May 3, 2010

Mideast Policy: The President’s Chickens Are Coming Home To Roost

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

“Since you, Mr. President and you, the members of the American administration, believe in this (a two-state solution), it is your duty to call for the steps in order to reach the solution and impose the solution (emphasis added) — impose it!” demanded Fatah and PA Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during a speech to leaders of Fatah just last week. “But don’t tell me it’s a vital national strategic American interest … and then not do anything,” he continued.

And so there you have it. Washington’s tongue lashing of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Administration’s breath-taking statements that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is endangering the lives of American troops seems to represent a fundamental shift in America’s strategic thinking.  Abbas’s demand will undoubtedly be remembered as the first of what will most assuredly be a chorus of international support for President Obama’s newly emerging, Mideast policy…a conference at which the terms of peace will be crafted by the United States and imposed on Israel and a new state of Palestine. Over sixty years of Arab intransigence are finally paying off.

And so, we see another ill-fated peace conference on the horizon. Certainly, there have been many American-sponsored peace conferences (both direct and indirect) before.  There was the shuttle diplomacy of the Nixon Administration during which Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shuttled back and forth between Israeli leaders and Arab leaders.  The very dedicated and hard-working Dennis Ross found himself on the same merry-go-round during the Clinton years. Those were known as proximity talks (sound familiar?).  No Arab official or Palestinian leader would sit at the same table with an Israeli representative. The idea was to secure enough concessions from Israel to coax an actual face-to-face meeting into reality.

Then, of course, there was the first Camp David conference, which was made possible by Anwar Sadat’s readiness to permanently end Egypt’s long- standing, state-of-war with Israel in return for Israel returning to Egypt the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured in the 1967 six-day war and retained following the so-called Yom Kippur War of 1973.  Sadat, a courageous and honorable soldier and statesman, was assassinated for his bravery …for his willingness to bring to an end the long-standing, state- of-war between Egypt and Israel.  No Arab or Palestinian leader has since been willing to enter into any agreement with Israel if such an agreement required a clear statement that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would then be resolved and that no further demands were to be made by either party against the other. The Madrid conference brokered by President George H.W. Bush, the Wye River conferences brokered by President Clinton, the second Camp David conference and the failed Annapolis peace conference sponsored by President George W. Bush, all failures because peace, permanent peace, was never on the Arab agenda…not then, and not now.

At first we hoped the Jerusalem outbursts during Vice President Biden’s visit and those outbursts that followed might just be a matter of amateur ineptitude and bungling by the Obama Administration and an overreaction to the clumsy leak by a minority member of the Israeli government about an East Jerusalem building project in an old Jewish neighborhood moving through some zoning process.   Ineptitude and bungling, however, would suggest a misstep here and there, but not premeditation or deliberation.  Now, we know better.  The doubters among us have been, of course, disquieted by the coterie of left wing, anti-Israel ideologues that seemed ever present in Obama’s life, especially during the last twenty years or so.   From the rantings of Reverend Jeremiah Wright to the resurrection of Zbigniew Brezinski, the writing has been on the proverbial wall for all to see, if only we were willing to look.

During the run-up to the presidential election, candidate Obama, speaking to a Jewish audience in Cleveland referred to “a strain within the pro-Israel community that says: unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud (hard-line) approach to Israel (presumably against the Palestinians) that you are anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.” We don’t doubt that there is such a strain within the “pro-Israel community” just as there is also a very strong Peace Now strain and many strains in between within that same “community”.  Such “strains” are, however, irrelevant.  Both America and Israel either are, or are not, strategic allies in that very unstable region of the world.

The so-called special relationship between the United States and Israel is more than an emotional tie, or of importance only to Jewish Americans.  It has enormous strategic importance to America.  Israel is the only stable democracy in the region.  The Reagan Administration considered Israel a “strategic asset” because of the need to have an ally in the Mideast to oppose the Soviet Union.  Israel’s Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on November 30, 1981, establishing a framework for consultation and cooperation to enhance the national security of both countries.  In November 1983, Israel and the United States formed a joint political-military committee to implement most of the 1981 MOU provisions.  Joint air and sea military exercises began in June 1984, and thereafter the United States built facilities to stockpile military equipment in Israel.  On May 6, 1986, Israel and the United States signed an agreement for Israeli participation in Strategic Defense Initiative research.  Under SDI, Israel developed the “Arrow” anti-ballistic missile with a substantial U.S. contribution.  Israeli sources continue to provide intelligence to confront the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Even Richard Nixon, no matter how reluctantly, understood the strategic importance of America’s relationship with Israel. When Israel was, quite literally, on the ropes following Egypt and Syria’s invasion in 1973, Nixon ordered the greatest airlift of ordnance in history to the embattled Israelis. When our erstwhile European allies, by then totally dependent on Arab oil, refused to grant American planes landing rights to refuel, Nixon ordered mid-air refueling of our transports.  When asked where we would get the aircraft for such an operation, he reportedly responded, “Send everything that flies.” He knew our intervention on Israel’s behalf would enrage the proverbial Arab street.  But he came to the aid of an important ally.

Can anyone seriously imagine President Obama taking action on Israel’s behalf that might enrage the Arab street?  Can one imagine President Obama ordering the military to “send everything that flies?” Frankly, we can’t. Which is our way of saying that whatever the Obama Administration’s relationship is with Israel, it is no longer that of a strategic ally.  Within hours of Vice President’s Biden’s ill-fated meeting with Netanyahu, Biden, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and General Petraeus all weighed in with statements implying that our relationship with Israel is endangering the lives of American troops.

That implication is disturbing on two counts.  First, it signals a very substantial change in America’s relationship with Israel, and, second, it simply isn’t true.  We are in Iraq because of a now deposed and deceased dangerous megalomaniac, Saddam Hussein, not because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and we are in Afghanistan because of Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s collusion to murder thousands of Americans on 9/11, not because of Israel and the Palestinians.  Rather, it seems to us that President Obama seems to have concluded that his desire to “reset “America’s relationship with the Muslim world is seriously inconvenienced by our long-standing support of the only democracy in the Middle East.

President Obama may, indeed, “reset” America’s relationship with the Muslim world even if that means “resetting” America’s relationship with Israel to accomplish his inaugural-speech goal.  If that is the course we are on it will represent the most historic development vis-à-vis Israel since America joined with thirty-two other nations at the UN in establishing the state on November 29, 1947.

Any attempt to “reset” relations with Israel should be seen in the context of other “resets.”  Since taking office the Obama Administration has attempted, in their words, to reach out to our adversaries to eliminate their hostility to the U.S.  Let’s examine his efforts:

Iran — need we say more?

Syria — numerous envoys have been sent to meet with President Bashir Assad.  The president has nominated an ambassador to that country.  Results so far:  increasing support by Syria of Hezbollah in violation of its pledge to stop sending them weapons and a recent report that scud missiles capable of reaching every city in Israel are also being transferred.

Russia — despite the nuclear arms reduction treaty (which was largely negotiated by the prior administration) they continue their efforts to thwart Iranian sanctions and sell armaments and aircraft to the Chavez regime in Venezuela.

China — there we see a similar thwarting of serious sanctions on Iran, and no progress in convincing China that tying their currency to the dollar distorts trade in their favor.

At the same time, the Administration’s policy in Honduras almost cost us a vital ally against the dangerous anti-American Bolivarian axis which Hugo Chavez has created and which now includes Ecuador, Bolivia and, if Daniel Ortega gets his way, the restoration of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

The message to friendly nations who have relied on us as a bulwark against tyranny (e.g., Ukraine and Georgia to name a couple) is that the United States is an unreliable friend.  And the message to the Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim world is that if you stonewall long enough America can be had.

However, the president’s efforts may be providing for him unwelcome plaudits he doesn’t want from sources he never expected which are likely to complicate his efforts.  On April 26, while Mr. Obama was welcoming the World Champion New York Yankees to the White House, just two blocks away, His Excellency Brother Leader Muammar Gaddify, in a live video address from Tripoli beamed to the National Press Club professed his love of President Obama who he referred to as “our son” and offered support for his policies.  The Brother Leader noted that the Muslim world “welcomed very much the arrival of Mr. Obama to the presidency, because the ordinary citizen knows that “… he comes from a Muslim family maybe even of an Arab origin.”

This statement shows that the intemperate public flogging of Israel by the White House has already caused leaders of Islamic states to conclude that the US has shifted to their side and that if they continue to stonewall, America will do their bidding for them and extract concessions from Israel. A better demonstration of the law of unintended consequences in the delicate art of diplomacy could hardly be found.

Henry Kissinger in his 2001 book “Does America Need a Foreign Policy,” warns of the danger of future leaders who would come to power with no historical memory of the circumstances and events that fueled the issues with which they would be dealing.  Enter President Obama who apparently now sees Israel as the hindrance to peace.

Israel, the only nation among its neighbors to have been legally established by a majority of the nations then comprising the United Nations…Israel, the nation that was invaded by the armies of five neighbors at the moment of its birth…Israel, the nation whose civilians were regularly subjected to unrelenting and deadly so-called Fedayeen attacks from Gaza in the early years of its existence. Israel, the nation that was, and is, subject to a unified boycott by most of the Arab block…Israel, the nation attacked more than any other nation during the past half century…Israel, whose athletes are harassed and even murdered at international competitions… Israel, whose civilian population centers were the targets of literally thousands of missile attacks, day in and day out. Israel, the nation that offered every concession and acceded to most every demand at the Clinton-sponsored Camp David Conference…Israel, is now seen as the hindrance to peace.

Our president now calls upon Israel to take bold steps to meet the demands of a hostile regime that won’t sit at the same table unless yet more concessions are agreed to in advance and which couldn’t bring Hamas, which controls Gaza, to a peace conclave even if one were convened.

Israel is a remarkable success story, unprecedented in the annals of time.  In barely a single generation Israel now ranks among those at the forefront in science, mathematics, physics, medicine, education, space exploration, high-tech innovation, literature, agriculture, standard of living, emergency response and venture capital.  Moreover, it has absorbed more immigrants relative to its size than any nation in the world while the 27 Muslim nations have failed for over 60 years even to absorb a few thousand Palestinians living in refugee camps in the West Bank and in Lebanon.

The point we are making is to recognize that the nature of America’s long-standing and evolving relationship with Israel seems, under President Obama, to have run its course.  We seem now to be determined to be an even-handed mediator and no longer a strategic ally. Perhaps it was inevitable.  Perhaps the peace vision was a farce all along.  In many respects the infamous “Three No’s” of Khartoum i.e. No Peace, No Recognition and No Negotiation is still, when all is said and done, the driving force that informs those Palestinians and other belligerents who may ultimately determine the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum.  There is no peace. There is no recognition and, practically speaking, there really is no meaningful negotiation nor, perhaps, has there ever been.  A negotiation that does not have as its agreed upon goal a final resolution of a conflict is not a negotiation at all.  It is but a tactic in a continuing conflict and the continuation of a Palestinian charade.  For this the president is abandoning our only friend in the region.  Not only have the chickens come home to roost, but several flocks are likely to follow.

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3 responses to “Mideast Policy: The President’s Chickens Are Coming Home To Roost”

  1. Leo Melamed says:

    Everything you said is true. It took you far too long to say it. This administration is out to prove to the Arab world that the US relationship with Israel has changed. They are proving it. Sad to say the Jewish community does not yet believe this. LM

  2. sheila says:

    The problem is that the status quo position taken by Israel, and supported historically by the US, has not advanced peace in the middle east. And Netanyahu’s intransigence is inflammatory at best. What did he EXPECT of the US and the world when he ordered expanded building in Eastern Jerusalem just before crucial talks. This is equivalent to waving a red flag in front of a bull! I think Obama is one of the smartest Presidents we’ve had in a long time, and his background gives us a great advantage with the rest of the world, whom Bush Jr worked so hard to alienate. Give him a chance ….no prior administration has been successful yet in bringing peace to the area, despite all the rhetoric and bombast. I doubt strongly that Obama doesn’t consider Israel a strategic ally — but there is not just “one way or the highway”. There will have to be substantial compromise to stimulate some sort of movement. Continued intransigence from the Israeli right wing is a recipe for failure. Sharon understood that concept in the end. And so did Rabin.

    The real question, for me, is: what is the real game that Obama and Netanyahu are playing — Netanyahu is too smart not to have anticipated an outraged response to the expanded settlements. What is really going on behind the scenes — to which we, the public, aren’t privy?

    • Netanyahu did not “order” expanded building in Eastern Jerusalem although the government should have every right to expand in its capital city. The building permitting process which pertains to an area contiguous to a long-established Jewish neighborhood, about a five minutes drive from Israel’s parliament, had been underway for some time. What was announced, by an agency within the government, was that the next step in an approval process had been approved. Virtually all reports of the incident agree that Netanyahu was taken by surprise by the agency announcement. Compromise will, no doubt, be necessary. It would be helpful, however, if a party other than, or in addition to, Israel were asked to make compromises. Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon, Omert and Netanyahu all accepted the concept of a two-state solution. They simply required that both sides agree that such a solution bring the sixty-plus-year-old dispute to an end. To date, no Palestinian government has agreed to such a requirement and with Hamas in control of half of the Palestinian territory no such agreement is likely.

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