Archive for March, 2010

Balancing Middle East Interests

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , on March 28, 2010 by whatafteriraq

On Candy Crowley’s “State of the Union” telecast on CNN this morning, Obama administration official David Axelrod answered a question about American-Israeli relations with the reply that it is the U.S. interest to guarantee “the long-term security of Israel and the region.” It was a standard, boiler plate answer and undoubtedly intended as such: Axelrod, after all, is not a foreign policy expert.

It was, however, the kind of bland response that obscures the real nature and complexity of American interests in the region and leads to entirely contradictory policy advocacies in the United States, especially about Israel.

What exactly is the American interest in the Middle East? Unsurprisingly, the answer is that the United States has multiple interests, depending on the country and part of the region about which one is talking. Those interests, however, boil down to two basic items: the security of Israel and access to Middle Eastern petroleum. Part of the debate over policy is about which of those priorities is the most important, and the overall policy one advocates may well derive from the answer one gives to that question. As a practical matter, however, the answer is both, and one can scarcely survive politically advocating one but not the other. In fact, however, those making policy do, at least implicitly, elevate oil or Israel to the first order of importance, with consequences for overall policy.

To try to achieve these sometimes contradictory priorities, the bottom line is that U.S. policy is best served by regional peace. Peace within the region means an end to the active Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would remove Arab-Israeli anomosity from center stage of regional dynamics. If Israel and its neighbors were no longer at loggerheads (admittedly no easy task), there would be muchless resistance to the United States, which is seen among the oil producers as pro-Israeli or, at a minimum, so politically entrapped by pro-Israeli (which is to say pro-Likud) forces as to be difficult to reach accommodation with. Whether Muslim advocacyc of the Palestinians is sincere or hypocritical is not the point; the point is that the Islamic states support the need for a Palestinian settlement (which means a sovereign state), and they are bound to oppose anyone who is (or appears) to oppose the establishment of such a state.

In the United States, the effort to bring about a peace in the region has had two contradictory paths. During the Bush administration, the neo-conservatives held sway, and their answer was democratization of the region. Invading and converting Iraq was the centerpiece of that effort. The idea was that if democracy took hold in a linchpin state like Iraq, it might spread more broadly until it encompasses the region. Were the area to democratize, the argument goes, then animosity toward Israel would also disappear, since political democracies do not fight one another. This position is, as one might guess, held most firmly by those who place primary emphasis on the Israeli part of security. The length and unpopularity of the war and the election of non-neo-con Obama has sidetracked this emphasis. It may work in Iraq and beyond, but who knows?

The other argument starts with Israel and the Palestinians and argues that until a viable solution to the regional problem must begin with an equitable (read one acceptable to the Palestinians) solution to the West Bank. The reasoning is that a solution is necessary so that less radical states in the Islamic Middle East can reduce their animosity toward Israel. The heart of this approach is the two-state solution (a separate Israel and Palestine), which the Obama administration advocates. Although many of its advocates would not openly admit this, this position implicitly argues access to petroleum as the premier U.S. interest.

All of this, of course, is much more complicated than the Axelrod quote or, for that matter, the lingering holdover from last week’s mini-brouhaha between the Netanyahu and Obama regimes. It can, and often does, manifest itself in quite different policy advocacies between the U.S. and Israel. If one starts from the assumption that Israeli security trumps broader and more abstract regional security, then one may well back the current government in Tel Aviv and even the growth of West Bank settlements. If one believes regional peace is the necessary precursor to Israeli-Palestinian peace, one is more likely to favor the two-state solution.

The objective, at least from  the viewpoint of the United States, is an enduring, stable peace in the region. The question is which approach best moves in that direction. It becomes a highly emotional question because the worst possible case outcome could be the survival of Israel, and given Twentieth Century history (the Holocaust), that possibility must be guarded against with vigor.

The debate is currently at best a standoff. Americans disagree with other Americans on the proper course, some Israelis and some Americans agree or disagree with other Israelis and other Americans on the proper course, and the Islamic states have their own preferences as well. It is not anywhere near as simple as supporting the “long-term security of Israel and the region,” but I suspect David Axelrod knows that. Let’s hope the American people do as well.

You’ve Done Your Damage, Bibi: Now Go Home!

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , on March 24, 2010 by whatafteriraq

As anyone who has read this space regularly knows, I am less than an unabashed fan of current Israeli prime minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, and will never be mistaken as a supporter of the Likud Party, either the Israeli or American branches. My position has consistently been that Netanyahu and his government abuse American support by flouting policies that run counter to American preferences and American interests. His intransigence on the Palestinian issue, highlighted by the settlements imbroglio, is the prime example.

In addition, Israeli actions supported by Bibi poison the prospects of American policy success in the region generally. On one hand, the Palestinian problem exacerbates anti-Americanism in the region, as the United States is reluctantly associated with the Israeli settlement policy. Even David Petraeus, generally the darling of the political right that supports Bibi, concurs in his recent “revelation” that  “The conflict foments anti-Americanism due to a perception of U.S. favoritism toward Israel.” I put revelation in quotes because lots of us already knew this; moreover, the charge of favoritism is more than a “perception,” it is a palpable reality. Moreover, Netanyahu serves as a prime foil for Iran’s Predisdent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, making inflammatory remarks about preemptive attacks against the Iranian threat that only make the realization of that threat more popular in Iran. In the process, of course, Bibi undermines Israeli security in the process by inflating the threat and, as Fareed Zakaria carefully points out in this week’s Newsweek, by insuring that prominent Arab states who fear Iran as much as Israel cannot make common cause with an Israel clearly on the wrong side of the peace process toward Palestine.

In his flying tour this week, however, Bibi has outdone even his own performances. He was here on a fund-raising mission, pandering to the American-Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC), before whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already pandered earlier. He knew his speech before AIPAC would be read by the White House between its delivery and his appearance for a meeting with the President (some pro-Israeli friends have suggested his visit was not given adequate prominence, but it was not a state visit, just a foreign leader who happened to be in town). He also knew that the reason for his meeting with Obama would be to explore the settlements issue. None of this is rocket science.

So what did he do? He made sure there was nothing to talk about, by declaring before the cheering Likudniks of AIPAC that “East Jerusalem is not a settlement, it is our capital!” The Palestinians, of course, also think it is their capital. Moreover, the propnouncement included the implied subtext, “Up yours, Mr. President!” To me, the surprise was not in how muted the reception was or how noncomittal official accounts of the interchange was, but that the President met with him at all. Had I been president, I’m pretty sure I would have locked the doors when I saw the limousine turn into the driveway!

So Bibi has come and worked his magic. The checkbooks have undoubtedly been opened and the ink is drying on them from American Likudniks. Domestically, the right-wing whackos promoting Armageddon and the Rapture will condemn the President for not promoting policies likely to promote their lunatic prophecies (can you see John Boehner in robes leading the charge?). Legitimate American-Israeli relations and mutual concerns will suffer, of course, but but Bibi will not “commit political suicide” in Israel by backing down on settlements (the argument is that any concessions would fracture his right-wing coalition and cause it to dissolve). Of course, it is the very policies he has advocated about settlements that form the basis of the coalition’s cohesion, meaning he must show the “courage” not to topple the house of cars he meticulously constructed.

Bibi Netanyau! What a guy! Have a nice flight home!

Bibi’s Coming to Town!

Posted in Diplomacy, Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , on March 21, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Israeli prime minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahou is coming to the United States this week. He does not come with any olive branch in his hand to help smooth over the rift of a week and a half ago regarding the settlement issue that exploded like a trick cigar during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel; rather, he comes puffed up following his announcement in his own country that he is not about ready to halt new Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. So much for the peace process!

Given the toxic tenor of politics in Washington these days, his arrival puts the Obama administration in an absolutely politically untenable position. American Likud (those parts of the American Jewish community that supports the Netanyahou approach) expect President Obama to greet Bibi with open arms, and that not to do so would be a terrible affront to one of our closest allies. If we appear to abandon the Israeli leadership on this matter of such importance to Israel, they maintain, how can any of our allies trust us in the future? If you want to know, just look at French reaction after the United States co-sponsored a UN Security Council Resolution with the Soviet Union in 1956 demanding that Britain, France, and Israel withdraw from Suez, which they had invaded illegally to protect Franch and British interests in the Suez Canal.

The other side, of course, will argue equally fervently that Obama should not reward Israel’s bad behavior–opposing very publicly stated U.S. policy–by embracing Netanyahou as if nothing had happened. To do this, they will maintain, is to make a mockery of any American policy position on anything–wishy washy old Barack Obama. Moreover, such an embrace would reward the snubbing of the country’s second highest official, not exactly a patriotic move.

The President, of course, cannot win in these circumstances; he is truly damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The point, however, is that the position he is in is not his fault. One can argue, of course, that had he not personally guided the United States into the controversial position of promoting a two-state solution of which the settlement situation is a primary part, the seeds of disagreement would not have been sown, and the East Jerusalem expanding settlement/annexation issue would have been a non-issue. He could, in other words, followed the George W. Bush policy of simply rolling over on his back and waiting for Netanyahou to scratch his belly. Under Bush, that policy (of course Ariel Sharon did the belly-scratching for much of the period) coincided with no forward progress toward peace and facilitated the settlement process that has all but killed (if it hasn’t already) the possibility of a two-state solution. Letting Israel have its way is probably better American domestic politics than the alternative, but it is arguably not very good or responsible foreign policy.

Although not every reader is likely to agree with me here, the real responsibility for this whole brouhaha resides directly on the desk of Bibi Netanyahou and his supporters. Regardless of whether the logistical embarassment of announcing actions directly contrary to US preferences while Biden was in country was purposive or not (my personal take is that the Israeli regime is so arrogant as not to have cared one way or the other), the March 8 incident was simply one manifestation of underlying Netanyahou policy. Bibi is nothing if not open about this; he thinks the West Bank is Israel’s, and he is not about to back away from that position. He and the Obama administration are at loggerheads on this issue, and there is no point in phony expressions of comraderie and common cause until someone is willing to move on this issue. The Obama administration is not ready to back down, and neither is Netanyahou. So what is there to talk about? The outcome of the health care vote?

Bibi is coming to the United States mainly to raise money from the disapora to fund, among other things, more settlements. He has a perfect right to do so, and contributors have an equal right to sign checks. President Obama, however, is under absolutely no moral or political obligation to welcome or embrace a visit for that purpose. What do the critics think the President of the United States should do: write a check from part of his Nobel Prize award to fund a few more condos in East Jerusalem? I don’t think so.

The Latest Israeli Settlement Flap

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , , , on March 14, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The Netanyahou government is at it again, this time in a more spectacular display of ham-handedness and arrogance than usual. The subject of this most recent excursion in “Don’t-give-a-damn-what-the-world-thinks-land,” of course, surrounds the Israeli government sticking a thumb in Vice President Joe Biden’s eye during last week’s visit to Tel Aviv by announcing its intention to build over 1,000 more Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem. They timed the announcement of this direct violation of their own policy (last November’s moratorium on new construction) to coincide with Biden’s arrival: “Welcome to Israel, Joe!” Biden was offended and said so publicly; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got on the phone and reamed out Bibi in private, then announced she had done so (wouldn’t you love a transcript of that conversation?). The rest of us ignored the whole thing–shame on us! 

Let’s review the sequence of events here. The center of attention, of course, is Israel’s continued colonization of the West Bank–in contravention of international law and the policies of most of the countries of the world. Bowing to international (and especially American) pressure, Netanyahou announced a moratorium on new construction on the West Bank in November 2009. This pronouncement was either extremely well “weasel worded” to include a very narrow interpretation of what “new” construction is, or Netanyahou and Company simply lied, because construction has continued since, as reported mostly by Israeli sources like Haaretz.com. Nonetheless, at least the fiction of suspension of more settlements has existed since.

 This all changed, dramatically, last week, when the Israelis announced at least 1,200 new units (presumably condos or apartments) would be built in East Jerusalem, which is, of course, claimed by the Palestinians as their capital. The announcement was accompanied by film footage suggesting the construction was already underway. This occurs as Joe Biden is figuratively getting off the plane for a long-scheduled visit. The Israelis cannot argue that he was a surprise guest! In response, Biden scolds the Israelis, and Hillary calls and bitches.

This weekend, in an act of crocodile contrition, Bibi says he was sorry, that the timing of the announcement was not supposed to coincide with the American vice president’s arrival. The announcement DOES NOT suggest a reversal of the policy; the new settlements will continue. Bibi simply did not mean his slight to be quite so obvious: the Israeli leader apparently intended to stab the Obama administration in the back, not to poke it in the eye with a stick. Admirable!

Why is this such a big deal (or is it)? There are two reasons, both related to the major underlying difference between Israel and the United States over a peace settlement in the area. The Obama administration–including the president, vice president and secretary of state–have been staunch and vocal advocates of the two-state solution (where the West Bank becomes the independent Palestinian state),and their special representative, George Mitchell, has been plowing the ground for a year to promote that policy. The absolute key to the viability of this option is the cessation and rolling back (preferably disappearance) of Israeli settlements on the West Bank that now clutter what is supposed to Palestine. East Jerusalem is part of this equation, but exactly how it is disposed of is at least the subject of negotiation. 

Netanyahou and his allies and coalition partners do not, in fact, favor  the two-state solution for reasons that will be examined in the next posting. They will not, and cannot, publicly renounce the option because it would be a public repudiation of the U.S. regime. Given how many friends Israel has in the world, antagonizing Uncle Sam is an idea the inadvisibility of which is so obvious even Netanyahou cannot get it wrong.

But he tries! Like many of the extreme Zionists and settlers who surround him, Bibi firmly believes in a Greater Israel that includes the West Bank and that was willed to them by God himself. Whatever one thinks of the metaphysical bases of his position, it certainly gets in the way of–virtually precludes–any movement toward the Obama position. Thus, the two bases of disagreement: the question of settlements and the different view of peace.

Beyond the tactical slap in the face that this most recent flap creates is a deeper, more immutable problem that the incident highlights. That problem is the fate of a negotiated peace in the region. Many Israelis want peace badly enough to make concessions and to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, but enough do not to have allowed the formation of what can only be characterized as an anti-peace government led by Netanyahou. The Israelis at least have a spirited and open debate on this matter, and they are divided about as evenly as Americans are on a variety of issues.

Where there is not a healthy debate on this subject is in the United States. A Middle Eastern peace is very much in the American interest; it is, indeed, the only way to reconcile the two absolutely contradictory threads of American policy in the region: support for Israel and dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The two-state solution is the most promising/least unpromising approach to that solution, and it is the victim of continued Israeli settlements. Stripped away to its essentials, that is what the entire episode is about.

Supporters of Netanyahou in the United States (whom I have elsewhere referred to as “American Likud”) will disagree with this depiction and may even (I’m not sure how) find a way to defend the ham-handedness/arrogance of the pronouncement or to accept Netanyahou’s crocodile contrition about the timing. What I cannot understand, however, is the stubborn insistence on following a policy path that insures Israel will lose in the long run, which is where the current policy is surely headed. More on that in the next posting.

The Voting in Iraq

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraqi Oil, Leaving Iraq with tags , , on March 7, 2010 by whatafteriraq

Iraqis went to the polls this weekend in long-anticipated and admidst much (possibly excessive) analysis and predictions. Given the trillion-plus dollars the United States has dropped in Iraq, our interest in seeing how well we have invested is not surprising. All the analysis, however, is premature, and anyone taking the slim evidence of actions–positive or negative–on the run-up to and conduct of the election is getting badly ahead of themselves. What will the outcome mean? It’s hard to say; coming back and asking the question in a year or so would probably be a better time to ask than now, but in an information soaked world where the instinct is to report and analyze everything in “real time,” such restraint is clearly in short supply.

This past week demonstrates the fervor of the enterprise. Newsweek, for instance, ballyhooed the voting in its lead article as “The Rebirth of a Nation,” suggesting this was the first step to the Iraqi democracy that George W. Bush promised in November 2003, when he expounded, “Iraqi democracy will succeed….The establishment of a free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revoltion.” The Newsweek story led with that quote; five pages later, it concludes describing  an Iraq, “for better or worse, democratic or not.” At the other end of the scales, The Nation sourly predicts the election will lead to further factionalization and conflict in a lead article by Robert Dreyfuss,”Iraq’s New Sectarian Storm Clouds.” The gist of his argument is that the elections will only accentuate and bring to a head the considerable fissures within Iraqi politics.” Who’s right?

Equally predictably, the hype has spread to America’s increasingly dysfunctional domestic politics. Vice President Joe Biden yesterday proclaimed that the successful outcome of the election will serve as proof of the success of Obama administration politics. Former Vice President Richard Cheney quickly grumped in return that Bush should receive our thanks for a “mission accomplished.” The beat goes on.

All of this is at least partly evidence that the “silly season” of politics is in full bloom, weather patterns in the eastern half of the country over the past couple months notwithstanding. That the Iraqis are holding open and apparently fair elections is a good and positive thing. The outcomes, however, are almost certainly going to disappoint the cheerleaders from either end of the spectrum. They will not, at least immediately, solve any of the deep underlying differences that divide Iraqis and that could, ultimately, cause the country to succeed or fail. There is, for instance, little indication that the electoral efforts have transcended traditional ethnic lines that must be reconciled if Iraq is to prosper. Where are the Kurdish-Sunni, or Shia-Kurdish, or Shia-Sunni coalition parties? Will parties representing the various factions coalesce to form a government? For that matter, how will the outcomes move forward the underlying question of how oil revenues will be distributed? These are vital questions,the answers to which will not be known in any definitive way for months, maybe years, to come.

Is it a good and newsworthy sign that the Iraqi elections have been held? Yes, of course it is. That does not mean, however, that this single–if significant–event allows us to extrapolate far into the future immediately. For now, the most responsible course is simply to note the elections have occurred and then to sit back and see how things unwind. In other words, chill!