President Obama is a nonpareil speaker. Yesterday he may have given the greatest speech of his career. Addressing an audience of young Israelis -- that country's future -- he made it clear that he understood the depth of Israeli emotion about its historical past and difficult present. At the same time, he implicitly conveyed the very important message that Israelis could, indeed should, trust him, that he does indeed "have their back.
Obama said the usual things about America's security relationship with Israel. He rightly took pride in the joint American-Israeli venture to develop the Iron Dome defense system that saved thousands of Israeli lives in the face of the rocket onslaught that Hamas launched from Gaza. He demanded that Hezbollah be treated as a terrorist organization, that Hamas accept Israel's right to exist, and that Assad relinquish his vicious grip on Syria. He again asserted that the United States would never tolerate a nuclear Iran, though he skirted the issue of whether Washington and Jerusalem share the same red lines that should prompt a military attack on that country.
Far more important, however, were the symbolic sentiments that Obama voiced in his speech and that marked this, his first trip to Israel as president. Prior to his speech he had visited the Shrine of the Book to underscore his recognition that Israel is not some by-product of the Holocaust, as so many anti-Semites (who would probably have applauded the Holocaust had they had the chance) continue to allege. Rather, he told his youthful audience, Israel is the Jewish homeland, as it has been for millenia. Referring to the Jewish holiday that begins Monday night, Obama said, "Passover ... is a story about finding freedom in your own land."
Obama's visit to Theodore Herzl's grave, unprecedented for an American president because of its political connotations, also added credibility to what he would later say in his speech: "While Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland." Those italicized words were lifted virtually intact from Israel's national anthem, "Hatikvah," which means "the hope."
Yet Obama did not hesitate to tackle the thorny question of peace with the Palestinians. He did so in terms that were both powerful and moving. "Put yourself in their shoes," he said, "look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day ... Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land." In other words, they too have a Hatikvah of their own.
Now comes the hard part. Obama's soaring speeches tend to fall flatly to earth when he attempts to implement them. He needs to exploit Bibi Netanyahu's political vulnerability to a cabinet that was not of his choosing and pressure the Israeli prime minister to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith. And even if Obama made it clear to the Palestinian Authority's leaders that they should negotiate without preconditions, he must somehow get Netanyahu to put a stop to settlement construction outside that narrow band of territory that everyone concedes will become part of Israel in any peace agreement.
At the same time, Obama must move a reluctant and politically exhausted Abu Mazen to relinquish the demands that have broken past deals that were almost consummated by previous American presidents, in particular, the absolute right of return to pre-1967 Israel for all Palestinians claiming to have lived there. As a first step, perhaps Obama can persuade the two sides to accept an understanding along the following lines: Israel stops settlement construction outside very limited areas like the Eztion Bloc, and the Palestinians finally accept Israel for what it is, a Jewish State.
Maybe John Kerry, Obama's designated hitter for the peace process, can deliver an initial deal along these lines or perhaps some other set of parameters. But deliver he must. The president was awarded a Nobel Prize on the basis of his speeches. It will take something more than a beautiful address beautifully delivered to make any headway between two cynical, embittered, resentful peoples, neither of which can escape the tentacles of their respective histories.
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Elliott Abrams' new book, Tested by Zion, recounts the Bush administration's efforts regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and contains two things any such insider's account must. First, a well-researched narrative that answers the "who, what, where, and when" questions. It does that very well. But if it is to be useful to policymakers, students and the well-informed reader, it should do something else -- it should explain the "why." The book does this very well because it does not shy away from describing the actors' motives and actions in terms of their own statements and the commentaries of close observers. If readers want to know why the "peace process" has failed repeatedly, this book goes a long way toward explaining its sad outcome. I will let the book speak for itself, but for my part, it confirms much of what I have seen and experienced over the years: The fault lies largely with the Palestinian Arab leadership and the ill-advised attachment of some in the U.S. State Department to diplomacy for diplomacy's sake.
Abrams does not portray President George W. Bush as perfect, nor for that matter does he portray himself, Condoleezza Rice, or Steve Hadley as above the human tendency to make mistakes or to misunderstand facts or context. And while he sympathizes with Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders, he does not consider them perfect. Their flaws and mistakes are revealed here as well. Neither does he count all Palestinian leaders as hopelessly wicked or weak. In my view, Arafat counts as the former and Mahmoud Abbas as the latter, and Abrams' work makes it hard to escape these conclusions. Abrams shows that the majority of the blame for failure to get to peace lies squarely on the shoulders of those Arabs who continually fail to show 1) a sufficient combination of humanitarian impulse toward "the other" and 2) courage to risk their own positions and comfort. Ariel Sharon was willing, but Mahmoud Abbas and those around him were either unwilling or unable to do it and to this day will not or cannot. It doesn't help that other Arab leaders have refused to do their part. It is revealing and depressing to see leaders given the chance to improve the lives of millions who have lived under oppression and been used as pawns squander that chance because they either hate too much or lack the courage to risk their own well-being.
Abrams' treatment of the State Department will cause a lot of bureaucrats and foreign service officers to scowl and complain. He relays in detail the problem the White House faced at the beginning of the Bush administration -- and continuing through the Rice years when she moved to State -- with an agency that wanted to continue to encourage endless dialog between the parties and various other countries when that had never worked before -- unless there were two parties at the negotiating table truly seeking peace. We have as examples only Sadat and Begin regarding Egypt, and Hussein and Rabin regarding Jordan. This endless dialog approach was taken by the Clinton administration with Arafat leading the Palestinian side. It is the most recent failure not because of lack of will on the part of Israel or the United States, but because Arafat had no interest in peace and did nothing to prepare his countrymen for responsible self-government. Just ask President Clinton, or Arafat's widow. So the burden is on State to explain how their preferred modus operandi of talks for the sake of talks would have made any sense in the Bush administration. Instead, the administration pursued a bold plan when it called for a two state solution founded upon the twin goals of an end to terrorism and the building of democracy. Further into the process, when Sharon tried to restart progress on everyone's agreed to plan, the road map, these same diplomats and bureaucrats -- as well as many Israelis, Arabs and Europeans -- decried the "unilateralism" of Israel voluntarily and unilaterally leaving territory in Gaza and the West Bank, territory Sharon understood it could not hold indefinitely as a practical or moral matter.
What did Sharon want in exchange? Nothing but respect and a reciprocation of good will and support. But rather than praise and support a decision that jump-started the peace process that had hit a roadblock in Arafat, many found it Machiavellian. What a shame that in this bizarre world of the Middle East "peace process" an Israeli general turned politician, who actively seeks to improve the lives of Palestinians, is criticized for doing the very thing that can produce momentum. Certainly the tug of war that seems to always ensue between State and the White House over major foreign policy issues played a role in this dissonance, but it was more than that. It was the perennial refusal of modern diplomats' to understand that diplomacy for diplomacy's sake produces little good. Diplomacy is supposed to be the servant of policy goals and requires the good faith efforts of all parties who are earnestly seeking an agreement. Israel has yet to have a willing or able partner in achieving an agreement, and all diplomats would do well to understand that.
In the end, Bush and Sharon failed to achieve peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but not for lack of trying. They failed because Arab leaders failed to "love their children more than they hate [Jews]," to borrow from Golda Meir. That, and much more, comes through in Abrams' very good recounting.
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No doubt many Republicans in Washington are experiencing a bit of schadenfreude over the controversies swirling around the newly installed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez. He is a bare-knuckled partisan who never backs down from a political brawl. So investigations into his alleged advocacy on behalf of a major donor -- including a salacious sidebar of unsubstantiated allegations about underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic -- have not surprisingly stirred some to try and fan the flames of what they hope to be the Senator's immolation.
For example, a group called the American Future Fund (touting itself as, "Advocating Conservative, Free Market Ideals") published a full-page ad in Politico this week with the subtle title: "Senate Ethics Committee: Meet Your New Chairman of ‘Foreign Relations.'" Har har.
Of course, if the worst of the accusations turn out to be true, then no one disputes the fact that the Senator should immediately resign and face the consequences. But there are ample reasons to hope that they are not -- first and foremost, for the sake of the alleged victims. Secondly, conservatives reveling in the senator's current predicament may want to stop and consider what Menendez's possible fall from grace would mean for U.S. national security interests.
That's because on key foreign policy issues during his career -- pressuring Iran, defending Israel, and promoting regional security -- Menendez has been stalwart and, indeed, much more hard-line than his predecessor as chairman of SFRC, John Kerry, and, more importantly, than the next two Democrats in line of succession should he lose the chairmanship: the uber-liberal California Democrat Barbara Boxer and the nondescript, party-line Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
As just one example, Menendez recently bucked White House opposition by winning Senate passage of increased Iran sanctions in the 2012 Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act, as well as authoring Iran sanctions provisions in recent defense authorization bills.
Soon after assuming the SFRC Chair, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "I'm looking forward to working very closely with the administration, but I will always have my degree of independence on the things I care about." And those of us who have worked with him over the years know he cares about the right things: freedom, human rights, and taking the fight to America's enemies.
No, Menendez is not warm and fuzzy, and more than a few fellow Republicans have borne the brunt of his ire. But looking out over the international landscape, with the U.S. facing myriad challenges in Iran, North Korea, the Middle East, and North Africa, the country can certainly use an SFRC chairman who is unabashed and unapologetic about defending U.S. interests abroad.
Whatever is going to happen with ongoing investigations is going to happen. Conservatives should just let the process play out, without the bells and whistles. If he is found guilty, then he will have to be held accountable. But one thing is certain: If Menendez loses his chairmanship of SFRC, it is not just his loss and the Democratic Party's loss, it is America's as well.
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It has become conventional wisdom in the United States and Europe that Israeli politics is shifting rightward. This in turn fuels a view that only tough love from Washington and European capitals -- in the form of a dictated peace plan or other such ultimatum -- can salvage any hope for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and ultimately secure Israel's own survival. Both the analysis and policy advice are flawed, and if heeded by the Obama administration would further undermine prospects for peace and security in the Middle East.
It is incontrovertible that the list chosen by Likud voters in their recent primary -- which includes hardliners such as Moshe Feiglin -- represents a sharp move to the right for the party. It is also correct that a recent poll by Israel's Dahaf Institute indicates that the Jewish Home-National Union party, which is to Likud's right, stands to more than double its representation in the Knesset, taking seats from Likud and its electoral partner, the secular-right Israel Beitenu party.
What is noted less often, however, is that left-wing parties have also gained. The same poll shows gains not just for the Labor party, but for the far-left Meretz party as well as social-justice-focused Yesh Atid (which did not previously exist), as well as for Tzipi Livni's "Movement" party. The losers are the Likud-Israel Beitenu coalition, projected to lose nine seats, and the centrist parties -- Kadima, which had twenty-one seats but will cease to exist, and Ehud Barak's "Independence" party, which will not field candidates with his retirement from the Knesset.
Despite this shifting within both the left and the right, the polls indicate an absence of movement between the two poles. The result, rather startlingly, is that despite the churn, the right-left balance is forecast to remain precisely as it currently stands. The data projects not a more right-wing Knesset, but a more polarized one. It also projects a weaker position for Prime Minister Netanyahu in coalition politics, which could well mean a more right-wing government than that he currently heads, though -- depending on what deals he is able to cut -- this is hardly a foregone conclusion.
More important for U.S. policymakers is what such election results would reveal about Israeli voters. Analysts who fret that the Israeli election will diminish prospects for peace have confused cause and effect. Heightened security worries sparked by Iran and the upheaval in the Arab world, compounded by fading hopes for peace with the Palestinians after four years of backsliding in the peace process, have fueled the electoral shifts that will be manifest in the Jan. 22 results.
A separate Dahaf poll from December 2012 indicates that Israelis increasingly believe that concessions will not bring real peace. Eighty-three percent did not believe that even a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines would bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and seventy-five percent felt that the Palestinian Authority could not be relied upon to fulfill its obligations. This figure is up from sixty-four percent just a year ago, a sign of how the PA's unilateralism at the United Nations has shaken Israeli confidence in its negotiating counterpart.
This pessimism about peace has undoubtedly fueled a view that "defensible borders," not a peace agreement, is the surest route to actually achieving peace. Sixty-one percent of Israelis express that view, compared to forty-nine percent who did so in 2005. It is also surely deepened by growing anxiety about developments in the Arab world -- forty-one percent of Israelis said these made peace with the Palestinians less likely, up from thirty-two percent just one year ago. Israelis are also fixated on the threat posed by Iran -- fifty-three percent support an Israeli attack on Iran, even though just twenty-one percent believe that such an attack will succeed in eliminating an Iranian nuclear threat.
It is this deep and abiding anxiety over security which drives voters to right-wing parties, whose supporters tend to identify security policy as their number-one concern. Those voters who support leftist parties do not tend to do so because they also prioritize security but believe the left has a better approach to achieving it; they do so because they overwhelmingly identify economic and social issues, rather than security, as their top priority.
Buried in all of this data is hope for the United States. The political polarization in Israel does not necessarily indicate, as casual analysis has sometimes suggested, polarization over security issues. If anything, the Israeli public is a lot like the American public -- quite concerned about the security challenges emanating from the Middle East, but unsure what to do about them. They are also pragmatic, however, and clearly desire peace. The Dahaf poll shows an even split on dismantling settlements outside the major blocs, and clear support for a restrained Israeli response to the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. And other polls continue to show strong support for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- despite despair that one will ever be achieved.
This deep -- if flickering -- desire for peace is an opportunity for the Obama administration, and the data also point to a policy path for seizing it. That path must begin with a return to basics. The U.S. must first restore the health of the U.S.-Israel alliance. The Dahaf poll suggests that only thirty-nine percent of Israelis believe the United States can be counted upon to support Israel.
Washington must also convince Israelis that it is determined to tackle the threats which so preoccupy both our populations, from the chaos in Syria to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Right now, only thirty-nine percent of Israelis believe that they can rely upon the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Finally, the U.S. must seek to restore some measure of faith between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. This will require small steps focused on issues where joint Israeli-Palestinian gains are possible, rather than the grand gestures to which American and European officials have sometimes succumbed in the past. The collapse of confidence between the two sides began with the December 2008 Gaza war, but was compounded by American diplomatic errors, such as the Obama administration's focus on a total settlement freeze. Settlements are a deeply difficult issue, but not the obstacle to negotiations they have lately been made out to be. It has been largely forgotten that the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 was immediately followed by a crisis attending the announcement of construction in Har Homa. That crisis was overcome, and the negotiations proceeded a few weeks later.
These three elements -- the U.S.-Israel alliance, U.S. leadership in the region, and a certain faith in one another between the two sides -- constitute the pillars upon which any successful peace process must rest. As he approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his second term, President Obama must avoid desperation in either of its primary modes -- hail-Mary peace plans or glum inaction. It is never a bad time to push for peace; but making progress will require patient preparation, followed by consistent, unflinching, and unglamorous work.
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The conflict unfolding in the Gaza Strip takes place against a starkly different regional backdrop than the last round of fighting in late 2008 and early 2009. The old regional order that existed then has been swept away, replaced with a new order which is uncertain and, until now, untested. This emerging crisis will be the first such test, and will reveal much about how the recent years' uprisings have affected key regional actors and the relations among them.
The old order in the Middle East was founded on mutual interests, and looked something like a hub-and-spoke alliance system with the United States at its center. U.S. allies in the region shared, above all, an interest in stability and economic prosperity, though each defined stability differently. For Washington, stability required political and economic reform; for our allies, it often meant the preservation of an increasingly shaky status quo.
Israel was a key part of this alliance, and cooperated openly with some regional states, and tacitly with others, through the good offices of the United States. Israel and Washington's Arab allies largely shared a desire to counter and deter Iran and its proxies and combat terrorist groups in the region; many applauded privately or openly when Israel dealt a blow to Hezbollah in the first days of the 2006 Lebanon war or destroyed a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007.
The new regional order in the Middle East is different, but precisely how and how much is unclear. Two things in particular are uncertain. First, how do leaders in the region -- especially new leaders such as Egyptian President Morsi -- now perceive their national interests? In important ways, these interests have not changed with the Arab uprisings. Armed militias in the Sinai, for example, are just as apt to target Egyptian soldiers and interests as they are Israel, and the perception of instability or extremist sentiment in the region will deter investment and tourism desperately needed to revive the Egyptian economy.
On the other hand, President Morsi's political calculations and the ideology of his Muslim Brotherhood faction militate against even tacit cooperation with Israel. Morsi and his government had appeared to be leaning in the direction of pragmatism until now, but sending Prime Minister Kandil to Gaza -- like Turkey's dispatch of a flotilla to Gaza in 2010 -- is more stunt than strategy. The Gaza crisis will test whether Morsi , along with other leaders in the region, will place ideology over interests.
The second question lingering about the new regional order concerns the U.S. place in it. Washington's diffidence in the face of the turmoil in the Middle East over the last two years, combined with the "pivot" to Asia, has conveyed the impression that the US is not prepared to continue its brokering role in the region. This suits some regional leaders just fine; the leaders of Egypt and Iran disagree on many things, but they share a desire to see American influence in the Middle East recede. For U.S. allies, however, it raises the troubling question as to whether Washington can be counted on to act firmly to advance our mutual interests.
This uncertainty has already led to the deterioration of the "hub and spoke" system, which has been replaced, roughly speaking, by the formation of smaller regional coalitions acting independently (for example, the GCC intervening in Bahrain) and jockeying with one another for preeminence. This is most evident in the case of Turkey, which rather than turning West or East has sought regional leadership, which has meant repudiating its erstwhile alliance with Israel.
While the first signs of this strategic shift in the region are evident, it is not inevitable that it should continue. Washington should craft its response to the Gaza crisis to reinforce its position and alliances in the region.
First, the United States should demonstrate strong support for Israel. The Obama administration took a welcome first step in this direction by issuing statements affirming Israel's right to defend itself and holding Hamas accountable for the fighting and for the suffering of Palestinians under their misrule. Behind the scenes, the administration will need to work closely with Israel to help it to define concrete objectives for the operation and accomplish them quickly and decisively. Once the fighting stops, the United States and Israel should privately develop a realistic and shared approach to Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Second, Washington should practice some realpolitik with Egypt, Turkey, and other regional allies. Any strong alliance is based on shared interests. Given the changes in the region, we should not simply assume that the region's new leaders share our conception of these shared interests, but should enumerate them explicitly through strategic bilateral dialogues. Identifying such mutual interests should not be difficult -- issues like terrorism and Iranian support for the Syrian regime are of concern to both the United States and our regional partners. The United States should insist, however, that our allies act on the basis of these interests rather than simply acknowledging them in private, especially in times of crisis. It is in this context that discussions of aid should take place. Our economic and military assistance should be seen -- in Washington and abroad -- neither as charity or compensation for furthering American interests, but as a policy tool to further shared interests.
Third, the United States should offer energetic and determined leadership throughout the crisis to ensure that its conclusion advances our interests and those of our allies. The Obama administration's first steps have been positive, but there will be much more work to do at the United Nations to ensure that any eventual ceasefire is sustainable and enhances regional security; to encourage Arab allies in the short term to press Hamas to de-escalate and take responsibility for the activities of terrorist groups within Gaza, and in the longer term to shift all of their support to the Palestinian Authority; and in doing so, ensure that the ultimate result of the conflict is to put Israelis and Palestinians alike closer to peace and security, rather than deeper in turmoil.
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While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:
1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?
2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?
3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?
4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?
5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?
1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?
2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?
1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?
2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of
2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the
world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you
do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?
3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?
1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?
2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?
3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?
4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?
5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?
1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?
2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?
3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?
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In a column in the October 7 Washington Post, I argued that "red lines" with respect to Iran's nuclear program, far from leading us automatically to war, are designed to facilitate diplomacy and prevent conflict. As Iran makes continued progress toward a nuclear weapons capability - and according to a new report by the Institute for Science and International Security, it is now as little as 2-4 months away from having sufficient weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for a single bomb -- defining our red lines takes on increasing importance.
For all of its bluster, the Iranian regime has proceeded carefully to reach this point, expanding its nuclear capabilities while avoiding full-blown conflict with the West. The final stage of its nuclear drive will pose a significant challenge to this strategy, however, as any outright lunge for a nuclear weapon is likely to draw a devastating response. Iran could take any of several approaches to this last leg, from throwing caution to the wind and making a mad dash in the open, to proceeding entirely clandestinely. For this reason, we need not just one but several red lines, closing off all routes available to Iran for achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
The route to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability that receives the most attention is the most straightforward, but perhaps the riskiest for Iran -- a dash using Iran's declared enrichment sites and uranium stockpiles. It is this route which both Israeli PM Netanyahu and ISIS warned about recently. Their worry is straightforward -- as Iran expands its nuclear capacity and increases its stockpile of 19.75 percent uranium, its breakout time diminishes even further, perhaps to the point where a military response could not be mounted quickly enough to prevent Iran from producing and secreting away a bomb's worth of WGU or more.
It is this worry that led Netanyahu to declare his redline -- Iran stockpiling sufficient 19.75 percent uranium to, if further enriched, produce a single nuclear weapon. It is important to recognize, however, that Iran can dial its production of enriched uranium forward or back and thus control the pace of its confrontation with the West -- forward, by increasing the number of centrifuges enriching; back, by sending 19.75 percent uranium to be converted into another form unsuitable for further enrichment, such as fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Iran in the past has done just this -- moving quickly ahead during lulls in negotiations, and then resuming international talks to diffuse the resulting threats and pressure.
Iran could also proceed in a nonlinear manner that skirts this redline -- for example, by producing small batches of higher-enriched uranium without having first stockpiled a single bomb's worth of 19.75 percent uranium. A prominent Iranian legislator has already asserted, for example, that Iran would begin producing 60 percent enriched uranium for use in nuclear submarines. Iran could also simply continue amassing LEU while perfecting more efficient centrifuges, diminishing its breakout time for a future weapons dash.
Rather than a dash in the open, which would give the U.S. and Israel time and opportunity to mount a military response, Iran may prefer to attempt to limit the IAEA's access to its program and achieve a nuclear weapons capability out of sight of international inspectors. This would be in keeping with Iran's history of nuclear deception and subterfuge.
Iran could, of course, simply expel IAEA inspectors and hope that the US does not respond, but this would be a risky proposition. Far more likely would be incremental steps which reduce the IAEA's access or place obstacles in front of inspectors, in order to divert some portion of Iran's uranium stockpile (e.g. the 19.75 percent uranium removed from Fordow for conversion to fuel plates) to a heretofore undisclosed enrichment site, reduce the certainty with which the inspectors are able to account for Iranian activities at declared enrichment sites, or lengthen the time between inspections to a degree that would not permit a breakout to be detected in a timely fashion.
Because such steps might appear modest to a casual observer, Iran may believe that the U.S. would find it difficult to rally an international response to them. Iran has already reduced its cooperation with the IAEA over the last few years. Alarmingly, as detailed in a recent Washington Post article, Iran's far-fetched accusations that IAEA inspectors have engaged in acts of sabotage may represent an effort to establish a pretext to reduce that cooperation further.
There are further routes still that Iran could take to break out and achieve a nuclear weapons capability. It could attempt not simply to divert declared uranium stockpiles to a undisclosed enrichment facility, but to create an entirely parallel, covert uranium supply, conversion, and enrichment chain using the expertise and procurement networks it has gained from its disclosed program. It could also seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, or simply the fuel for one, from an existing nuclear power such as North Korea, with which it already cooperates extensively. Iran would face serious obstacles in either scenario, but neither can be discounted entirely.
By understanding Iran's pathways for completing the final stage of its nuclear drive, the U.S. and our allies can devise red lines -- whether private or publicly announced -- which fence off those pathways. These red lines should take into account not only Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, but also the level to which it enriches any uranium, the access it affords IAEA inspectors, the expansion of its centrifuge program and other weapons-applicable technologies, as well as any covert efforts to build additional nuclear sites or acquire nuclear materials abroad.
Perhaps more importantly, however, such an analysis of Iran's pathways to a weapon can help policymakers strengthen existing tools and devise new approaches -- from better intelligence collection, to more focused efforts to enforce sanctions and stymie Iranian nuclear procurement efforts, to joint warnings from the U.N. or other multilateral bodies -- to ensure that Iran never approaches those red lines in the first place.
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As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.
Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion. He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria's Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.
At the same time, Assad's Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.
Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel's worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.
Washington's passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad's men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad's military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.
As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements. There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel's key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.
To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran's ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington's willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.
An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program. As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone's control.
I recently returned from a trip to Israel. I met with a handful of very senior foreign policy and defense officials, but did not speak with any member of the "Forum of Eight" -- Israel's security cabinet that is responsible for key decisions concerning war and peace. With that important caveat, I thought I'd share several random impressions:
First, Israelis realize full well that they're in the middle of a geo-political hurricane. The pillars that have anchored their national security strategy for a generation are being washed away, swamped by a rising tide of Islamism. The Egypt of Sadat, Mubarak and Camp David is no more. Jordan, Israel's other critical peace partner, is under enormous strain. The once vibrant military relationship with Turkey has withered. Syria is awash in blood, raising the specter of loose WMD, a jihadist safe haven, and generalized chaos on what for nearly four decades (despite the Assad regime's enduring hostility) has been Israel's quietist front. All this, of course, on top of the pre-existing threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon with 50,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, and patrons in Tehran hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons with which to terrorize the Middle East in service to their particularly virulent brand of anti-Zionism.
Second, while deeply concerned with the turmoil that surrounds them, Israeli officials exude a degree of quiet confidence that they can weather this storm. I detected no sense of panic, but rather a steely-eyed determination to do what was necessary to secure Israel's core interests. Given the degree of uncertainty inherent in the current regional upheavals, it would be an exaggeration to say that Israelis are yet at the point of developing any new grand strategy. But one can discern some basic principles that have emerged to help navigate the turbulence that will continue to roil the region for the foreseeable future. Three in particular stand out:
1. Be ready, militarily, to respond to and contain sudden crises on very short notice. The triggers for conflict have multiplied exponentially and could come from any direction, at any time -- a terrorist attack from a newly-lawless Sinai (as witnessed just this past weekend); chemical weapons in Syria; a Hezbollah-manufactured clash in the north; or large-scale instability that threatens Jordan's monarchy. The possibilities are endless. Adding to the challenge: The fact that the region's sweeping political changes (untested leaders, haphazard decision-making structures, populist pressures, etc.) increase the risk that a relatively minor incident could escalate rapidly and in unexpected ways.
2. Unless directly threatened, exercise enormous caution in approaching the volatility on Israel's borders. Now is not the time for rash moves. Rather, it's a time to watch, analyze, and gather intelligence; to prioritize challenges and husband national resources, to avoid diverting energies by being drawn unnecessarily into the vortex of the Arab revolutions. Indeed, I found Israeli officials extraordinarily humble when assessing their ability to influence the historic drama now playing out across their neighborhood.
3. Do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear military capability. Amidst all the sturm und drang created by what many believe is the unraveling of the Middle East's post-World War I order, Israeli officials have maintained a laser-like focus on the Iranian nuclear threat. Stop the mullahs from fulfilling their atomic ambitions, Israeli officials opine, and the chances of coming out the other side of the Arab Awakening in relatively positive fashion increase dramatically. Fail to do so, however, and the dark shadow of expanding radicalism, nuclear proliferation, and violent instability will quickly descend upon the region, posing an unprecedented -- and unacceptable -- threat not only to Israel's survival, but to vital U.S. interests as well.
Third, Israeli officials have lost almost all faith that the current American strategy of negotiations combined with escalating economic pressure can succeed in compelling Iran to back down. They are at pains to stress how much they value the Obama administration's strong support for Israel's security needs, as well as the excellent lines of communication they have established at the administration's highest levels. They are also deeply appreciative of the recent, albeit belated, U.S. and European efforts to impose crippling sanctions on Iran's economy. But at this late date, Israeli officials suggest, coercive diplomacy's only chance of succeeding is if it is rapidly coupled with the credible threat of an overwhelming and imminent American attack. At present, they despair, no such threat exists and the Obama administration appears unwilling, or incapable, of generating one. Worst of all, the Iranians know it. So long as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains convinced that President Obama has neither the will nor the intention of destroying his nuclear program by force, negotiations are doomed to fail -- leaving Israel and/or the U.S. with no option but war to retard Iran's dash to the bomb.
Fourth, with rare exception, the Israelis I spoke with have little to no confidence that President Obama will act in a timely manner to stop Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability. "Politically, Obama has a policy of prevention," one official told me, "but substantively, he's headed toward containment." Israelis pointedly note that Obama has backed away from any commitment to stop Iran from gaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Instead, the president now only speaks of stopping Iran from assembling an actual bomb. "He's prepared to let them get one turn of the screwdriver away," several Israelis remarked. "We're not."
To Israeli minds, a genuine U.S. commitment to prevention would be undergirded by a single-minded campaign to convince Iran's leaders that a massive military onslaught was inevitable if they did not relent in short order. They also believe that the president and other top U.S. officials would be speaking far more frequently to the American people about the threat to vital U.S. interests that a nuclear Iran poses. Instead, Israeli officials point out, what Tehran has been treated to is an unending display of American hand-wringing over the possible use of force, epitomized by a series of very public warnings against any Israeli military action, and constant fretting over the parade of horribles that might accompany a possible clash with Iran.
Fifth, the Israelis take the concept of a "zone of immunity" very seriously. They believe there will come a moment when Iran's military nuclear program is so well buried that Israel, on its own, will not have sufficient capability to inflict meaningful damage. Though the U.S. military would still be able to mount a successful attack past this point, Israeli officials are loathe to allow such a situation to emerge. Indeed, they are adamant that in the face of such an existential threat to the very survival of the Jewish state, it would be "absolutely unacceptable" for any Israeli prime minister to permit the issue of dealing with it to pass out of Israeli hands -- even if the hand off is to Israel's most dependable ally, the United States. The Israelis I spoke with insist that even in the best of circumstances -- with an American president in whom there was total trust -- such dependence would run contrary to Israel's entire ethos and everything that it stands for. Exactly how close Iran is to reaching the zone of immunity my Israeli interlocutors would not say. But they left little doubt that we are getting perilously near -- at best, a matter of months, not years. I was told that the Israeli military has presented its detailed options for attacking Iran's nuclear program to Israel's political leaders, and that "we have entered the phase of strategic decisions."
Sixth, my impression was that Israel's resolve to deal with the Iranian nuclear program on its own is no mere bluster, no tactical feint simply to leverage greater American action -- though it certainly serves that purpose as well. The Israeli officials I spoke with were incredibly sober in sharing their assessments, as well as their policy implications. They very much gave the appearance of people who would prefer to be reaching quite different conclusions if the facts allowed, but honestly believe reality is rapidly conspiring to restrict their country's options to deal with a mortal threat. All of them would clearly love to see a diplomatic solution. And should military action be necessary, most would much rather have the U.S. military lead the way because of its ability to wreak far more substantial damage on the Iranian program. But as more than one Israeli official told me with obvious regret, "We are forced to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be."
Seventh, while acknowledging a vigorous domestic debate over the best course of action against Iran, my Israeli contacts express quiet confidence that the country will be united should the government decide to strike. They appreciate the significant pain that Israel's citizens may have to endure in any Iranian retaliation, but are confident of two things: 1) Israel has prepared well to address the full spectrum of likely contingencies; and 2) The price Israel pays will be far worse if Iran is permitted to acquire a nuclear military capability.
Again, it's important to stress that none of the above is based on direct talks with Israel's top leaders. But for what it's worth, I left Israel believing that an attack on Iran was significantly more likely than before I arrived. I also got a distinct feeling that the moment of truth for an Israeli decision to strike is getting close, perhaps much closer than many appreciate.
Could it come before November's elections in the U.S.? The Israelis I asked were strident in emphasizing that a move of such national importance would be based entirely on Israeli security interests and the state of Iran's nuclear program, not America's electoral calendar. But when pushed, a few reluctantly acknowledged that securing maximum U.S. support for Israeli military action would be an important variable. And there's no doubt that many further believe that, all else being equal, securing the full-throated backing of the Obama administration is far more likely before an overwhelmingly pro-Israel American electorate goes to the polls than afterwards.
We are living in momentous and perilous times, of that there should be no doubt. Powerful forces of revolution, technology, and ideology are mixing in highly combustible ways. In some cases, the fate of nations hang in the balance. America's stake in how this drama unfolds, in a region so vital to our national interests, seems obvious to me -- as does the proposition that our own wellbeing is best served by standing strong in support of those alarmingly few friends and allies we actually have in the Middle East (or around the world, for that matter) who possess both the will and the capability to act in concert with us to defend our common interests and values against those who, given their druthers and the necessary means, would surely destroy us.
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Yesterday's column by David Ignatius ostensibly detailing the Obama administration's reelection campaign's strengths on foreign policy is revealing, but probably not in the way the White House hopes. While some more critical analysis from Ignatius (usually one of the most perceptive of foreign policy columnists) would have been preferred, in this case he seems to be channeling what he's hearing from the White House, so the column serves the useful purpose of explaining the administration's mindset. No doubt Obama's experience and understanding of foreign policy has, um, evolved during his time in office. But given the administration's message in the article's closing line that Obama will be making the campaign case that he has "learned on the job," the specific examples of the administration's current thinking and future priorities cited in the article are puzzling and don't help their case.
For example, on Syria Ignatius says that Obama "worries that the protracted struggle" risks empowering extremists who would be worse than Assad. This is a serious concern, but it also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy because it completely disregards the White House's own role in failing to support the non-extremist opposition elements in Syria who have for a year been crying out for American help.
On Russia, the hope is expressed that Obama can "do business" with the "transactional" Putin. One wonders if that is the most sophisticated assessment the White House can offer after investing so much diplomatic capital in Medvedev and the failed "re-set" policy, and after seeing Putin's conspiratorial and belligerent campaign directed at the U.S.?
On Iran, I hope the administration's optimism is warranted about the possibility of Tehran accepting a grand bargain on its nuclear program. But the real challenge comes if, as is more likely, Iran rejects the offer -- what is the administration's contingency plan? Especially since as Will Tobey lays out here, Vice President Biden's boasts and distortions notwithstanding, the Iranian regime has made substantial progress on its nuclear program during Obama's time in office.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Again, may the administration's optimism be warranted, but making that a second-term focus needs to first account for the significant setbacks caused by the administration's own previous miscalculations, especially by alienating the Israeli leadership and adopting a position on settlements even firmer than the Palestinian position itself. "Managing" the Arab Spring? This seems to have disquieting echoes of "leading from behind," especially given the administration's current paralysis on Syria and apathy and missed opportunities, as Jackson Diehl has argued, towards democracy promotion in general.
Also curiously absent from the list of second-term priorities is Afghanistan or Asia -- the latter omission is especially puzzling given the administration's previous hype about its strategic pivot. The bottom line is that, as Peter Feaver and I among others have described, the administration's foreign policy successes have generally come when they have followed Bush administration strategic frameworks, and their greatest missteps have come when they tried to go in different directions. Such a pattern does not necessarily bode well for the administration's hoped-for second term policy priorities. Now the skeptics out there might respond that of course Shadow Government writers would say something like that. But I hope those skeptics remember one of Shadow Government's modest maxims: Just because a Republican says it, doesn't mean that it isn't true.
Once again Israel has caught the world off-guard, this time by announcing the creation of a new national unity government, which incorporates the leading opposition party and the centrist Kadima headed by its new leader, former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. Previous national unity governments were formed prior to the 1967 war and in 1984 in response to Israel's economic crisis. The new coalition indicates the depth of the multi-faceted crisis in which the Jewish state currently finds itself. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government confronts difficult choices across a wide range of issues, ranging from decisions regarding an attack on Iran, middle class unrest regarding the country's increasingly unbalanced economy, social tensions over the power of the ultra-Orthodox Haredim, and the future of a peace process that seems ever more remote.
Netanyahu had dropped the broadest of hints that a new election was in the offing; most observers expected an announcement that the election would be held on September 4, before the Jewish high holidays, and, significantly, two months before the American elections. With Netanyahu widely expected to return as prime minister, it appeared that he would be in an even stronger position to threaten a strike on Iran if the international community appeared unable to prevent Tehran from moving ahead with its program to develop a nuclear weapon. By adding Kadima's 28 seats to those of his own coalition, giving him 92 seats out of 120 in the Knesset (parliament), Netanyahu was able to strengthen his hand domestically without having to go to the polls for another year.
Kadima's return to office -- Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu's predecessor, was Kadima's leader, as was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the party's founder -- will certainly affect any decision by Israel to attack Iran. Mofaz, who was born in Tehran, is known to be opposed to a unilateral strike; as a former chief of staff, his opinion will carry some weight in the government's security cabinet. On the other hand, should he become convinced that Israel has no other option but to strike the Iranian nuclear facilities, his support would solidify Netanyahu's decision, both internally and externally.
Mofaz and Kadima bring more to Netanyahu than possible support for an attack on Iran, however. Kadima has been far more forthcoming on making some progress in the peace process with the Palestinians. Significantly, Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the creation of the new government. Kadima's participation in the government allows Netanyahu to sidestep the more extreme elements of his own Likud party, and particularly those with close ties to the settler movement. The risk he runs, however, is that he could be abandoned by his party, as has been the case with Ehud Barak, or become a Ramsay MacDonald-type hostage to Kadima. Still, Netanyahu appears to be solidly in charge of Likud; the settlers may fuss and fume, but their clout may be less than meets the eye.
Kadima will certainly help Netanyahu in the economic and social realms. The "start-up nation" increasingly resembles a banana republic: The percentage of the population below the poverty line has increased in the past few years. Middle-class discontent over housing costs and the price of basic foods, could erupt once again, and the tent cities of a few months ago could result in a backlash against Likud. Kadima, on the other hand, is seen as sympathetic to middle-class needs, and likely will provide a vehicle for Netanyahu to be more accommodating to the middle class than might otherwise have been the case.
Finally, with the Israeli supreme court ruling that military exemptions for the Haredim are unconstitutional, the entry of the secular Kadima party into the government allows Netanyahu to outmaneuver the religious parties, who will no longer have a stranglehold on the government. The ultra-orthodox religious establishment, and the parties that represent it, will howl in protest at any attempt to remove the exemptions from military and national service that now apply to over 60,000 students in religious seminaries. On the other hand, popular opinion in Israel (and, for that matter, among its Jewish supporters overseas) overwhelmingly opposes more than a limited percentage of exemptions for the Haredim. Netanyahu and the unity government could now pursue a plan such as that which Defense Minister Ehud Barak has proposed: No more than roughly 3,000 places, or roughly five percent of the current population, would be reserved in the seminaries for the best and the brightest students. The remainder would either perform national service or serve in the military, after which they would enter the workforce, thereby injecting a real boost to the economy, while lowering the burden that subsidies for these students, and their often large families, force the government to bear.
Clearly, Netanyahu's latest move is a masterstroke, politically as well as in terms of the nation's security, its economy, and its social cohesion. In the past, national unity Governments have accomplished the mission for which they were established. If Netanyahu can do the same, particularly if Mofaz is able to restrain any Israeli impulse to attack Iran, this latest government will be able to take its place among its distinguished predecessors.
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Is the Obama administration's relationship with Israel close or cold? According to Eli Lake, writing in the most recent issue of Newsweek, it is both. Lake, in reporting the apparent delivery of "bunker-buster" bombs by the US to Israel, provides additional substance to an argument often made by defenders of the administration's approach to Israel: that despite any strains in the political relationship over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S.-Israel military and security ties have never been stronger.
That the military-to-military relationship is strong is not in dispute -- it has been growing broader and deeper for many years, and the Obama Administration has maintained this trajectory. That the strength of this relationship attests to the good health of the U.S.-Israel alliance, however, is questionable.
The ties between the US and Israel are based on many things, not least a deep historical and cultural affinity. However, those ties are also based on shared strategic interests. The United States provides military assistance to Israel not out of charity, but because it is in our interest to do so (indeed, this is the rationale behind most foreign assistance). Israel is a powerful, competent, and cooperative partner in a region of the world that is vital to American security and prosperity. Our assistance not only protects Israel, but also provides for our common defense against threats such as Iran's nuclear and missile program and transnational terrorist groups. These threats and Israel's cooperation in dealing with them are not merely hypothetical, as demonstrated by the Israeli strike on Syria's clandestine nuclear program in 2007. We seek to safeguard Israel's security in order to advance our own.
Providing for Israel's security, however, involves more than good military-to-military ties. It also requires a good political relationship, for two reasons. First, the threats faced by the United States and Israel (and our other allies) in the Middle East have both political and military dimensions, and often the former are more important than the latter. Frequent, close, and candid political contacts are vital in any alliance for dealing with potential threats (and capitalizing on opportunities) before they metastasize into matters that must be dealt with by generals. Second, many of the steps the United States would like Israel to take (or, in some cases, refrain from taking) would be eased by the assurance of strong U.S. backing for Israel, whether at the United Nations or in regional and global capitals. As is the case throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, our political and security relations with Israel are inextricable.
Many observers have suggested that our military support for Israel should be traded for Israeli concessions in the peace process (indeed, this was the implicit bargain offered by the United States to Israel in November 2010 -- military hardware in exchange for an extension of the settlement freeze). This sort of zero-sum thinking has a simplistic appeal, but does not stand up to the rigors of the real world. A more patient and nuanced approach views our security relationship with Israel -- and indeed our regional security efforts -- and advancing the peace process as mutually reinforcing. The reasons are simple: first, an Israel both consumed with external threats and worried about the reliability of U.S. backing is one which will hunker down, not take risks for peace; second, to the extent Israel and its neighbors are focused on similar threats, such as Iran and terrorism, our efforts to counter those threats can serve as a rare point of cooperation, even if implicit, among them and improve the regional political atmosphere.
The United States should not be uncritical of Israel, nor should we expect that we will not have differences, including publicly, with Israeli leaders. The reality of any alliance is that however extensively overlapping our interests, they are not identical. But we should treat those differences -- as we do with other close allies -- as obstacles to be overcome as we pursue a close and cooperative military and political relationship. We should not allow them to define the relationship, much less highlight them in the vain hope of winning the esteem of Israel's foes.
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The Obama Administration is working feverishly to prevent the government of Palestine from asking the United Nations for recognition as a state. The United States cannot prevent the asking, but has said it would prevent the success by vetoing the measure when it comes before the Security Council. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has declared he will then appeal to the General Assembly for recognition, which he will certainly get. But the Palestinian Liberation Organization has had observer status at the United Nations since 1974, received formal recognition as a state by numerous countries since 1988. What, then, is the big deal of such recognition?
President Abbas described the purpose as "negotiating from the position of one United Nations member whose territory is militarily occupied by another, and not as a vanquished people." Palestinian official Nabil Shaath said the appeal to the United Nations was the best of their options, which consisted of surrender, return to violence, or appeal to the international community. That is, they consider negotiations with Israel at a dead end. He dismissed Quartet envoy Tony Blair's efforts with "sounds like an Israeli diplomat," and called for "international responsibility toward the Palestinians."
For the last several years, Prime Minister Fayyad has been taking an alternative approach: creating competent government so that Palestine actually has a functional state. It's a significant difference. Our own country endorsed that approach, bilaterally contributing $600 million a year, including direct budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority and significant effort to training Palestinian security forces.
That aid to the government of Palestine was a very difficult sell to Congress, who feared we were building the military and paramilitary forces that would threaten Israel. The fear has so far not materialized -- well-trained and disciplined security forces in Palestine have been a stabilizing presence in the occupied territories, often working in conjunction with Israeli security forces. Fayyad's fait accompli strategy has worked well enough that Nabil Shaath now confidently asserts "a new culture of nonviolence." If only.
Using international institutions to threaten Israel is unlikely to make Palestine independent. For all the international sanctimony, who is going to force Israel to cede its territory, and commit to ensuring that territory's independence once arrived at?
What Abbas' gambit is likely to produce is an end to American funding and participation in professionalization of Palestinian security forces (already tenuous because of the April 2011 Fatah-Hamas power sharing agreement), and greater hostility to political engagement with the government of Palestine by the two governments it needs to make a Palestinian state a reality: the United States and Israel. It may also undercut the Palestinian case for a right of refugee return to lands in Israel.
The Obama Administration's veto in the Security Council will incur a high political cost to the United States. It is difficult to argue, as we have, for the independence of South Sudan, the dawn of representative governments throughout the Middle East, and the right of ethnic and religious enclaves to their autonomy while opposing the partition of Israel's territory along those lines. Moreover, as the last two administrations have supported a two-state solution, it leaves the United States in the awkward position of vetoing something we have said we want as the outcome. And then there's the man on the street question: if the Palestinians have a President and Prime Minister, don't they already have a state?
Arab countries will cry foul at our hypocrisy, making more difficult our partnerships in that important region. The Abbas government is surely banking on Gulf states filling in the financial assistance that the Congress will cut off; that may happen, although the record is patchy of fellow Arab states supporting Palestinians beyond rhetoric and Palestinians are already among the world's largest recipients of foreign assistance. There will also be the economic effect of tighter restrictions by Israel.
Skillful working of the U.N. rules could delay the vote until well into October, which would deny Abbas the grandstanding opportunities of the General Assembly convocation in September. That is probably the best the Obama Administration can hope for at this point.
It is difficult to see Abbas' move bringing Israel to the bargaining table. Israeli fears of international persecution will be stoked at the prospect of their security being adjudicated in the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. An overtly confrontational move like going to the United Nations will not soften Israeli hearts or government policies. Peace in Palestine depends fundamentally on Israel feeling secure enough to trade land for peace -- something it tried before and got burned on -- and reining in the settler movement.
At the end of the day, Palestinian aspirations would be advanced more by appealing for international support on the basis of the dignity of Palestinians creating their own state rather than having a U.N. coronation for one that may not be strong enough to support itself.
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How serious is U.S. President Barack Obama about averting a theatrical United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood next week? We know that the United States has said it will veto any such vote, but the famously anti-Israel U.N. General Assembly may still take the vote forward in a way that is more symbolic than binding. Given the potential consequences of any such vote, the Obama administration should be flexing all its diplomatic muscle to ensure that it does not stand alone against this reckless and provocative move.
Tensions in Egypt remain high as the government (such that it is) battles to satisfy young protesters and keep the country safe at the same time. Libya is at a historic crossroads, with the West hurrying to fix up some signposts. Syria continues its brutal crackdown, seemingly undisturbed by Western sanctions and rhetoric. Turkey is flexing its muscles as a new power broker, and Iran continues to pursue its nuclear weapons program. Amid this melting pot of hope and turmoil, the region's strongest democracy, Israel, is isolated and weakened and in need of its friends.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly refuses to be drawn on how his government intends to vote at the United Nations. This is what he told David Frost on Al Jazeera earlier this week:
Britain and America are very, very strong allies. We work together on so many things. In this job you really see the benefits of the huge cooperation and the work that we do. But on this issue there have been times when we've voted in different ways, particularly on the settlement issue, and Britain will always do what it thinks is right.''
Britain has taken a leading role on the world stage since this coalition government was formed in May 2010, not least of course in the Libyan intervention. Throughout the tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa, Cameron has repeatedly supported calls for democratic reform and pluralization in the region. This leadership is at odds with his failure to articulate his government's position on the matter of Palestinian statehood. Neither he nor his ministers will be drawn into anything other than generalities.
Is this a "good cop, bad cop" routine devised by the United States and Britain, or is it simply that the British government no longer stands so firmly with the Middle East's strongest democracy? By refusing to make its position clear, Britain is playing a risky game. True alliances in the Middle East are hard to come by, and I understand from private sources that the Israelis are dumbfounded by the lack of support from old friends, particularly Britain.
And the Israelis are right to be worried. The Palestinian Liberation Organization's ambassador to the United States, Maen Areikat, said this week that their future state should be free of Jews. He said, "It would be in the best interest of the two peoples to be separated." This prompted former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams to describe the ambassador's sentiment as "a despicable form of anti-Semitism," adding that "no civilized country would act this way."
With rhetorical tensions at an all-time high, the United States must increase its efforts to persuade the British government to reject calls for Palestinian statehood. If the Britain still counts Israel as a key regional ally and still believes in a negotiated peace, this is the only course of action open to David Cameron.
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One of the more curious aspects of President Obama's May 19 Middle East speech was his decision to devote so much attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president's main theme, of course, was supposed to be the Middle East upheavals of 2011 and the United States' support for those seeking liberty after decades of tyranny. Indeed, in his speech, the president properly highlighted one of the region's great unspoken truths: that for years on end, autocrats of every stripe have cynically manipulated the conflict with Israel to divert their people's grievances outward. When provided half a chance to give voice to what's really on their minds, the Arab masses since last December have repeatedly demonstrated that their thoughts turn not so much to far away Palestine, but to their own mistreatment and degradation at the hands of corrupt, unaccountable despots. Contrary to the myth indulged by generations of Western diplomats, the real driving force of Middle East politics has proven not to be Israel's dispute with the Palestinians, but a freedom deficit that has left hundreds of millions of Arabs living lives of quiet desperation under the thumb of their own oppressive dictators.
Was this really the time, then, for the president to re-focus global attention on the imperative of resolving the Palestinian issue? To commit, in effect, the very transgression that he had just minutes before rightly criticized Arab leaders for, i.e., diverting attention from what really ails the Middle East -- the absence of humane, representative governance that has as its first priority addressing the legitimate needs of its own citizenry -- to the intensely emotional, but profoundly intractable issue of Palestine?
For all the president's laudable comments on the region's "winds of change," what should have been the primary message of his speech was quite predictably overwhelmed by the deluge of attention given to his revived foray into peacemaking. "Obama Seeks End to the Stalemate on Mideast Talks," trumpeted the New York Times. "Obama urges Israel to make push for peace," proclaimed the Washington Post. Talk about stepping on your own headline. A vital region of the world is convulsed by a process of historic transformation that carries both great promise as well as great danger for U.S. interests. Yet in the wake of a major presidential address on the issue, all we are left talking about is a new U.S. position to help solve a six decade-old conflict whose prospects for near-term resolution are effectively nil?
Of course, quite apart from serving as a major distraction from the most pressing threats and opportunities that currently confront the United States in the Middle East, the president's peace process play made little sense even on its own terms. Thanks in large part to the ham-handed diplomacy of Obama's first two years in office, peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians are (as noted above) largely frozen. There was no real prospect that anything the president said in his May 19 speech was likely to launch the process on a more virtuous path.
Quite the contrary. Coming on the eve of a visit by Israel's prime minister, without any advance warning or coordination between the two allies, the president's "1967 lines" gambit guaranteed yet another embarrassing contretemps and breach of trust with the United States' closest and most powerful Middle Eastern friend. Making matters worse was that the substantive tilt in favor of the Palestinian position came in the context of a brazen drive by the Palestinian Authority to defy U.S. interests -- first by foregoing direct negotiations with Israel in favor of a dangerous course of unilateralism at the United Nations; and second, by striking a unity deal with an unreconstructed Hamas. On top of it all came the unfortunate spectacle of Prime Minister Netanyahu having to dress down the President of the United States in the Oval Office, and Obama's efforts to "clarify" what his peace initiative really meant just days later in front of a pro-Israel audience. The cumulative effect was to reinforce all of the worst stereotypes of Obama that have unfortunately metastasized across the Middle East: a weak, unreliable, and incompetent leader whose first instinct is invariably to punish traditional American allies while rewarding those bent on undermining U.S. interests.
And all for what? To convince Europe to help derail the bid for U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood in September? Well, maybe. But, again, one has to ask: Why not do some advance coordination with Israel on what it would take to achieve this legitimate (and shared) strategic purpose? More importantly, why make the shift on "1967 lines" and endure all the subsequent costs without first securing guarantees that the Europeans will in fact deliver? Here, once more, the president simply plays to the most harmful caricature of himself, as a leader who actually believes that his august pronouncements are somehow a substitute for serious policy; a worrisome mix of arrogance and naiveté who is left playing the sucker that friends can never rely on to protect their backs and enemies increasingly believe can be challenged at little or no cost.
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Washington's withdrawal of Danegeld to Israel in exchange for a 90-day settlement freeze marks yet another downward turn in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That process cannot be said to have been derailed, however; it has not really been on the rails since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power with his former chief of staff, Avigdor Lieberman, as his deputy as well as foreign minister. While Prime Minister Netanyahu may well be sincere in finally coming to terms with the need for a two-state solution, as long as his policies are held hostage by his foreign minister, all the sincerity in the world will count for very little.
Avigdor Lieberman makes no bones about his position. Intensely nationalistic, he lives in a settlement town himself, and has no sympathy for any agreements that would in any way infringe on what he considers to be settlers' rights. As long as Netanyahu is unable to face down his foreign minister, the peace process will go nowhere.
Lieberman is doing Israel a tremendous deal of harm and not just regarding peace with the Palestinians. His blunt style, bordering on rudeness, has alienated many of his ministerial counterparts, with whom, after all, he is supposed to work for the betterment of his country's international interests.
Most egregious has been his intransigence over Turkey's demand for an apology and compensation from Israel for the death of its eight citizens on the Mavi Marmora, the ship that sought to break the Israeli blockade in May 2010. In the wake of Turkish humanitarian assistance in helping to cope with the fires of northern Israel, the Jewish state has before it an opportunity to restore good relations with its most important, and longest standing, Muslim friend. Israel could apologize for those deaths, call them inadvertent, compensate the families; nevertheless it need not budge an inch from its contention regarding both the ship's purpose, as well as the legitimacy of its commando operation and its blockade of Gaza. In fact, the United States has pursued a similar course of action many times in somewhat analogous circumstances, including in Afghanistan, when civilians have been killed in air attacks on terrorist targets. But Lieberman is stonewalling, and an agreement that could have been reached months ago still may not be achieved, Israel's long term strategic interests notwithstanding.
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The to-ing and fro-ing between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government continues unabated, with each new verbal clash further dimming any chances for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. On Friday the Israeli government moved another step closer to lifting its construction freeze by publishing in the Israeli press its plans to build 1,345 new housing units in mostly Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Two days later Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Vice President Joe Biden in New Orleans, where the impasse between Jerusalem and Washington remained as firm as ever.
Two days after that, President Obama, responding to a question at his Jakarta news conference about Israeli construction, first stated that he had not received "a full briefing on Israel's intentions," but then went on to say that such activity was "unhelpful." Naturally, the world press focused on the latter part of Obama's remarks, with breathless headlines proclaiming, in tabloid fashion, "Obama Rips Israel." Not to be outdone, Netanyahu responded to Obama's remarks by pointing out that Jerusalem was "not a settlement," and that the new housing units would not affect the outcome of peace talks. In effect the Israeli Prime Minister dismissed the entire flap as much ado about nothing (his actual term was "overblown"). At which point the State Department issued its own retort, arguing that there was indeed a linkage between construction and the peace process.
President Obama has clearly determined that construction in East Jerusalem is a "red line" that the Israeli government should not cross. The problem is that "East Jerusalem" does not merely consist of Arab neighborhoods in the Old City or even outside its walls. Many districts of what is East Jerusalem have been home to tens of thousands of Israelis for years, even decades. Construction in these neighborhoods never was an obstacle to peace talks until the Obama administration put the Palestinians in an impossible position by insisting that construction should stop.
Given Washington's position, the Palestinian Authority has had no alternative but to focus on the construction issue. It clearly cannot not take a softer line on construction than Obama has done. Meanwhile, Israelis of all political stripes, including many who otherwise have no truck with Netanyahu, are puzzled and angered by Washington's stance. Many suspect that he is simply trying to curry favor with the Muslim world at Israel's expense. His performance at the Jakarta press conference does nothing to allay that suspicion. After all, having said he needed to study the issue, he need not have gone any further. But he did, and Netanyahu responded in turn and in kind.
Why does the president continue to harp on settlements in East Jerusalem, as opposed to expansion of West Bank settlements that would be dismantled under the terms of any peace agreement between the parties? Obama may feel that he has crossed a Rubicon and must push forward. Or he may feel that he must put Netanyahu in his place; there is no love lost between the two men, and the Israeli reportedly feels that the recent Congressional elections have strengthened his position. Obama may want to show the Israeli that his grasp of the balance of power in Washington is not as strong as he thinks it is. (Which of the two men is right is another matter, and in any event will not be determined for some time.)
There is, however, another possibility: the president may simply not realize that while Israel might give up parts of Jerusalem, as both Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were willing to do, even they were not ready to cede major Jewish neighborhoods in what every prime minister since 1967, of whatever party, considers to be Israel's capital.
Whatever the reason, Obama's behavior in Indonesia, and his constant harping on the construction issue, has complicated his avowed search for an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel will not give in to his demands, and the Palestinians will not proceed unless the Israelis do so. The peace process is stalemated, and it is up to the president, who has, perhaps unwittingly, brought on this latest dead end on the long-standing saga of Israeli-Palestinian misery, to come up with a way that lets both sides move forward, even if it means that he personally has to take several steps back in order to do so.
While all eyes are fixed on the faltering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel is involved in another diplomatic standoff whose consequences may be just as dire for the future of the Middle East. The impasse in question is between Turkey and Israel -- erstwhile allies whose deteriorating relations undermine the security of the entire region. This conflict -- more than Ankara's outreach to Iran or tensions with the EU -- calls starkly into question the role Turkey will play in regional politics and peacemaking.
The current standoff between Turkey and Israel was sparked by the now-infamous Gaza flotilla clash of May 31. Ankara saw Israel's forceful interdiction of the flotilla and killing of nine Turkish nationals as violations of international law, and has demanded an apology and reparations. Israel saw the flotilla as a provocation irresponsibly endorsed by Turkish authorities, and has refused Ankara's demands and insisted its navy's actions were lawful.
While Israel previously dispatched high-ranking envoys in an effort to resolve the dispute, at present both sides seem to be digging in. Indeed, while the flotilla incident catalyzed the Turkish-Israeli conflict, serious trouble has been brewing between the two countries at least since the December 2008 Gaza war. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan not only walked out of a speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos in January 2009, but has characterized Israel as the "principal threat" in the region and spoken approvingly of Hamas and hosted its leaders.
The motivations of Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP government for eschewing Turkey's alliance with Israel are unclear. It would be easy to write them off as mere populism -- what easier way to garner votes in the Middle East than going after Israel? And certainly domestic politics sits atop the AKP's agenda at the moment as the party completes a near total consolidation of power.
However, this explanation may confuse cause and effect. Public support in Turkey for close ties with Israel was not always low, and previous Turkish governments have made the national-interest case for the alliance successfully. Instead, it appears that Ankara's recent antagonism toward Israel is a result of its pursuit of "strategic depth," a concept popularized in Turkey by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu. "Strategic depth" has meant distancing Turkey from the West and cultivating closer relations with Middle Eastern states like Iran and Syria.
Far from bolstering Turkish influence, however, deteriorating ties with Israel can only diminish Ankara's standing. Prior to the December 2008 Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, Turkey -- uniquely among regional states -- enjoyed the trust of both Israel and its Arab neighbors. This status allowed Turkey to serve as a mediator in Israeli-Syrian peace talks from 2007 to 2008 -- the most serious negotiations on that track in years. Turkey has not only sacrificed the trust of Israel since then, but through its outspoken defense of Hamas and Iran, has distanced itself from the positions of Arab states who see Tehran and its proxies -- and not Israel -- as their "principal threat."
By itself, Turkish engagement with Iran and Syria would be potentially positive developments for the Middle East. Ankara has proved -- through its mediation between Jerusalem and Damascus, and its successful if ill-timed nuclear diplomacy with Iran earlier this year -- that it is interested in using these relationships for useful ends. However, by viewing its foreign relations as a zero-sum game -- in which ties with Israel and the West must diminish in order for those with Tehran and Damascus to improve -- Turkey undermines its own role as a mediator in regional disputes. This represents a loss not only for Ankara, but for all nations interested in peace and stability in the Middle East who will regret Turkey's absence as a moderating force in a volatile region.
If Turkey truly desires to serve as a bridge between East and West and achieve "strategic depth," it would do well to shed such zero-sum thinking and find a way to repair its relations with Israel. Likewise, Israel must do its part by demonstrating a willingness to compromise regarding the flotilla incident and avoiding actions which exacerbate bilateral tensions.
The choice facing Turkey has been sometimes mischaracterized as between Iran and its allies on one hand, and Israel and the West on the other. In fact, Turkey's choice is between opportunism and responsibility. Choosing the former may seem appealing in the short term to Ankara, but the long-term costs to Turkey and the region will be heavy.
DAVID GANNON/AFP/Getty Images
It is widely believed that the massive $60 billion U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia is directed against Iran. After all, Israel did not object to the deal. As one analyst told China's Xinhua News Agency, Jerusalem, of all places, was simply adhering to the ancient principle of: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."
It is indeed possible that the deal -- which includes up to 84 new F-15s, upgrading of Riyadh's current force of 70 F-15s, and up to 1,000 so-called "bunker buster" bombs -- is meant to enhance the Saudi deterrent against Iran. But that presupposes that Iran will still be moving ahead with its nuclear weapons program in 2015, when the first new F-15s will be delivered to the desert kingdom, but will not yet have actually fielded the bomb. Should Iran already have acquired nuclear weapons together with viable systems for delivering them prior to that date, it is difficult to see how the Saudi purchases would effectively deter Tehran from anything other than a conventional attack on the Saudi Kingdom. On the other hand, should Iran have dropped its nuclear program -- whether as a result of either international pressure or an internal upheaval -- the Saudi purchase would appear to be somewhat beside the point.
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In negotiating tradecraft, the distinction between positions and interests is a fundamental one. Parties with divergent interests can unite behind common positions, like the environmentalists and trade unions who opposed NAFTA in the 1990s. Just as often, parties with opposing positions fail to perceive their common interests, like divorcing parents whose acrimony blinds them to what is best for their children.
It is neglect of this vital distinction that now has the United States scrambling to salvage Middle East peace talks, which are threatened by a resurgent dispute over Israeli settlement activity. The Obama administration initially viewed the settlements issue as "low-hanging fruit" -- the Palestinians, Arab states, international public opinion, and frankly even many Israelis were against settlement activity, whereas a seeming minority on the Israeli right favored it. Thus, the White House viewed insistence on a settlement freeze as a way to restore confidence in U.S. impartiality while jump-starting the peace process. As is now well-known, precisely the opposite occurred -- U.S. relations with all sides have been strained, and the peace process has yet to take flight.
To understand what went wrong, one must look past the Israelis' and Palestinians' positions on settlements and understand how they define their interests.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a June 14, 2009 speech, provided insight into his opposition to a settlement freeze. In his remarks, Netanyahu asserts that "The simple truth is that the root of the conflict has been -- and remains -- the refusal to recognize the right of the Jewish people to its own state in its historic homeland." In his view, Arab efforts to eliminate Israel began in 1947 with the United Nations proposal to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and have not truly ebbed since despite Israel's peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. That those efforts began before Israel took the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and that rocket fire from southern Lebanon and Gaza continued after Israeli troops withdrew from both territories, are to Netanyahu and many Israelis evidence that the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank is not the cause of the animosity toward them.
It is this interest-- defending the continued existence of a Jewish state that has been under attack since its founding -- that leads not only to Netanyahu's insistence that the Palestinians explicitly acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, but also to his rejection of a settlement freeze. If the Palestinians and Arabs will not do the former, Netanyahu and his allies view the latter as pointless at best and at worst dangerous succor to those who would delegitimize Israel. While many Israelis do not share Netanyahu's position on settlements, they do share his interest in defending Israel's legitimacy, and thus have reacted negatively to what they view as Washington's harsh approach.
The Palestinian narrative is quite different. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 constituted a catastrophe which left them scattered and displaced. In the nations which received them, they were -- with few exceptions -- refugees or guest workers with few rights and little respect, despite the lip service paid to the Palestinian cause. For years, Palestinians themselves had scant voice in that cause, and there was little support among leaders in the region or elsewhere for the independent state envisaged in 1947.
For Palestinians, these twin interests -- justice for refugees who have been the region's second-class citizens for sixty years, and ensuring that the emergence of a Palestinian state remains viable -- motivate deep opposition to continued Israeli settlement activity. In their view, it makes little sense to engage in negotiations aimed at satisfying these interests while simultaneously acceding to activity which undermines them.
On Monday, Netanyahu offered to extend Israel's settlement freeze if the Palestinians would recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians immediately refused. Given the interests described above, one can see why Israel made the offer, as well as why the Palestinians rejected it. Israel is ready to modify its position on a settlement freeze if its interests are otherwise satisfied; but Palestinians likewise wish to see their interests fulfilled, and not merely their position on a settlement freeze conceded. For this reason, the Palestinians for their part have insisted that Israel and the United States declare that the basis for negotiations over the borders of a Palestinian state will be the "1967 lines" to ensure a Palestinian state's viability.
Thus the fight over a settlement freeze is in reality a conflict by proxy over the competing interests of each party. But because those interests will only be satisfied through negotiations, and not conceded by the other side prior to the talks, no sustainable compromise can be found as long as the freeze remains an issue. For this reason, temporarily extending the freeze as the United States is reportedly seeking to do can only postpone a crisis for another day, if that. Moving forward will require that the Obama administration acknowledge that its early emphasis on settlements was mistaken in order to deflect blame and anger that might otherwise be directed at Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas for changing their stances.
The good news is that while Israeli and Palestinian positions on a settlement freeze are seemingly irreconcilable, the interests underlying their positions are not. Indeed, polling data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the people on both sides are ready for a two-state solution. What's more, the parties have other interests -- such as the desire for peace and quiet for their people and to sideline extremists sponsored by Iran -- which enhance the motivation of each to find common ground. This is where American mediation must play a role -- helping the parties see past their conflicting positions, and to recognize their mutual interests.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Sunday's expiration of Israel's settlement construction moratorium is
looming ever larger, and was put back on the front pages by President Barack Obama's
unequivocal statement on Thursday, in his U.N. General Assembly speech dominated by
the Israeli-Palestinian issue, in which he stated he "believe(s) the moratorium should be
In returning forcefully to this issue in a high-profile venue, Obama risks repeating his administration's past diplomatic errors. Recall that it was Washington's -- not the Palestinians' -- early preoccupation with settlements that metastasized into a precondition delaying peace talks in 2009 and early 2010. The American (re)emphasis on it now decreases the chance of a compromise which will allow the talks to continue unimpeded.
Commenting on the settlements impasse, a State Department spokesman said on Thursday that, "You have stated positions on both sides that are incompatible." But an inspection of Israeli and Palestinian leaders' recent statements suggests that this is not necessarily the case. A senior Israeli official told AFP that "Israel is prepared to reach a compromise acceptable to all parties to consider extending the freeze on construction, provided that the freeze will not be total," echoing similar comments made Israeli PM Netanyahu which suggested an openness to compromise. PA President Abbas also hinted at flexibility recently, stating "I cannot say I will leave the negotiations, but it's very difficult for me to resume talks if Prime Minister Netanyahu declares that he will continue his (settlement) activity in the West Bank and Jerusalem."
In light of these statements, it is the U.S. public insistence on an extension of a freeze that seems overly rigid, rather than the parties' own stances. One could argue that the president's position is just rhetorical, and that in fact U.S. negotiators are working behind the scenes to broker a compromise (which it seems they are). Be this as it may, unequivocal and ultimately unnecessary public proclamations -- especially when uttered by top U.S. officials -- make those private efforts more difficult. For Netanyahu, any compromise will now seem to be the result of U.S. and international pressure, which will add fuel to the inevitable political attacks he will face from his right. For Abbas, openness to compromise makes him appear less committed on this sensitive issue than even the United States, reducing his room to maneuver.
The smartest approach for the United States to adopt now is quiet diplomacy. Past settlements compromises have bought room for negotiations, and there are various formulas available to the parties now for a workable outcome. With both the Israelis and Palestinians apparently interested in continuing with the talks for now, behind-the-scenes efforts may pay off if Washington plays its cards right and defers its public statements. Success, if it comes, will speak for itself.
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Today, international donors to the Palestinian Authority (PA) will meet in New York. This meeting comes at a crucial time -- while the Sept. 26 expiration of the Israeli settlement freeze is the most imminent threat to the future of the peace process, Palestinian economic stagnation poses a more fundamental long-term threat to peace and stability, which I discuss at greater length here.
The headlines on the Palestinian economy are quite positive: GDP growth is expected to reach 8 percent in the West Bank in 2010, and 16 percent in Gaza, and PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's institution-building efforts have been successful. Beyond those headlines, however, one finds cause for sobriety. The PA's impressive economic growth is fueled largely by public spending, which in turn is financed by international donors. What's more, as significant as foreign assistance to the Palestinians has been, it has not been sufficient: the PA faces an imminent funding shortfall of $300-400 million. Notably, Arab states have been reticent with their aid -- Saudi Arabia has given the PA $30.6 million in 2010, and the UAE has provided $42 million. By this point in 2009, they had given $221 million and $174 million, respectively.
Much of the PA's 2010 economic growth was made possible by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's focus on improving conditions in the West Bank by removing checkpoints, facilitating commerce, and issuing more permits for Palestinians to work in Israel. These Israeli measures were, in turn, made possible by an improved security atmosphere in the West Bank stemming in part from the PA's security reform efforts. Donors have called for further Israeli steps to ease the business climate in the West Bank, but such steps will likely hinge upon better Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and progress on the peace process.
Even if the immediate threats to the Palestinian economy are overcome -- such as the funding shortfall and the ever-present possibility that the West Bank will once again be engulfed in violence -- it will be a long time before longer-term structural problems can be resolved, private sector investment reignited, and growth and development restored to the trajectory they appeared to be on in 1994, at the beginning of the Oslo era. The challenges are not only economic -- right now, much of the PA's success in keeping aid flowing and implementing reform is the result of Salam Fayyad's talents and reputation. Continued success will require political reform, as well, to build an accountable bureaucracy around Fayyad and offer up a viable alternative to groups like Hamas.
To make it past the short-term problems and even have the opportunity to grapple with the deeper, long-term problems facing the West Bank and Gazan economies, the Palestinians, Israelis, Americans, and their partners must avoid the temptation to focus solely on peace talks and ensure that greater attention is paid to Palestinian economic development and institutional reform. Doing so can spark a virtuous cycle -- good economic news can bolster Palestinian public support for peace, and progress toward peace in turn can help create conditions for the return of private investment, which is the key to long-term economic growth and prosperity for Palestinians.
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Despite the optimistic tone struck over the past few days by U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian leaders, the latest round of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians already faces a looming crisis. On Sept. 26, the ten-month moratorium on settlement activity decreed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will expire. Netanyahu has stated that he will not renew the moratorium, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has asserted that Palestinians will walk out of the talks unless he does just that.
The Sept. 26 deadline is the legacy of the Obama administration's early emphasis on the settlements issue. Washington demanded a freeze to all settlement activity, including "natural growth," which prompted Abbas to take up the same demand. Netanyahu steadfastly refused, finally agreeing to a temporary moratorium to prevent a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. If history is any guide, it is likely that, had Washington not chosen to focus so singularly on settlements, they would have remained a matter of great contention, but not an insuperable obstacle to negotiations.
Either an extension or the expiration of the moratorium on Sept. 26 has potentially disastrous consequences for the peace talks. If Netanyahu allows the freeze to expire, the talks will collapse. If he extends the moratorium, his coalition may well collapse, resulting in political paralysis in Israel for at least several months.
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Howard Berman has a well-deserved reputation as a serious student of foreign policy who does not precipitously wield the legislative hammer to get his way. So his decision to put a hold on $100 million slated for support of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), based on his long-standing concerns about the LAF's ties to Hezbollah, have to be taken seriously. Berman argues that the more than $700 million that the United States has poured into the LAF has not prevented the Lebanese military from increasingly coming under the sway of Hezbollah. Moreover, the August 3rd firefight between Lebanese and Israeli forces, which left an Israeli officer dead and another Israeli soldier wounded -- apparently shot by sniper -- as well as two Lebanese dead, and for which even the United Nations took Israel's side, itself an unusual development, has reinforced Berman's case.
That said, there is little to be gained and much to be lost if Congress puts a permanent freeze on aid to the LAF. The ongoing deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces to the southern part of the country does restrict Hezbollah's freedom of movement and holds out at least some hope for a more stable border with Israel. In fact, in July the LAF announced the deployment of another brigade to the south. The more LAF troops deploy to the south, the more difficult it will be for Hezbollah to strike Israeli targets since Israel has made it clear that it would hold the Lebanese government, and therefore the LAF, responsible for Hezbollah activity along the border. In such circumstances, Hezbollah attacks could hardly be seen as supportive of Lebanese interests, which Sheikh Nasrallah and his claque constantly claim they are.
On the other hand, freezing aid will only strengthen Hezbollah's hand vis-à-vis the LAF, and probably enable it to accelerate its recruitment of LAF soldiers to its cause. A far better approach would be to condition American military assistance on the presence of U.S. monitors on the ground in Lebanon, including the south, to ensure that such aid goes only to the LAF and does not bleed off to Hezbollah. Washington should also insist that the LAF refuse to cooperate with Hezbollah under any circumstances. Any evidence of such cooperation would result in an immediate cutoff of U.S. aid, something the LAF, and the Hariri government, can ill afford.
In the absence of such assistance, a Hezbollah that perceives itself relatively stronger than the LAF would be more likely to launch a rocket attack against Israel. In response, and unlike the July-August 2006 war, the Israelis will be far less reluctant to exert the maximum punishment not only on Hezbollah, but on Lebanon generally. It is a prospect that no one, apart from Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons, relishes -- not Beirut, not Jerusalem, not Washington. Better that a strong LAF, closely monitored by the United States, renders that prospect far less likely.
fallout from the ill-fated May 31 Israeli Navy commando raid on the Mavi
Marmara, the Turkish-registered ship that sought to run the blockade of Gaza,
has yet to run its course. Having already withdrawn its ambassador and
terminated military exercises with Israel in retaliation for the assault that
included nine Turkish citizens among the 19 dead and dozens that were wounded,
the government of Recep Erdogan this week announced that it has closed
its airspace to Israeli military aircraft. The first plane to be denied
overflight rights was a cargo plane that was ferrying
Israeli officers to Poland for a visit to the Auschwitz death camp. No one
could miss the symbolism of the latest Turkish move.
Erdogan insists that Israel must apologize for its actions, must compensate the families of the victims, must agree to an independent -- that is, non-Israeli -- investigation of the incident, and must lift the blockade of Gaza. Yet he knows full well that in the aftermath of the Goldstone report, Israel will place no trust in any investigation over which it has no say, and that it certainly is not about to permit any and everything to enter the territory controlled by an enemy that seeks its complete annihilation.
Israel's defenders argue that Erdogan is simply seizing on the raid as a pretext to distance increasingly Islamist Turkey form Israel. Certainly Ankara continues to move closer to the Arab world and Iran, even as Europe's financial crisis represents the end of the road for Turkish membership of the EU. Moreover, with the United States and NATO enmeshed in an increasingly unpopular war in Muslim Afghanistan, and with Europe equally critical of Israel, there appears to be even less incentive for Turkey to give the Israelis any slack just because that is what Washington would prefer.
There can be little doubt that the Israelis botched the operation; they are mistaken to think it could have been finessed with better PR. Why the raid was undertaken before daylight, when reconnaissance would have aided the commandos; why it had to take place outside Israel's 20 mile exclusion zone, when at least the issue of international waters could have been sidestepped; why -- if Israel suspected the IHH sponsors of the flotilla to have terrorist ties -- the Israelis believed they would face no opposition when they boarded, are questions that have yet to be fully answered. And smoother PR will not answer them.
Erdogan therefore has a case -- after all, nine of his citizens were killed -- but he is overplaying his hand. In the short run, his tilt away from Israel will gain him more popularity in Turkey. In the longer run, the loss of Israeli intelligence support (which helped Turkey nab the PKK's Ocalan), of military cooperation, and of Israeli trade and tourism will not be offset by closer ties to Iran and Syria. Both of those countries really have very little that is of tangible military or economic utility to a G-20 state like Turkey. In fact, Iran's nuclear ambitions can only spook the Turks, while Syria is hardly anyone's image of a reliable ally.
The Obama administration naturally is consumed by other matters: the fallout from the McChrystal affair and other ongoing Afghan troubles, the transition in Iraq, and domestic economic woes that don't seem to get better. But strategically, the Turkish-Israeli alliance anchored the Eastern Mediterranean for the United States. Washington needs to work tirelessly to get those two very bloody minded prime ministers, Erdogan and Netanyahu, to find a way to give each other something to work with, so that the tattered but not yet ruptured relationship between their two countries can slowly be mended. The administration has many "top" priorities, but this one should be one of them.
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The end of the NonProliferation Treaty Review conference provides an opportunity to
assess how well President
Obama's "Yes, But" strategy is working. My provisional assessment:
not as well as I might have hoped.
Recall that Obama's foreign policy efforts of the past 16 months can be summarized as one long effort to neutralize the talking points of countries unwilling to partner more vigorously with the United States on urgent international security priorities (like countering the Iranian regime's nuclear weapons program).
Despite a determined and focused effort at forging effective multilateralism, the Bush administration enjoyed only mixed success on the thorniest problems. The Obama team came in believing that more could have been achieved if the United States had made more concessions up front to address the talking points of complaints/excuses would-be partners offered as rationalizations for not doing more. Yes, Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a problem, but what about Israel's? The Bush administration tended to view these talking points skeptically as a distraction and was not willing to pay much of a price in order to buy a rhetorical marker to offer in rebuttal. By contrast, the Obama Administration embraced them and devoted themselves to buying markers to deploy in response: Yes, but we have gone further than any other U.S. administration effort to publicly delegitimize the nuclear program of our ally Israel, so what about it, why don't you do more to help us on Iran?
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I have been reflecting on President Obama's foreign policy thus far and I think I have identified what my Duke colleague Ole Holsti might call his "operational code": the link between beliefs and behavior that generates a predisposition, a general pattern of action that, more often than not, points to the options taken or not taken. Of course, as with any leader, there is a fair bit of ad hoc cost-benefit calculation and some making it up as they go along. But I also think there is a strategic logic that one can trace through it and that explains a remarkable number of the choices President Obama and his team have made.
I call it the "yes, but" strategic logic because what Obama has sought to do is systematically neutralize (in a rhetorical debating sense of the term) the laundry list of complaints about US foreign policy that other countries use as excuses whenever we would push them to help us on pressing American priorities like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and so on. We would ask for help on Iraq because it was so vital, and they would say, "Yes, but you haven’t done anything on Israeli settlements." We would ask for help on strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime and they would say, "Yes, but you have your own nuclear arsenal." We would ask for help on preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and they would say, "Yes, but what about the Israeli nuclear arsenal?" or (in Russia's case), "Yes, but what about your missile defenses in Poland?" We would ask states to encourage moderate Muslims to speak out more forcefully against terrorists and they would say, "Yes, but what about Guantanamo?" Etc. etc.
Well, I think Obama has sought to build his own "yes, but" response. "Yes," in the sense that he tends to agree with the complaint, and "but" in the sense that he has a good talking point to offer in rebuttal: "But we signed an exec order closing GITMO," "But we slapped Israel around on settlements," "But we have committed to global nuclear zero," "But we have publicly endorsed a Middle East nuke-free zone," "But we have committed to climate change," "But we have shut down the Polish missile defense site," and so on.
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In a stunning development, a leading member of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which unifies Pakistani Taliban groups under the authority of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Ladin, has claimed responsibility for the attempted attack on Times Square. The failed car bomb is yet another reminder that our enemies have not gone away, and the rush to take credit for it shows that they still want to kill as many Americans as possible. The lethality of the attempt should not be underestimated. Authorities on the scene described the propane canisters and gasoline tanks in the car, and experts have said that a successful detonation of the bomb would have created a fireball that might have killed dozens of pedestrians. But if this bomb was like the one recovered in 2007 from Piccadilly Circus, and comparisons are already being made with that earlier failed attempt, the car might also have contained nails and other metal objects intended to kill even more people in an explosion.
This attempted attack is also a reminder that the administration's conviction that "solving" the Israel-Palestine conflict will end the terrorist threat to the United States is mistaken. We cannot negotiate away or mollify the desire by al Qaeda, the Taliban, or other Salafi-jihadis to kill us, because the men who subscribe this ideology do not want a just peace between Israel and Palestine with two states living side by side: they want the destruction of Israel. They also do not have reasonable demands for the United States, e.g., a desire that the U.S. stop "meddling" in the affairs of the Muslim-majority world: they want the United States destroyed.
One other important point: we have now been lucky twice in just a few months -- the "underwear bomber" only failed to bring down the flight into Detroit because he did not correctly detonate his bomb. In much the same way, hundreds were spared in Times Square solely because the car bomb failed to explode. Lucky can only take you so far, however, and we need to be more than "lucky" if another attempt is going to be stopped.
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The Obama administration is talking tough on Iran. Despite allowing the Iranian government to escape sanction for a year of not accepting sugar-coated Western deadlines to abandon their nuclear program, and doing nothing about discovery of another nuclear plant at Qom, Team Obama is suddenly making an awful lot of noise.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's memo requesting White House guidance to further defense planning leaks, characterized as a wake up call for identifying military activity that could be taken against Iran. The national security advisor rebuts the characterization as a routine part of their 15 months of activity "successfully building a coalition of nations to isolate Iran and pressure it to live up to its obligations." Secretary Gates personally reinforces that view. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes (i.e., Presidential speechwriter -- since when did they become commentators of record on military options?) gets sent out to mop up any misunderstandings the hapless Jim Jones might have left. Admiral Mullen's Chairman's Guidance is revealed to task planning for "limited results" strikes on Iran. A prominent scientist who defected is publicly identified (picture in the newspaper) as an intelligence coup. The director of national intelligence publicly explains the national intelligence estimate on Iran has been delayed these six months because we suddenly have enormous streams on intelligence coming to us from disgruntled Iranian "technocrats." When the undersecretary of defense for policy tells a conference in Singapore military options are "not on the table in the near term," the secretary of defense personally refutes her statement. A senior administration official states the United States will not allow Iran to even acquire a "weapons capability," much less a weapon. Secretary Gates publicly questions whether it is possible to verify the difference between capability and weapon, suggesting the administration's threshold for action is actually more restrictive than Iran crossing the nuclear threshold.
And yet it is patently clear that destroying the Iranian nuclear program is not on the table for the Obama administration. All the hubbub has the feel of an orchestrated attempt to look like Washington is doing something when Washington is doing nothing -- they are covering their retreat into a policy of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. I hope I'm wrong, but it would appear the Obama administration wants very much to look like the pincers of their strategy are closing in on Iran precisely because they have taken military force off the table, can't get the "crippling sanctions" Secretary Clinton trumpeted, and just held a summit meeting on nuclear proliferation that said nothing about Iran or North Korea's nuclear programs.
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Financial Times reporter Edward Luce has a fascinating follow-up to his earlier story
about foreign policy decision-making in the Obama White House.
The general theme is familiar: President Obama dominates his foreign policy apparatus and serves as his own grand strategist. What I found interesting was the way the not-for-attribution quotes praising the process seemed to be contradicted by the other reporting in the story. To wit:
I was especially drawn to one further point in the story, a point that has not
been contradicted in anything I have read or seen first-hand: the pace is
grueling and it takes a personal toll on the national security and White House
staff. This is not unique to the Obama administration and is something of
a hardy perennial in Washington. The 9/11 attacks were a turning point,
however, and the system has run at breakneck speed ever since. Even
though President Obama has been more focused on domestic policy over the last
year, the pace for the national security staff has not eased.
A recent trip to Washington with the dual purpose of attending a reception honoring my former boss, Steve Hadley, and separately meeting with current national security officials put this issue in sharp relief for me. My friends from the Bush era, looking much better rested and healthier than I remember them appearing before, swapped stories of our time in the fox-hole. And my friends from the Obama era shared eerily similar stories with some of the very same complaints: outsiders just don't get it or get distracted by secondary trivialities. One current insider confided to me that when he reads outsider critiques of the Obama team, he is reminded of similar critiques he offered of the Bush team when he was in the shadow government. He thought some of my own analysis missed the boat and conceded that perhaps the same was true for some his earlier analysis of Bush decisionmaking.
That is a wise cautionary to remember. Those of us in the loyal opposition may have a better understanding than most about the travails and triumphs of the current team, but our perspective is limited. We should not be surprised to read internally contradictory accounts of what is going on behind the scenes. And we should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt from time to time.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.