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Getting Tougher on Israel

If Jews really “worry for a living,” as Aaron David Miller, a former Clinton peace team official contends – Miller now gives them another reason for worrying. Writing for Time, he predicts:

[T]he days of America’s exclusive ties to Israel may be coming to an end. Despite efforts to sound reassuring during the campaign, the new administration will have to be tough, much tougher than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush were, if it’s serious about Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

Miller repeats a familiar complaint: “for the past 16 years, the United States has allowed that special bond to become exclusive in ways that undermine America’s, and Israel’s, national interests,” he writes. One can read similar assertions in Dan Kurtzer’s book, in which he blames his former boss, President Clinton, for “often allowing Israeli domestic politics effectively to veto critical issues” and blames President Bush for being “overly deferential to the stated political problems of the Israeli government.”

Miller argues that American support for the Gaza operation does not “make sense.” His explanation isn’t very detailed, but it has something to do with making life “unbearable for 1.5 million Gazans by denying aid and economic development.” Surely life in Gaza is hell, but what alternative Miller has for the country that merely wants to prevent a hostile organization from shelling its cities with rockets is not clear.

Miller also wants Obama to be tougher on the settlement issue. If this happens, it will come as no surprise to Israeli officials: most of them expect some “pressure” on the settlement issue, and would admit that on “illegal outposts” Israel has very few good answers. Israel has made a commitment to President Bush on this issue, and if President Obama asks Israel to show some progress Israel will have to comply.

The real question is: can the U.S. achieve more by being “balanced” and putting pressure on Israel – or can it be more effective by standing with Israel in virtually every attempt Israelis make to fight their hostile neighbors? While Arabs will be happier with an administration that’s tougher on Israel, one can argue that Israel, at least in the past, was much more cooperative when it felt safe, and much more willing to make concessions when there was no doubt of American support

Clinton got more from Rabin and Barak than George H. W. Bush got from Shamir, and George H. W. Bush got more from Israel than people might realize. Remember: the ultra-hawkish Sharon was the first Israeli Prime Minister to evacuate settlements – and this happened when Bush was in office. That’s because Sharon trusted Bush not to ask for more than is possible for Israel to give. Olmert, as Prime Minister, was willing to go much further than most of his predecessors on final-status issues for a similar reason.

If Obama is more “balanced,” if he applies more pressure, he might get some results by forcing Israelis into tough choices. But he might also discover that making Israelis feel unsafe makes them act nervously. And nervousness makes them less likely to trust both the peace process and the mediator.



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