Kerry Lands In The Israel-Palestine Blame Game

This article was originally published at LobeLog.Kerry Bibi

US Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Israel on Jan. 2, starting 2014 with an attempt to save what is increasingly looking like a doomed round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

 

The grim atmosphere was reinforced immediately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s words of welcome to Kerry. Netanyahu spent all of two sentences doing this before he said: “I know that you’re committed to peace, I know that I’m committed to peace, but unfortunately, given the actions and words of Palestinian leaders, there’s growing doubt in Israel that the Palestinians are committed to peace.” Continue reading

2013 Brings No Change to US Policy On Israel-Palestine

This article originally appeared at LobeLog.

When it comes to the tedious dance between the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the more things change, the

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

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

more they stay the same. As 2013 draws to a close, we have another proof of that cliché.

As 2013 dawned, President Barack Obama began his second term, and Benjamin Netanyahu — whose horse in the US race, Mitt Romney, had lost decisively — was winning re-election but embarking on a very difficult set of talks to cobble together a governing coalition in Israel. As there always is with a second-term US president, there was some speculation that Obama might decide to damn the torpedoes of domestic politics and put some moderate pressure on Israel to compromise. Despite some illusions, by the end of the year it became clear that this wasn’t happening.

A little less than a year ago, John Kerry was named Secretary of State and vowed not only to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians but to bring them to a conclusion. Few believed he could get the two sides talking again, but Kerry managed it and thereby breathed a bit of life into Washington groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now who have staked their existence to the fading hope of a two-state solution. But even fewer objective observers believed Kerry could actually fulfill the second part of his pledge, and as 2013 comes to an end, all the evidence points to the vindication of that pessimistic view. Continue reading

Why Israeli-Palestinian Talks Will Fail, Again

This article originally appeared at LobeLog

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the outset of a meeting focused on the Middle East peace process in Bethlehem, West Bank, on November 6, 2013. US Dept. of State/Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the outset of a meeting focused on the Middle East peace process in Bethlehem, West Bank, on November 6, 2013. US Dept. of State/Public Domain

 

There is an odd sort of atmosphere today around the soon-to-fail Israel-Palestine talks. A dramatic gesture by the United States, presenting its own security plans to both Israel and the Palestinians, has engendered mostly yawns. Yet the events of recent days have clarified the likely results of these talks, despite the ongoing secrecy around them.

Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently proposed that Israel agree to abandon the Jordan Valley (constituting some 20% of the West Bank and situated in Area C, which falls under complete Israeli control under the current arrangement) in stages over an extended period of time and subject to the “good behavior” of the Palestinians. The current plan seems to be that Israeli forces would remain in the Jordan Valley for ten years while Palestinian forces are “trained.”

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians, including PA President Mahmoud Abbas disapprove of this idea. But they do so in lukewarm terms, not wanting to offend Kerry, with the hope that when the April deadline for the current round of talks rolls around that the Palestinian side will not, as it was in 2000, be portrayed as the party who refused peace. Still, as former US President Jimmy Carter once told me, a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley is unacceptable to the Palestinians. Indeed, it is impossible to say that an occupation has ended when the occupying army is still there. That should be obvious. Continue reading

Obama Punts Syria Question To Congress

US President Barack Obama’s decision to use force in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons but to seek Congressional approval before doing so was very surprising. It is a major reversal of the behavior of every president since the 1973 War Powers Resolution was enacted. That Resolution, which set limits on the President’s ability to embroil the United States in a lengthy military action in the wake of two extended but undeclared wars in Korea and Vietnam, has been a point of contention for presidents ever since, with all of them without exception calling the resolution unconstitutional.

The constitutionality of the resolution has never been tested in court, like whenever it has been violated (as Ronald Reagan did in Lebanon and Bill Clinton did in the Balkans). Congress has merely voiced its disapproval, but taken no further action. Neither side can be sure of how the Supreme Court would decide the question. But every Chief Executive from Nixon to Obama have claimed that it violates the separation of powers by impinging on the president’s purview as Commander in Chief. Others claim, with some justification, that it actually codifies presidential impingement on Congress’ exclusive authority to declare war.

Obama surely knows that the War Powers Resolution would not have even come into play in his proposed action. The resolution does not stop the president from taking a limited action that would last, at most a few days, although the constitutional question is considerably more complicated. But the tug of war between the legislative and executive branches that it represents is an ongoing one, with Congress always pushing for more involvement in foreign policy and the president jealously guarding his prerogatives. It is absolutely unprecedented for a president to give any ground on this without a fight.

That, however, is what Obama has done. He knows well that the US public does not want to see us involved in another Middle East war; that, as despised as Bashar al-Assad is, the Syrian rebel forces are no longer identified with the Syrian people Assad is hurting in the minds of many Americans, and that some of the most radical elements among them scare Americans more than Assad does; that Russia will veto any action against its Syrian ally at the UN Security Council; and that, especially after the vote in Britain’s House of Commons against action, the president has few allies abroad to offer international legitimacy to American actions.

Given that he surely knows Congress has no legal right to vote on this question, Obama’s decision is a purely political one. He is quite likely unhappy that his foolish declaration of a red line at chemical weapons has put him in this position, and he is being attacked from all sides, either for not acting right away or for bringing the US closer to a new intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts. He knows that his credibility in the region is now at stake and that allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, as well as adversaries like Iran, will lose even more faith in him if he fails to act. So he is sharing that burden with Congress.

I suspect that, given that the red line has been drawn and most members of Congress will not want the US to look weak and indecisive — however much the Republicans might enjoy Obama looking that way — Congress will vote to support a strike. There will also very likely be a lobbying push in support of Congressional support for Obama. Saudi Arabia opposes Assad, so it would certainly want to see an attack. Israel is much less interested in seeing Assad ousted because a new Syrian government is unlikely to keep the Syrian-Israeli border as quiet as the Assad dynasty has for four decades now. But, despite his being the devil Israelis know, the Israelis don’t have any stake in seeing Assad emerge triumphant at this point, since that would represent a major victory for Iran and, especially, Hezbollah, and there is no way of knowing how Assad would deal with Israel after a victory. Still, while Israel has no great stake in the victor of this conflict, it very much wants to see the chemical and biological weapons Assad has destroyed. Israel does not want those weapons in Syria at all, whoever might have them. So, AIPAC will spur into action, although they may do so quietly, not wanting to be perceived as pushing the US into a war for Israel.

If Obama is wise, he will use the time he now has to try to, at best, find some common ground with Russia where they can come together on a diplomatic plan or, at least, shore up more international support for his “limited attack” on Syria. What seems unlikely, unless Congress does vote against the attack, is any other way to avoid a strike on Syria. Obama has committed the US with his red line declaration, and now, if he doesn’t act, not only does it damage his credibility; it will also tempt the Assad regime to do it again.

No doubt, Iran will be a major part of the debate. A major argument for striking Syria — and it is likely to be very persuasive on the Hill — will be that if we don’t, it will destroy our credibility with respect to “all options” being on the table in preventing Iran from a nuclear weapon. The more productive place for Iran to occupy in this discussion is much more of a long shot. That is, that Iran, if brought into the diplomatic process as a partner, can help find an actual resolution that stops, or at least curtails the massive violence in Syria. Such an engagement with Iran could also help solve the ongoing nuclear conflict and give Washington time to test the intentions of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. That course seems to have been hinted at by Obama in recent statements, and some excellent analysts, including Jim Lobe and Barbara Slavin believe he may be trying to open the door to including Iran in the process. I would applaud loudly if this turns out to be the case, but it still seems far too risky a political move to me.

In the end, I think Congress will approve the resolution. Having gotten an unprecedented gift from Obama in the form of a president asking for congressional authorization when he doesn’t have to, lawmakers will want to encourage such behavior in the future. Combined with the credibility question and Saudi and Israeli lobbying, that should bring a sufficient number of votes into his column. I suspect Obama must have done some informal gauging of Congressional opinion on this question in the days before he made this announcement.

It is unclear what Obama will do if the vote goes against him. It would seem unlikely that he would defy such a vote, but he might if the House and Senate split on it. That’s a possibility, as the House GOP is more virulently anti-Obama and isolationist in orientation.

But if Obama gets his stamp of approval, then the lasting legacy of this episode will be his decision to ask Congress at all. There’s a real double-edged sword here. On the one hand, it is obviously a more democratic way of operating. On the other hand, a major reason for keeping foreign policy in the hands of the executive is that Congress is much more subject to political pressure and lobbying. Increasing Congress’ role in foreign policy means increasing that role for lobbying groups, and not only AIPAC. It lessens the role of strategic thinking in the process, a role which is already far too small. As with many other aspects of life in the United States, it will only work well if people get involved on a much larger scale than they are now.

Iranian Elections: Netanyahu, Neoconservatives Are the Big Losers

This post originally appeared at LobeLog.

Outside of Iran, there is no doubt that the biggest losers in Iran’s election this past weekend were the Likud government in Israel and its supporters, especially neoconservatives, in the United States.

The response of Israel’s Prime Minister to the election of centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next President was almost comical in its sharp reversal from the rhetoric of the past eight years. As was widely reported, Benjamin Netanyahu said that it was Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not the president who sets nuclear policy.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president

That is, of course, true, and it is precisely what opponents of an attack on Iran have been saying for the past eight years. Netanyahu and his neocon allies, on the other hand, were repeatedly pointing to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the fearsome specter, the man who wanted to “wipe Israel off the map” and must be prevented from acquiring the means to do so. With Ahmadinejad gone, and, much to the surprise of many observers, not replaced by someone from the arch-conservative (or, in Iranian political terms, principlist) camp, the hawks have lost their best tool for frightening people and getting them behind the idea of attacking Iran.

So, Netanyahu has stepped up his push for a hard line on Iran, saying, “The international community must not become caught up in wishful thinking and be tempted to relax the pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program.” Netanyahu is admitting that all the rhetoric around Ahemdinejad was insincere, and that the Iranian president is only relevant insofar as his visage can be used to whip people into a frenzy behind his call for war. Continue reading