Former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban once said that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Well, the same can be said for the Israelis and particularly their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. For the first time, the Israelis are confronting a Palestinian leadership on the West Bank that genuinely wants to pursue a political settlement and a two-state solution. Yasir Arafat envisaged more power in blocking any agreement, but Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his boss, President Mahmoud Abbas, are dedicated to a peaceful solution. Unlike Arafat, who played to the extremists in the Middle East, Abbas and Fayyad are ignoring Iran’s opposition to Israel as well as the firebrands among Hamas and Hezbollah, who favor delegitimizing Israel. Netanyahu’s predecessors never had such counterparts on the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s frustration is not with his unwieldy coalition that was responsible for the outrageous dust-up over the expansion of settlements, but with the Obama administration. Netanyahu is now facing a US government that genuinely wants to return to the peace process and to the two-state solution. This has not been true for nearly ten years because of opposition by the Bush administration to Israeli-Palestinian (or Israeli-Syrian) negotiations. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were opposed to any movement, even the creation of a three-year period to create “provisional” Palestinian statehood. Even former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon favored creation of provisional statehood. Netanyahu, however, longs to return to the days when the United States stood by Israeli intransigence. The willingness of the Netanyahu government to embarrass its only genuine ally in the international community points to the weakness of Israel as a strategic partner for the United States.
Like a long line of Israeli politicians, Netanyahu favors total humiliation of the Palestinian people; this attitude is the major roadblock to any movement toward a solution. President George W. Bush supported this position because he wanted nothing to do with either Arabs or Israelis. According to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush simply didn’t want to take the time to deal with the issue. Powell’s view was that Bush considered the “prospects of success … quite low” and, with “two wars going on … why fuck around with these people?” Netanyahu and Bush were obvious soul mates. Israel and the most influential Israeli lobby, the American Israel Political Action Committee, cannot abide the peace process because it always complicates US-Israeli relations.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren wrote in Thursday’s New York Times that US-Israeli relations were neither in crisis nor at an historic low point. This is true! Relations were much worse in the 1950’s, when Israeli agents bombed a United States Information Agency library in Egypt and tried to make it look like an Egyptian act of violence. And relations were worse in 1967, when Israel broke its commitment not to preemptively attack to start the Six-Day War and, in the war’s first days, Israeli fighter planes bombed the USS Liberty. Relations also plummeted at the end of the October War in 1973, when Israel wanted to humiliate the Egyptian army and broke a cease-fire agreement that Henry Kissinger had carefully orchestrated with the Soviet Union. The invasion of Beirut in 1982 and crimes against the Palestinian camps led to intervention by the US Marines, with terrible losses for the United States, and the invasion of Gaza led to war crimes against innocent Palestinian civilians. In most of these cases, Israel’s modus operandi was the use of total force to create total humiliation of the Palestinians.
President Barack Obama is at a decided disadvantage at this juncture. He has the empathy to deal with both sides in the dispute, but not the tenacity of a Kissinger, a Jimmy Carter or even a Bill Clinton to give the issue of Palestinian statehood the attention it deserves. Kissinger, Carter and Clinton were pursuing US national interests, but the Obama administration has not arrived at a strategic consensus for its interests in the Middle East. Moreover, Obama has a weak foreign policy team that lacks understanding of the process and the substance to work the diplomatic side of the street. Unlike some of his predecessors, National Security Adviser James Jones has never taken hold of the strategic picture, and now the administration is preoccupied with withdrawal from Iraq and the briar patch that we call Afghanistan.
What should the president do? Since Obama is probably unwilling to take on Netanyahu and his hard-line government, he should call a time-out on the peace process. The proximity talks are essentially a farce because Israel refuses to discuss anything but procedural issues. Netanyahu has ignored the US call for a temporary halt in all settlements, which could have been the path to direct negotiations. President George H.W. Bush was successful twenty years ago, when he halted loan guarantees for the building of such settlements, but today the United States provides virtually no economic assistance to Israel and has few non-military tools of influence.
A time-out by the Obama administration could be used to forge an approach to providing serious economic assistance to the civilian victims of Israel’s harsh measures in Gaza, where families and children are suffering from poverty and deprivation, as well as in the West Bank. There also needs to be a reassessment of US military assistance to Israel. The United States provides far too much military assistance to Israel, which has not faced a serious threat from the Arab world since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat courageously concluded a serious peace agreement more than three decades ago. And Israel receives this military aid under terms that are not available to any other country in the world.
The United States will always have a special relationship with Israel, but it is not an exclusive relationship; we should stop taking actions that tolerate Israel’s brutal behavior against neighbors who have little means of self-protection. If we are not going to treat the problem as a national security problem, then at least we should adopt a humanitarian stance that puts social justice and human rights at the forefront. We have ignored Israel’s criminal behavior for too long.
There have been times in the past when Israel and the US Israeli lobby have overestimated their influence on the Congress and the Jewish-American community, and have overplayed their hands. It is particularly sad that the progressive and democratic values of so many American Jews seem to vanish when the subject of Israel is introduced.
Nevertheless, there appears to be a greater recognition today of the need for fair-mindedness on Israeli-Palestinian issues; finally, there are Jewish-American groups such as the J Street Lobby calling for negotiations and a two-state solution. President George H.W. Bush survived his refusal to subsidize the illegal settlements. President Obama may find that there is more support out there for a tougher stance on these issues. Only a US president can force the Israelis into good sense. Hopefully, one of these days, there will be an Israeli leader who will understand that their illegal settlements are far more dangerous to Israeli (and American) national security than anything the Iranians might develop or even deploy.