Netanyahu and Obama: Name-Calling and its Discontents

The obsession in politics and diplomacy with decorum–largely a relic from the past–can easily distract people from the realities of the present. 8575956802_b0f1918361_zCase in point, the uproar over Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest article in the Atlantic, the headline of which, The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here, would seem important enough to warrant more attention than it has gotten so far.

Instead, the whisper of an unnamed “senior Obama administration official,” who called Netanyahu a “chickenshit,” has occupied headlines. And instead of taking a strong, or even a weak stance on Netanyahu’s repeated declarations about expanding settlement activity everywhere in Jerusalem and the West Bank, the White House has only tried to distance itself from the remark, describing it as “unauthorized” and “inappropriate.”

As Goldberg himself pointed out, the fact that Bibi is a chickenshit is not entirely a bad thing. Whatever else it does, it also makes him quite afraid to back up his rhetoric with action. Even in Gaza this summer, the ongoing slaughter seemed, from Netanyahu’s point of view, to be something that spiraled much further out of control than he had intended. Indeed, his constant shifting of the mission’s goal posts indicated the lack of any sort of planning beforehand. Political pressures kept driving him on, as they do with most of his actions. But at least the “chickenshit” was never going to attack Iran despite his bellicosity, as the United States seems to finally understand.

Being less of a leader and more of a leaf blowing in the political wind is an apt description of Netanyahu, and it is strongly suggested in Goldberg’s piece. But it also applies to the Obama administration, which has repeatedly refused to use the tools it has at its disposal to create real pressure on Israel to, at the very least, desist from its actions that are obviously intended to destroy any possibility of a two-state solution. So, chickenshit cuts both ways.

Maybe Goldberg intended the chickenshit comment to overshadow the rest of his point, maybe he didn’t. But the assertion that we are in a period of crisis for US-Israel relations is a very important one. The question is: are we?

The simple answer is no, but Goldberg is not wrong in suggesting that such a crisis could occur in the near future. One can understand why Goldberg focuses so much on personal clashes. Never in the history of Israel has there been a government that so arrogantly insulted the United States so frequently. Whether it’s Netanyahu, Finance Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, or some other member of the Knesset, anti-American statements have risen to unprecedented levels.

For their part, US officials have been getting just the tiniest bit harsher in their criticism of Israel, while Israeli officials escalate their anti-US rhetoric. And then there’s the endless stories about how much Obama and Netanyahu dislike each other, with Goldberg’s in the lead. The problem, of course, as it is presented in this narrative of interpersonal conflict, is bad communication, or mismatched personalities.

In reality, none of this is really about Bibi and Barack disliking each other. They do, but that is beside the point. It is the direction that Israel has decided to go in that is the problem.

Let’s start off by noting that the degree of the “crisis” is being massively overblown. There is a much bigger problem in Europe for Bibi than there is in the United States. The Europeans are actually threatening to take some action, not just calling Bibi names in whispers to reporters. Sweden’s recognition of Palestine as a state is just a first step in a series of actions that might be on the horizon from Europe, where Israel conducts the biggest share of its trade. When the United States gets to that point, as it has on occasion in the ever more distant past, then we can start wondering if there is a crisis in relations that might cause some small shift in the status quo.

The “chickenshit” epithet can apply to Obama just as much as it can to Netanyahu. He is a president with a non-confrontational style trying to govern with what is, arguably, the most defiant and combative Congress any president has ever had to deal with. And he is dealing with an Israeli government that is pursuing a very different strategy than its predecessors. The Israel of today no longer cares about the majority of the Jewish community in the United States. This Israel, correctly, determined that its ultimate desire to completely thwart a two-state solution and maintain an apartheid system over the Palestinians would never be acceptable to most American Jews. But most US Jews weren’t the ones providing the political power and, more importantly, the funding for congressional campaigns and for settlements in the West Bank.

The Jews that do provide these things, as well as the Christians, are right-wingers, either in their general politics or at least on Middle East policy (including policy toward the entire Arab world, Iran and Turkey). They are now the only ones Israel cares about. More liberal-minded devotees are not, at this stage, providing that much support for Israel, either economically or financially. Those of them who do provide this support will continue to check their otherwise liberal values at the Israeli door. The rest are not, in the estimate of the Netanyahu government, worth the compromises that must be made to garner their support.

In this circumstance, Israel has a freer hand in its actions. While Netanyahu announces more and more building plans in East Jerusalem and other sensitive parts of the Occupied Territories, Republicans, who stand a good chance of controlling both houses of Congress, are not criticizing Israeli actions in the slightest. Instead, as one would expect, they are attacking Obama for his insufficient support of Israel.

In this context, Israeli journalist Roi Ben-Yishai, one of Israel’s best, recently reported on Israel’s “new approach” to the Palestinians. It holds few surprises. Israel is not intending to return to talks, correctly believing they will be futile, and therefore would only make things worse. Israel’s assessment will remain correct until its own positions can be moderated by pressure like that of the Palestinians over the years.

The plan is then to have the quiescent Palestinian Authority (PA) assume control over Gaza and reinforce its control on the West Bank. In other words, marginalize Hamas throughout the Palestinian body politic. Under those circumstances, Israel would end the siege of Gaza and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank as well. The idea is that the Palestinians can then build a functional economy, which Israel believes will cause the Palestinian people to oppose actions that could draw Israeli military reprisals. I rather doubt that would be the result, but right now, the delays in Palestinian international action imply that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is cooperating with Israel and Egypt on this effort, probably in the hope that this strategy would eliminate Hamas as a political rival.

This seems like another doomed plan, one that harkens back to old Israeli beliefs that Palestinian nationalism will eventually just go away. But we must recognize that this is happening with the silent approval of the United States. Egypt, in particular, would not work with Israel on such a plan if it believed that the United States would object. More to the point, the plan is also intended to provide the US with what it wants most: Palestinian silence. What American policy has always represented is the complete lack of importance placed on the welfare of the Palestinians, or anyone else (including ordinary Israelis) in the region, for that matter. The entire issue is only relevant insofar as it affects more “important” US concerns.

So, the Obama administration will likely allow Israel to proceed with its plans, even if it doesn’t believe those plans are likely to succeed. This is evident in the lack of material response to Israel’s direct challenge to the international consensus on a two-state solution.

The name-calling most recently highlighted by Goldberg merely reflects these disagreements and the fact that the increasingly populist and rightward tilt not only in the Israeli government but also in its population leads to verbose criticism of US officials, up to and including the president. Responses to such insults can be countered by Israel’s power in Congress in a way that more fundamental policy differences cannot. That frustrates some American officials, but it doesn’t provoke any material US response.

If Congress persists in pressuring the administration on its Iran policy, a pressure which most understand as directed by Jerusalem, Obama may well respond through the Palestinian issue. In that case, we might see a more direct counter to Israeli policies, such as a Security Council resolution condemning the settlements or even an “Obama Plan” basing a two-state solution on the 1967 borders and sharing Jerusalem. That would be a turn of events not seen in decades, but Israel has also never worked so hard to undermine US goals on foreign policy matters as it has on Iran.

But make no mistake, if the Palestinians get any respite from the Obama administration it will be because of Israel’s meddling through Congress on the Iran issue. It will not be due to any Palestinian action, much less on the insulting attitude of Israeli officials or the personal dislike between the current Israeli leader and the president of the United States. It is, ultimately, all about policy priorities, not personalities.

Operation ClusterFuck

Chas Freeman, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and thirty-year veteran of the United States’ foreign service delivered a speech today that

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman

everyone in the United States should be paying attention to. It is a searing indictment of American policy in the Middle East from a man who was in the middle of it for decades.

The focus of Chas’ talk is the current battle being waged against Da’ish, or the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, whatever the name you want to use may be. If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ve seen my view in this, but I’ll re-state it briefly.

I believe the entire approach we’ve taken to IS is completely off-course. It is, in fact, a repeat of previous errors. IS wanted the United States to intervene, just as al-Qaeda wanted the US to react with massive force to 9/11. Any losses IS suffers will be more than made up for by the increasing radicalization of the region caused by US intervention. This reality is doubled because the US will only bomb, which will greatly increase damage to civilian lives and infrastructure. And from that soil will grow many more IS recruits, eager to battle their foes in the region and in the West.

Chas lays all of this out very neatly in his speech. But there is an underlying point which, though Chas did make it explicit in his speech, he doesn’t spend a great deal of time on, as he decided to focus on current events. Let me give you my own take on it, so that you can be even more tempted to read and, more importantly, share widely, Chas’ speech.  Continue reading

Israel’s President Is More Complex Than You’d Think

Some people are surprised by some of the things Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has said and done. That just shows a real lack of historical Reuven_Rivlinperspective on the Israeli political scene.

In the United States and Europe, the Israeli right, epitomized by the Likud Coalition, has always been the “opponent of peace,” while the Labor Party and, later, Kadima were the “pursuers of peace.” This was always a false dichotomy. It would have been somewhat truer to say that supporters of Likud were usually, but far from always, opposed to the two-state solution that Oslo envisioned, while Labor and Kadima supported it.  Continue reading

The US Must Do Less To Resolve the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Former American diplomat Aaron David Miller is a frequent and worthwhile contributor to US foreign policy discussions in both Washington 8641515729_3c054d927a_zand the news media. His long career in Middle East diplomacy and strong focus on Israel have enabled him to clarify for the general public the many difficulties that exist under the surface of these issues. Unfortunately, as shown by his recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine, he sometimes obscures them as well.

Miller correctly points out that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the major source of regional instability and that Secretary of State John Kerry was foolish to imply that the lack of progress on this issue had in some way become a contributing factor to the rise of the group that calls itself the Islamic State. But he also elides the enormous amount of responsibility the United States has and continues to hold not only for the Israel-Palestine conflict itself, but also for the difficulty in making any progress on the issue, let alone resolving it.

Miller states it explicitly: “Washington isn’t responsible for the impasse…The primary responsibility for fixing the problem lies with Israelis and Palestinians, and the lack of resolution is a direct result of their lack of leadership and ownership.”

That is unequivocal nonsense. It adds yet another layer to the enduring myths that surround the long-term lack of progress on this conflict. It is not lack of leadership and ownership that is the problem, it is the massive imbalance of power between the two parties that is the single biggest obstacle to a resolution. And that is an area where the United States is a major factor.

The power imbalance leads to a very simple reality: Israel has very little incentive to compromise. It is a regional superpower militarily, it has by far the most stable government in the Middle East, and it’s a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with a relatively strong economy. Israelis would undoubtedly prefer a cessation to the Palestinian rocket fire that periodically flares up as it did this past summer, and certainly want to stop incidents such as the one on October 22, when a Palestinian drove into a Jerusalem light rail station, killing an infant and wounding seven other people. But these concerns are not nearly enough to sway Israelis into the sort of compromises that would be bare minimums for a deal with the Palestinians.

From Israel’s point of view, the Palestinians’ minimal demands include a free Gaza and West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, a shared Jerusalem and the recognition of Palestinian refugee rights. In each case, there is a huge risk perceived by the Israelis.

Indeed, because most Israelis believe the narrative telling them that when Israel withdrew from Gaza and Southern Lebanon, all it got in return was rocket fire, they see a similar but much graver risk of that repeated outcome in the West Bank. In fact, most Israelis join their prime minister in rejecting the idea of giving up the Jordan Valley, a huge chunk of the occupied West Bank.

Sharing Jerusalem, and particularly the area of the Temple Mount, conjures fears of the years from 1949-67 when Israelis could not visit the holiest site in Judaism. More than that, Israel’s capture of the Old City in 1967 has become a powerful nationalistic symbol—a compromise on this issue strikes at the very heart of Israeli identity, and that arouses passionate responses.

The refugee question, which I explored in depth recently, is also seen by virtually all Israelis as implying the end of the Jewish State, something they desperately want to avoid. Finally, Israelis remain bitterly divided ideologically on many points, and there is a deep fear that making compromises will set off civil disturbances between secular, religious, nationalist and liberal camps within the country. Recent events around the Gaza war, where demonstrators for peace were repeatedly attacked, give credence to this fear.

The point is not to argue about the legitimacy or realism, or absence thereof, behind any of these fears. They are there, and they must be contended with in some fashion. But that involves confronting those fears, which, in turn, implies that Israelis perceive some pressure—be it military, economic or political—that forces them to take risks. The rewards of peace are, at best, uncertain to Israelis who don’t trust Palestinian intentions and perceive rising militancy in the Arab world and therefore an uncertain future no matter what commitments the current Arab regimes may offer. After all, as many contend, these governments may not be around for long.

Due to its position of relative power, the potential incentives for Israel are negative. The Israeli reaction to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which has not yet had any significant economic effect (though it has certainly altered the public discourse), is a testament to how worried Israel is at the prospect of true economic pressure. The Israeli government’s reaction to the EU’s relatively minor moves to adhere to its own laws regarding partnering on projects in the Occupied Territories and labeling products imported from the West Bank is further proof of this trend.

But whenever Europe, which is an even more indispensable trade partner for Israel than the US, has started to move in this direction, the United States has worked hard behind the scenes to change European minds. In a similar, but far more visible and impactful way, the US has used its veto power repeatedly at the UN Security Council to protect Israel from any consequences of its constant violations of international law. And we do this despite Israel’s defiance of stated US policy in the region.

These are the realities that Miller’s viewpoint elides. They have nothing to do with the Islamic State, and Miller is correct to chide Kerry for trying to tie the two together. But this ongoing hand-wringing about how the Israelis and Palestinians can’t be brought together needs to end. Even more, the nonsensical view that this is due to the personal mistrust between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas has to be shunted into the dustbin. Roosevelt and Churchill didn’t trust Stalin at Yalta. Gerry Adams and David Trimble in Northern Ireland didn’t trust each other either, and many of us who were paying attention at the time can remember the constant accusations of bad faith they hurled back and forth, which were very similar to what Netanyahu and Abbas say about each other today. Yet there are also other examples of leaders coming together. It is becoming a cliché, but it is nonetheless true that peace is made between enemies, not between friends, and it is also generally made between parties that neither like nor trust each other.

The reason this is even an issue in the Israel-Palestine conflict is because of the imbalance of power. Because Israel is so powerful and because US policymakers—for reasons that have nothing to do with the Palestinians or the occupation—continue to see Israel as an indispensable ally in security, intelligence and business matters, diplomacy has become ineffective. That’s why we keep hearing excuses for the ongoing failure. Miller makes one of the classic excuses. But it all covers up for US fecklessness and for the fact that, despite the pronouncements, peace between Israel and the Palestinians may be official US policy, but it is not a high priority. Kerry, in a credit to his character and his naiveté, tried to buck this, but found that he didn’t have the diplomatic tools he thought he had.

For all of these reasons, the US bears an enormous responsibility for the ongoing and deepening conflict in Israel and the Occupied Territories. And yet, that doesn’t mean the US needs to be doing more to resolve it.

On the contrary, the US needs to do less. The American commitment to Israel’s military superiority is now law, but even without that, the ties between the US and Israeli militaries, intelligence communities and businesses are extremely deep. There is no realistic path to undoing these ties.

But that doesn’t mean the United States has to keep acting to thwart European efforts to raise the price of its occupation for Israel. Nor does it mean that the US has to keep running interference for Israel at the UN Security Council. Most of all, it does not mean that the US has to keep insisting on its exclusive role as the mediator of this conflict.

If the United States simply refrains from doing these things, and takes no other action to pressure Israel, the change in the status quo would be enormous. But that would, itself, be a major shift in US policy on the ground. And it is not going to happen as long as we delude ourselves into believing the status quo is not our fault and that we bear no responsibility for changing it.

New Report: From Crisis to Catastrophe, The Situation of Minorities in Iraq

In the United States, we seem to be surrounded by irrational hysteria these days. Two, perhaps three cases of ebola within our borders have

Click on the image above to download the full report

Click on the image above to download the full report

generated a great deal of fear despite the fact that there are far more virulent, widespread and equally deadly diseases around us all the time.

The Islamic State has generated similarly cowardly reactions in the US. The media and, especially, members of Congress from both parties are whipping up terror far beyond what IS is capable of on its own, despite its murderous ideology and actions so brutal even al-Qaeda is appalled. The hysteria is, itself, something to be addressed because rational decisions cannot be made under such conditions and no decisions call out for rationality than military ones. But more than that, the panic over IS allows the United States to reframe the entire view of the Middle East’s descent into ever-widening sectarian war.

It is the evil “ISIS” or al-Qaeda, or the “Nusra Front” or this or that Islamic cleric that is at the root of this. No one thinks in terms of the US’ own responsibility for the conditions in the entire region. But in fact the US, while certainly not the root cause of sectarianism in the Arab world, is very much responsible for unleashing the madness engulfing the region, through decades of politically invasive policy decisions based on US self-interest and rooted in an appalling ignorance of the social, economic, religious and political realities of the region and capped off by the invasion of Iraq over a decade ago which served as the spark to light the fire.

The problems in Iraq go far beyond IS, even of IS is the most horrifying symptom of them right now. That’s why this new report on the conditions for minorities in Iraq is so helpful. The perspective it brings goes beyond IS into the larger problems of sectarianism in Iraq and the difficulties that arise not only from the ongoing strife but also from the weakness of security and the Iraqi government. Americans in particular need to see this. The solutions lie in international law and international action, but the responsibility lies with us.