Israel Won’t Change Unless the Status Quo Has a Downside


Uncomfortable at the spectacle of the Obama administration in an open confrontation with the Israeli government, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman — who represents the interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party on Capitol Hill as faithfully as he does those of the health insurance industry — called for a halt. "Let’s cut the family fighting, the family feud," he said. "It’s unnecessary; it’s destructive of our shared national interest. It’s time to lower voices, to get over the family feud between the U.S. and Israel. It just doesn’t serve anybody’s interests but our enemies."

 

The idea that the U.S. and Israel are "family" with identical national interests is a convenient fiction that Lieberman and his fellow Israel partisans have worked relentlessly to promote — and enforce — in Washington over the past two decades. If the bonds are indeed familial, however, last week’s showdown between Washington and the Netanyahu government may be counted as one of those feuds in which truths are uttered in the heat of the moment that call into question the fundamental terms of the relationship.  Such truths are never easily swept under the rug once the dispute is settled.  The immediate rupture, that is, precludes a simple return to the status quo ante; instead, a renegotiation of the terms of the relationship somehow ends up on the agenda. 

 

Sure, the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government are now working feverishly to find a formula that will allow them to move on from a contretemps that began when the Israelis ambushed Vice President Joe Biden, announcing plans to build 1,600 new housing units for settlers in occupied East Jerusalem.  He was, of course, in Israel to promote the Obama administration’s failing efforts to rehabilitate negotiations toward a two-state peace agreement, a goal regularly spurned by Israel’s continued construction on land occupied in 1967.

 

Once again, as when Obama demanded a complete settlement freeze from the Netanyahu government in 2009, the Israelis will fend off any demand that they completely reverse their latest construction plans.  Instead, they will shamelessly offer to continue their settlement activity on a "don’t-ask-don’t-tell" basis, professing rhetorical support for a two-state solution to placate the Americans, even as they systematically erode its prospects on the ground.

 

There is, as former Secretary of State James Baker has noted, no shortage of chutzpah in this Israeli government. "United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government," Baker said in a recent interview. "Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements."

 

The General Joins the Fray

 

Sooner or later, the present imbroglio is likely to be fudged over, but make no mistake, it opened Washington up to a renewed discussion of the conventional wisdom of unconditional support for Israel.  It also brought into the public arena the way U.S. administrations over the past two decades have enabled that country’s ever-expanding occupation regime and whether such a policy is compatible with U.S. national interests in the Middle East.

 

Back in 2006, the realist foreign policy thinkers John Mearshimer and Stephen Walt provoked a firestorm of ridicule and ad hominem abuse for suggesting in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, that the goals pursued by the two sides were, in fact, far from identical and often at odds — and that partisans motivated by Israel’s interests lobbied aggressively to skew U.S. foreign policy in their favor.  Israel partisans also heaped derision on the suggestion by the Iraq Study Group commissioned by President George W. Bush that the U.S. would not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East without first settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

 

Response to the reiteration, last week, of the idea that Israel’s behavior might be jeopardizing U.S. interests has been strikingly muted by comparison. That’s because it came from General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which oversees America’s two wars of the moment.  He is the most celebrated U.S. military officer of his generation, and a favorite of those most ferocious of Israel partisans, the neocons.

 

Petraeus told Senators on Wednesday: "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in [Centcom's] AOR [Area of Responsibility]." He added, "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas." He also stressed that "progress toward resolving the political disputes in the Levant, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a major concern for Centcom."

 

Normally, any linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a wave of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is pooh-poohed by neocons and other Israel partisans.  Typically, they will derisively suggest that those who argue for the linkage made by Petraeus are naive in their belief that al-Qaeda would give up its jihad if only Israel and the Palestinians made peace. That, by the way, is a straw-man argument of the first order: The U.S. has done plenty on its own to antagonize the Muslim world, and ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not in itself resolve that antagonism. The point is simply that a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for repairing relations between the U.S. and the citizenry of many Muslim countries.

 

Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who has made a profession of trying to negate the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of (or hostility to) Israel, gamely ventured that "Gen. Petraeus has simply erred in linking the challenges faced by the U.S. and coalition forces in the region to a solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict, and blaming extremist activities on the absence of peace and the perceived U.S. favoritism for Israel." His conclusion:  “This linkage is dangerous and counterproductive."  

 

You can, in fact, hear the pain in Foxman’s admission that "it is that much more of a concern to hear this coming from such a great American patriot and hero." That Petraeus chose to make his concerns public at the height of a public showdown between Israel and the U.S., and to do so on Capitol Hill, where legislators seemed uncertain how to respond, signaled the seriousness of the uniformed military in pressing the issue.

 

Longtime Washington military and intelligence affairs analyst Mark Perry caught the special significance of this at Foreign Policy’s website: "There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA, the American Medical Association, the lawyers — and the Israeli lobby. But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military." He noted as well that, in a January Centcom briefing of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, Petraeus had evidently suggested the Palestinian territories — over which Israel continues to exercise sovereign military control — be included under Centcom’s area of responsibility, a prospect that would make Israel’s leadership apoplectic. 

 

It’s not that, as far as we know, Petraeus harbors any particular animus, or affection, for the Jewish state.  It’s that, in his institutional role as the commander of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops stationed across what Washington strategists like to call the "arc of instability," he is concerned about aggravating hostility towards the United States. 

 

The idea that Washington needs to rein in Israeli expansionism and force a political solution to its conflict with the Palestinians is hardly novel for America’s unsentimental men in uniform. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former U.S. Mideast envoy General Anthony Zinni, both of whom had their formative experiences of the region in the course of massive U.S. military deployments there, were on the same page as Petraeus is today.

 

Lieutenant General Keith Dayton is the U.S. officer responsible for creating and training the Palestinian Authority security force that has cracked down on West Bank militants and restrained them from attacking Israel over the past few years.  He was no less blunt than Petraeus in a speech in Washington last year.  He emphasized the premise on which the force was built, and withstood charges from within its own community that it was simply a gendarmerie for Israel: its soldiers believed themselves to be the nucleus of the army of a future Palestinian state. The loyalty of his men, he warned, should not be taken for granted: "There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you’re creating a state, when you’re not."

 

Vice President Biden, too, was quoted in the Israeli press as having berated Netanyahu — behind closed doors — over his plans for settlement expansion, warning that it would put at risk the lives of American personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

 

The Tough-Love Solution

 

In public, of course, Biden offered familiar pablum direct from Joe Lieberman’s "family" album: "From my experience, the one precondition for progress [in the Middle East] is that the rest of the world knows this — there is no space between the US and Israel when it comes to security, none. That’s the only time that progress has been made."

 

In fact, the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggests that the reverse is true. The origins of the peace process the Obama administration is now trying so desperately to resuscitate do not lie in the unconditional American support for Israel that has become a third rail in national politics over the past two decades.  They lie in the national interest-based tough love of the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

 

Grounded in a realist reading of American national interests across the Middle East — at a moment when a military campaign to eject Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait had put hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground there — the first Bush administration recognized the need to balance Israel’s reasonable interests with those of its Arab neighbors. That’s why, in 1991, it dragged Israel’s hawkish Likud government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid conference, and so broke Israel’s "security" taboo on direct engagement with Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

 

The Bush administration also made it clear that there would be immediate and painful consequences for Israel if it continued building settlements on land conquered in the war of 1967, construction which the U.S. was then willing to term not only "unhelpful" — the preferred euphemism of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Barack Obama — but illegal. Under the direction of Bush family consigliere and Secretary of State Jim Baker, Washington threatened to withdraw $10 billion in loan guarantees if Israeli colonization of Palestinian territory continued.  In the resulting political crisis, Israelis — mindful of their dependency on U.S. support — voted Shamir out of office and chose Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister.

 

Rabin has been rightly lionized as a leader who took a courageous decision to change course in the face of bitter domestic opposition.  To understand how Israel started down the path of peace, however, it’s necessary to clean the Vaseline off the lens of history and quiet the string section.

 

Only three years earlier, Rabin had ordered Israeli troops to use baseball bats to break the limbs of stone-throwing teenagers in hopes of stopping the Palestinian intifada or uprising.  He certainly did not embrace the Oslo peace process with the PLO out of some moral epiphany. He changed course thanks to a cold-blooded assessment of Israel’s strategic position at the time.

 

The United States then had a growing stake in creating a regional Pax Americana that required Arab support.  Given the end of the Cold War, Israel’s value as an ally was diminishing, while its expansionist policies, antagonizing Arab public opinion and making it more difficult for vulnerable regional governments to ally with Israel’s enabler, were increasingly a liability for Washington.

 

Rabin had reason to believe that U.S. support for Israel at the expense of its neighbors would prove neither unconditional nor eternal. At the same time, the PLO had been weakened by years of Israeli military attacks and by a disastrous diplomatic blunder — it had aligned itself with Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. It was a fortuitous moment, he concluded, to press for a political solution with the Palestinians on favorable terms, by trading the West Bank and Gaza for peace. 

 

Where are the Consequences?

 

Rabin acted because the consequences of maintaining the status quo seemed increasingly unpleasant, which takes nothing away from his courage in doing so.  The same could be said for South Africa’s last white President, F.W. de Klerk.  He opted to negotiate an end to apartheid with Nelson Mandela’s ANC because the collapse of the Soviet Union had removed the most persuasive rationale the U.S. and other Western powers had for backing his white-rule regime. Similarly, it’s unlikely that the Soviet political system would have put Mikhail Gorbachev in power if the KGB hadn’t determined that far-reaching changes were necessary to prevent Moscow from being eclipsed as a superpower, thanks to Western economic and technological advances. 

 

If U.S. pressure and the specter of isolation and opprobrium pushed Israel onto the path of a two-state solution, the easing of that pressure and the creation of the "familial" notion of U.S.-Israel ties have coincided with a steady movement away from completing the peace process. Even at the height of the Oslo era, coddled by Clinton, the Israelis kept on expanding the settlements that jeopardized geographic prospects for Palestinian statehood.

 

The Israeli opposition, led by Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, sought to prove Rabin wrong.  They were convinced that American support could be maintained without conceding Palestinian statehood — by making constant end runs around the Oval Office and appealing directly to Capitol Hill and U.S. public opinion. 

 

Sharon and Netanyahu were vindicated in spades when the suicide-terror strategy taken up by the second Palestinian intifada and the attacks of 9/11 led George W. Bush’s administration to reconceptualize the world on the basis of its "Global War on Terror."  This, in turn, led Washington’s political class to accept Israel not as just another ally in that war, but as a model for how to conduct it.

 

In the Bush years, the peace process and the two-state solution became a hollow catechism that could be mouthed by Israeli leaders (and their supporters in Washington), while getting on with the task of smashing the Palestinian national movement and expanding settlements.  In real terms, the peace process — the series of reciprocal moves designed to build confidence for concluding final status talks and implementing a two-state solution — died when Ariel Sharon came to power in February 2001.

 

Even his 2005 withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza was never conceived in terms of a peace process; it wasn’t even negotiated or coordinated with the Palestinian Authority. Sharon, in fact, imagined his unilateral withdrawal as a substitute for a peace agreement. It was designed, as Sharon’s top aide Dov Weissglass so memorably explained, as a dose of "formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians." 

 

Despite mounting Arab exasperation, the Bush administration put no pressure on Israel to bring the peace process to a conclusion, limiting itself to the Grand Guignol of the “Annapolis process.” With all external compulsion to conclude a peace agreement removed, domestic political pressure in Israel not surprisingly collapsed as well. The Palestinians were now largely locked behind the vast separation wall that winds through the West Bank and the siege lines of Gaza.  Their plight is once again invisible to Israelis, only 40% of whom, when asked by pollsters, even express an interest in seeing the peace process restarted.  Only around 20% believe that such a move would bring any results.

 

"Israel has no real intention of quitting the territories or allowing the Palestinian people to exercise their rights," wrote Israeli political commentator Gideon Levy in Haaretz last week. "Israel does not truly intend to pursue peace, because life here seems to be good even without it. The continuation of the occupation doesn’t just endanger Israel’s future, it also poses the greatest risk to world peace, serving as a pretext for Israel’s most dangerous enemies. No change will come to pass in the complacent, belligerent and condescending Israel of today."

 

The Obama administration can’t be under any illusions on this score. And they are being forced to confront it by another kind of pressure.  The bills are coming due for Bush’s War-on-Terror adventurism.  Those responsible for maintaining the U.S. imperium in the Muslim world are now raising warning flags that the price to be paid for continuing to indulge Israel in evading its obligation to offer a fair settlement to the Palestinians could be high — and, worse than that, unnecessary. 

 

Israel’s leaders, and its voters, have amply demonstrated that they will not voluntarily relinquish control of the Palestinian territories as long as there are no real consequences for maintaining the status quo. Sure, you can tell them that the status quo is untenable, but the whole history of Israel from the 1920s onward has been about transforming the impossible into the inevitable by changing the facts on the ground. Building settlements on occupied territory in violation of international law after 1967 seemed untenable at the time; today, the U.S. government says Israel will keep most of those major settlement blocs in any two-state solution. It is precisely in line with this sort of improvisational logic that Sharon calculated he could hold on to the settlements of the West Bank if he gave up the settlements of Gaza; the same logic allows Netanyahu to say the words "two states for two peoples" while always winking at his base that he has no intention of allowing it to happen.

 

A peace process that requires Israel and the Palestinians to reach a bilateral consensus on the distribution of land and power under the prodding of U.S matchmakers is a non-starter — and therefore unlikely to lead to a goal which is of increasing urgency in America’s national interest.  Arguably, it’s increasingly important even for the Israelis, since the status quo has already eroded prospects for a two-state solution to the point where both sides may be consigned to an even longer and bitterer conflict. 

 

Hence, the necessity of correcting Vice President Biden: progress in the Middle East will not come until the U.S. changes Israel’s cost-benefit analysis for maintaining the status quo. The only Israeli leader capable of accepting the parameters of a two-state peace with the Palestinians, which are already widely known, is one who can convincingly demonstrate to his electorate that the alternatives are worse. Right now, without real pressure, without real cost, with nothing but words, there is simply no downside to the status quo for Israel.  Until there is, things are unlikely to change, no matter the peril to U.S. troops throughout the Middle East.

 

 

Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes the Middle East and other international conflicts. He also runs his own website, Rootless Cosmopolitan.

 

[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]

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