month, the Menendez-Kirk-Schumer bill, the “bipartisan” legislation designed to scuttle the Washington-Tehran negotiation by requiring the administration to seek impossible concessions, stalled at less than sixty votes, well below a veto-proof threshold, in the Senate. As it was examined and discussed, the bill became increasingly mocked in the mass media—both for the fact many senators who signed up to support it hadn’t actually read it, and as nakedly a project of “the great state of Israel”—as Jon Stewart ironically put it. Never in American history has AIPAC-favored legislation been openly debated, scrutinized and criticized like this.

There is probably no more eloquent argument against Kirk-Menendez-Schumer than here, by Jessica Tuchman Mathews in the New York Review of Books. She covers all the terrain, from an opening paragaph which sets the scene:

In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.

Mathews moves to a nuanced discussion of what the more than forty-year-old Non Proliferation Treaty does and does not say, noting it provides no legal basis for restricting Iran’s nuclear program to zero enrichment, provided the program is peaceful. The “zero Iranian enrichment” option demanded by Netanyahu and his allies in the Senate is thus not only a non-starter in negotiating terms, but is not grounded in international law. One must assume that the AIPAC folks who wrote Kirk-Schumer-Menendez understood this, which is why they wrote their bill the way they did — not to “aid” Obama in negotiations as some senators often disingenuously claim, but to kill the negotiations. Importantly, Mathews also notes that the six-month interim deal which went into operation early this week (giving Iran access to some of its own money which had been held in foreign banks) is weighted heavily in the West’s favor, and makes sense for Tehran only if it paves the way to a larger agreement granting major relief from sanctions.

Mathews then comments about the “Go to war for Israel” part of the bill: Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , . 11 comments

Bob Gates’s Farewell Warning

Photo by Tommy Gilligan/ West Point Public Affairs
Photo by Tommy Gilligan/ West Point Public Affairs

To be honest, apart from scanning for tidbits on a particular topic, I haven’t read a “big” Washington insider memoir at the time it came out since Henry Kissinger’s. I was glad then to see that veteran journalist Tom Ricks describe Robert Gates’s Duty as “probably one of the best Washington memoirs ever” because my reading in it made me wonder whether I’d been missing something important all these years. Gates’s book is extremely good, full of detail, knowledge, and apparent candor. Gates is an exemplar of a national public servant, patriotic, not flashy, makes no effort to present himself as a big conceptualizer, but someone who is able to generate informed opinions and options on an wide array of complicated subjects, while being able to get along with others at the highest levels of government. He’s the smart guy in the room who doesn’t seem to have his own agenda. He’s been in the room (as “notetaker”) when Zbigniew Brzezinski was trying to negotiate with the revolutionary government of Iran in 1979, and thirty years later as Secretary of Defense, alongside Ben Bernanke as the most important holdover from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.

Early attention devoted to the book has focused on Gates’s claim that Obama seemed less than enthusiastic about the “mission” in Afghanistan, while deferring in practice to the military’s judgement about what should be done. Despite inevitable denials, the truth of this assertion seemed almost too obvious, perhaps to Obama’s supporters most of all. Would it really have served Obama’s purposes to pick an open fight with the the top brass over Afghanistan early in his administration? Of course not. He went along with what the generals wanted.

What struck me as most important in Gates’s memoir were the frequent references to the dangers of allowing the United States to get sucked into into wars serving other country’s agendas, especially in the Mideast. These are, remember, the concerns not of a peacenik professor but a veteran Cold Warrior after a long career at the center of the American national security establishment. They make up an extremely important data point about where mainstream American security professionals see danger arising—and one which varies quite a bit from ostensible concerns of Congress or the most influential national media. I would argue that worry about being drawn into wars on behalf of allies, (or perhaps “allies”) is (alongside such estimable things as duty, honor, country) the central theme of Gates’s work.

Here is a sample of the passages pushing this theme: Read More…

Posted in , , . Tagged , , . 14 comments

A Bad Day For Kirk-Menendez-Schumer

Professional Capitol Hill watchers still can’t accurately handicap the fate of Senate Resolution 1881, the Kirk-Menendez-Schumer bill designed to torpedo negotiations with Iran. But Tuesday was a very good day for those opposing it.

First of all, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein gave an eloquent speech on the floor of the Senate, whose centerpiece was a personal and historical overview of how nations can and frequently do change their policies and orientations, how Iran gives every indication of being on the cusp of such changes, and how Kirk-Menendez-Schumer would “play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see diplomacy fail.” She referenced Germany and Japan, Spain and Argentina, South Korea and Vietnam, all states whose nuclear programs have been modified or political orientation transformed. Her words were at once broad-reaching and personal, so unlike the tired and ritualistic AIPAC talking points regurgitated by the bill’s supporters. (Of course those inclined to quibble with Di-Fi could point out that we more or less flattened Germany and Japan, and then occupied them. Iran hawks think for some reason we can bomb, but not occupy.)

Secondly, five major “mainstream” newspapers editorialized against the bill: the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Minneapolis Star Tribune. As a former newspaper editorial page editor, I know such endorsements are less than monumentally important, but when five of them line up together like that, it’s a good indication of where the mainstream consensus lies. (Note: The Washington Post ed page has long had a neoconservative bent, so the editorial may reflect the thinking of new owner Jeff Bezos.)

Thirdly, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a very good “Iran Hawk” column against Kirk-Schumer-Menendez. I’m by no means a Goldberg fan, but readily acknowledge his influence and journalism ability. Here he points out what our AIPAC corner of legislators never manages to get its brains around: the current regime of sanctions in Iran has been effective because it has been international, and the United States, with great effort, managed to secure sanctions support from other nations as a way to get Iran to the negotiating table. That has been accomplished, but it certainly doesn’t mean the international community supports the Israeli (and Saudi) wish list of complete dismantlement off Iran’s nuclear energy program. Key Goldberg ‘graf:

The most dangerous consequence of these Senate sanctions would manifest itself in places such as Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and New Delhi. In order to work, sanctions must have the support of the world’s main industrial powers. If countries such as China and India decide that the U.S. is making a concerted attempt to subvert negotiations, their enthusiasm for sanctions will wane dramatically. 

These are but one day’s events over a long campaign. AIPAC may decide that trying to destroy the negotiations now through the Kirk-Menendez poison bill isn’t going to work, and will let quietly slip that it’s not putting out a full-fledged lobbying effort for the bill. I’m sure the group is uncomfortable with the level of attention it’s drawing. I believe that never in its history has AIPAC seen five major newspapers oppose one its favored pieces of legislation.

And don’t forget, negotiations are inherently difficult, and might fail anyway. Iran’s President Rouhani has his own hard-liners entrenched in the Iranian parliament, who take it as axiomatic that any negotiation with the Great Satan is bad for Iran (as it probably is bad for their political fortunes in Iran). But right now Senate support for the bill seems stalled in the high fifties, short of veto-proof, and well short of the 70 signatures which an AIPAC staffer once boasted could be rounded up within 24 hours. Tuesday was a good day.

Posted in . Tagged , . 11 comments

Debunking Sharon’s Peacemaker Status

John Kerry’s statement on Ariel Sharon’s death is here. Of course diplomats should be diplomatic and avoid gratuitous insults. But isn’t it possible to say something appropriate or even respectful about Ariel Sharon without pretending he was any kind of peacemaker? In an act of truly world class groveling, Kerry manages to repeat the falsehood of Sharon the peacemaker four times within four brief paragraphs–no modest effort. There’s this:

I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became Prime Minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process. He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace.

Followed a few lines later by this:

In his final years as Prime Minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace, and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger.

A notable constant in Sharon’s career was his readiness to massacre defenseless Palestinian civilians. He made his bones, so to speak, at Qibya in 1953, a West Bank town in Jordan. Some Palestinian “infiltrators” had crossed the cease-fire line to murder an Israeli mother and her two children, and the Israeli government decided upon reprisals. (Jordan had denounced the murders and promised to cooperate in tracking down the perpetrators).

The reprisal raid was carried out by Unit 101, commanded by Major Sharon. When it was over, Qibya was reduced to rubble, 45 houses had been blown up, most with their inhabitants inside. 69 civilians, mostly women and children, were left dead. There was a storm of international protest, and Israel initially sought to deny IDF responsibility for the massacre, claiming instead that irate Israeli villagers had taken revenge on their own initiative. The lie didn’t stand up. Israel faced universal condemnation, including from the United States, which called for those responsible for the killing to be held to account. Abba Eban, entrusted with defending Israel at the United Nations, wrote his foreign minister Moshe Sharrett that “Sending regular armed forces across an international border, without the intention of triggering a full-scale war, is a step that distinguishes Israel from all other countries. No other state acts this way.” Sharon was well pleased with the action however, as was most of the Israeli political establishment.

Sharon’s more famous massacre took place at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shattilah in Lebanon. In 1982, the camps were under Israeli control after Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. Protected by Sharon’s forces, Lebanese Phlangists –allied with Israel and rabidly hostile to the Palestinians, entered the camps and killed 800 Palestinians, (Israel’s estimate: others are far higher) mostly women and children. Israeli forces protected the forces carrying out the massacres, illuminating the camps with flares. An Israeli investigating commission found Sharon personally responsible for allowing the carnage. He was removed from his post at the Ministry of Defense, though Menachem Begin kept him in the Likud cabinet. Throughout the 1980′s he remained in government, and was a pivotal figure in accelerating Israeli settlement of the occupied West Bank. In 2000, his notorious visit to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, accompanied by 200 armed military policeman, was an intentional act of incitement, one of the matches which ignited the second, enormously destructive, intifada that fall.

There is reason to believe that Sharon felt that provoking the Palestinians to violence could be of strategic benefit for Israel. In a lengthy portrait of Sharon published in the 2006 New Yorker (behind a paywall), Ari Shavit writes:

When he went back to the cozy living room and sank into his favorite armchair, he showed me the book he was reading: it was about the Arab revolt of 1936-39. He said that what interested him was the way the rebellion had ultimately collapsed, causing a disintegration of Palestinian society. He clearly saw a certain similarity between the revolt of the nineteen thirties and the intifada that began in 2000. In time, it became evident that the strategic plan that Sharon was considering involved bringing the Palestinians to a point of political chaos and then luring them into a partial agreement on Israel’s terms—one that would not require evacuation of major settlements on the West Bank or a return to the pre-1967 borders.

I’ve heard other Israeli politicians argue in this vein, implying that they would actually welcome Palestinian violence, because militarily Israel is far stronger and and can damage Palestinian society far more in the context of war than peace.

In most tellings, consideration of Sharon as a peacemaker rests on Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2004, when he was prime minister. The move gave Israel a talking point before international audiences: look, Israel is ready to withdraw from occupied territory. Of course it didn’t lead to peace, as the withdrawal was unilateral, and almost entirely limited to Gaza, and was quickly followed by a blockade of Gaza. Sharon aide Dov Weissglas described the Gaza disengagement as fomaldehyde, designed not to make peace but to smother the peace process. In that, it would seem, the maneuver was hugely successful.

It would be more truthful to conclude that Sharon is a war criminal who should have been indicted and tried for his crimes. If one doesn’t want to speak ill of the dead, he could be deemed a brutal but crudely effective general, a type which has existed in many countries. But it is a stretch too far to call Sharon a “man of peace” and to go on about it as Secretary Kerry did, as if black were white. We have still before us contemplation of the parade of American political figures to Sharon’s funeral, many who will mouth panegyrics to the brutal general, making sure their AIPAC donors hear every fulsome word. By all rights, Americans should find their country’s obsequious lauding of this man a source of national shame.

Posted in , . Tagged . 17 comments

On Iran, the Israel Lobby May Lose

It has been often repeated that former AIPAC official Steve Rosen boasted to Jeffrey Goldberg that within 24 hours he could have the signatures of 70 U.S. senators on a cocktail napkin. Such was the clout of the Israel lobby’s main congressional enforcement arm. But students of the lobby often wondered what would happen if AIPAC faced an actual political contest. Its victories seemed almost too effortless, the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals.

The Israel lobby’s campaign to scuttle negotiations with Iran is not going easily. Yesterday, Jonathan Broder reported in Congressional Quarterly that “momentum for a new Iran sanctions bill appears to have stalled.” The bill in question is the Kirk-Mendendez-Schumer legislation, which imposes new sanctions on Iran and stipulates that the United States go to war on Israel’s side in the event Tel Aviv decides, for reasons of “self-defense,” that it needs to attack Iran. (As of this writing, the legislation has 51 co-sponsors and will surely acquire more, but Obama would obviously veto it, as would any President who wished to maintain some control over America’s foreign policy.) Meanwhile, Adam Kredo in the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon published a hit piece on Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, accusing her of stalling a companion negotiations scuttling bill in the House. The piece pointed out that Florida Jewish organizations were upset Schultz was not doing the Israel lobby’s bidding.

Honestly no one would ever have expected Wasserman Schultz, an influential congresswoman who is often flamboyantly pro-Israel, to be AWOL when AIPAC wanted something done. She famously orchestrated the congressional standing ovations when Netanyahu spoke before Congress in 2011. And yet here she is, at least thus far standing quietly in the corner of Obama and the American diplomats who know anything about the issue, to the chagrin of those who want an American war with Iran. Like no previous issue, the Iran question is forcing the American Jewish political establishment to choose between its often reflexive and unquestioning backing of Israel’s hawkish positions and its own professedly liberal political values—which in this case militate towards testing whether negotiation is better than bombing. Schumer lines up with Netanyahu. Wasserman Schultz may well support Obama. Sprinkled throughout the Senate are veteran Jewish lawmakers who have already made it clear that they want to give the administration every possible chance to forge a nuclear deal, and possibly someday a detente, with Iran. I can’t imagine that these choices between competing impulses and allegiances are easy, and I hope there is a novelist (probably but not necessarily Jewish) who can work them into a period-defining novel.

On the merits of the issue too, everything is suddenly in play. The rise of Sunni jihadists in Syria and their reemergence in Iraq underscores what to some has long been obvious: objectively the United States has more grounds for cooperation with Iran (and Turkey) than with a backward looking Wahabi sheikdom. The Israel Project is frantically sending around worried reports about the rush of international businessmen to Tehran. Let it be a flood. The stories unintentionally underscore one of the Obama administration’s main talking points: there is no chance to hold together a coalition of international sanctions if the administration refuses to take the outstretched hand of an Iranian president. Yes it is conceivable, perhaps even fifty-fifty, that AIPAC and Netanyahu will prevail in the Senate in the next few weeks, and that Obama’s diplomacy with Tehran will be effectively collapsed. But China, Russia, Germany, Britain, and France will not fall back in line to implement a tougher AIPAC orchestrated sanctions regime. This week, two former British cabinet ministers lead a delegation of British lawmakers to Tehran, a small step but symbolically significant. Are they going to sign up for Netanyahu’s war train? Not likely. And if not Britain, who? China? Russia? India? Japan?

What the Israel lobby envisions is America alone, its only ally a gallant little Israel, fighting Mideast wars in perpetuity to maintain Israel’s nuclear monopoly. It could happen, but it probably won’t.

Posted in , . Tagged , . 8 comments

John Mearsheimer on the Persistence of Empire

Harpoon cruise-missile launchers. Leonard Zhukovsky /
Harpoon cruise-missile launchers. Leonard Zhukovsky /

There are many salient points in John Mearsheimer’s National Interest cover story, ”America Unhinged,” and months from now different ones may stand out. But generally the 12,000-word essay is a systematic exercise in well-grounded exasperation. Mearsheimer is exasperated that neoconservative hawks and liberal imperialists still dominate the foreign-policy discourse in Washington, despite the Iraq failure and an “0 for 5″ record in recent wars. Bizarre exaggerations of America’s international peril or outlandish claims about the “vital strategic nature” of one country or another are commonplace among leading voices in both parties.

The essay was written when Syria and Egypt were on the front pages, and Mearsheimer tosses cold water on the notion that what happens internally in those countries of any critical importance to us. Since the piece was written, senators of both parties have been grandstanding about internal matters in Ukraine, while South Sudan—a completely new country whose independence was encouraged by American foreign policy in the past several years—is on the front pages. Do we have an American solution to the problem of the Nuer and Dinka, the ethnic groups vying for power there? The sober answer, the one which at least nine of ten Americans would give reflexively, is that it doesn’t matter if we don’t.

That may be the case for most of the foreign issues Washington talks about. In the midst of World War II, Churchill was presented with the intractability of the Yugoslavia problem and the growing influence of the Titoist communists by one of his top intelligence officials. Churchill asked Fitzroy Maclean whether he planned to make his home in Yugoslavia after the war. Told he did not, Churchill replied, “Neither do I” and proceeded to move on to the next topic. If that could be reasonably said about Yugoslavia, it could be repeated a thousandfold about South Sudan. Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , . 18 comments

Kerry’s Quest for an Israel-Palestinian Peace: What You First Need to Know

State Department photo, January 2, 2014
State Department photo, January 2, 2014

The early reports from John Kerry’s latest trip to the Mideast, to try to breathe life into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, are unpromising. Few informed observers expected otherwise. Prime Minister Netanyahu treated Kerry to a lecture on the savagery of the Palestinians who would celebrate the freeing of prisoners accused of committing acts of terror. I assume Kerry did not remind Netanyahu that Israel has elected two former terrorists as its prime ministers. Foreign Policy today ran an interesting book excerpt on Israeli terrorism and the British intelligence services. In the immediate post war period, when Britain lacked coal and food, Zionist terrorism was perceived by British intelligence as its primary threat.

These are atmospherics: Netanyahu wishes to signal to his cabinet and supporters that no serious negotiations will be forthcoming, that they need not worry, Greater Israel is in good hands. Kerry will lo0k for any faint sign that the continuation of ongoing negotiations are not, as they have been for more than twenty years, a cover under which Israel can proceed with colonizing the West Bank and a slow motion ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem.

Required reading for any attempt to understand the what is at stake in the negotiations is the work of Jerome Slater, a SUNY-Buffalo professor who has written perhaps a dozen methodical, careful, footnote-rich essays on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His work is a model of how much one can do with a scholarly temperament and wide and careful reading in freely available English sources. One always comes away from a Slater essay enriched—whether it is a topic one thought one understood (the failure of Oslo Camp David negotiations) or knew little about (the nearly successful Israeli-Syrian negotiations of the early 1990′s).

I recently read “What Went Wrong: The Collapse of the Israeli Palestinian Peace Process,” which appeared (behind a firewall) in Political Science Quarterly in the summer of 2001. (The essay is available online to subscribers and those with access to various academic data bases). I’ve not seen anywhere a more careful and substantial debunking of the main talking points of Israeli hasbara, from the notion that the war was forced upon Israelis who in 1948 were otherwise all too happy to accept the UN’s partition resolution, to the idea that Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians everything they could conceivably have wanted for an independent state at Camp David in 2000, only to have Yasser Arafat walk away. Both propositions are simply false, though they have become–through constant media repetition—very nearly the American received wisdom. Since there is no reason to think that Bibi Netanyahu is more inclined to allow the Palestinians a viable state than Barak was, there really is little chance that Kerry’s mission will succeed—unless of course the Palestinian leadership has been sufficiently corrupted and bribed to sell out legitimate Palestinian aspirations.

Since Slater’s exemplary scholarship is not easily available on the internet, I will quote at length several of his paragraphs, which challenge the conventional wisdom but should be part of it.

The evidence is now irrefutable that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, and the other leading Zionists “accepted” the UN compromise only as a necessary tactical step that would later be reversed, a base from which Israel would later expand to include all of biblical Palestine. In many private statements, Ben-Gurion was quite explicit, as in a 1937 letter to his son: “A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning. The establishment of such a Jewish state will serve as a means in our historical efforts to redeem the country in its entirety. . . . We shall organize a modern defense force . . .and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means. . . . We will expel the Arabs and take their places . . . with the force at our disposal.” A year later, Ben-Gurion told a Zionist meeting: “I favor partition of the country because when we become a strong power after the establishment of the state, we will abolish partition and spread throughout all of Palestine.” And “Palestine,” as understood by the Zionists, included the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Syrian Golan Heights, southern Lebanon, and much of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Or this, assaying the readiness of the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin to make peace:

Two years after the Oslo agreements were signed, Rabin announced his detailed plans for a permanent settlement with the Palestinians: there would no return to the pre-1967 borders; a united Jerusalem, including the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, would remain under exclusive Israeli sovereignty;most of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza would remain there, under Israeli sovereignty; free access to and military control over the settlements would be assured by a series of new roads to be built throughout the territories; Israel’s security border “in the broadest meaning of that term” would be the Jordan River, meaning that Israel would retain settlements and military bases in the Jordan River valley, deep inside Palestinian territory. What the Palestinians would get was an “entity” that would be the “home to most of the Palestinian residents living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. . . . We would like this to be . . . less than a state.” In the next year, Rabin began implementing this peace plan, under which the Palestinians would end up with a series of isolated enclaves on less than 50 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, cut off fromeach other and surrounded by Israeli settlers and military bases. Jewish settlement in an ever-expanding Jerusalemcontinued, including in Arab areas, and the massive road building project got under way, often requiring the confiscation and destruction of Palestinian homes and orchards. Astonishingly, under Rabin the growth of the Jewish settlements was greater than it had been under the previous hardline Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir.

Or this, on the Ehud Barak and the “perfect offer” given to Arafat at Camp David in the summer of 2000:

The first difficulty in assessing Camp David, as well as subsequent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that continued until just before the February elections,is that all of Barak’s proposals were verbal; evidently seeking to keep all his options open, even as he was supposedly negotiating a final settlement, Barak refused to allow the creation of an official record. As a result, even the participants at Camp David and at subsequent meetings have differing accounts of precisely what Barak offered… . [snip]

It is true that Barak’s proposal went further than any other previous Israeli offer to the Palestinians, especially in agreeing to a Palestinian state and to the sharing of at least part of Jerusalem. On the other hand, it is no less true that Barak’s proposals fell far short of a genuinely fair compromise that would result in a viable Palestinian state. Within a few weeks of Camp David, a number of Israeli political analysts had reached this conclusion. Particularly revealing was the forthright assessment of Ze’ev Schiff, the dean of Israel’s military/security journalists and a centrist in the Israeli political spectrum. According to Schiff, because of Barak’s ongoing violations of the spirit of the Oslo agreements—“above all . . . the relentless expansion of the existing settlements and the establishment of new settlements, with a concomitant expropriation of Palestinian land . . . in and around Jerusalem, and elsewhere as well”—the Palestinians had been “shut in from all sides.” Thus, Schiff concluded, “the prospect of being able to establish a viable state was fading right before their eyes. They were confronted with an intolerable set of options: to agree to the spreading occupation . . . or to set up wretched Bantustans, or to launch an uprising.” As both the Palestinians and Israeli political analysts began to draw up detailed maps, it became evident not only that Gaza and the West Bank would be divided by the State of Israel, but that each of those two areas would in turn be divided into enclaves by the Israeli settlements, highways, and military positions, the links between which “would always be at the mercies of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces and the settlers.” With little or no control over its water resources, with no independently controlled border access to neighboring countries, and with even its internal freedom of movement and commerce subject to continued Israeli closures, the already impoverished Palestinian state would be economically completely dependent on—and vulnerable to—Israel.

In greater detail, this is what the consequences of Barak’s proposals would have been:

Borders. First, the Jerusalem “metropolitan area,” which since 1967 had been expanded to include almost one-fifth of the entire West Bank, would now be incorporated into the city. The eastern boundaries of this “Greater Jerusalem” and the other newly annexed settlements would reach almost to the Palestinian town of Jericho, itself only a short distance from the Jordan River and at Camp David and at subsequent meetings have differing accounts of precisely what Barak offered. Still, there is general agreement on the main Dead Sea. The net effect of these Israeli facts on the ground would be to split the West Bank nearly in half. Second, the so-called blocs of settlements that Barak proposed to annex were ten times the area of Tel Aviv and contained Palestinian villages whose population of some 120,000 was actually greater than the settler population. What would happen to that Arab population? Since it was inconceivable that Israel would want to incorporate a large number of new Arab citizens into the Jewish state, presumably they would be relocated or transferred by one means or another, thereby adding still further to the refugee problem, with all the moral and practical problems that would entail. Third, the land that Barak proposed to give to the Palestinian state in a territorial exchange was only about 10 percent of what Israel was taking from the Palestinians. Moreover, it was empty desert. By contrast, the land that Israel would annex was relatively fertile; even more important, it contained most of the West Bank underground water aquifers—precisely why the settlements had been put there in the first place.

Israeli military control. The independence of the Palestinian state would have been severely compromised—perhaps nullified—by the continuation of Israeli military control throughout the new state. Under the terms of Barak’s proposals, Israel would continue to control all of Palestine’s border access points with the outside world; would continue to patrol and protect all the Jewish settlements that remained in place in the West Bank, and perhaps even in Gaza; and would remain for at least six years—perhaps indefinitely, for all Palestinians knew—throughout the Jordan River valley.

Jerusalem. The situation in Jerusalem would have been intolerable for the Palestinians—and not simply for religious or symbolic reasons. As noted, Barak insisted that the Palestinians accept all of Israel’s “facts on the ground” since 1967, except that they would be given sovereignty over the remaining Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The problem was that these neighborhoods would be isolated and impoverished enclaves, cut off not only from the rest of the Palestinian state but even from each other by the Jewish neighborhoods, roads, and military outposts. Since 1967 it had been Israeli policy to establish Jewish political and economic control over all of Jerusalem and to create conditions that would convince the Arab residents to leave. To this end, highly subsidized Jewish neighborhoods were built in East Jerusalem, while the Arab neighborhoods were left in poverty, denied economic assistance and even most city services. As a result, even if Arafat had agreed to Barak’s proposals, long-run prospects for Jewish-Arab stability in the context of such extreme political, social, and economic inequality would have been dismal.

Some former Jerusalem city officials and city planners, including Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti, now openly admit that this was the purpose of Israel’s policies. For example, see a major but little-remarked story in the New York Times on 15 March 1997, in which a number of current and former Israeli officials admitted that “political planning” and “lopsided development strategies” had been employed to ensure Jewish dominance over Jerusalem and to encourage the Palestinians to move out of the city into neighboring West Bank towns. Even long-time Jerusalem mayor, Teddy Kollek, who in the past had claimed he did everything he could to help the Jerusalem’s Arab population, spoke quite differently in an 10 October 1990 interview with the Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv. The Arabs of East Jerusalem, he bluntly admitted, had become “second and third class citizens,” for whom “the mayor [that is, Kollek himself] nurtured nothing and built nothing. For Jewish JerusalemI did something. . . . For East Jerusalem? Nothing!”

Barak’s Camp David proposals effectively perpetuated Israel’s control over most of the West Bank’s water, since the most important aquifers would be incorporated into the newly annexed Israeli territory. If for no other reason, this made the Barak plan intolerable to the Palestinians, and a strong indication that Barak continued to resist the establishment of a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state.

Here and in other essays Slater provides detailed opinions about other sticking points in the negotiations, including the Palestinian “right of return” and Israel’s demand that Palestinians recognize it as “a Jewish state”. He believes that these are far from insurmountable obstacles, subject to compromise and symbolic actions—provided that there is sufficient Israeli good will and realism to actually leave the Palestinians with a viable (if largely disarmed) state at the end of the negotiation. I tend to agree, though we are likely never find out so long as Israel can contemplate no more than an archipelago of Palestinian bantustans.

The real question is whether the liberal Zionist convictions of someone like Slater have already been overtaken by events, or as it happens, by the construction of Israeli settlements. Already much of the Palestinian population has moved on from the desire to build small state on the 22 percent remnant of Palestine, to placing their hopes on the idea that a broad based, international campaign for boycott and divestment will tear down Israel’s walls. South Africa is not an exactly similar case, but it is not entirely dissimilar either.

In any case, any realistic assessment of Kerry’s latest efforts—which I believe are probably doomed—requires some sense of what has gone before. To this, there are few better sources than Jerry Slater’s work.

Posted in . Tagged , . 45 comments
← Older posts Newer posts →