Nearly twenty years ago, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, with a towering Bill Clinton nudging them together, consummated their famous handshake on the White House lawn. Even for those with more than casual interest in the Middle East, the event seemed to signify that the conflict which had torn apart the Holy Land since the Balfour Declaration was heading for conclusion. Of course there were naysayers—the Columbia professor and Palestinian intellectual Edward Said most prominently—who warned that the Oslo process, codified by Clinton, did not actually advance Palestinian national aspirations; meanwhile the neoconservatives grouped around Commentary (including many of my then friends and political allies) were doing all they could to rally opposition against the Rabin government’s readiness to deal with Arafat’s PLO. In this symmetry it was easy to conclude that the accords, with their lawyerly timetables and details about Areas A, B, and C, could lead to no other conclusion but a Palestinian state—if under less favorable circumstances than the Palestinians might have had forty six years earlier.
There is not yet a comprehensive account of how that calculation—shared at the time by probably by tens of millions of others—would prove so woefully naive and wide of the mark, but in the meantime Rashid Khalidi’s short elegant work Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East provides suggestive answers. If you wonder how it is that President Obama has been reduced, twenty years after the famous handshake, to pleading with Israeli university students that Palestinians really do deserve a state—while apparently having given up trying to push the issue with Israel’s leadership, this book is an excellent place to start.
There are critical nuggets throughout. One justification for the accusatory title is the secret letter to Israel’s leaders Henry Kissinger prepared for Gerald Ford’s signature in 1975, stating, with regard to any comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement: “Should the US desire in the future to put forward proposals of its own, it will make every effort to coordinate with Israel its proposals with a view toward refraining from putting forth proposals that Israel would consider unsatisfactory.” So much for Washington as an “honest broker” between the parties. Khalidi notes that Kissinger refrained from mentioning this item, which quite literally granted Israel a veto over American diplomacy in the Middle East, in his voluminous three volumes of memoirs.
Faced with Israeli obduracy, American presidents and diplomats invariably retreated. Even post-Oslo, the Israelis remained wedded to a concept of the negotiations laid out by Likud leader Menachem Begin in the 1970′s—a readiness to speak about “autonomy for the people” on the West Bank but never actual Palestinian sovereignty over the land itself. Rabin, widely considered the Israeli leader most interested in a genuine peace, surrounded himself with Likudnik figures who could never imagine the Palestinians in other than a subservient role. “Arafat has a choice, he can be a Lahd or a super-Lahd” once observed Rabin’s chief negotiator Shlomo Gazit: the reference was to Antoine Lahd, a leader of the collaborationist forces of South Lebanon which did police work for the Israeli army of occupation.
Obama’s speech to a hand-picked Israeli audience in Jerusalem had much good in it, and there are some who devote their professional lives to bringing about a reasonable two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians who consider it the best speech ever made to Israelis by an American President. It was significant that Obama told an Israeli audience in forthright terms that in Abu Mazen and the Palestinian Authority, they absolutely do have a partner for peace. It was significant that he made a connection between his own children and Palestinian girls he had met in Ramallah earlier–a sort of “de-otherizing” of the Palestinians, who have their own powerful and quite contemporary connection to the land of the Palestine Mandate, which Israelis certainly don’t hear from their own leaders.
It was expedient–cowardly is too strong a word–to tell an Israeli audience that Arab countries have regularly refused to recognize and make peace with Israel while failing to mention that there is an offer, from the Arab League, made in 2002 and reaffirmed five years later, to recognize Israel and establish full trade and commercial and every other sort of normal relations in return for a sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 borders—and offer which Israel has refused thus far failed respond to or even acknowledge. And Obama’s assertion that Jews, who have succeeded and excelled in countless circumstances and environs, can only find “true freedom” within the bounds of the Zionist state could actually even sound anti-Semitic if said with the wrong accent. But overall, Obama did what he reasonably could to make Israelis feel he respects and understands them. Whether or not his innermost sentiments are as saccharine as those he expressed, such expressions are a requirement of American politics, and Obama showed, once again, that he is very good politician.
Were there more subtle messages in the structure of the speech? Obama stressed America’s unconditional, eternal support for the Jewish state, but with a twist: that this would be not enough to save Israel from diplomatic isolation, nor to ensure its security. After touching on the fact of Israel’s military and technological strength, and the extent of American military cooperation, the Iron Dome, and everything else, Obama stated bluntly that Israel will not be secure unless it makes peace. Many in the Arab world despise Israel, and the way to begin to reverse this is straightforward: “Progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin.” In other words, though America “has Israel’s back” as he has said a million times in the campaign, if Israel wants to reverse the undertow of isolation it faces and find a secure place for itself in the region, it will have to make peace. There is no other way. He made the point more gently, couching it in so many “I love everything about Israel” flourishes that it might have been missed, but it was there.
But will the speech–good in many ways–make any difference? I doubt it. There may well be a critical mass, possibly even a majority, of Israeli university students who could find Obama’s argument persuasive. But Israel has just chosen, by relatively democratic means, a government committed to expanding settlements on the West Bank. Some new cabinet ministers are committed to annexing the West Bank, thus formalizing Israel’s status as an apartheid state. Netanyahu himself has voiced his nominal interest in “two states” but virtually no one familiar with his history and beliefs believes him at all interested in proposing anything more than bantustans for the Palestinians. By committing America to love Israel forever and unconditionally Obama may have blunted the barbs hurled his way by the Israel lobby. By making a powerful stategic and moral argument about peace to the Israeli people, he may be able to say to himself that he has done at least something to merit his Nobel Peace Prize.
But asking the Israeli people to push their government to make peace is really little more than a way of making a nice populist sounding noise while doing nothing. Without American diplomatic pressure, without Israel being forced to recognize there will be serious negative consequences for its West Bank seizure—and Obama has more or less promised none would be ever forthcoming, ever—he is asking an Israeli peace camp to do the impossible. Peace is unlikely to come of it. But if things turn out poorly for Israel in the next generation, Obama will be able to say “I told you so.”
A short first person account in the Jewish Week got some attention on mondoweiss; though a local and kind of micro story, as a window into deeper societal trends it’s of considerable interest. In the story Josh Blumberg, then a high school senior, now college freshman, relates how he heard that his high school in the New York suburb Croton-on-Hudson was giving a distinguished graduate award to John Mearsheimer, the esteemed University of Chicago professor made more famous by his authorship (with Steve Walt) of the ground-breaking best-seller The Israel Lobby.
As a participant in “Write-On-Israel,” which trains young people how to advocate on behalf of Israel, the young man sprung into action. Not by trying to organize protests or pickets against Mearsheimer (which might have attracted at least three or four people in Croton-on-Hudson), but by writing letters to high school and school board officials, accusing Mearsheimer of anti-Semitism. Clearly school officials were more than a little bit spooked, this being the most toxic of political accusations, and there appeared an announcement that the award was postponed indefinitely. And then the school board convened a committee to study and review the matter. And then, the young man relates– to his surprise!–that while home from college on vacation he learned that the committee had gone ahead and given Mearsheimer the distinguished graduate award anyway.
National Harbor–Sen. Kelly Ayotte, third amigo alongside the senate’s most notorious hawks Graham and McCain, just finished her CPAC speech this morning, in which she said this:
In Syria, we sat on the sidelines while over 70,000 Syrians were slaughtered, ceding our policy to the vetoes of the Russians and the Chinese in the United Nations, to a bunch of United Nations bureaucrats. And in Afghanistan the president has undercut his commanders time and time again. In Libya the administration again led from behind and never took steps to secure Qaddafi’s weapons stash, and you know where those weapons are now? They’re in the hands of Islamic radicals in Mali, Egypt, and Syria, used by terrorists to harm us and our allies.
Anyone else catch that? While castigating the president for not intervening in Syria, Ayotte–who has called for arming the opposition–acknowledged that it is in part comprised of people the United States shouldn’t be associating with, let alone arming. It’s even more galling in light of the climax of her speech–a promise to get to the bottom of the Benghazi scandal.
Surely she knows that the CIA in Libya was somehow involved in the covert transfer of weapons from there to Syria. This isn’t some conspiracy theory, it was covered by the Sunday Times. If that’s news to the senator, why should she be trusted to investigate Benghazi in an honest way? It can’t be though–her speech shows what an incoherent publicity stunt the GOP’s hawks have made out of the murder of four American foreign service officers.
[Update -- Also this:
"There is always a temptation to rationalize and discount evil, to disengage, to draw within ourselves, to isolate. And that temptation has existed within every generation. As Ronald Reagan once said, whether we like it or not, it is our responsibility to preserve world peace because no one else can do it. And if there was ever a time in the history of our country to follow the path created by our great president Ronald Reagan, it is now. Ronald Reagan stood for peace through strength."]
Movement conservative opinion on Rand Paul’s filibuster seems roughly split between enthusiasm and derision. The derisives group around McCain’s view that Paul was grandstanding on a kind of “black helicopter” issue, one so farfetched as not to merit serious discussion. More interesting, however, were two neoconservative attacks targeting Rand’s supposedly hidden agenda.
As the filibuster was taking place, Jonathan Tobin of Commentary wrote that Paul’s real beef is not the threat of drones being deployed domestically, but something else:
The attempt to shift the discussion about drones to the fanciful suggestion that the Justice Department might target Tea Party members is a red herring. Paul’s core objection to the drone program remains what he calls the “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists. Read More…
Americans For Peace Now’s Lara Friedman gets to the nub of the two states for Israelis and Palestinians issue, taking some measurements on the fast-closing window for a viable peace deal.
The truth is, the two-state solution — in terms of facts on the ground — is still alive, but it is neither immortal nor infinitely malleable. This is not merely a subjective statement. A clear lesson of decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts is that three concrete conditions must exist for the two-state solution to be possible. First, it must be possible to delineate a border based on the 1967 lines that leaves two politically and economically viable, maximally contiguous states. Second, this border must allow for a politically and economically viable Israeli capital in Israeli Jerusalem and a politically and economically viable Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Third, it must be possible to compensate for changes in the 1967 lines through land swaps carried out on a one-to-one ratio.
Of course there are Americans, such as Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams, who apparently believe the Palestinians can be forced to accept something less than a contiguous viable state. Ross recently published a piece calling for Israel to freeze new settlements east of its separation barrier, ignoring the fact the wall cuts in substantially on Palestinian land and water resources. Friedman rightly notes that the Ross proposal would “[gut] the very concept of the two state solution.” It would eliminate the concept that the ’67 borders were the basis for compromise, and cut the Palestinians off from access to Jerusalem. It flouts the speeches on the issue made by every past American president (including Obama, whom Ross was supposedly working for until recently) and the long-standing and deeply rooted consensus of the international community. For the Palestinians the proposal for a sort of balkanized, non-contiguous bantustan state is a non-starter; even if a Palestinian leader could be bullied into accepting it, it would have no legitimacy, or staying power.
The WSJ editorial board sniffs and calls Rand Paul’s filibuster a “rant,” and a ”stunt” that “fires up libertarian college kids.” Jennifer Rubin points out, in an otherwise praise-filled post, ”at times he ventured into skepticism about the war on terror itself.” Ben “Friends of Hamas” Shapiro informs us that it “signals a groundshift” in the GOP.
Though all three pushed various fallacies and untruths about Chuck Hagel, the tepidly interventionist Republican Secretary of Defense, none mentioned Rand Paul’s vote to confirm him in their coverage of the filibuster.
Most of the Republican senators who rose to support Paul [my live-blog here] framed their statements in terms of defending the Senate’s procedural prerogatives and oversight responsibilities. The GOP only decided to embrace Paul’s filibuster when they realized how successful it was–Marco Rubio’s press office told reporters earlier in the day that he had been “snowed in.” That’s why, even though Jennifer Rubin doesn’t have a problem with drones, weakly supports Paul and says Benghazi is a good enough reason to hold up or oppose the nomination, and why Ben Shapiro claims this is mostly about transparency.
They’re all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. How can they claim that the support Paul received, from Twitter–where he was trending internationally–from Jon Stewart, and even from a few honest liberals, was due to a minor policy clarification? Transparency is important, but there’s more going on here.
His support was due to the fact that, go figure, people care about the right of Americans to not be killed by their government without a trial, and they have the nerve to believe they deserve assurance that it will be respected. It matters to them that we’ve been engaged in a boundless, endless war for more than 12 years. The GOP’s hawkish cheerleaders can’t seem to grasp that.
Tim Stanley has a saner take:
Aside from being a fun time had by all, Paul’s principled stand has reversed some of the logic of US politics, turning a Democratic president into an agent of authoritarianism and the Republicans into defenders of civil liberties. If the GOP could marry that small-state message on rights to a small-state message on economics, this could affect a paradigm shift that broadens the party’s appeal (particularly to younger voters). This is no idle fantasy.
I’m pretty skeptical that Paul’s speech actually signals a “groundshift,” but if it did, Shapiro seems pleased that the GOP has merely shifted towards confrontational oratorical grandstanding. The real lesson should be that the party has much to gain by turning away from militarism.
[Update: John McCain reads that WSJ editorial on the floor of the senate]
The annual AIPAC conference is perhaps diluted in meaning this year. Obama isn’t addressing it, as he’s traveling to Israel in a few weeks. Netanyahu has yet to form a post-election government. So the ever-interesting question of whether the leader of the superpower will have to defer to the leader of the client state is pushed forward a few weeks. The sequester has begun, and American government agencies with the weightiest responsibilities vis-à-vis terrorism, cyberattacks, and the like are now scrambling to deal with severe financial cutbacks. This hasn’t stopped AIPAC from getting ready to lobby that Israel be spared of any cuts facing Americans. As one AIPAC official told the Jerusalem Post, ”During a period of mounting threat to our critical ally, Israel, this is no time to reduce critical assistance which would only result in greater and graver costs.” Israeli officials have been more circumspect. I would be astonished if AIPAC has the chutzpah both to attempt to exempt Israeli aid from sequester cuts and more if it actually succeeded at it, but I’ve been surprised before.
I’m trying to judge the sentiment of the conference. I’m pretty sure conference goers who spit at pro-Palestinian demonstraters outside the conference—yes, there were some—are not especially representative. I’ve been mulling over Gil Troy’s blog post, Troy being the most neoconservative voice on Peter Beinart’s website. He writes that he was impressed by the warmth of the attendees, their love for Israel, their puzzlement at the world’s general refusal to love Israel as much as they do. He adds that all the speakers on his panels were solidly in favor of a Palestinian state. I know Troy slightly, and don’t doubt his sincerity.
Perhaps then AIPAC represents a variant of the “Tel Aviv” bubble, in which many Israelis favor “in principle” a Palestinian state while remaining more or less oblivious to what the settlers and the IDF are doing in the West Bank to make a Palestinian state impossible. But can we acknowledge that this is not a circumstance in which information is censored or not widely available, or where a protest (by an Israeli Jew) would be answered by being being seized and taken away in the middle of the night? It is instead a purposeful and determined ignorance. Read More…
Ali Gharib has the goods here on the proposed Lindsay Graham-Robert Menendez bill to mandate U.S. support for an Israeli strike on Iran. The resolution states that if Israel is “compelled” to attack Iran, the U.S. should “stand with” Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support. A congressional resolution is not an executive commitment—and presumably the administration can ignore it. A similar bill was drafted in 2011 by House Republicans, and failed to get airborne. This one, spearheaded by Graham, a GOP foreign-policy leader, and the incorruptible Democrat Robert Menendez, has the same intent: to broadcast the falsehood that the U.S. and Israel see the Iranian nuclear issue in exactly the same terms, to counter the White House’s diplomatic efforts to stop Israel from igniting a war. If the resolution fouls efforts to reach a negotiated agreement about Iran’s nuclear program, that would be gravy. (It calls for the U.S to prevent an Iranian nuclear “capability”—which is a more aggressive formulation than Obama’s stated policy of preventing an Iranian “nuclear weapon.”) In spirit and intent, the resolution seeks to limit American options and outsource critical American decisions about war and peace to Israel.
AIPAC, which gathers in Washington for a show of strength this coming week (there will be protests), is reportedly making support for the Graham-Menendez resolution one of its main “asks” when they send lobbyists up to Capitol Hill. During the Hagel confirmation hearings, Graham dared the Nebraskan to name some of the “stupid” things AIPAC makes the Senate do. Hagel didn’t rise to the bait, but he if had, he could have replied that trying to bind the United States to Israeli decisions about bombing Iran would be one of them.
Schadenfreude over seeing the warrior pundits eat crow over Hagel will, alas, be short-lived. For a while I had anticipated producing a post comprised of Jennifer Rubin quotes predicting that Hagel was “toast”—a forecast she made seemingly every two or three days for much of the past two months. But readers will have to imagine it.
Meanwhile foreign-policy issues have been piling up. A new round of negotiations with Iran has started: the American war party and Likud hope they fail, with the idea that Obama is so boxed in politically that he will have no option but to start a war. Iran has been pressured by a mounting pile of sanctions, computer attacks, and targeted assassinations. Perhaps Iran will succumb. But if it did, it would be contrary to virtually everything we know both about human nature and Iranian internal politics.
Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006, has a piece here (interestingly enough in the right-wing Telegraph) arguing that a successful outcome to the negotiations remains quite possible. But even if negotiations fail, he argues, containing a nuclear Iran is preferable to trying to bomb it into submission. Straw also reminds us that Iran was extremely helpful in Afghanistan after 9/11—and after which George W. Bush and the neoconservatives “rewarded” it by naming to the “the axis of evil.”
Straw’s view is not without backers in the Washington policy community—including perhaps, Obama himself. But it has been rendered politically radioactive; it was no accident that Chuck Hagel vociferously disavowed interest in “containing” Iran during his confirmation process—that is, until he misspoke in what was quite likely a Freudian slip and endorsed “containment” at his hearing.
If Straw’s perspective is more widely held among prominent Europeans, and I believe it is, it is not too late for them to speak up: European voices do resonate in Washington. Were it not for Tony Blair’s encouragement, it is far from certain that George W. Bush would have invaded Iraq. If there are more European leaders (and U.S. senators) who think privately that a contained Iran is preferable to a bombed country with tens or even hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, uncontained radioactive waste, and an empowered Islamist regime—not to mention the war’s impact on the petroleum markets—they should loosen their tongues. Israel’s pressure on the U.S. to do its bombing for it (to be on florid display at next week’s AIPAC conference) resonates more than it might because of Europe’s silence.
The broader issue of nuclear proliferation did not begin and will not end with Iran. Israel was first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, contravening the wishes of the United States, its “ally.” The question of whether the Israeli nuclear monopoly is more a source of stability or resentment and unrest in the region will continue to rear its head, no matter what happens in the Iran talks. In the 1970s, Robert W. Tucker, a top international relations scholar and one of the first generation of neoconservatives, argued (in Commentary, no less) that balance of nuclear deterrence in the Middle East would help stabilize the region.