On Monday, more than 60 House Democrats signed a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo requesting that he address Israel’s use of U.S.-made equipment in its demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The initiative was spearheaded by Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif), and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and was supported by a veritable who’s who of progressive House Democrats.
“U.S.-supplied military equipment to Israel should only be used for legitimate self-defense against the very real security threats Israel faces,” Khanna said. “Such military equipment should not be used to turn Palestinian homes into rubble, displace families, and tear apart communities. I look forward to the State Department providing the information necessary to ensure that U.S.-supplied military equipment in the West Bank is not being used in this destructive practice.” Read more at Responsible Statecraft
In the latest reversal of long-standing United States policy in the Middle East, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared this week that Washington no longer views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “inconsistent with international law.”
Pompeo framed the decision as a “reversal” of Obama administration policy. He said, “[Former] Secretary [of State John] Kerry changed decades of this careful bipartisan approach by publicly reaffirming the supposed illegality of settlements,” referring to a December 2016 resolution in the United Nations Security Council that termed the settlements illegal, which President Barack Obama permitted to pass by abstaining from the vote.
But in fact, Obama had been more tolerant of Israeli settlement than his predecessors. While he talked more often about their being an obstacle to peace, that abstention was the only time in his eight years in office that Obama had allowed a U.N. resolution critical of Israel to pass. By contrast, George W. Bush permitted six UNSC resolutions to which Israel objected to pass. Ronald Reagan permitted twenty.
Obama even vetoed a UNSC resolution whose text was almost verbatim U.S. policy, causing himself quite a bit of embarrassment in the international arena. On another occasion, Israel announced a new and highly controversial settlement in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was in the country. The administration’s reaction was to do a reading of standard talking points and move on.
Distorting Obama’s record affects more than the president’s legacy. It increases the distortion of politics around Israel and its occupation. Obama emphasized actual Israeli security needs, which, in his view, included finding an agreement with the Palestinians, and lowering the temperature between Israel (and Saudi Arabia) and Iran. Trump has focused on crowd-pleasing, grandiose gestures like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem a move that eliminated any possibility of diplomacy with the Palestinians; or leaving the Iran nuclear deal, which aggravated tensions with Iran, thereby making the environment considerably less secure for Israel. Much like the neoconservative strategies of the early part of the century, casting those who pursue diplomacy as a threat to security allows hawks to get away with making the region less secure for everyone. Read more at LobeLog
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has drawn some criticism from the left for avoiding the topic of Israel-Palestine. It’s actually a wise decision on her part. It was obvious during her campaign that she is not well-versed on the issue. N ew members of Congress ought to avoid this dangerous minefield of an issue unless they are very clear about what they want to say and how they want to say it.
But AOC may be learning. Earlier this week, she was asked if she favored reducing aid to Israel and she replied that it is “…certainly on the table. I think it’s something that can be discussed.”
Reducing aid to Israel is perhaps the highest voltage third rail in Beltway politics. But in a marker of how much things have changed in Washington—as well as how far they still have to go—the reactions to AOC’s statement have been far less animated than usual. The Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) issued a condescending but relatively mild statement, telling AOC to consult with three mainstream Democratic leaders—all prominent Jewish members with strong pro-Israel records—on the “correct” U.S. policy. “US-Israel ties must supersede politics,” the statement concluded. Surprisingly, the JDCA did not condemn AOC’s statement, despite its tired implication that support for Israel must be unconditional, unquestioned, and independent of any considerations except what is best for Israel. Read more at LobeLog
From 2009-2011, Uzi Arad was national security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now he is contradicting his former boss by speaking publicly in support of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany).
“My position is in support of preserving the agreement and strengthening the agreement,” Arad said on Monday, in a conference call hosted by the dovish Jewish-American group J Street.
Arad is certainly not basing his support of the deal on trust in Iran or on an analysis that suggests Iran is not a security threat to Israel. “Iran is uppermost in our thinking,” he said. “Iranian deployment near Israeli borders in Syria presents a threat that is not nuclear, but it can cause friction and that can escalate. That should be discussed in international discussions involving Syria. But that is a separate issue.”
In early July, the Trump administration reached an agreement with Russia on a cease-fire zone in southern Syria, completely ignoring Israeli objections. Although this agreement obviously concerns Arad, it seems to have had little effect on Netanyahu, who complained briefly but quickly dropped the matter.
Arad believes that whatever serious issues Israel has with Iran, they are separate from the nuclear deal. “It was a decision by the P5+1 and Iran to go after a specific issue,” Arad said. “Iran also has political issues that were not discussed. The reasoning must have been that it was in the interest of both parties to go after a focused approach rather than a comprehensive one that might not be possible to attain.”
President Trump has been claiming that Iran is violating the “spirit of the deal” by testing ballistic missiles and supporting various groups in Syria, Yemen, and throughout the region. No doubt, these are problematic points for the United States and its allies in the Middle East. But, as pro-deal groups in the US have argued, and as Arad concurred, these were not meant to be covered in any way by the deal.
Arad also expressed concern that the United States was considering simply withdrawing from the agreement without having a plan for what comes after:
Doing away with the agreement is not a solution, it just takes away assets and replaces it with nothing.
[Iran] undertook quantitative and qualitative measures that in effect stopped its (nuclear) program. What is less understood, is that the deal also established benchmarks and yard sticks. The Iranians must meet those. You take those away and you’re in a void.
The reason sanctions were effective is because there was international support and international consensus. You need cooperation and compliance with other nations. Unilateral action may have some effect but may be much more limited. So cooperation with allies is crucial.
Indeed, sanctions were enacted specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. When the deal was struck, those sanctions were lifted. Other sanctions by the United States remain in place, some of them dating back to 1979 and the Iranian revolution. But clearly those sanctions are insufficient to exact major concessions from Iran, otherwise the additional sanctions and the multilateral cooperation would not have been necessary.
This raises the question, which I put to Arad, about what incentive the United States could use to bring Iran back to the table, whether to negotiate an expansion of the nuclear deal or try to reach agreement on a separate deal covering these issues. He responded:
The tragic aspect is that in the past, the reward for Iran has been the removal of penalties. So you exact penalties, then you remove them. Iranians want to get nuclear (sic), but they want to do it safely and cheaply. So there are not many positive incentives except maybe some of their political ambitions or promising no efforts toward regime change. That would be very important to the Iranian regime. But there must be the threat of sanctions.
There were those who hoped that the more open dialogue between the West and Iran could lead to some understandings on these issues in the long run. Whether or not that was ever a realistic possibility, the bellicose rhetoric of the president and other members of his administration, most notably Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, has made such progress considerably less likely.
Speaking to the news outlet, Al-Monitor, an anonymous White House official responded to Arad’s statements, saying, “This administration believes strongly that the deal is bad for the US. In particular, the sunset clauses, inadequate inspections provisions and lack of coverage of the full array of Iran’s malign activities make the deal fundamentally flawed.”
A State Department official went farther. “The Trump administration is fully committed to addressing the totality of Iranian threats and malign activities and seeks to bring about a change in the Iranian regime’s behavior. The JCPOA was expected to contribute to ‘regional and international peace and security,’ and Iran’s regime is doing everything in its power to undermine peace and security.”
On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then clearly, we should stay with it. I believe, at this point in time, absent indications to the contrary, it is something the president should consider staying with.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was even clearer. “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement,” he said. “And I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.”
Given such testimony from two men who are hardly considered doves, the president might think twice about not certifying Iran’s compliance when he is required to do so on October 15. At the very least, it would seem to tip the scales for Congress against reinstating the sanctions if the president does not recertify. But with this president and this Congress on such a highly politicized issue, even the words of the top military officials and an Israeli national security adviser could be smothered by politics.
Senator Bernie Sanders is no stranger to igniting fiery passions with his views and speeches. But he is better known for doing so on economic and even social issues than on foreign policy. At the annual conference of the dovish, pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, however, Sanders gave a speech that can and should become the impetus for a new policy discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
During the race for the Democratic nomination last year, Sanders exploded myths by calling forcefully for Palestinian rights while also strongly affirming Israel’s right to exist and need for security. When, in the wake of those remarks, the editorial board of the New York Daily News asked him more detailed questions, it was clear that he had not given enough study, time, or thought to the matter.
That has changed, and Sanders’ rousing speech at the J Street conference on Monday demonstrated a different, more nuanced, but no less powerful stance. Sanders advocated strongly for an approach that treats Palestinian and Israeli needs for security, hope, and justice equally.
Although demonstrating a deeper understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the politics that surrounds it, Sanders did not diminish his sense of moral outrage at the denial of basic civil rights to millions of Palestinians and the ongoing threats Israelis continue to face.
The key part of his speech—the bit that, one hopes, will be taken as inspiration by supporters of Israelis and Palestinians everywhere—came after Sanders relayed his personal attachment to Israel. After reminding the crowd that he had lived for several months on a kibbutz in the early 1960s, Sanders said, “I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution, and particularly after the horror of the Holocaust.”
For some, that point is too often forgotten, buried under the weight of decades of occupation, dispossession, and the increasing influence of nationalism on democratic values in Israel. That said, however, Sanders delivered what was perhaps the single most important message of the entire conference:
But as you all know, there was another side to the story of Israel’s creation, a more painful side. Like our own country, the founding of Israel involved the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people already living there, the Palestinian people. Over 700,000 people were made refugees. To acknowledge this painful historical fact does not “delegitimize” Israel, any more than acknowledging the Trail of Tears delegitimizes the United States of America.
Those words cut to the very core of the political issues that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so vexing. More importantly, they also shine a light on the path forward.
Sanders’ formulation challenged the dueling narratives of the two sides, the emotionally, historically, and politically charged claims of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and, perhaps most importantly, the idea of a zero-sum equation where any Palestinian gain must mean an Israeli loss, and vice versa.
At times, the comparison of the Zionist emigration to Palestine and the subsequent displacement of most of the inhabitants living there to the genocide of Native Americans has indeed been used to paint Israel’s creation as a criminal event. But Sanders eloquently turns that upside down.
It is still a hard reality, but now it addresses a core Israeli fear: that any admission of culpability by Israel for the Palestinians’ displacement would nullify Israel’s moral basis for its existence. Instead, Sanders bases the moral case for Israel on the historical experience of the Jewish people, while not excusing the fact that the Jewish state’s creation resulted in a catastrophe for the Palestinians. If we accept that dual narrative, we have the basis to move forward on a resolution of the conflict that treats the rights and claims of both peoples equally.
Israelis and Palestinians may each feel that their own narrative is more accurate, that their own claims are more just. That is to be expected. But the United States, and any other outside party must, as a necessary condition of involvement in resolving the conflict, treat the national, civil, human, collective, and individual rights of all Palestinians and Israelis equally. This has not been the case, for the United States or for most other countries with a stake in the conflict.
A New Vision
Sanders stayed away from specific policies beyond a vague reference to a two-state solution to the conflict, and this was another example of clever thinking on his part. The two-state solution remains the only diplomatic game in town, and it continues to be the preferred option of many, even some who no longer believe it can be achieved.
But the process that has been the basis for the two-state solution since 1993 was ill-conceived. Moreover, it would be foolish to think that, given the political, social and physical changes that have affected the formulas for dealing with every issue—settlements, borders, Jerusalem, water, security, refugees, Gaza, et al—the same old ideas can simply be fitted onto present day realities.
Since the Oslo Accords were enacted, time has worked against the two-state solution. But it is a mistake to measure that effect in terms of the life of the two-state solution, as has so often been done. Rather it should be measured in terms of the cost: the longer Israel continues to occupy the West Bank, spreads its control over Jerusalem, and maintains a siege on the Gaza Strip, the higher the political, social, and financial costs to resolve these issues becomes.
What is needed now is new thinking on how to realize the national aspirations for independence, security, and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians. The notion that Yitzhak Rabin sold to the Israeli people a quarter of a century ago of complete separation (“Us here, them there,” said Rabin) was always a difficult one to imagine. How was Israel to find real security if a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza did not cooperate very intimately with the Jewish state? How was a fledgling Palestinian state going to grow economically, and even function sensibly, without close cooperation and, yes, support from its neighbor, the strongest and most economically and politically stable country in the region?
These essential questions were never answered in all the years of a frustrating peace process. Instead, the process was easily slowed or even halted by forces on both sides that thought only of their own needs, treated the claims of the other as ephemeral, and saw the very humanity of their antagonists as lesser.
Sanders framed the way forward very well:
It’s often said that the US-Israel relationship is based on ‘shared values.’ I think this is correct, but then we also have to ask: What do we mean by this? What values are we talking about?
We believe in democracy. We believe in equality. We believe in pluralism. We are strongly opposed to xenophobia. We respect and we will protect the rights of minorities. These are values that are shared by progressives in this country and across the globe. These values are based upon the very simple notion that we share a common humanity. Whether we are Israelis or Palestinians or Americans, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, or of another religion, we all want our children to grow up healthy, to have a good education, have decent jobs, drink clean water and breathe clean air, and to live in peace.
That is the basis for new thinking about the two-state solution. An Israel and a Palestine fulfilling the national ambitions of each of their peoples in democratic, national homelands that work closely together. It need not be a formal federation, but simply a peace that explicitly agrees to and spells out what should be obvious: Israelis and Palestinians need each other, and their future is much brighter together than apart.
That vision goes farther than the one Sanders laid out. But it is the logical alternative to abandoning the two states idea, which no one has seemed eager to do, or continuing the same bloody cycle that has characterized the years of the Oslo “peace process.”
The actual policies and terms of an agreement would have to be hammered out again. But then, aren’t talks without pre-conditions exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been demanding? Imagine if the principles Sanders framed were the ones the United States, along with the Arab League and US partners in the Quartet, were using?
Ultimately, those principles, however lofty they may sound, are indispensable to any solution that would be just and durable. As Sanders also said, “To oppose the policies of a right-wing government in Israel does not make one anti-Israel or an anti-Semite. We can oppose the policies of President Trump without being anti-American. We can oppose the policies of Netanyahu without being anti-Israel. We can oppose the policies of Islamic extremism without being anti-Muslim.”
And progressive principles can serve as the bedrock of a lasting solution to this conflict. One of Oslo’s fatal flaws was its over-reliance on terms of security and authority and its lack of emphasis on rights and democracy. The latter must come first. If it does, issues of security, authority, land, Jerusalem and other practical matters become much easier to deal with.