Yes, We Can Do Something About Brett Kavanaugh

So Brett Kavanaugh is almost certainly going to be the next associate justice on the Supreme Court. Are we helpless in the face of this?

No, we are not. 

I have little faith that Susan Collins (R-ME), much less Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) or any other Republican senator will vote against Kavanaugh. Even if two of them do bolt, there’s no guarantee that Democrats like Joe Manchin (D-WV), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), or Joe Donnelly (D-IN) won’t vote to confirm him, as they all did for Neil Gorsuch. Those of us not in those states really can’t do much about their votes in any case.

But there is something we can do.

We can, all of us, in ways great and small, make sure that the story of Brett Kavanaugh focuses not on him, but on the circumstances of his appointment.  The reality is that, as loathsome as I find Kavanaugh’s opinions, they are mostly within the spectrum of US political discourse. Yes, he’s been correctly cast as a partisan judge, but so was Antonin Scalia, and, really, what other kind of judge is Donald Trump likely to appoint? Being opposed to Roe v Wade, Obamacare, and just about every environmental regulation he can find does not disqualify him from the Court.  Continue reading

The Peace Process Is Dead: Thanks, Obama

As the curtain drops on 2017, it drops too on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as we have known it. At the age of 24, that process has finally died, with none other than President Donald Trump

Shimon Peres, John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas at the World Economic Forum in May 2013

pulling the plug. But let’s not give him too much credit or blame for that. The killing blow was struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

There was much to like in Obama’s presidency, especially given the mess he was handed in 2009 and the unprecedented obstructionism of the Republican Party during his tenure. But he also had abject failures that were due to his own shortcomings, and the sharp degeneration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under his watch is at the top of the list. Read more at LobeLog

Understanding Netanyahu’s Rejection of the Arab Peace Initiative

On Monday, just two weeks after saying that he accepted the “general idea” of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected it as a basis for talks with

the Palestinians. This rejection is actually more than it seems, and it is important to understand both what the API itself says and, concomitantly, what Netanyahu’s rejection implies.

Netanyahu actually made two statements about the API, both problematic. One was that he wanted the Arab League to alter it to reflect Israel’s demands. The second was that if this was a “take it or leave it offer” Israel would leave it.

With the first point, Netanyahu implied that Israel’s concerns are not sufficiently addressed by the Arab League proposal. In fact, the Initiative offered a major break from longstanding Arab state policy regarding Israel. It promised not only peace with Israel but normal relations with the entire Arab world. The economic benefits to Israel there are enormous, opening Arab markets in a way never before conceived, much less offered. Back in 2011, former President Bill Clinton expressed frustration at Netanyahu for his unwillingness to accept the API. “This is huge,” Clinton said, “It’s a heck of a deal.”

But there’s a bigger implication here, one even more crucial today than it was in 2002 when the League first made the offer. “Normal relations” also means security cooperation. That means Israel can work openly with Arab states to combat ISIS and other groups in the region that pose security threats. That is a major step forward for Israel, the Arab states and the whole world. Today, there is covert cooperation between some Arab states and Israel, but opening that up to public view would massively expand the cooperation between not only Israel, but the United States and Europe as well with the Arab world. It would literally change the landscape in fighting terrorist groups. It would also rob ISIS, al-Qaeda and other groups of a powerful recruiting tool.

Moreover, the API does not set hard and fast boundaries on negotiations. It sets out a framework, one entirely consistent with the international diplomatic consensus, and one that has been endorsed by the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russian Federation). It does not supersede other framework proposals, such as the Clinton Parameters or the Roadmap to Peace; it simply becomes one of several points of reference. But it’s a crucial one because it is the only one that commits the Arab states to peace and normal relations with Israel. If Israel truly wants peace, the API is indispensable.

This leads to Netanyahu’s second objection. Ever since the offer was first made in 2002, the Israeli right and its allies have portrayed it as an ultimatum. Indeed, this was precisely the wording that the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) used in 2007, when the Arab League repeated its offer. But it is no such thing. It is a framework, like the other documents mentioned. The major difference is that it presents such a framework from an Arab, rather than an American or international point of view. Netanyahu presents that as a problem. In fact, it is a crucial component of talks, because only such a document can commit the Arabs to a regional peace with Israel.

Does the Proposal Need Revising?

Netanyahu objects to the entire section of the Initiative that lays out expectations of Israel. There are three clauses there:

  • Complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders (in 2013, the Arab League amended this to clarify that land swaps are expected to happen that will modify these borders, although this was well understood by all parties all along)
  • Acceptance of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and,
  • “Achievement of a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem to be agreed upon in accordance with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194.”

One can understand that if Israel was being asked to accept this as the terms of a final status arrangement, they would not do so. But these conditions are meant to be the basis for an agreement, not the outcome. The Quartet made this clear in 2007 when it stated, “The Quartet welcomed the re-affirmation of the Arab Peace Initiative, noting that the initiative is recognized in the Roadmap as a vital element of international efforts to advance regional peace.”

But Netanyahu has long made it clear that he rejects using the 1967 borders as a basis for talks, that he refuses to divide or share Jerusalem and that he expects the issue of refugees to be off the table completely. So it comes as no surprise that Netanyahu rejects the entirety of the API that deals with its expectations of Israel.

The refugee issue is a challenging one, to be sure, and Netanyahu is not unique among Israeli leaders, past and present, in contending that this is an issue Israel should not have to deal with. One expects that this will be the Israeli position in any negotiation. But to insist that an issue of such importance not be discussed as part of final status negotiations is neither a realistic nor acceptable position for the international community. The API recognizes the difficulty Israel has in this and balances the great weight the refugee issue has for Palestinians, reflected in its citing of UNGA 194, with Israel’s concerns by stipulating that the solution would have to be one Israel can “agree upon.”

It is important to point out, however, one place where the API does need to be revised due to current events: The Golan Heights. Given the situation in Syria, it is not reasonable, at this point, to expect Israel to consider returning the Golan Heights to Syria. Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has turned it into a failed state, would not only mean that Israel would be taking an unreasonable security risk in handing the Golan over, but for little gain, as Syria has nothing to offer Israel in return. Its government is too embattled to make any real peace with anyone, and it could not dependably maintain the security of that border.

A way needs to be found to separate the issue of the Golan from that of the Palestinians. This must be done carefully, as it cannot imply recognition of Israel’s unilateral annexation of the Golan Heights. It must also provide that, at such time as the Syrian civil war ends and a government arises whose sovereignty over the Golan can be recognized, Israel will be expected to enter into good faith negotiations to determine the Golan’s final disposition.

Strong US Action Needed

The API should not be controversial, at least outside of Israel. It has been praised by President Barack Obama, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and a host of other Western leaders, as well as being endorsed by the Quartet. It clearly aligns with the international consensus on a resolution of this conflict. The George W. Bush administration referenced in its 2002 Roadmap for Peace.

Netanyahu, for his part, approves of the Arab League’s offer of normalization with Israel, but rejects anything that Israel would have to do to get that normalization. He’s happy to accept concessions from others, but not make any himself. That’s not an acceptable negotiating posture, and it is important for the Obama administration to make that clear.

In the face of Netanyahu’s rejectionism, the Obama administration should restate its support, with some reservations, for the basic substance of the API. In a 2009 speech at the Brookings Institution, then-Senator John Kerry called the API “The basis on which to build a Regional Road Map that enlists moderate Arab nations to play a more active role in peacemaking and to paint a clearer picture than ever before of the rewards peace would bring to all parties.”

The administration need only reiterate this, and make it clear that this does not mean the United States endorses every aspect of the API, but that the API represents one piece of the broader framework under which the Israelis and Palestinians would conduct final status talks.

With this latest evidence of Netanyahu’s rejectionism, he has opened the door for Obama to strengthen the framework for potential negotiations to finally end Israel’s nearly 50-year old occupation. In his waning months, it is time for Obama to step through it.

Careful What You Wish For

Elections in the United States, especially elections for President, have been all about choosing the lesser of two evils throughout the country’s history, with only a few exceptions. But the lesser evil in 2016, according to how things stand now, is looking to be a nightmare for the rest of the world, especially if she combines her frighteningly hawkish policies with a Republican Congress. I lament what, at least for now, appears like the necessity to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, lest someone even worse win instead. In today’s Souciant.

Toward A New Two-State Solution

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You have to admire the tenacity of J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group. Or maybe it’s the desperation born of running out of options. In any case, if there is to be any hope for a negotiated resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, J Street, however well-intentioned, is demonstrating precisely what we must not do.

Just days after the Obama administration announced it was taking a “pause” in its efforts to broker an agreement, J Street sent out a message trying to rally the troops. In that message, they said that this moment “…is an opportunity to take stock and ask some tough questions.” Unfortunately, they make clear in the very same message that they are doing neither.

Here is what J Street refers to as “our plan”:

  • First, we’re going to urge President Obama and Secretary Kerry to stay engaged and not to walk away. Resolving this conflict remains an American and Israeli interest.
  • Second, to move forward, the Administration should put forward an American framework for a final status deal, build international support for it, and go to the parties and tell them the time has come to say yes or no to a reasonable plan for ending the conflict. So we’ll be calling for stronger American leadership, not less engagement.
  • Third, we’ll be speaking out even more strongly about the direction in which Israel is headed. Those on the farthest right of Israel’s politics have formed a “one-state caucus.” They are willing to forsake Israel’s democratic character for unending settlement expansion throughout the West Bank. That’s a choice that most of the world’s Jews disagree with and it runs counter to the values and interests of both Israel and the United States.

This plan reflects a sense of futility. There is nothing here that raises the question of why almost every round of talks for the past twenty years has ended in failure. The closest thing the U.S. can point to as a success during that period is the Wye River Agreement in 1998, when President Bill Clinton exerted personal pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, for his troubles, got Netanyahu to implement a redeployment that had already been agreed upon. Not a lot to show for over twenty years of work.

Yet J Street, in essence, advocates more of the same. The “toughest question,” and the one they don’t want to ask comes down to the internal paradox that J Street faces. On one hand, they are always advocating “robust diplomacy” on the part of the United States. On the other, J Street has consistently opposed any sort of material pressure on Israel, whether economically or diplomatically, to get them to change their policies. That they continue to hold this position goes a long way toward explaining why nothing, especially the results of Israeli-Palestinian talks, ever changes.

In 1998, Bill Clinton was able to put public pressure on Netanyahu, without having to resort to threatening U.S. military aid to Israel or really much else in the way of material pressure. But that was a different time. The reason Clinton was successful was because the specter of an Israeli Prime Minister alienating a U.S. President was a significant political problem in Israel. Indeed, it contributed significantly to Netanyahu’s defeat shortly thereafter by Ehud Barak (although, paradoxically, the right wing’s sense that Netanyahu had sold them out at Wye was at least as big a factor). In today’s Israel, as long as the people know the military relationship is intact, defying the U.S. can be a political plus, and Netanyahu has since proven that he can insult, humiliate, even spit in the proverbial face of a U.S. President without real consequence.

That’s why J Street’s prescription is so badly out of date. The rightward shift of the Israeli public since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, along with the increasing clarity in recent years of the strength of virtually unconditional Congressional support for a wide array of Israeli policies, have emboldened Israeli prime ministers. They know that the United States will not exact any penalty for Israeli defiance on matters related to the Occupation (wider regional matters may be different). If further proof were needed, the opposition from within his own party to Barack Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze in 2009 provided that. It is no longer sufficient for a U.S. President to make his wishes clear; Israel will not move on the ever-deepening occupation without significant, tangible pressure. But J Street opposes any such pressure.

The “tough questions” that J Street, and other groups seeking a reasonable and non-violent end to this conflict need to answer don’t stop there. The failure of not only the latest attempt by John Kerry, but of the entire process over twenty-plus years now raises a much bigger question.

To date, there has only been one path to that sort of a solution, the two-state version as envisaged by the Oslo Accords and the subsequent evolution of events. It hasn’t worked. After twenty years, the occupation is far more entrenched; the settler population has exploded and its growth will continue to accelerate; the PLO has fallen into disarray and has lost a lot of support, but no clear alternative has presented itself; the Israeli electorate has moved sharply to the right; and Washington’s ability to pressure Israel has grown weaker with each successive president since 1992.

The byword about this process has been that there is no other choice, but this is nonsense. Not long ago, Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Officer for the CIA, suggested on this site that the two-state option was dead and new ideas, essentially variations on a one-state formula, would have to be devised.

I agree that those formulations need to be considered anew. I still don’t believe a single state will really work, but the moment demands that anyone who can make a case for any solution must be heard and taken seriously. What is most dangerous right now is falling into the comfortable trap of trying the same thing that has failed for twenty years. The only formulation that has ever been attempted was the Oslo formulation and it has failed. There is always another option. We need to find one that will work, not stubbornly cling to a fatally flawed plan that has finally died and pretend there is still even the remotest possibility that it will work.

It is precisely for this reason that I have been picking on J Street in this article: because I still believe that a two-state formulation must be found. I have nothing against a one-state outcome in principle; as long as that one state guarantees it will always offer safe sanctuary to Jews fleeing persecution– the kind that didn’t exist in World War II — I’m perfectly comfortable with it. But I have no faith that it can work, as we see all around the world the collapse of and/or violent conflicts within multi-ethnic or -confessional states (Iraq, Yugoslavia, and most recently Syria, South Sudan and Ukraine, just to name a few). Given that level of doubt, and the fact that there is currently no groundswell of political support anywhere for a one-state outcome, I cannot see how it would work. But I remain open to someone showing me how the difficulties could be dealt with, as we all must consider new options in the wake of Oslo’s death.

But a new two-state concept doesn’t really have the full advantage over one state that some may contend, if they base that contention on the idea that a two-state formulation has global acceptance. That’s because any two-state formulation must scrap Oslo and start from scratch, so it would have to be sold anew. In my view, in order to succeed, a two-state formula must include the following elements, few of which were characteristic of the Oslo Process:

  • It must be based fundamentally not on Israeli security or even Palestinian freedom, but on fully equal rights – civil, human and, crucially, national – of all the people living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
  • It must be based on international law, including UN Security Resolutions, the Geneva Conventions, and all other relevant international treaties.
  • It must be based on open borders and deep cooperation between the two states, rather than as much separation as possible.
  • It must not treat as legitimate “changes on the ground” that Israel has intentionally brought about to block a realistic two-state outcome, but it must also seek a path to minimize the upheaval of mass relocation of either settlers or Palestinians. An open-border system may help facilitate this.
  • It must acknowledge and respect the Palestinian refugees’ claim for return and find a way to accommodate it in a reasonable fashion that neither undermines prospects for peace nor treats the right of return as anything less than that—a right.
  • Both states must be required to produce a constitution that guarantees full and equal rights to all minorities within its borders, no matter how the state chooses to characterize itself. Such a constitution also needs to guarantee that Jews and Palestinians around the world are guaranteed that the respective states will offer them safe haven in the case of persecution.
  • Any deal will have to be enforced by the international community. Israel will hate that, and many Palestinians will see that as limiting their hard-win sovereignty. But it is extremely unlikely that these arrangements will work just because of good intentions, as Oslo proved conclusively.

That’s a basic framework that I see as workable for an equitable two-state solution. Lots of compromise on both sides, but also a practical approach that allows both Palestinians and Israelis to maintain their national identities.

Of course, I don’t expect a politically centrist, Washington-centric group like J Street to accept such a formulation. But I do expect that, if they are serious about wanting A two-state solution rather than stubbornly sticking to the failed experiment that has been referred to as THE two-state solution, they will start talking and thinking of new ideas about what such a solution will look like.

There are one-staters who advocate a secular-democratic single state. There are right-wing Israeli one-staters who advocate a single state that legally enshrines Jews as dominant above Palestinians. Those ideas are advancing today because any reasonable person understands that the Oslo process is dead and has been proven to be unworkable, and these ideas are beginning to fill that vacuum. If we want to see a two-state solution emerge, as I think we need to, we need to re-think the basis of that solution and build one that avoids all the bias and mistakes of Oslo.

J Street, as champions of the two-state solution, this is your time to show that you can truly lead. I hope you’ll take the opportunity to do so and not play scared by clinging to the only solution that has actually been tested and which led to a dead-end.