Saturday, May 21, 2011

More on Israel

I cross post most of the stuff I write here on Facebook, which tends to drive up the traffic.  Yesterday, I posted on the President's speech the other day, the one in which he called for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders.

That post has caused several people whose intellects I admire to question what I wrote.  I seek here to deal with each in turn.  For those who dislike long posts, stop reading now.  This will be a long one.

I must state right up front that I regret the wording in both the post and its intro on Facebook.  The very first word--"when" is incorrect and misleading.  It should have been "if"--as in "if" a war comes.  I realize this is a big difference, and I'll take my lumps for the poor word choice.  Fact is, using the word "when" could lead a reader to think that I predicted a war to be more likely to occur than not.  I don't believe this.  I would put the chance of an Israeli attack on Iran at 15 chances in a 100, certainly relatively low--but I would have put it at 5 chances in a 100 before the speech.  So if any of my correspondents took issue with me over this wording (which I doubt), I apologize for misleading you as to my true thoughts on the subject.  Let's start with the first comment:

"Bibi was just as upset when Bush referenced 47 borders with swaps... another manufactured controversy."

This comment got the ball rolling, for sure.  If you troll the Democratic foreign policy spin sites, you'll find this meme repeated most everyplace you go.  Basically, that this is just Bibi Netanyahu acting out, he liked Bush better, this is the same policy as Bush...nothing here, move along.  I find this--as I answered on FB--a blithe dismissal of serious and legitimate security concerns.  It is disrespectful of the elected leader of what has been a steady ally.  And most interesting of all, it is a statement which seeks to wrap itself in the "legitimacy" of the Bush policies toward Israel and the Palestinians.  For a group of folks who spent so much time distancing themselves from GWB, their wholesale adoption of his foreign policy (now even expropriating the Freedom Agenda--which was a bad idea when GWB had it...).  We'll return to this talking point--that this isn't a real change, nothing new, below.

If Israel attacks Iran unilaterally, it would be a grave strategic error for Iran to to attack US interests thus pulling the US into the war. Not sure you are drawing a logically sound sequence of events in response to BOs speech. Why would Israel choose Iran as its first foe? I am wrong a lot, so I imagine you can straighten me out on this one.

An excellent question, as my short post did not delve too deeply into my thought process here.  The scenario I develop is one in which Israel feels increasingly isolated, the US has raised Hamas to an equivalence with the Netanyahu government morally, and the UN takes up the two-state question in the fall, effectively convening a world affairs pinata with Israel as the strike-ee.  The most critical threat to Israel's security is the ongoing nuclear weapons development program in Iran, and the subject of an Israeli strike on their complex (see, Syria, Iraq) has been bandied about quite a bit in the press.  This is an existential threat, folks, and the Israeli's are more worried about it than we are.  It seems logical to assume that the STUXNET virus--which has slowed the Iranian centrifuge system--was a joint effort between the US and Israel.  Iran appears to be working its way through the mess it created--just as the US continues to move away from Israel.  Yes--that's what the US did in this speech.  In classic Obama fashion--he committed us in the strongest terms to Israel's security even as he acted to diminish it.  Therefore--the existential threat of Iranian nukes, the open discussion already underway of an Israeli strike, and the Israeli psychology of abandonment--all serve to dramatically raise the chances that Israel strikes Iran.

Ok--so why does that embroil us in a war?  Well, for two reasons.  First, any Israeli strike against the Iranians will create the conditions of war between those two nations.  Iran will be hard-pressed to strike Israel directly, so they will do so indirectly--through proxies (Hizbollah) and terrorism.  And who is Israel's big buddy?  We are.  Even as the administration distances itself from Israel, it will not abandon it.  Our alliance will have the tendency to draw us into war with the Iranians, and I imagine the Iranians--attacked unprovoked as they would have been by the Israelis (at least that'll be the narrative)--would have be perfectly willing to start a bit of a dustup with us in the Arabian Gulf--a limited, slightly escalatory 
bit of hostility which could boil over into war.  

This has been the general position (two-states, 1967 borders) since Oslo, and I think it's pretty over the top to argue that Israel would attack Iran b/c a potus speech made them feel insecure...

Another one of the Dem talking points--this time, moving the continuity reflected in the President's remarks all the way back to the early Clinton Administration.  Again--neither Clinton nor Bush went as far as to box Israel in--in public.  I don't doubt that these sentiments were expressed time and again to the Israelis in private-but that is diplomacy. 

‎"General position since Oslo" is disingenuous. As for the linkage of the speech to a war (remember--I meant "if"--but wrote "when", several points apply:  1) relations with Israel--the only nation in the mideast who reflects our values and sensibilities even a little bit--are at a low 2) Israel's sense of security is dramatically different than our sense of Israel's security 3) an insecure and isolated Israel is a dangerous and unpredictable Israel--a nation that has already strongly hinted at unilateral action against Iran's nuclear complex and who has already fought a proxy war with Iran. Israel doesn't attack Iran because a "potus speech made them feel insecure". They may attack Iran because they ARE insecure--for good reason. And POTUS speech went some way toward removing from them the sense that we were on their side--which is exactly what I believe the President wanted. Isolate them a little, make them feel a little vulnerable--and they'll negotiate. I don't buy it. It was a destabilizing move. I see no strategic gain from it.
As for my view that the Israelis reflect our values and sensibilities--yet another Dem friend of mine in FB chat went as far as to say that he did not believe that was the case.  I pressed him on the subject, wondering whether he felt that Israel reflected our values and sensibilities moreso than say, oh, how about---Hamas?  Or the Muslim Brotherhood?  Or the Saudi Royals (whoops--the President didn't have the stones to take on THE MOST CORRUPT, THE MOST ANTI-DEMOCRATIC and THE MOST-ANTI-WOMAN regime of them all)?  
How is what George W. Bush said in 2005 meaningfully different?

"Therefore, Israel must remove unauthorized outposts and stop settlement expansion. The barrier being erected by Israel as a part of its security effort must be a security, r...ather than political, barrier. And its route should take into account, consistent with security needs, its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities. As we make progress toward security, and in accordance with the road map, Israeli forces should withdraw to their positions on September the 28th, 2000.

Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties, and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to. A viable two-state solution must ensure contiguity of the West Bank, and a state of scattered territories will not work. There must also be meaningful linkages between the West Bank and Gaza. This is the position of the United States today, it will be the position of the United States at the time of final status negotiations."

I submit to you that if Obama said the above the same frenzy would be going on. THis is pure politics, not actual differences over policy. But I'm no expert on Israel-Palestine policy so I'm open to being convinced...

How is it different?  How about both tone and tenor?  "Any final status agreement must be reached between the two parties and changes to the 1949 Armistice lines must be mutually agreed to".  This is language which supports and continues Israel's right to bargain land it fairly won in war (this is a point I don't think gets enough play--this was a war folks, they waxed Egypt, Syria and Jordan in six days--but it was a war nonetheless.  Oh, and by the way--if a Palestinian homeland were SUCH a big deal to the Arab world, why did Israel take the West Bank from JORDAN, and not from a Palestinian state, as was called for in the UN mandate that created Israel?).  Obama's wording REMOVES the right to do so, making the ONLY legitimate starting point for negotiation the 1949 line. 

As for politics--really?  Politics?  In American foreign policy?  Why I NEVER!  Of course this is political.  The President is a political figure, and he has unilaterally altered the balance of mideast politics.  That he would be criticized for it politically is NATURAL and good.  If Obama used the same words that Bush used--which give Israel the continuing room for maneuver that Bush gave it, there would be no frenzy.  Here as a reminder, are Bush's words from 2004 on the border issue: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and comp...lete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”  NOT US PRESIDENTIAL FIATS.  Next....

Seems to me that you're overstating the import of the speech since Obama explicitly reaffirmed a special relationship between the US and Israel. But even if Obama has "effectively told the Israelis that our 'special relationship' is over,"... I don't follow your logic. Wouldn't Iran focus any attacks on Israel while ignoring the US, rather than retaliating against Israel by attacking US interests? Why would Iran want to reunite us with Israel if we have had a falling out? What am I missing?  
What?  Mr. Obama advocating two seemingly opposed ideas in the same speech?  Yep.  He did indeed reinforce the special relationship while diminishing it by his equivalence of Hamas and the Israeli government. As for the second part of the question, it is a good one--but I believe I answered it above.  Unless very carefully managed, an Israeli/Iranian war is likely to spill into a larger mideast conflagration--one in which we will be inexorably drawn,
Bryan, I think you're overstating the Israeli isolation argument here. Obama affirmed an "unshakable commitment" to Israel's security and Netanyahu told aides after leaving the private meeting, “I wen...t in with certain concerns. I came out encouraged.”

I read this report as a confirmation of the maturity of Mr. Netanyahu.  And I disagree on the Israeli isolation argument.

Second, despite the media hoopla and conservative reactions, Obama's pronouncement pressures the Palestinian side too, with Abbas' representative saying Obama "conceded most issues to the Israelis."

And I can find a half dozen reactions of middle east experts and Palestinian scholars that say otherwise, that this was an important change of American policy in favor of the Palestinians.  Let's have a little thought exercise, shall we?  Say you're advising the Palestinians before a "new round" of talks.  Do you give AN INCH on resettlement and return to the 1967 borders, knowing your bargaining opponent's main ally no longer supports their position on  it?  You'd be guilty of professional malpractice if you did.

Importantly, I find your analysis ignores the security benefits a resolution to the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict would bring us, e.g. taking a recruiting tool out of the hands of terrorists. We're obviously not going to adopt some position out of fear of hurting some terrorist's feelings, but it would be disingenuous not to concede that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fans the flame of anti-Americanism, and that this is detrimental to our security interests.

This one was the most delicious of all.  If the writer and the others believe that my war scenario is over the top and overdone---do they really think that this obvious change of policy by the President is going to solve one of the world's most intractable conflicts?  Just who is advocating the long odds outcome now?  I'm here to tell you that I consider the chances of Israeli/Iranian war to be higher than resolving the Israeli Palestinian question.  As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fanning the flames of anti-Americanism, my view is that even if the miracle were to happen, the Arab world would find reason to dislike us.  Governments there have fomented anti-Americanism through the Israeli Palestinian lens for decades in order to take the heat off of their own corrupt regimes.  Now that those regimes are in trouble, it will be interesting to see the extent to which this question remains the burning issue it has been.

So I agree: Obama's pronouncement carries risks, but I see them as calculated ones taken as part of a strategically sound move to push both sides to the negotiating table.

And I disagree with publicly pushing our one true ally in the region.

1 comment:

Bryan said...

I agree POTUS made a blunter public pronouncement of the US position on borders than his predecessors, although privately this has been the negotiating line for some time. I also agree this publically pushes the President of an ally in a direction he does not appear ready to go. Like the US, this is also about domestic politics in Israel and Netanyahu is managing a loose conservative coalition where the small numbers of ultra-conservative MPs mean a great deal. While some polls indicate a majority of Israelis would accept a peace settlement along the lines POTUS described, that sentiment has not translated into an effective voting bloc in Israel. Until it does, expect continued gridlock and intransigence from Tel Aviv. I'm glad our non-parliamentary system has shut out the uncompromising ultra-conservative fringe element in the US.

The most important question, I think, is the one you tee up. "Does it make sense to publically push our only real ally in the region?" We have done it before, such as with the UK and France during the 1956 Suez Crisis. But the US has much less leverage with Israel today than it did with post-WWII Europe. In 1956, the pound and franc depended on funds from the US-controlled IMF and both countries were nearly bankrupt (Britain much closer). In contrast, our current $3B in aid to Israel each year is only about 1.5% of their GDP. We are in the unenviable position of being the unswerving ally of a country over which we have little real leverage. I would have to conclude, then, that it is a bad idea for American leaders to pressure their Israeli counterparts to the point that their insecurity leads them to preemptively attack Iran. Of course, if the Israeli people feel (as most Americans feel) that the US will always come to Israel's assistance, then it should take a lot of US pressure to get Israeli leaders to that level of insecurity. Unfortunately, in the current domestic Israeli political context, the level of public pressure needed for Israeli leaders to give in on borders is the same high level that will cause them to feel insecure.

One last element is the US democracy agenda gave rise to Palestine being considered a state because it held elections and has borders. Kosovo was recognized last year with even fewer state trappings than the PA has today. The US will probably have to convince Israel it has to negotiate with the PA as a state, although a potentially hostile one. Serbia and Croatia were in a similar situation in 1994 and we told them to live with it. The UN vote in Palestinian statehood will probably force this issue.

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