Tag Archives: Israel

Alarmism and the “special relationship”

Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner's home page, eh?
Not what you expected to see on Speaker John Boehner’s home page, eh?

Later this morning, at 11 AM, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make his much-ballyhooed speech before a joint session of Congress (minus a few dozen members). It will contain the same platitudes and hyperbolic warnings — “I am leaving for Washington on a fateful, even historic, mission,” he said, with characteristic understatement — that have been his staple for two decades. (Yes, two decades!) People will clap numerous times. They will stand, sit, and then stand again in a spectacle that would put your average Catholic mass to shame. Bored DC residents (but I repeat myself) are lining up to ask for tickets.

But something is different this time around: namely, Bibi — who is in the midst of a reelection campaign — has managed to anger President Obama more than usual by accepting an uncoordinated invitation from House Speaker John Boehner, which in turn upset a lot of congressional Democrats.

The rhetorical phrase of the moment seems to be “politicizing the special relationship,” which is a euphemism for “pissing off Democrats:”

  • John Kerry: “It was odd, if not unique, that we learned of it from the speaker of the House and that an administration was not included in this process. But the administration is not seeking to politicize this.”
  • Samantha Power: “This partnership should never be politicized, and it cannot and will not be tarnished or broken.”
  • Rep. Greg Meeks, D-NY: “We shouldn’t be playing politics on the floor of the House.”
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-IL: “I just think [the Netanyahu speech before Congress] is a very bad idea. It’s politicized — he shouldn’t politicize our relationship and the Congress of the United States.”
  • Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-TX: “But by politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship with an address which will be seen as a refutation of our foreign policy and our president, one that will take place two weeks before national elections in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker Boehner are playing a destructive and reckless game with the U.S.- Israel relationship and will potentially upset the delicate state of our negotiations with Iran and our leadership of the P5+1.”
  • J Street: “Wading into partisan American politics behind the back of our elected president damages the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
  • Benjamin Netanyahu: “The last thing anyone who cares about Israel, the last thing that I would want, is for Israel to become a partisan issue, and I regret that some people have misperceived my visit here this week as doing that. Israel has always been a bipartisan issue. Israel should always remain a bipartisan issue.”

Enter Jeffrey Goldberg, Netanyahu’s-staunchest-critic-except-when-he’s-in-fact-underhandedly-needling-Obama:

Netanyahu is engaging in behavior that is without precedent: He is apparently so desperate to stay in office that he has let the Republicans weaponize his country in their struggle against a Democratic president they despise. Boehner seeks to do damage to Obama, and he has turned Netanyahu into an ally in this cause. It’s not entirely clear here who is being played.

Therein lies the crux of the issue. It is actually easy to see, with increasing clarity, just who is getting played here, and it is neither Boehner nor Netanyahu: it’s the American public, for being told time and again that, above all, the “special relationship” is at stake and must be protected at all costs. Worse yet, we have to bear these same costs in the form of dead American soldiers, widespread anti-Americanism, and increased insecurity.

And for what? Since when, in the arena of international relations, do permanent “special relationships” even make sense? “America doesn’t have friends. America only has interests,” Henry Kissinger once said. But to this rule Israel is a glaring exception: unlike the American relationship with virtually every other country in the world, the American-Israeli bond is “unbreakable” a priori — its logic depends on nothing. And it is self-perpetuating: the “unbreakable bond” must remain as such because it has always been so: “Israel has always been a bipartisan issue.” (This is, of course, as true as “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”)

Look at the American relationship with China over the past several decades — or with Egypt, or Iran, or even India. These relationships have all seen ebbs and flows, summits and nadirs, depending on mutually expressed interests. By contrast, the Israeli-American relationship, while enduring the occasional bump, including this one — slight hiccups that, in the absence of a genuine rift, nearly always manage to generate a greater media stir than they warrant — has held remarkably steady even as the two nations’ strategic interests drift ever farther apart.

And yet, in view of these contradictions, what we seem to hear most from political analysts is a collective handwringing over the relationship’s “deterioration,” not recognition of its longtime illogicality in the first place.

Goldberg is so torn up over Bibi’s clash with Obama that he wrote a Q&A in which he played both the Q and the A himself.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, warned: “What you’re going to see is a very, very deep disagreement over policy by an American government led by President Obama and an Israeli government for now led by Netanyahu…[which is] only going to get worse if an agreement is struck with Iran, and then you’re in a very serious clash between the two countries.”

A liberal rabbi, John Rosove, got downright Gladwellian: “It’s a tipping-point moment. It’s no longer the Israeli government, right or wrong. The highest form of patriotism and loyalty is to criticize from a place of love.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), the sole Jewish member of Congress, said of Netanyahu’s speech: “It is an opportunity to let not just the Israeli prime minister know, but the Israeli people know, that America is united in strengthening our relationship with Israel.”

Perhaps strangest of all was the statement by aptly-named Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), who noted: “When you separate Israel from the policies of its government, it complicates the matter for Congress.” Indeed it does. But whether Netanyahu loses his premiership on March 17th or not, American interests will continue to differ meaningfully from Israel’s. In other words, it is about the state, not just the current government.

For example, Iran poses a much-reduced threat — in any meaningful conception of the term — to the United States in comparison to its effect, however exaggerated, on Israel’s security. ISIS cannot possibly hope to directly threaten American territory in the same way it can worry Israeli citizens. The radicalization of Arab opposition movements poses a greater immediate concern to Israel than it does to the United States. And so on.

Stranger still, the peak alarmism we seem to be reaching now in the upper echelons of the Israeli-American diplomatic clique is entirely contradicted by all available evidence. The U.S. has, for example, placed crippling sanctions on Iran. It’s bombed ISIS. It continues to bankroll billions of dollars of military aid to Israel each year. Just yesterday, while Netanyahu was at AIPAC sowing panic over a potential Iran deal, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was at the UN’s Human Rights Council, asking its members to end their “obsession with Israel.”

All this is to say: after watching Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likudnik allies cry wolf, engage in warmongering, and inject themselves into American politics in the past couple decades, we’re learning the wrong lesson when we lament the “politicization” of the special relationship. It’s possible this may be just the gift horse we need.

“Telegenically dead Palestinians”

We try to target the rocketeers, we do, and all civilian casualties are unintended by us but actually intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can, because somebody said they use, I mean it’s gruesome, they use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead, the better.

– Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

No one fears propaganda quite like a propagandist.

When Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” he is attempting to negate, via sardonic aside, the collective effect of hundreds of images of bloody, lifeless bodies — often very tiny ones — being mourned by men and women in the throes of unspeakable agony. These images, vivid in their specificity, he considers propaganda. Netanyahu fears “telegenically dead Palestinians” precisely because Israel’s dwindling foundation of international support hinges on their invisibility and, therefore, on his ability to foster a telegenic humiliation of the Palestinian people.

That for years he has managed to accomplish this, and to do so with remarkable dexterity, is a testament both to Netanyahu’s media savvy and his interlocutors’ credulity. He is helped along, too, by a decidedly non-telegenic  bête noire in Hamas — one whose nonchalance towards the civilian Palestinian death toll rivals Israel’s.

But Netanyahu increasingly resembles the boy who cried wolf. His monotonic recitations of impending doom at the hands of the blockaded and helpless Palestinians (or, in convenient moments, Iran) evoke Joe Biden’s damning encapsulation of Rudy Giuliani, a kindred opportunist in gleeful exploitation of tragedy for political gain: “…A noun, and a verb, and 9/11. I mean, there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else.” (Netanyahu’s adherence to the Giuliani playbook is in fact doubly insidious: while he liberally trades on the memory of the Shoah to lend gravitas to his hawkish policies, he has abandoned actual Holocaust survivors badly in need of food, healthcare, and other basic necessities.)

Netanyahu’s problem — and, by extension, Israel’s — is that the impact of his militaristic drumbeating is undermined by his obvious lack of interest in regional peace: acquiescing to American pressure shortly after Barack Obama’s first inauguration, Netanyahu — the same man who had once exulted in scuttling the Oslo peace process and boasted that “America is a thing you can move very easily” — cannily declared himself, for the very first time, in favor of a two-state solution. Determining which statement represents the truth is, as always with Bibi, a matter of finding whichever quote was spoken the furthest distance away from a visible television camera. Just as telling are his insistence on settlement-building and his plans for a long-term occupation of the West Bank.

Most Americans, however, are not following along closely enough to parse out fact from fiction. It is no accident that, in his frequent appearances on American television and in person, Netanyahu is fond of appropriating American imagery to vivify Israel’s existential threat of the moment for a receptive audience. In 2011, he described the 1967 borders as “indefensible,” explaining: “Israel was all of 9 miles wide — half the width of the Washington Beltway.” Four days later, he used the same line in front of a joint session of Congress.

Two weeks ago, Netanyahu told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer: “I mean, imagine what Israel is going through. Imagine that 75% of the U.S. population is under rocket fire, and they have to be in bomb shelters within 60 to 90 seconds. So, I’m not just talking about New York. New York, Washington, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Miami, you name it. That’s impossible, you can’t live like that.” (Nearly two million Gazans do live like that, and far worse.)

Netanyahu’s communicative style here is in keeping with a 116-page booklet called “The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary,” authored by Republican strategist Frank Luntz. The document was written for “visionary leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel,” and it contains blunt strategic advice on how to promote Israel’s point of view to the foreign public, especially Americans:

  • “Don’t talk about religion. Americans who see the bible as their sourcebook on foreign affairs are already supporters of Israel. Religious fundamentalists are Israel’s ‘Amen Choir’ and they make up approximately one-fourth of the American public and Israel’s strongest friends in the world…The primary reason for this is that their religion tells them to do so.” (p. 12)
  • “Personalize the problem for the American audience…’Imagine Washington, DC under missile attack from nearby Baltimore.'” (p. 42)
  • “Israel is so rich and so strong that [leftists] fail to see why it is necessary for armored tanks to shoot at unarmed kids or why Israel needs to level homes or attack villages or, most importantly, why a Palestinian state is a threat to Israel’s existence.” (p. 96)

Similarly, Israeli officials seem to be heeding the report’s admonition to communicate empathy from the start: “Indeed, the sequence of your conversation is critical and you must start with empathy for BOTH sides first” (p. 4). On July 29th, Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, responded thusly to CNN host Jake Tapper’s  question about the death of Palestinian children:

You know, we had a special press conference in Tel Aviv last night.

And the chief of staff of the Israeli military, the most highest Israeli official in uniform, he said it in openly, and he said it in Hebrew to the Israeli public. It wasn’t something for foreign consumption. He said, every innocent victim in Gaza pains us.

And I think he was saying something very genuine, something very real that Israelis feel. We don’t want to see innocent civilians caught up in the crossfire between us and Hamas.

While the above approaches are tailored to a more skeptical audience, the Israel Defense Forces’ Twitter account, by contrast, is a tour de force of wartime propaganda.twitter On August 2nd, for example, the IDF tweeted the following text accompanied by a video: “WATCH: More Hamas tunnels successfully destroyed in Gaza.” The tweet just prior linked to the IDF’s blog and declared: “Israel accepts ceasefires, Hamas rejects them.” (That tweet — which was posted at 9:39 AM EST on August 2nd — was directly contradicted by Haaretz, which had reported just minutes earlier that “Israel will no longer seek a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip via negotiations with Hamas, senior Israeli officials said.“)

Given this meticulous attention to words and their varying effects on foreign ears, it is unsurprising that Netanyahu is just as carefully attuned to media coverage of the Palestinians. It especially explains his description of “telegenically dead Palestinians,” a phrase as notable for its dismissal of authenticity as it is for its derision.

The problem for defenders of Israel’s actions in Gaza, however, is that the Palestinian death toll, now surpassing 1,500, is all too real. The vast majority of these appear to be civilians: some estimates place the percentage at 80% or above, and even Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzachi Hanegbi acknowledged that he was only able to confirm that 47% of Palestinian deaths were combatants. (This is not to say that Hamas eschews propaganda; however, its efforts in this arena are so ham-handed as to be nearly comical.)

The civilian casualties have shaken even some of Israel’s allies. United States Secretary of State John Kerry, unaware that he was being captured on microphone, fumed to an aide about the extent of Israeli military actions in Gaza: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” he said twice. In recent days, both New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait (“Israel Is Making It Hard To Be Pro-Israel“) and Vox founder Ezra Klein (“Why I have become more pessimistic about Israel“) have penned pieces airing their discomfort with Israel’s bombardment as well.

The cumulative effect of on-the-ground reporting and photography streaming out of Gaza is beginning to create a rare dynamic for Israel: in this conflict, at least, young Americans no longer see Israel as David, but as Goliath. Based on the threads of evidence from recent polling by Gallup and Pew, young adults are starting to look at Israel and feel, if not always say, “Enough.”

This empathy for the Palestinians’ plight was precisely Netanyahu’s target when he described dead Palestinians as telegenic (a rhetorical device whose horrendous history ought to especially shame Netanyahu). But even according to Frank Luntz’s handbook, this technique does not play well: “The Israel-against-the-world, woe-are-we approach comes across as divisive” (p. 17).

This leaves Israel, and its advocates, precious little material to work with, and the result is a predictable regurgitation of “What would you do if…” questions. But this intellectual conceit is wearing thin, especially since the immediate riposte is so obvious: Stop occupying the West Bank and bombarding Gaza. (Another tactic, attempted by former presidential speechwriter David Frum, is to deny reality altogether.)

In truth, there is no effective Israeli response to the video of a weeping Chris Gunness (above), the spokesman in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), just as there is no appropriate reply to the images of dead children. The authenticity is bracing, and it leaves little room for caricature or dismissal. The question is just how long it will take Israel to stop playing the cartoon villain.

Is AIPAC’s power ebbing?

Probably not, unfortunately. But it helps to have a counterweight, even one as fecklessly centrist as J Street. The relatively new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization (whatever that means) is urging Congress not to pass a new Iran sanctions bill. National Journal takes stock of the situation:

The rise of J Street, a younger pro-Israel lobby pushing hard against the new sanctions, is serving as a counterweight to AIPAC on this issue. Revived hope for a diplomatic breakthrough with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani helps J Street’s cause. So does political pressure from Obama. By decoupling support for Israel with support for new sanctions against Iran, the group is making it easier for lawmakers inclined to support the White House.

“We’ve been working diligently on Capitol Hill and in the Jewish-American community to raise support for the president’s diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis Iran, and oppose any legislation which would threaten it,” said Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street. “We feel very strongly that the current bill in the Senate would threaten diplomacy.”

J Street’s influence is also clear in the money it spends. Among pro-Israel groups, JStreetPAC was the largest single political donor during the 2008 and 2012 cycles, contributing nearly $2.7 million to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups.

Not so fast, says Foreign Policy:

A recent letter attacking Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is causing an internal brouhaha at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, The Cable has learned. The powerful lobbying outfit, known for its disciplined non-partisan advocacy for Israel, recently issued an action alert about the Florida congresswoman’s waffling on Iran sanctions legislation. The letter urged members to contact Wasserman Schultz and cited a disparaging article about her in a conservative website founded by a prominent Republican political operative.

That AIPAC was driving hard for new Iran sanctions legislation surprised no one. But its use of a right-wing blog to target a well-connected Jewish Democrat with a long history of support for Israel raised eyebrows among some current and former AIPAC officials. It also raised concerns that AIPAC’s open revolt against the White House’s Iran diplomacy could fray its relations with liberal Democrats on the Hill.

“In the 40 years I’ve been involved with AIPAC, this is the first time I’ve seen such a blatant departure from bipartisanship,” said Doug Bloomfield, AIPAC’s former chief lobbyist.

My inner optimist wants to believe this is the last, dying gasp of an organization desperately short on ideas. But then I remember that I live in the United States, and I laugh at my inner optimist.

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Bill Keller wants to repeat history, which would make him wrong twice.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.20.43 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.21.40 AM

 

Last night, New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) Bill Keller’s column, “Syria Is Not Iraq,” appeared online. (It’s seen in the above screenshot at right, juxtaposed against equally intellectually-challenged fellow columnist Thomas Friedman’s piece from last year.) As usual, it was a doozy:

As a rule, I admire President Obama’s cool calculation in foreign policy; it is certainly an improvement over the activist hubris of his predecessor. And frankly I’ve shared his hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

Keller concludes:

Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.

No, Keller, it doesn’t. Getting Syria right starts with acknowledging how Iraq happened. But doing that would require directly confronting the central role of Keller’s paper in propagating a flimsy and ultimately disastrous case for war in Iraq. Getting over Iraq, to use Keller’s convenient word choice, is a euphemism for allowing the same source that got everything so wrong in Iraq to make the same case for war in another country — again, with no exit strategy or, even, any strategy at all.

Keller argues that our failure to arm the rebels for fear of assisting al-Qaeda is in fact resulting in the same outcome, by ceding ground to the Saudis and Qataris, who are all too willing to assist radicals on the ground in Syria. But what Keller fails to mention is the fact that, after two years of civil war, an American decision to intervene now would raise more questions than it answers and may very well cause a public opinion backlash in the Arab world. Instead of being lauded as saviors, there is at least an equivalent likelihood of rebels asking, “How many lives could you have saved if you’d been here earlier?”

That alone is not a reason to stay away. But the audacity of the clamor for intervention — led by people like John McCain and, yes, now Bill Keller, the same people who so badly misjudged the prospects for success in Iraq — is that it makes the same characterizations about Syria that it did about Iraq. You’d think once would be enough.

Keller writes:

What you hear from the Obama team is that we know way too little about the internal dynamics of Syria, so we can’t predict how an intervention will play out, except that there is no happy ending; that while the deaths of 70,000 Syrians are tragic, that’s what happens in a civil war; that no one in the opposition can be trusted; and, most important, that we have no vital national interest there. Obama conceded that the use of poison gas would raise the stakes, because we cannot let the world think we tolerate spraying civilians with nerve gas. But even there, the president says he would feel obliged to respond to “systematic” use of chemical weapons, as if something less — incremental use? sporadic use? — would be O.K. This sounds like a president looking for excuses to stand pat.

This is a sickening, absurdist paragraph. “Looking for excuses to stand pat?” In Keller’s conceptualization, then, war is the default option, and Obama is doing somersaults in an attempt to evade his natural obligations. But this is simply not the case. Obama is perfectly right to observe that no vital national interest necessitates an American intervention in Syria (although he is seemingly less confident on this score than previously thought).

Keller’s not done:

In contemplating Syria, it is useful to consider the ways it is not Iraq.

First, we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region. “We cannot tolerate a Somalia next door to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey,” said Vali Nasr, who since leaving the Obama foreign-policy team in 2011 has become one of its most incisive critics. Nor, he adds, can we afford to let the Iranians, the North Koreans and the Chinese conclude from our attitude that we are turning inward, becoming, as the title of Nasr’s new book puts it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Again, Keller’s historical — and personal — amnesia, combined with his implicit but entirely unsubtle smearing of prudent foreign policy analysts as appeasers, is appalling. There is no “genuine, imperiled national interest.” The primary reason everyone’s suddenly started talking about Syria is that Israel started bombing it. As always, Israel’s security interests take precedence over our own: where two years of civilian death and suffering elicited little more than yawns and sighs of boredom in living rooms throughout America, a few targeted airstrikes by Israel are amazingly effective at focusing the hive mind.

Keller writes:

But, as Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, points out, what gets lost in these calculations is the potentially dire cost of doing nothing. That includes the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb, or when Jordan collapses under the weight of Syrian refugees.

Yes, let’s go to war now, risking very real American lives, to prevent a hypothetical outcome that may or may not cause mass fatalities in another country’s civil war.

Here is perhaps my favorite line:

Fourth, in Iraq we had to cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause. This time we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead. Israel, out of its own interest, seems to have given up waiting.

Israel?! That’s his example? Israel, he may recall, was perfectly onboard with the American invasion of Iraq as well. And why shouldn’t it be? Any half-conscious human being can see the natural advantage of allowing a foreign country to wage war on another’s behalf — including paying the costs in lives and massive budget deficits. Israel can stand pat and let Americans take the heat again, as we’ve been doing for years.

“Why wait for the next atrocity?” Keller asks. Indeed, why? For neoconservative warmongers like Bill Keller, waiting is for appeasers. The case for intervention in Syria, like that in Iraq, recalls the title of the famous post-financial crisis book, This Time Is Different. Each time, excuses and half-justifications are lazily proffered so as to distinguish one hawkish prophecy from its disastrous predecessors. This time, let’s approach the problem differently, instead of feebly attempting to differentiate this potential foreign policy quagmire from another, very real one from the past.

 

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With Bibi, the proof is in the muddling

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrtuBas3Ipw]

Shaul Arieli, an Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians under several prime ministers, had much to say in an illuminating interview with +972 Magazine‘s Noam Sheizaf. A few of the many interesting passages are below.

On whether the Palestinians rejected a peace plan under Ehud Olmert:

I will quote Olmert himself: the Palestinians never refused. They didn’t accept some of our proposals, just as we didn’t accept some of theirs. Israelis think that Olmert gave “a generous offer” to the Palestinians. But the Palestinians would say the same. Mahmoud Abbas was ready for land swaps that would leave 75 percent of the settlers under Israeli authority, including in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Abbas went a long way toward Israel on every issue.

On Benjamin Netanyahu’s goals:

Then Netanyahu came, and he had tremendous experience and knowledge on these issues. After all, he took pride once in his ability to kill the Oslo process. I served under Netanyahu and I think he still believes in what he wrote in his book in 1995 – that ‘placing a PLO state 15 km from the beach of Tel Aviv poses an existential threat to the state of Israel.’

Netanyahu, when he came back to office in 2009, didn’t try to introduce his own demands. He went to changing the terms of reference. He declared that 1967 borders won’t serve as basis for the negotiations, and if he accepts land swaps, it will never be in a 1:1 ratio. He wants to annex 10 percent of the West Bank and give the Palestinians 1 percent in return. The same goes for Jerusalem. As long as he continues to speak about a united Jerusalem, anything he might say about the two-state solution is meaningless.

Bibi is the one who moved back from what was agreed upon. There is no reason to enter negotiations without the principles that were agreed upon, without the framework.

Netanyahu wants the process, not the agreement. Bibi doesn’t care about the Palestinians. He is interested in the way Israel is treated by the world. So he will take his time, and as far as he is concerned it [the talks] can take forever.”

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In Palestine, a gap between words and actions

Stephen Walt, repeating much of what I wrote last week, reminds his readers what really happened during Obama’s much-heralded tour of Israel:

Obama also offered rhetorical support for Palestinian aspirations, and his speech went further than any of his predecessors. He spoke openly of their “right to self-determination and justice” and invited his Israeli listeners “to look at the world through their eyes.” He also told them “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer” and said “Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” He reiterated his call for direct negotiations — though he no longer suggests that Israel stop building more settlements — and he called upon his youthful audience to “create the change that you want to see.”

But that’s all he did. He did not say that a Palestinian state would have to be fully sovereign (i.e., entitled to have its defense forces). He did not give any indication of where he thought the borders of such a state might lie, or whether illegal settlements like Ariel (whose presence cuts the West Bank in two) would have to be abandoned. He did not say that future American support for Israel would be conditional on its taking concrete steps to end the occupation and allow for the creation of a viable state (i.e. not just a bunch of vulnerable Bantustans). On the contrary, his every move and phrase made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States  providing generous and unconditional support to the vastly stronger of the two parties. He made no mention of a special envoy or an “Obama plan.” In short, he did not announce a single concrete policy initiative designed to advance the vision of “two states for two peoples” that he first laid out in the almost-forgotten Cairo speech of June 2009.

Walt’s conclusion:

For realists like me, in short, halting a colonial enterprise that has been underway for over forty years will require a lot more than wise and well-intentioned words. Instead, it would require the exercise of power. Just as raw power eventually convinced most Palestinians that Israel’s creation was not going to be reversed, Israelis must come to realize that denying Palestinians a state of their own is going to have real consequences. Although Obama warned that the occupation was preventing Israel from gaining full acceptance in the world, he also made it clear that Israelis could count on the United States to insulate them as much as possible from the negative effects of their own choices. Even at the purely rhetorical level, in short, Obama’s eloquent words sent a decidedly mixed message.

Because power is more important than mere rhetoric, it won’t take long before Obama’s visit is just another memory. The settlements will keep expanding, East Jerusalem will be cut off from the rest of the West Bank, the Palestinians will remain stateless, and Israel will continue on its self-chosen path to apartheid. And in the end, Obama will have proven to be no better a friend to Israel or the Palestinians than any of his predecessors.

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The two-state solution is dying

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

My piece for The Morningside Post is up:

Indeed, Obama was right to decry the injustice of the occupation. But much of the blame for the perpetuation of what he termed the “grinding status quo” should rest squarely upon the president himself. Lacking from tonight’s speech was any semblance of a serious framework for peace talks, never mind for peace. A settlement freeze, once the centerpiece of Obama’s roadmap for peace negotiations, was never even timidly mentioned in passing.

Thus the cycle of endless backtracking is completed. Under Jimmy Carter, settlements were illegal. Under Ronald Reagan, they became an “obstacle to peace.” Now, as per Obama’s speech tonight, they are simply “counterproductive.” The progressively more muted rhetoric matches the devolution of the peace process from actual negotiation into something resembling kabuki theater.

And theater is precisely what it is: the continued half-hearted affirmations of the two-state solution by successive American presidents belie their rapidly vanishing interest in taking the steps necessary to achieve it.

Book Review – Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

brokers of deceitRashid Khalidi, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Beacon Press: 2013)

 

On Wednesday, Barack Obama will travel to Israel for his first official visit as President of the United States. The day after he arrives, he will deliver a speech to Israeli students at the International Convention Center that is expected to tread conventional ground regarding the peace process while gently reminding his audience that respecting Arab public sentiment on the occupation is a necessary condition for achieving a two-state solution.

Such modest objectives may seem anathema to true believers in Middle Eastern peace. But they are perfectly in keeping with the “peace process” industrial-complex portrayed by Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi in his new book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

“I want to examine here…the veil that conceals how the policy of the United States toward the Palestine question has actually functioned to exacerbate rather than resolve this problem,” writes Khalidi in his introduction. Central to this disguise is the use of deliberately misleading language that wraps the decades-long stalemate in the ennobling lexicon of progress, before smothering it in the bureaucratic technobabble of “road maps” and “facts on the ground.” (If this sounds familiar, the bloodied remains of innocent drone strike victims have now attained the similarly reverential status of “collateral damage.”) Indeed, the all-encompassing term “peace process,” which Khalidi deems an “Orwellian rubric” obscuring “decades of futile initiatives,” is itself a figment of erstwhile imaginations warped beyond recognition by enough conferences, talks, and accords to fashion world peace several times over.

A question naturally presents itself: why bother with this charade at all? For Khalidi, much of the answer can be found in the goals of the various parties. He defines a successful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as one entailing complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a “just resolution” for Palestinian refugees, and national autonomy for the Palestinian people. That all of these outcomes have failed to materialize is a product of Israeli and Palestinian deficiencies, of course. But it is also an indictment of American foreign policy on the subject, which has unfailingly taken Israel’s side as the prospects for peace slide with increasing urgency into history.

The reasons for the American-Israeli two-step and the United States’ consequent inability to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are threefold, Khalidi argues. The oil-exporting Gulf states have exerted almost no pressure on the United States over the plight of the Palestinians, domestic politics (especially the overwhelmingly hawkish Israel lobby) has prevented a change in strategy, and American policymakers demonstrate virtually no sympathy for the political and psychological duress of the Palestinians. On this last point, Khalidi quotes Richard Nixon, who in 1973 confided to Henry Kissinger: “You’ve got to give [Arabs] the hope…You’ve got to make them think that there’s some motion; that something is going on; that we’re really doing our best with the Israelis.”

“Doing our best,” it is no surprise to learn, meant something quite different to the Americans than it did to their Palestinian interlocutors. Behind Nixon’s Machiavellian scheming lay a rather simple truth: the domestic constituency for Palestinians was nonexistent, while Israel’s supporters regularly raised an unholy clamor. Forty years later, the Oval Office has occasionally changed hands but the calculation remains maddeningly identical. If anything, the din of the hawks has grown even louder: Khalidi accurately notes that an “increasingly formidable constellation of obstructionist forces” confronted Obama’s every timid attempt at course correction. Continue reading Book Review – Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East

Delusion of the day

Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded the alarm that Iran was approaching “a red line.” Did the U.S. president even mention any of this? No, he was running around the country crying wolf and catastrophizing about an invented crisis. The real international threats go unremarked upon. For all intents and purposes Netanyahu is now the West’s protector.

What they said:

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