A mesmerizing discussion Sunday afternoon was held among Elliott Abrams, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, and Asher Susser of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University as they examined the “sands of change in the Middle East.” Both Stephens and Susser traced the emergence of non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey (which is pivoting away from Europe as it becomes increasingly more Islamist in domestic policy and anti-Israel in its foreign policy), the decline of secular pan-Arabism, the tension between radicals and moderates, and the ascendancy of Shia regimes, which are displacing aging Sunni leaders as the region’s powerhouses.
Abrams made a different case: “The most important shift is in Washington.” He noted that in 1967, Israel won a tremendous, and the British left Aden, opening an era in which the U.S.-Israel alliance dominated the region. (“It took the 1973 war for the Arabs to learn that lesson.”) The question Arabs are asking now, Abrams said, is about what the American policy is on maintaining its dominance in the region. They want to know “whether the U.S. is prepared to maintain its position or let the region slip into a period of Iranian dominance.” On Iran’s nuclear ambitions specifically, Abrams reminded the crowd that the Obama administration says it is “unacceptable” if Iran gets a nuclear weapon. “But do they mean it’s unacceptable or just that it is a bummer?”
As for the Obami’s effort to separate the U.S. from Israel to increase our credibility with the Arabs, it is “no accident” Abrams said, that the Saudi’s 2002 peace plan, while not the basis for any viable peace agreement, would have ended with the recognition of Israel. When the Arab states realize that the U.S. commitment to Israel is unyielding and that they “can’t do anything about Israel, they begin to make peace.” If the U.S. should begin to change its position, Abrams cautioned, their attitude toward Israel will change as well. Then, Abrams added, citing Lee Smith’s book The Strong Horse, they will decide which is the weak and which is the strong horse in the region and act accordingly. How we act toward Israel affects how Arab states regard us. As we distance ourselves from Israel, the Arabs see that we “are proving to be an undependable ally.” So the place to determine the fate of the Middle East, he summed up, is “here.”
All the panelists in their presentations and the Q & A discussed the recent conflict and the “peace process.” Stephens noted that putting the “squeeze on our friends while coddling our enemies comes with a cost. Israel will take less risks for peace. The Palestinians are encouraged to make maximalist demands. Radicals in the region take comfort that the U.S. is slowly withdrawing.” Susser deemed the ruckus raised by the administration over a Jersulem housing project ”ludicrous.” The Obama team is focused on the “1967 file” — settlements and Jerusalem. But the Palestinians are still stuck on the “1948 file” — the right of return of refugees and “Israel’s being.” What’s working against us and serving as the reason that status quo is unsustainable, he says, are both the demography and the movement internationally to try to delegitimize Israel.
What to do about that international effort? Abrams: “It is not an accident that the worst challenges to Israel’s legitimacy have occurred in the last two years.” When the U.S. “condemns” Israel over a housing permit, the Quartet rushes in to do the same. The way to stop this, he said bluntly, is “for the U.S. to get 100% behind Israel.” Stephens took it up from there, arguing that Israel’s efforts at peace and its withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon have not gained it applause. “The depth of the hatred increased with proof of Israel’s good intentions.” We need, he says, not to make a “defense case” but a “prosecutorial case” against powers that would find it acceptable to welcome Robert Mugabe with open arms but that would arrest Tzipi Livni, and against entities like the UN Human Rights Council, which is stocked with the likes of Libya, Egypt, and other human rights abusers. “Who are they to point fingers at Israel?”
The panel was greeted with great enthusiasm, as if a dose of reality had finally been served up after days and days of administration flailing and the resulting furor within the Jewish community. But if this crowd surely shares the Abrams-Stephens-Susser view, what then is to be done about the Obami? The issue isn’t a housing flap, but the Obami’s dangerous notion that distancing itself from Israel is “smart diplomacy.” It is anything but, and the AIPAC activists will have to devise a smart response for combating a dangerous and ill-advised approach.