Archive for Israel

The Iran-Israel Bottom Line

Posted in Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict with tags , , on February 12, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The news that Israel may conduct a Spring attack on Iran to cripple its nuclear weapons program is a matter of considerable public policy debate, largely because of the consequences such an attack could have not only for the Israelis and Iranians, but for everyone else as well, including Americans. As the discussions in the last two postings here have suggested, the prospects and options that surround them are problematical, to say the least. Amidst this controversy, planning apparently goes on in Israel, where it has been a priority issue for some time now.

The b0ttom line question about this whole issue area is what the Iranians will do if they achieve nuclear weapons status. The basic contention of those in Israel (by no means all Israelis) is that the Iranians will use those weapons against the Israeli state with the express intention of destroying the Jewish state. The primary public evidence they cite for this contention is the continuing string of vitriolic, anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic rhetoric of the president of Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; presumably they also have clandestine intelligence reports that reinforce this contention.  Others are not so certain this evidence is compelling, either dismissing it as rhetoric that is intended for creating internal support for the regime or as “brave talk” that would dissipate should the Iranians actually get the capability.

The answer to the question is absolutely critical to the decision the Israelis ultimately make and to whether the world–and especially the United States–should endorse and support their decision and action. If the contention is true, the Israelis have a strong existential basis for their proposed action–preventing an Iranian nuclear capability is a literal matter of national life or death. In that circumstance, extraordinary action, quite apart from whether anyone else accepts it, can certainly be justified, and it is abundantly clear that those Israelis who have crafted and who support the decision believe that it is. The problem is that they cannot prove their contention.

The difficulty that surrounds the Israeli plan and that causes a lively, often rancorous debate is whether the Iranian threat to Israel is what the Israelis say it is or not. The heart of the problem is that the truth cannot be be demonstrated, since the events it seeks to avoid have not occurred. At heart, it is a matter of speculation, and it is a basic truth that nobody–not the Israelis, not the Iranians, or anybody else–does or can know that truth. The only empirical test is to allow the Iranians to get nuclear weapons and see what happens next.

This, of course, is a gamble the Israelis are unwilling to take, since the worst case prospect is the endangerment of their national existence. It is the nature of national security planning everywhere to try to glean and prepare to prevent the worst case threat to the country, and a threat to national existence is the worst possible case. That the Israelis would take this possibility seriously and try to prevent it is entirely reasonable.

The degree of sympathy and support for the Israeli decision depends critically on how likely others see the Israeli worst case and thus whether they are willing to accept the second-order consequences of an Israeli action. While Iranian rhetoric creates an argument for the plausibilityof an Iranian nuclear intention, there is, after all, contrary evidence. Nuclear proliferation is, after all, not a new phenomenon: since the United States first obtained nuclear weapons, eight others have joined, not including Israel, which does not publicly acknowledge its nuclear arsenal. All these acts of proliferation have been decried at one level or another on grounds that the new member would act irresponsibly (which generally means actually using their bombs), and to date, none have. Why is Iran an exception? Once again, from an Iaraeli viewpoint, it only takes one contrary action.

No one outside Iran wants Iran to get nuclear weapons, but there can be reasons other than destroying Israel that are driving their program. One is simple prestige and national pride: great powers have nukes, and Iran wants to be thought of as a great power. Another is to deter an attack against them. There has been a fair amount of opinion that the real motivation of the Iranians has been to avoid an American attack against them, and many argue that if Saddam Hussein had not suspended his program, the United States would never have invaded Iraq. The deterrence argument, ironically enough, has been redoubled in the face of the Israeli threat. Would Israel be talking about attacking a nuclear-armed Iran? Almost certainly not. The irony is that threatening to attack Iran may actually stimulate the clandestine program so that Iran can announce before such an attack that they now have the bomb and that Israel had better think twice. This is a most unsettling and destabilizing prospect, since it also gives the Israelis an incentive to attack before it is too late. As any student of nuclear weapons from the American-Soviet nuclear competition can attest, the idea is to reduce (preferably to zero) the incentives for nuclear actions, not to increase them.

Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel if it gets them? I don’t know, and neither to those on each side predicting the outcome. Probably the Iranians themselves do not know: they may think they have the answer, but it is within a far different context than that of actual possession. I also understand, and think everyone else should as well, why the Israelis are as obsessed as they are on the subject; unlike the rest of us, their national lives are on the line if the answer is negative. The question for those of us who are not so potentially directly under the Iranian nuclear gun is how far we are willing to go to support the actions justified by Israeli concern. Since that support has negative consequences for everyone (admittedly not as dire as those facing Israel), the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.


If Israel Attacks Iran, Options Get Worse!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, Obama foreign policy with tags , , , on February 10, 2012 by whatafteriraq

Scenarios about the growing possibility that Israel will attack Iran in was would very likely be a feckless attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear weapons program and more or less permanently to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability were discussed in this space earlier this week (“Israel, Iran, and the United States”) and generally concluded both that such anattack was becoming increasingly likely and that it does not serve U.S. interests. This column takes the analysis a step forward, with the purpose of trying to answer the hypothetical (at least for the moment) question of what happens after such an Israeli strike occurs. As the title suggests, the attractiveness of post-attack options for the United States are unpromising.

The heart of the speculation that follows is what does Iran do in response to an attack? In a literal sense, of course, we do not and cannot know in advance, and neither do the Iranians or the Israelis, which is why it is an exercise in speculation. The reader can disagree with the premises here, and I cannot refute them with facts not in hand; the same is true for my arguments against counter scenarios.

Two things seem safe to presume, however. First, if Israel attacks Iran, the Iranians will respond, almost certainly violently. They will have no choice for both domestic and international political reasons, and whatever they do will receive less criticism than their policy actions before such an attack occurs. Second, the nature, severity, and reactions to an Iranian counterattack will depend on the nature, extent, and effects of an Israeli raid. The more extensive and, presumably, effective an Israeli attack is, the larger the probable responses by the Iranians will likely be.

If it cannot restrain the Israelis in the first place (the fairly clear intent of the Obama administration), the United States will not have many options in dealing with Iranian responses. There will be international sympathy for the Iranians that does not exist now, because they will have been the victim of aggression under the provisions of the UN Charter, and the more dead Iranians (especially civilians) the raid produces, the more widespread sympathy will be, even among Arabs who the Israelis maintain actually approve of the general idea of punishing the Iranians and defanging their nuclear potential. The American post-attack position is thus conmpromised in that support for Israel in effect sanctions an illegal act of aggression that results in the deaths of innocent Iranians. The degree to which the United States will further be compromised depends on how complicit this country was in the attack in the first place: the more we were involved, the more we will fall within the blanket of condemnation. Possibly the most we can do is to warn eveyone–especially Iran–quietly that their retaliation cannot threaten Israeli existence. Doing so will not, of course, please either the Israelis or their more dogmatic supporters in the United States.

If an attack occurs, the Iranians will have several response options, depending on how extensive the attack was. The sronger the response, of course, the less it serves U.S. interests.

1. If the attack is small and the effects minor (in other words, if it fails from an Israeli viewpoint), they can simply complain about the act of aggression and use it as leverage to lift international sanctions against it. In the process, they will almost certainly blame the United States for helping to plan and execute the raid, with reminders of U.S. perfidy toward Iran in cases like Operation Ajax (the 1953 CIA operation that overthrew Iran’s only popularly elected government) and the shoot down of an unarmed Iranian commercial airliner in the late 1980s.

2. Since the Israeli attack is likely to be more successful than that (or the Israelis wouldn’t do it), then the responses begin to escalate. At a minimum, they would include additional resources to Hezballah in the form of additional rockets that will coming raining down on Israel. The Israelis will complain that these are unprovoked, and hardly anyone will believe them internationally (escept the political right in the U.S.). An Israeli raid equals more “terrorist” attacks against Israel.

3. Depending on the level of success the Israeli attack achieves, there are two additional actions the Iranians can contemplate. The first would be retaliatory air strikes against the Israelis. Such a response would possess symmetry to the Israeli raid, and given that they were responses to the original Israeli action, regimes that normally do not support Iran (such as Jordan) would likely not object to Iranian overflight to reach Israeli targets. The Israelis would, of course, object loudly both to the provisions of those rights and the attacks, raising the prospects of escalation to a broader conflict that could involve the region.

4. Ultimately, Iran could begin a retaliatory campaign intended or with the side effect of causing an escalation to general war in the Middle East against Israel. Hardly anyone wants to see this or argues it is very probable, but once the dogs of war are unleashed, they are sometimes hard to control.

None of these options, and counter responses to them, serve any visible U.S. interests. The cessation of the Iranian nuclear program would serve such an interest, but it is one of the most unlikely outcomes, and only becomes less implausible as the scale of the Israeli attack and thus the likely virulence of the Iranian response expands. The larger that response becomes, the more difficult the problem of U.S. responses becomes. Success on one objective makes other objectives (e.g. regional stability) more problematical.

Israel and many of its supporters seek to deny what Iran will (or may) do in reaction to an Israeli attack, and they may be right. No one can know for sure, but it is counterintuitive to believe that a chauvinistic, paranoid, authoritarian Iran will take an attack lying down. They will respond somehow, and one or more of the options suggested here seems reasonable. Each option puts the United States in an increasingly untenable position of defending Israel from a retaliation many around the world (including many who dislike Iran and oppose their nuclear weapons effort) will feel is either justified or understandable. In these circumstances, the U.S. can shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, or it can side with the rest of the world. It is not a happy set of options.

The only way to avoid something like these dynamics is to avoid and, to the extent possible, prevent an Israeli attack in the first place. That is what the Obama administration is doing, and the radical right is condemning this as limp-wristed and inadequately supportive of our ally Israel. They are wrong!

Israel, Iran and the United States: All Options Are Bad!

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Iran, Israel and the United States, Middle East Conflict, US Domestic Politics, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , on February 7, 2012 by whatafteriraq

The growing confrontation between Israel and Iran over the Iranian nuclear weapons program is spinning perilously out of hand, and it has within it the seeds of the most potentially dangerous threat to international peace since the Cold War ended over 20 years ago. What we are witnessing is a verbal ran-up to a military conflict between the Middle East’s only nuclear power (Israel) and its most militant, populous state (Iran). It is a conflict that would serve no one’s interests, would only result in a worse situation–possibly catastrophically so–for all parties, and in which the extremely emotional basis of the conflict is driving all sides, including the United States, to consider essentially irresponsible acts that endanger the country’s national security interests in dangerous way. All of this is occurring in a presidential election year (probably no coincidence) in which cool analysis and action is undermined by hot electoral rhetoric aimed at grabbing votes at the possible endangerment of this country’s interests and safety. It needs to be stopped now, before it gets any worse.

Consider the situation in terms of three steps and their possible consequences. The steps are the pre-war confrontation, the Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (an event which, if it happens at all, will almost surely occur before the November election in the United States), and the Iranian response. All put the United States in an untenable, negative sum situation where, regardless of what we do, we will come out on the short end of the stick.

Start with the pre-war present. There are two salient features to consider. The first are Israeli threats that demand, in essence, that Iran stop and reverse its alleged weapons program (which, of course, the Iranians deny exists) before it proceeds any closer to a weapons outcome. The Israelis argue that if the Iranians get a nuclear weapon, they will use it against Israel, making the threat a truly existential one against them. Their assessment may be right or wrong, but there can be no doubt that the Neyanyahu government believes this scenario to be the case and from that perspective, a preemptive strike against Iran can make sense. That its consequences could be dire to Israel matters less from this perspective because Israel will suffer in either case. An attack is essentially taking an eye for an expected eye, and national existence is the stake. No Masada this time; the Israelis will go down swinging, if they go down.

This puts the United States, as the protector and guarantor of Israel, in a terrible position that the campaign rhetoric is only making worse. The Obama administration says it is “working” with Israel to defuse the crisis, which effectively means they are trying everything they can think of to try to keep the attack from occurring, at least partly because they recognize that if the Israelis launch a raid, all regional bets are off and that the worst case is a general Middle Eastern war that serves no one’s interests, and especially not the interests of the United States. GOP presidential contenders, on the other hand, are falling all over themselves and one another courting the Jewish vote in the United States by favoring unrestricted support for whatever Israel  decides to do. The most extreme view is held by Newt Gingrich, who summons the Holocaust to argue that anything less would be immoral.

The U.S. has essentially three options if an Israeli attack decision is unavoidable. None of them is especially good. They are:

 1. Full support for any attack the Israelis carry out, which can include actions of differing severity. The U.S. can participate in the raid in varying ways, such as providing air cover for the Israeli bombers heading for Iranian nuclear sites; we can provide satellite reconnaisance (which we undoubtedly already do) for the Israelis, including warnings of Iranian countermeasures; we can supply special ordnance (deep penetrating bombs) to the Israelis to penetrate underground facilities (the Israelis do not themselves have such a capability); or, at the greatest extreme, we can participate with U.S. bombers dropping bombs. The more involved we are, of course, the more we will be caught up in the wake of international reactions to the attack.

2. We can acknowledge Israeli plans, say we understand but don’t fully support their actions on any of a variety of grounds, BUT warn sternly that we will not allow a response by Iran that would endanger Israeli existence. We would still be blamed for not preventing the attacks, but the criticism would be more muted, and we would uphold our pledge to guarantee Israeli existence. Critics, however, would argue that is not enough.

3. We can tell the Israelis, very publicly, that they are on their own if they attack, although we will protect them from an existential response. This option, regardless of its merits, would be political suicide in an election year (part of why the Israelis, who realize this, will probably act before the November election).

Options 1 and 2 are the only really domestically viable options, but both of them tie the U.S. to the Israeli attack, and that has consequences. Rationalizations notwithstanding, an Israeli strike would be an act of military aggression–an act of aggressive war–that is illegal under international law and the UN Charter, which Israel signed, making the action illegal under Israeli law as well. Calling it “preemptive” does not aid legality, because acts of preemption are only justifiable under IL when a hostile act that they prevent is imminent ( enemy’s army massing on your border); the Israeli attack does not rise to that level. Thus, the United States indirectly supports violating international law by supporting the Israelis. The U.S, has, of course, done so in the past–the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for instance–but the world will at least rhetorically line up against an aggression. Moreover, the Russians and Chinese will undoubtedly co-sponsor at Security Council condemnation of the aggression, and the U.S. will be left with the unpleasant choices of supporting Israel in the face of overwhelming global disapproval or, as it did in 1956 at the time of the Suez War, of condemning the action of a close ally. Once again, electoral politics may require thumbing our noses at the world. Moreover, if the Israelis do attack, they will not be able to take out the Iranian program entirely, instead only setting it back, while Israeli attacks will take its toll in civilian casualties (collateral damage) that will only add to condemnation of the attacks. Anyone who can see some good in this for United States interests beyond some votes in the presidential election, is seeing something this observer does not.

As if that was not enough, an Israeli attack will trigger some very violent form of Iranian counterattack with equally or even more dangeous potential consequences for the U.S. and the region. Those possibilities, none of which are desirable from a U.S. viewpoint, will be the subject of the next column. All the options are bad!

Politics and Policy in the Middle East Debate

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by whatafteriraq

The visit by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington this past week and the firestorm that surrounded it pointed, among other things, to a fundamental if largely underpublicized distinction mostly of interest to political scientists but occasionally to wider audiences. That distinction was the difference between politics and public policy, including their interaction and the junction between them. Usually, debate about this distinction does not make much difference to citizen observers of the political process; last week it did.

The distinction is reasonably straightforward; political scientists disagree about some of it in detail, but political scientists disagree about just about everything. Politics is generally concerned with the political process: who is part of it, how people gain access to and control of it, and how they use their access to affect the actual policies of the government on various issues. Policy, on the other hand, deal with so-called outcomes of the process–the decisions that are made by political authority concerning how political issues will be determined, e.g. what will be the American position on global warming, or immigration, or Israel, or whatever.

The two concerns are obviously related to one another. Politics affects, even determines, policy, and vice versa. The heart of the realm of politics is who has political power, and in democratic systems, that means who wins elections. The heart of American politics is who gains control of the electoral process and gets elected and thus who can seek to implement different policy choices. At the same time, the policy positions that elected officials and aspirants espouse are basic data on which aspirants and office holders campaign for sontinuing support.

Both aspects have become intensely controversial. Particularly in the realm of foreign policy, there used to be an unwritten rule that political disagreements should be muted in public so that the country maintained a single, united face toward foreign governments. The basic statement of this philosophy was that “politics ends at the water’s edge.” At the same time, the historical ideal has been one wherein politics was conducted with a certain level of decorum, civility, and restraint, particularly in terms of partisan invective. These conventions have not, of course, always been honored in American history, and they certainly are not today: there is no apparent effort to assume a common face toward the world, and common restraint and good manners are almost archaic concepts.

Policy disagreements have become an inflamed part of the hyper-partisan environment in which politics is played out. This is most clearly evident in the childish, superheated debate about medical care, and it extends to foreign policy as well. Historically, once again, foreign policies (the policies of the U.S. government toward different places and over different issues) were normally debated quietly within policy elites and among decision-makers, who might disagree, sometimes vehemently and fundamentally, about these matters, but generally confined their disagreements to debates among themselves. That is also clearly not the case today.

The Netanyahu visit flap exemplifies the system tun amok. It began with a policy address by President Obama at the State Department in which he enunciated as U.S. policy one of the two basic policy positions that policy advocates who study the region put forward. Substantively, it was a position with which one could disagree, but it was certainly nothing radical or unusual. The fact that Obama made the address on live television just before the arrival of Netanyahu in the country politicized it, however, especially since Netanyahu is the champion of the alternative policy within those same debates. The hinge of that disagreement is whether the pre-1967 West Bank boundary should be the basis for negotiations between Israel and Palestine; Netanyahu voiced his side (also for TV) in his address to Congress. The two men pouted their way through a final press conference and publicly maintained that there was no fundamental difference between them and that they remained respectful friends. Hardly anyone believed that.

This whole circus mashed politics and policy together. Beyond simple policy preference, it is unclear why the president made such a public show of highlighting what had been U.S. policy for three administrations (at least), but the effect was a political more than a policy firestorm. Republicans leaped at the opportunity to attack a president whom they want desperately to defeat in next year’s election (a process that is not going well, to put it mildly). Former Governor Mitt Romney declared the president had thrown Israel “under the bus”, an open pander to sympathetic Jews and their social conservative supporters in the United States, and the Netanyahu speech before Congress–complete with standing ovations–was orchestrated as much to embarass Obama as it was to support the Netanyahu hard line (which he tried, unconvincingly, to argue is actually conciliatory) on peace negotiations. The political debate was not so much about policy as it was about 2012 election-year politics, pure and simple.

Policy, and particularly calm debate about it, of course, was the (intended?) victim of all the politics. Obama insisted the Israelis must offer conciliatory concessions to get talks started again, with the 1967 borders as a starting point. The Israelis (the Netanyahu government, that is) is absolutely opposed to that position, and fied back that it is willing to make many concessions, but it is the Palestinians who refuse to negotiate. Lost in Netanyahu’s profession was an arguable unwillingness to make concessions to which the Palestinians might agree. In all his visit, it seemed to me that the most telling statement he made (in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer) was that a sine qua non for any final agreement establishing a Palestinian state must include provision for a permanent Israeli military presence along the west bank of the Jordan River. Regardless of whether that it is good Israeli security policy, it is an absolute deal breaker in terms of peace negotiations.

The politics and the policy intertwined. The politics replaced a dialogue on policy with an attempt to gain political advantage from the policy disagreement. In the end, both sides slinked away from the political interchange with the sides of the debate intact and no progress made on resolving the policy issue. Politics, as is so often the case, trumped policy–probably to the detriment of both.

Netanyahu’s Speech and the U.S. Congress

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace with tags , , , , , on May 25, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Prime Miniaster Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a combined session of the U.S. Congress yesterday was a thoroughly surreal experience. In the speech, Netanyahu pretended to be putting forth major concessions toward Palestine that could lead to the resumption of peace talks between the two parties, but the speech in fact was nothing more than standard Likud boiler plate that broke no new ground and was–as Netanyahu knew as he delivered it–totally unacceptable to the Palestinians (who promptly rejected it as “disappointing”). Everyone in the room or watching on television should have known that th speech was simply Bibi’s standard stump speech, but the U.S. Congress, interrupting him two dozen times with standing ovations, seemed to respond as if they were listening to a Churchillian oration. It was not, and the Congressional response was, in a word, unseemly.

Netanyau wasted no time demonstrating that he was not carrying an olive branch. Citing standard right-wing Israeli talking points, he reiterated that Judea and Samaria (J&S), as the Israelis like to refer to what the Arabs (and most of the rest of the world) refer to as the West Bank, was Israel’s, given to them by God in the Old Testament, and that the Israelis, despite this proper ownership, would be generous in making concession to carve out a Palestinian state somewhere on this piece of disputed ground that would include the abandonment of some of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank (oops, J&S). Those concession would not, however, include any part of Jerusalem, which he declared was the sole possession of Israel and its capital in perpetuity.

These two provisions alone gave away the seriousness of any peaceful intent that Netanyahu brought to the forum. Haaretz, the Israeli paper that opposes the Netanyahu regime across the board, referred to the speech as the “same old messages”  that included endless conditions that have no relation to reality.” If reality entails meaningful concessions that will reactivate the peace process, their assessment is exactly correct, since the Netanyahu conditions leave very little territory to be negotiated as the basis of Palestine and set the context that any concessions will be the result of Israeli largesse.  The speech effectively slammed the door not only on President Obama’s proposals of last week; they effectively end any prospects of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for as long as Netanyahu is in office. Haaretz concludes that Netanyahu “is leading Israel and the Palestinians into a new round of violence, along with Israel’s isolation and deep disagreement with the American administration.” I find it hard to argue with that conclusion.

Then there was the Congressional response. The assembled Senators and Representatives hung on and cheered every hard-line word that Netanyahu spoke, and one can assums that there will be lots of Israeli TV commercials documenting that support when the next Israeli election is held. Did they know what they were cheering? Does the United States Congress reject the idea of meaningful dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians, which is the inevitable result of Netanyahu’s speech? Or were the collected members, ever vigilant to instant polls, election prospects in 2012 and how full their reelection coffers would be, simply pandering to what they assume was American opinion on this subject?

It is incoceivable to me that the 500+ rpresentatives and others in attendance did not recognize Netanyahu’s speech for what it was: a basic, if nicely presented, reiteration of the standard right-wing, pro-settler Israeli position that broke no new ground and was not intended to be a diplomatic outreach but a simple statement of political position. Recognizing that politics no longer ends at the water’s edge, the speech was also a condemnation of the position of the government of the United States, and like that position or not, those Congressional “spring butts” (a term I learned at the US Aifr Force Command and Staff College as the reflexive response of some officer “brown nosers”) were cheering against their own government. Where was the “America, Love It or Leave It” crowd on that part). If you are a Palestinian today, you can only conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the Congress of the United States is your enemy. Is that what the members sought to convey?

Those who support the Netanyahu position, both here and in Israel, will no doubt respond negatively to these words. That is fine: the heart of dialogue is accepting contrary views and working from them. Having said that, I find it shocking, and yes, surreal, that this event occurred the way it did. To put it simply, a foreign official was invited to speak to the legislative branch of another country, where he berated and openly opposed the foreign policy of his closest ally to the cheers of that legislative body. Simply unbelievable!

“Unsustainable” versus “Indefensible” over Israel

Posted in Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Middle East and US Election, Middle East Peace, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , on May 22, 2011 by whatafteriraq

President Obama created a major brouhaha in U.S.-Israeli relations Thursday with his speech at the State Department on the Middle East in which he called for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace discussions (which have been suspended since 2009) aimed at creating a spearate Palestinian state (the long-familiar two-state solution). Hardly anyone publicly decries the idea of separate Israeli and Palestinian states in principle, but there is disagreement about implementing that principle based on questions about where a border should be and exactly what kind of Palestinian state should be created.

The President argued that the frame of reference for the two new states should be a modified version of the pre-June 4, 1967 border between Israel and what was then the Jordanian West Bank. The modification would, as he said Thursday and reiterated in his Sunday, May 21 speech before the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), would be based on appropriate land “swaps” to reflect demographic realities (i.e. to accommodate at least some of the Israeli settlements that now increasingly dot the West Bank). This basis of an agreement, as he said again on Sunday, is nothing novel or revolutionary and has been the dominant assumption among analysts privately and certainly within academic circles for some time. It is not, however, a position embraced (to put it mildly), by the current Israeli governing coalition, and Obama’s speech was given the day before the chief opponent of a 1967-based solution, Benjamin Netanyahu, was scheduled to arrive in Washington and meet with the President at the White House. Thus the fun began!

The President argued that a resumption of the peace talks was necessary, because, as he said, “The status quo is unsustainable,” and that talks aimed toward producing a peace agreement must start with the pre-1967 borders as their refderence point in order to have a chance of attaining peace. Although the predictable, ritual knee-jerk anti-Obamaites wailed the President was giving away Israel’s security (for instance, Senator Linday Graham of South Carolina, one of the “three amigos” from an earlier column on Libya in this space) by insisting that Israel retreat to these borders. Among those who most forcefully rejected this idea was, of course, Netanyahu, who argued that the pre-1967 borders were “indefensible” for Israel and did not reflect “demographic realities” on the West Bank (the proliferation of settlements literally all over the West Bank). The unsustainable met the indefensible on Friday at the White House, and post-meeting photo-op session did not, to put it mildly, exude warmth.

Obama was quickly pilloried by the political right in both Israel and the United States for proposing to sell out Israeli security and for being “anti-Israeli.” Much of this, of course, was pure rhetorical bombast: in the United States, it reflected the inability of his partisan opponents to accept anything Obama does as correct (killing bin Laden is a partial exception) and the implicit fear that any admission of Obama competence might hurt their chances in the 2012 election. In Israel, the Netanyahu coalition, which would fall instantly if it lost the support of West Bank settlers in whom the concept of a 1967 border solution in any form justifiably evokes fear of losing their homes, predictably leaped forward in very loud opposition. Netanyahu’s objection tapped this sentiment as well as his personal commitment to a “Greater Israel”;  Israeli indefinite retention of the West Bank helps insure military security, allows greater settlement, and fulfills his dream of an historical Israel that incorporates Judea and Sumaria (both on the West Bank).

In his Sunday speech, Obama sought to explain his objectives. He began by reiterating (and he did say the same things on Thursday) the absolute commitment of the United States to Israel’s existence and security and to “maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge” in the region. That this commitment was even questioned reflected the sheer hysteria with which the Israeli right both in Israel and the United States responds to any suggestion of changing the status quo.

The heart of Obama’s position, shared by a large portion of the international community, is that Israeli (and Palestinian) obstinence in the stalled peace process in unsustainable. On Sunday, Obama argued that continuing the status quo simply made matters worse in the long run, for four reasons. First, he argued that the only way to sustain the goal of a democratic Jewish state was a peace process based on permanent borders that reflect an adjusted 1967 border, and the demographics of the region support this contention. Second, he argued that the status quo leaves Israel increasingly vulnerable because weapons technologies (rocketry, drones, etc.) becoming available mean that Israeli security (and everybody elses’s) require a durable peace in which those who have those weapons have no incentive to use them. Third, he argued that Arab opposition to the status quo is likely to increase because a “new generation” of Arabs, rather than a few isolated Arab leaders–a direct reference to Egypt–who will increasingly demand change. Fourth, he argued that the international consensus that continuing occupation of what Israel calls the “disputed” or “administered” but the rest of the world calls “occupied” territories will bring the increasing isolation of Israel.

It is also briefly worth mentioning what Obama did not advocate but which has been attributed to him by political opponents. He did not argue that the acceptance of the 1967 borders and withdrawal to them by Israel was a precondition of peace (an action that would endanger Israeli security). Rather, he said that talks should begin with those borders as the long-term reference and a physical reality only to be achieved as the outcome of the peace process. Moreover, no boundary imposition is involved; he repeated on Sunday that the final border would be whatever the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to mutually. Period. Moreover, he did not argue that Israel should be forced into negotiations with Palestinian groups (Hamas) that refused to accept Israeli existence. Rather, the precondition on which he insisted was that Hamas (and anybody else of a similar philosophy) must renounce the destruction of Israel before talks could begin. In both speeches, he was quite explicit on both points, although, predictably (and somewhat pathetically) not everyone wanted to hear all of the truth.

Are the Obama proposals a panacea? Of course not. As he put it himself, they are not even his ideas, but are reflections of positions that some have been taken for years with which he happens to agree (truth in advertising: his Thursday speech sounded as if it had come from my lecture notes on the problem, meaning I happen to agree as well). Will they bring about peace? Nobody is foolhardy enough to predict that (particularly since this is the first day since the world was supposed to have come to an end according to a California radio preacher and his supporters), but it may offer the most promising (or least unpromising) approach available. The only visible option is the status quo, and no one of whom I am aware (including those who oppose the Obama-advocated approach) seems willing publicly to offer an intellectual defense of that prospect.

Democracy, Islamism, the U.S., Egypt, and Israel

Posted in Egypt, Israel and the United States, Israel-Palestine Peace Process, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East Peace, War on Terror with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Although the Libyan civil war is the current focus of most of the world’s (and certainly John McCain’s) attention, that blooldletting is a sideshow on the greater stage of the revolutionary movement that has swept across parts of the Middle East since January and which may spread even further in the upcoming months or years. The central stage of this drama is a two-act drama. The key element in that drama is the shape that post-uprising political systems in the region will take, and it is a contest widely portrayed in terms of democracy versus religious extremism (Islamism). The outcome of that contest may reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East region, and especially the critical triangular relationship between the United States, Egypt, and Israel that is a linchpin of American foreign policy in the region.

The common denominator of the Middle East revolutions has been popular uprisings against repressive, authoritarian regimes by suppressed peoples. These movements were virtually unanticipated in the West, which saw regimes like that of Egyptian Hosni Mubarak as pillars of stability in the region. That they were anti-democratic conflicted with the on-again-off-again U.S. policy of democracy promotion in the region, but that policy impulse (and it is hard to think of it as much more than that) always had as its alter ego the comfort of dealing with predictable regimes who cooperated with American policy emphases such as moderating anti-Israeli sentiments among Arab populations and participating in the American war on terrorism.

American policy toward Egypt demonstrated the American ambivalence on the subject particularly clearly. Everyone knew that Mubarak’s regime was nothing to be proud of in human rights or economic matters, but he was enduring (it lasted over 30 years, after all), and Mubarak was a staunch supporter of peace with Israel and a champion of anti-terrorist activities. But there was always an irony involved: the same prisons where he jailed and even tortured his political opponents were also available for the “rendition” (i.e. torture) of suspected terrorists captured by the United States and from whom the Americans wanted to extract information that it would be embarassing for us to obtain otherwise. Good old Hosni would take care of them for us. Gee, some of us may actually miss him.

Ambivalence about what is happening is, of course, rarely put this way. Rather, the great fear is that democratic movements in the countries undergoing upheavals may somehow be highjacked by radical Islamists, who will transform their societies into Iran-like clones and even, at worst, as havens for fanatical terrorists. This is a fear that beleaguered tyrants like Muammar Gadhafi have raised with particular vehemence (his charge that westerners and Al Qaeda–strange bedfellows–are responsible for Libya’s travail), and it raises a prospect that many others, but especially Israel, feels with particularly personal urgency.

But is this fear justified? It is too early to say with absolute certainty, but the early indications are that as democratic processes emerge, the Islamic extremists will not fare especially well. Egypt, which is the largest, most populous, and most strategically located of all the countries undergoing change, is the case in point. It is, of course, the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, offshoots of which are active in virtually every other Arab country in the region, but all indications are that the Brotherhood will neither be the preeminent influence in a post-Mubarak political order nor will its influence be particularly radical. One can and should never say never about these prospects, but unless things change, the prospects seem manageable.

There are, however, two other possible, even probable, outcomes that are more troublesome for the West, and the United States and Israel in particular. One is that all of these movements are likely to contain fairly strong anti-American elements. In one way this is strange, since it is western inventiveness that has energized the movements (e.g. the Internet) and since the political freedom to which they aspire is distinctly western. At the same time, the peoples involved know that that west, and notably the United States, has been the primary supporter of discredited leaders like Mubarak–the source of the misery to which they have reacted. This dichotomy mainly reflects the schizophrenia of American policy that valued “stability” over our own democratic values in these places, and that it is coming home to roost is probably something we will have to endure and try to make the best of. But one thing is pretty clear, and that it that the United States will have less influence over whoever ascends to power in places like Egypt than it had before.

This recognition brings us to the other outcome, which is a more anti-Israeli stance from post-revolutionary governments. For better or worse reasons, public opinion in places like Egypt is much more pro-Palestinian and thus thus anti-Israeli than the policies of fallen leaders like Mubarak have reflected. In open and democratic settings, it will be impossible for successor governments not to reflect this opposition, and the trick for the United States will be to try to keep this sentiment from boiling over into the destruction of the Middle East peace process which, ironically, has been one of the triumphs of the American policy of supporting regional tyrants.

The Israelis, of course, are well aware of and consequently with this likely outcome of democratization. The process, however, also leaves Israel in something of a bind in terms of how to respond. One of the signal bases of Israeli appeal in the region has been that it is the only legitimate political democracy in the Middle East, and as such, it can hardly oppose the spread of democracy to its neighbors. At the same time, it is also aware of the anti-Israeli tone of democratic politics there, a sentiment largely born of Israel’s obdurate clinging to the West Bank and opposition to completing an agreement creating an independent state of Palestine. These contradictions are part of a lively political debate within Israel, but the Israelis have been very quiet internationally about how they feel. Privately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently strongly advocated muscular American actions to prop up Mubarak (coming out on the stability end of the stability-democracy argument), but that train has left the station, and the Israelis are hunkering down.

From a geopolitical standpoint, the great question that remains is what will become of the strategically triangular relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the United States. Under Mubarak, the three were united to keep the lid on the volatile region by maintaining at least the fiction of a lively peace process leading to some kind of solution acceptable to the Palestinians, but democratic expressions in places like Egypt could undercut that fiction. It is not clear how diminished American influence will be in this situation, but it will certainly be decreased somewhat. The result will be uncomfortable for Israel, because its current policy of expanding the status quo will come under increasingly withering criticism from unconstrained democratizing places like Egypt. How Israel responds to this change will go a long way toward defining the geopolitics of the democratizing Middle East.