Commentary Magazine


Topic: Dan Shapiro

Was Ambassador’s Iran Threat Credible?

America’s ambassador to Israel sounded a reassuring note today to Israelis and others wondering whether the direction of the West’s negotiations with Iran was leading inevitably to appeasement of Tehran. Ambassador Dan Shapiro seemed to be echoing the tough talk uttered by President Obama when he spoke to the AIPAC conference in March when, according to the AP, he made the following comments:

Shapiro told the Israel Bar Association the U.S. hopes it will not have to resort to military force.

“But that doesn’t mean that option is not fully available. Not just available, but it’s ready,” he said. “The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready” …

“We do believe there is time. Some time, not an unlimited amount of time,” Shapiro said. “But at a certain point, we may have to make a judgment that the diplomacy will not work.”

Though it would certainly be to the advantage of the West were Iran to believe it is in genuine peril of an attack if they refuse to abandon their nuclear ambitions, given the fact that it is EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton who is running the P5+1 talks, and not someone like Shapiro, Iran’s obvious confidence that it will prevail in the negotiations is hardly unfounded.

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America’s ambassador to Israel sounded a reassuring note today to Israelis and others wondering whether the direction of the West’s negotiations with Iran was leading inevitably to appeasement of Tehran. Ambassador Dan Shapiro seemed to be echoing the tough talk uttered by President Obama when he spoke to the AIPAC conference in March when, according to the AP, he made the following comments:

Shapiro told the Israel Bar Association the U.S. hopes it will not have to resort to military force.

“But that doesn’t mean that option is not fully available. Not just available, but it’s ready,” he said. “The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready” …

“We do believe there is time. Some time, not an unlimited amount of time,” Shapiro said. “But at a certain point, we may have to make a judgment that the diplomacy will not work.”

Though it would certainly be to the advantage of the West were Iran to believe it is in genuine peril of an attack if they refuse to abandon their nuclear ambitions, given the fact that it is EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton who is running the P5+1 talks, and not someone like Shapiro, Iran’s obvious confidence that it will prevail in the negotiations is hardly unfounded.

No one, not even the most sanguine leaders of the Iranian regime, doubt there are contingency plans in place for an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Unlike the difficulties that the Israeli Air Force would face in mounting such an operation, American forces in the Persian Gulf region are more than adequate to accomplish the task. But to say there are plans is one thing. To believe President Obama would order the use of force if Iran refuses to give ground in the talks is quite another.

Indeed, far from the Iranians doing the retreating, it has been the West that has, as the Iranians haven’t failed to note. Every red line set by the West on Iran’s nuclear program has been transgressed. From the putting of reactors on line to the construction of heavy water facilities and now to the refining uranium at a rate that is needed to produce a nuclear weapon, the Iranians acted and then waited for the West to eventually concede the point. That is why they are heading to Baghdad for the next round of talks so confident that the West will allow them to keep their nuclear toys that they are actually demanding the crippling international sanctions that were belatedly imposed on the regime be lifted.

We hope the Iranians are mistaken about President Obama’s resolve but nothing he has done — as opposed to the many things he has said about the topic — has led them to believe they can’t get away with building up their capability to the point where converting it to military uses will be quite simple. And because, as the International Atomic Energy Agency has noted, devices for testing military uses of nuclear power are already in place in Iran, they have every expectation that sooner or later they will be able to confront the world with a nuclear fact.

Like much of what the administration has said and done in recent months, Ambassador Shapiro’s comments seem to be geared more toward convincing Israel to refrain from its own strike on Iran — for which the IAF has proclaimed its readiness — than a genuine demonstration of an American will to act to forestall the threat.

But rather than judge the administration on its words, it is far wiser to judge them on what happens in the coming negotiations. If, as the Iranians expect, the EU, Russia and China, with President Obama, as always, leading from behind, make “progress” in the coming weeks toward a deal that will leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in place, we will know the ambassador’s statement was merely an empty threat.

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Partial Freezes, Complete Freezes, and Eskimos

One of the most interesting “Palestine Papers” is the Minutes of a September 17, 2009, meeting between Saeb Erekat (SE), the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Dan Shapiro (DS) of the White House National Security Council, along with several high level State Department people and George Mitchell’s chief of staff.

The Americans urged the Palestinians to commence negotiations even though the U.S. had been able to obtain only a partial building freeze. The discussion in the Minutes represents, in my view, a microcosm of the 17-year peace process.

Erekat expressed his unwillingness to negotiate with Benjamin Netanyahu (BN), since Netanyahu had made his position clear, which was unacceptable to the Palestinians:

SE: … On substance, from day one BN said: Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel, demilitarized state without control over borders or airspace, no refugees. Once you agree to this we can negotiate a piece of paper and an anthem.

Erekat’s position was that “anything short of 2 states on the 1967 border is meaningless.” He explained his theory on Netanyahu’s strategy:

SE: When Bibi talks about excluding Jerusalem it is to make sure we can’t attend, because he doesn’t want to.

DS: So by not going aren’t you playing into his hand?

SE: You put me in this position! It’s like having a gun to my head — damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Netanyahu had set forth an adamant negotiating position, but also his willingness to negotiate without preconditions. The Palestinians responded with their own adamant position (nothing short of the indefensible 1967 lines) and their unwillingness to negotiate. If the Palestinians were correct about Netanyahu’s strategy, they were playing right into it — and blaming not themselves but the United States! Read More

One of the most interesting “Palestine Papers” is the Minutes of a September 17, 2009, meeting between Saeb Erekat (SE), the chief Palestinian negotiator, and Dan Shapiro (DS) of the White House National Security Council, along with several high level State Department people and George Mitchell’s chief of staff.

The Americans urged the Palestinians to commence negotiations even though the U.S. had been able to obtain only a partial building freeze. The discussion in the Minutes represents, in my view, a microcosm of the 17-year peace process.

Erekat expressed his unwillingness to negotiate with Benjamin Netanyahu (BN), since Netanyahu had made his position clear, which was unacceptable to the Palestinians:

SE: … On substance, from day one BN said: Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel, demilitarized state without control over borders or airspace, no refugees. Once you agree to this we can negotiate a piece of paper and an anthem.

Erekat’s position was that “anything short of 2 states on the 1967 border is meaningless.” He explained his theory on Netanyahu’s strategy:

SE: When Bibi talks about excluding Jerusalem it is to make sure we can’t attend, because he doesn’t want to.

DS: So by not going aren’t you playing into his hand?

SE: You put me in this position! It’s like having a gun to my head — damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Netanyahu had set forth an adamant negotiating position, but also his willingness to negotiate without preconditions. The Palestinians responded with their own adamant position (nothing short of the indefensible 1967 lines) and their unwillingness to negotiate. If the Palestinians were correct about Netanyahu’s strategy, they were playing right into it — and blaming not themselves but the United States!

Shapiro suggested that the Palestinians had a sympathetic U.S. president and should start negotiating, given his commitment to them:

DE: The President has demonstrated a personal and real commitment to you. What you are saying indicates that you tend to discount the President’s commitment. It strikes me that it doesn’t seem to be worth a lot to you.

SE: This is not about personalities or conscience. Bush did not wake up one day and his conscience told him “two state solution.” It’s about interests. We have waited a painful 17 years in this process, to take our fate in our own hands.

But quite a lot happened in those 17 years. They got three offers of a state on substantially all the West Bank and Gaza, with a capital in Jerusalem — and turned all three down. They received all of Gaza and a chance to show they could build a state without threatening Israel — and demonstrated the opposite. They got a U.S. president personally committed to them, who undoubtedly would eventually push “bridging proposals” more to their liking than to Israel’s — and they refused to start negotiations without a complete freeze. A lot of opportunities came their way during those 17 years, while they were “waiting.”

In an old joke, a man tells a bartender he lost his religion after his small plane crashed in frozen Alaskan tundra and he lay there for hours, crying for God to save him, and nothing happened. The bartender says, “wait — you’re here.” “Right,” says the man, “because finally a damned Eskimo came along.” Some day Saeb Erekat will explain to some bartender that he was a negotiator for 17 years but nothing happened, except for all the damned Eskimos who came along.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

The Democrats are in trouble: “If voters think the economy’s gotten worse under a Democratic President they’re going to vote Republican. Add in the Democrats’ enthusiasm issues and you have the formula for the big GOP victory that’s likely on the way.”

Obama is in trouble when his base-rousing appeals are annoying the base. “‘I think it is a remarkably condescending message,’ said Darcy Burner, the executive director of ProgressCongress.org and the Progressive Congress Action Fund. Progressives, she said, continue to be deeply involved in policy and in politics and are not at all lethargic or disengaged. ‘The fact that they are frustrated and discouraged has as much to do with the rhetoric coming out of the White House as anything else,’ she said. ‘And this is the latest example of that.’” When Burner and Rubin agree, it’s not a good sign for Dems.

The non-peace talks are hanging by a thread, and their collapse would mean trouble for Obama and his “smart” diplomacy: “Special Envoy George Mitchell, his deputy David Hale, and the NSC’s Dan Shapiro left Monday for the Middle East to try to hold together the direct peace talks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won’t say whether he will leave the talks until next week, following the end of the Israeli settlement moratorium. The U.S. was ‘disappointed’ in the Israeli decision, Crowley said.” You get the feeling its panic time at Foggy Bottom and in the White House.

The Rahm Emanuel brand is in trouble if he can’t get his own tenant to let him back in his Chicago house. Not even to live in the basement. Live in the basement?!

Obama must be in more trouble than we thought if his disapproval rating is 55 percent in the state that launched his presidential run.

The blame-Bush gambit is in trouble: “Portman, budget director and U.S. trade representative in Bush’s administration, leads Democrat Lee Fisher 50 percent to 37 percent barely more than one month before the November 2 congressional election. … The poll found a majority of Ohio voters brushed aside Democratic charges that Portman would represent a return to the failed economic policies of Bush, with 60 percent saying his work with Bush made no difference in their vote.”

No wonder the Obami are in such trouble. Emanuel was apparently under the belief that “the White House must govern principally through the [New York] Times.” OK, that’s scary.

Hotline: “Democrats See Old Bulls in Trouble.”

The economy is still in trouble: “September consumer confidence sagged to its lowest levels since February, driven by deteriorating labor market and business conditions, according to a private report released Tuesday. The Conference Board, an industry group, said its index of consumer attitudes fell to 48.5 in September from a revised 53.2 in August. ‘September’s pull-back in confidence was due to less favorable business and labor market conditions, coupled with a more pessimistic short-term outlook, ‘said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center. …  ‘Overall, consumers’ confidence in the state of the economy remains quite grim,’ Franco said.”

The Democrats are in trouble: “If voters think the economy’s gotten worse under a Democratic President they’re going to vote Republican. Add in the Democrats’ enthusiasm issues and you have the formula for the big GOP victory that’s likely on the way.”

Obama is in trouble when his base-rousing appeals are annoying the base. “‘I think it is a remarkably condescending message,’ said Darcy Burner, the executive director of ProgressCongress.org and the Progressive Congress Action Fund. Progressives, she said, continue to be deeply involved in policy and in politics and are not at all lethargic or disengaged. ‘The fact that they are frustrated and discouraged has as much to do with the rhetoric coming out of the White House as anything else,’ she said. ‘And this is the latest example of that.’” When Burner and Rubin agree, it’s not a good sign for Dems.

The non-peace talks are hanging by a thread, and their collapse would mean trouble for Obama and his “smart” diplomacy: “Special Envoy George Mitchell, his deputy David Hale, and the NSC’s Dan Shapiro left Monday for the Middle East to try to hold together the direct peace talks. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won’t say whether he will leave the talks until next week, following the end of the Israeli settlement moratorium. The U.S. was ‘disappointed’ in the Israeli decision, Crowley said.” You get the feeling its panic time at Foggy Bottom and in the White House.

The Rahm Emanuel brand is in trouble if he can’t get his own tenant to let him back in his Chicago house. Not even to live in the basement. Live in the basement?!

Obama must be in more trouble than we thought if his disapproval rating is 55 percent in the state that launched his presidential run.

The blame-Bush gambit is in trouble: “Portman, budget director and U.S. trade representative in Bush’s administration, leads Democrat Lee Fisher 50 percent to 37 percent barely more than one month before the November 2 congressional election. … The poll found a majority of Ohio voters brushed aside Democratic charges that Portman would represent a return to the failed economic policies of Bush, with 60 percent saying his work with Bush made no difference in their vote.”

No wonder the Obami are in such trouble. Emanuel was apparently under the belief that “the White House must govern principally through the [New York] Times.” OK, that’s scary.

Hotline: “Democrats See Old Bulls in Trouble.”

The economy is still in trouble: “September consumer confidence sagged to its lowest levels since February, driven by deteriorating labor market and business conditions, according to a private report released Tuesday. The Conference Board, an industry group, said its index of consumer attitudes fell to 48.5 in September from a revised 53.2 in August. ‘September’s pull-back in confidence was due to less favorable business and labor market conditions, coupled with a more pessimistic short-term outlook, ‘said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board Consumer Research Center. …  ‘Overall, consumers’ confidence in the state of the economy remains quite grim,’ Franco said.”

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The F-35 and the Israel-Obama Relationship

Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last week to buy 20 American-made F-35 fighter jets, Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily said it “illuminates Israel’s continuing, vital, and enduring — albeit dependent — relationship with the United States.” That is undoubtedly true: Washington has been Israel’s principal arms supplier for over four decades, and those arms are crucial for the country’s defense.

Ironically, however, the purchase also illuminates the nadir to which the relationship has fallen under the current administration. Barack Obama’s aides have tried to divert attention from their boss’s efforts to put “daylight” between America and Israel by insisting that on the all-important issue of security, “President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board,” as Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council told the Anti-Defamation League in May.

But in reality, Washington has attached unprecedented restrictions to the F-35 sale — restrictions so severe that Israel’s defense establishment agonized for months over whether to sign the deal, and ultimately opted to buy only 20 planes instead of the 75 the Israel Air Force originally sought.

First, as Haaretz reported last month, the U.S. refused to supply a test aircraft as part of the deal for the first time in 40 years. From the Phantom in 1969 through the F-16I six years ago, every previous American sale of fighters to Israel has included an experimental aircraft that Israel can use to test new systems or weapons it is considering installing in order to upgrade the planes or adapt them to particular missions. Effectively, the paper said, this refusal means “upgrades will not be implemented during the plane’s service in the IAF.”

Second, Washington initially refused to let any Israeli systems be installed in the plane, and finally reluctantly agreed to what various Israeli reports described as “minor changes” or “a few” systems (though holding out the carrot that more might be allowed if Israel ultimately commissions more planes). This, too, is unprecedented. Previous deals have given Israel great latitude to have its own systems installed on American-made aircraft, and have also allowed other countries to install Israeli systems — with the result that “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.”

The restrictions so incensed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that he has appealed the purchase to the cabinet. His ministry says they would deal “a major blow to Israel’s defense industry” and particularly “hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.” On an issue as militarily important as purchasing new fighters, Steinitz has no chance of prevailing against Barak. But for a senior minister to publicly challenge such a deal is itself unusual.

It’s a testament to the depth of Israel’s support both in Congress and among the American people that even a hostile president only dares impair the security relationship at the margins, where he can hope it won’t be noticed. But precisely because the F-35 restrictions will fly below most Americans’ radars, they’re a telling indication of where Obama’s heart really lies.

Commenting on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision last week to buy 20 American-made F-35 fighter jets, Elliot Jager of Jewish Ideas Daily said it “illuminates Israel’s continuing, vital, and enduring — albeit dependent — relationship with the United States.” That is undoubtedly true: Washington has been Israel’s principal arms supplier for over four decades, and those arms are crucial for the country’s defense.

Ironically, however, the purchase also illuminates the nadir to which the relationship has fallen under the current administration. Barack Obama’s aides have tried to divert attention from their boss’s efforts to put “daylight” between America and Israel by insisting that on the all-important issue of security, “President Obama has taken what was already a strong U.S.-Israel defense relationship, and broadened and deepened it across the board,” as Dan Shapiro of the National Security Council told the Anti-Defamation League in May.

But in reality, Washington has attached unprecedented restrictions to the F-35 sale — restrictions so severe that Israel’s defense establishment agonized for months over whether to sign the deal, and ultimately opted to buy only 20 planes instead of the 75 the Israel Air Force originally sought.

First, as Haaretz reported last month, the U.S. refused to supply a test aircraft as part of the deal for the first time in 40 years. From the Phantom in 1969 through the F-16I six years ago, every previous American sale of fighters to Israel has included an experimental aircraft that Israel can use to test new systems or weapons it is considering installing in order to upgrade the planes or adapt them to particular missions. Effectively, the paper said, this refusal means “upgrades will not be implemented during the plane’s service in the IAF.”

Second, Washington initially refused to let any Israeli systems be installed in the plane, and finally reluctantly agreed to what various Israeli reports described as “minor changes” or “a few” systems (though holding out the carrot that more might be allowed if Israel ultimately commissions more planes). This, too, is unprecedented. Previous deals have given Israel great latitude to have its own systems installed on American-made aircraft, and have also allowed other countries to install Israeli systems — with the result that “between 10 percent and 15 percent of every new F-16 made in America, for instance, consists of Israeli systems.”

The restrictions so incensed Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz that he has appealed the purchase to the cabinet. His ministry says they would deal “a major blow to Israel’s defense industry” and particularly “hurt development of new Israeli missile systems.” On an issue as militarily important as purchasing new fighters, Steinitz has no chance of prevailing against Barak. But for a senior minister to publicly challenge such a deal is itself unusual.

It’s a testament to the depth of Israel’s support both in Congress and among the American people that even a hostile president only dares impair the security relationship at the margins, where he can hope it won’t be noticed. But precisely because the F-35 restrictions will fly below most Americans’ radars, they’re a telling indication of where Obama’s heart really lies.

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Like Deja Vu All Over Again

Today the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was announced. After 18 months of bullying Israel, the Obami’s tone was markedly different. As this report explained:

But Mrs. Clinton pointedly did not mention using Israel’s pre-1967 borders as the basis for territorial negotiations — a basic plank of previous talks — or set any other basic terms for the negotiations. Nor did she press the Israeli government to extend a moratorium on the construction of Jewish settlements, which would remove a potential hurdle to a deal.

In 18 months, the Obami managed to climb back to where the Bush administration had been — direct talks with no preconditions. An experienced Israel hand notes that there had been four years of direct talks until George Mitchell “destroyed them with his demands about settlements.” He continues: “The one-year timetable is the — who knows — fifth or tenth or twentieth deadline, and will have no different fate. The Roadmap gave it three years — and that was not enough. So that is plain silly. But above all, they begin with NO common understanding.”

This was made clear by the administration’s readout of a briefing given to American Jewish leaders:

U.S. officials told Jewish community leaders on a private conference call this afternoon that they believe Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is on the verge of joining Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in accepting an invitation to resume peace talks.But he acknowledged that details of the talks have yet to be finalized, plans for a presidential visit to the region remain unclear, and hopes of drawing other Arab leaders and Hamas into the process ride on the momentum of the talks themselves.

Well there is certainly less here than even the initial Obama spin would have had us believe. It seems to be that only an initial dinner is set. (“The United States will put its imprimatur on the talks in an orchestrated series of meetings that begin with a White House dinner Sept. 1 hosted by Mr. Obama.”) Beyond that? “Within the negotiations we’ve obviously had a lot of preparatory discussions with the parties on how to structure them,and we’ll need to finalize those, so we’re not in a position now to really talk about that.” Good grief. This has all the makings of a rushed announcement to try to put a horrid week for the White House behind them.”

It is interesting that Obama’s role is not yet finalized either. In fact, as my Israel expert points out, the death knell of the talks may be Obama’s own presence. After all, the Israelis have learned the hard way not to trust him, so it’s difficult to see how his presence could be a help. The telltale sign of the level of animosity between Obama and the Jewish state – he doesn’t yet have the nerve to visit Israel, where he could very likely face angry crowds. (“‘He looks forward to an opportunity to visit Israel,’ [Dan Shapiro] said of Obama, adding that such a visit would likely include a stop in the Palestinian Territories. The visit ‘could be very valuable and very meaningful at the right time.’”) Translation: he’s not going anytime soon.

The statements by others released on Friday were indicative of the low expectations that these talks engender among knowledgeable observers. AIPAC, which is obliged to cheer each step in the fruitless “peace process,” declares that it  ”welcomes the renewal of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as announced Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and expresses its appreciation to the Obama administration for its efforts in making this goal a reality.” But even its usually bubbly tone was replaced by sober and somewhat skeptical caveats:

For talks to succeed the PA must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad.  Likewise, Arab states must heed the calls by the Obama Administration and Congress to take immediate and meaningful steps toward normalization with Israel, and they must provide the political support for the Palestinians to make the kind of significant and difficult choices that will be required.

An even more candid statement came from Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who said he was hopeful but also “wary”:

Too often such talks produce little substance, and devolve into casting unfair blame at Israel for its legitimate efforts to guard its own security, while ignoring the unending violence that is openly encouraged by Palestinian leaders. That is especially the case with negotiations that involve the United Nations, the Russians, and the Europeans. I encourage President Obama to work against that tendency, and to set the tone in these talks by stressing the very real national security concerns Israel is dealing with.

And what happens when the talks go nowhere? Will we face yet another intifada? Will the bridging proposals morph into a imposed peace plan? Who knows — not even Day 2 is set yet.  The administration has imbibed the peace process Kool-Aid, but there is little evidence that it promotes peace or that the Obami are competent to oversee negotiations. And meanwhile the real Middle East crisis — the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon looms on the horizon. In a real sense, the “peace process” is nothing more than a dangerous distraction.

Today the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority was announced. After 18 months of bullying Israel, the Obami’s tone was markedly different. As this report explained:

But Mrs. Clinton pointedly did not mention using Israel’s pre-1967 borders as the basis for territorial negotiations — a basic plank of previous talks — or set any other basic terms for the negotiations. Nor did she press the Israeli government to extend a moratorium on the construction of Jewish settlements, which would remove a potential hurdle to a deal.

In 18 months, the Obami managed to climb back to where the Bush administration had been — direct talks with no preconditions. An experienced Israel hand notes that there had been four years of direct talks until George Mitchell “destroyed them with his demands about settlements.” He continues: “The one-year timetable is the — who knows — fifth or tenth or twentieth deadline, and will have no different fate. The Roadmap gave it three years — and that was not enough. So that is plain silly. But above all, they begin with NO common understanding.”

This was made clear by the administration’s readout of a briefing given to American Jewish leaders:

U.S. officials told Jewish community leaders on a private conference call this afternoon that they believe Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is on the verge of joining Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in accepting an invitation to resume peace talks.But he acknowledged that details of the talks have yet to be finalized, plans for a presidential visit to the region remain unclear, and hopes of drawing other Arab leaders and Hamas into the process ride on the momentum of the talks themselves.

Well there is certainly less here than even the initial Obama spin would have had us believe. It seems to be that only an initial dinner is set. (“The United States will put its imprimatur on the talks in an orchestrated series of meetings that begin with a White House dinner Sept. 1 hosted by Mr. Obama.”) Beyond that? “Within the negotiations we’ve obviously had a lot of preparatory discussions with the parties on how to structure them,and we’ll need to finalize those, so we’re not in a position now to really talk about that.” Good grief. This has all the makings of a rushed announcement to try to put a horrid week for the White House behind them.”

It is interesting that Obama’s role is not yet finalized either. In fact, as my Israel expert points out, the death knell of the talks may be Obama’s own presence. After all, the Israelis have learned the hard way not to trust him, so it’s difficult to see how his presence could be a help. The telltale sign of the level of animosity between Obama and the Jewish state – he doesn’t yet have the nerve to visit Israel, where he could very likely face angry crowds. (“‘He looks forward to an opportunity to visit Israel,’ [Dan Shapiro] said of Obama, adding that such a visit would likely include a stop in the Palestinian Territories. The visit ‘could be very valuable and very meaningful at the right time.’”) Translation: he’s not going anytime soon.

The statements by others released on Friday were indicative of the low expectations that these talks engender among knowledgeable observers. AIPAC, which is obliged to cheer each step in the fruitless “peace process,” declares that it  ”welcomes the renewal of direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), as announced Friday by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and expresses its appreciation to the Obama administration for its efforts in making this goal a reality.” But even its usually bubbly tone was replaced by sober and somewhat skeptical caveats:

For talks to succeed the PA must match Israel’s commitment to conducting peace talks without preconditions or excuses, abandon its longstanding attempts to avoid making difficult choices at the negotiating table and cease incitement against Israel at home and abroad.  Likewise, Arab states must heed the calls by the Obama Administration and Congress to take immediate and meaningful steps toward normalization with Israel, and they must provide the political support for the Palestinians to make the kind of significant and difficult choices that will be required.

An even more candid statement came from Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who said he was hopeful but also “wary”:

Too often such talks produce little substance, and devolve into casting unfair blame at Israel for its legitimate efforts to guard its own security, while ignoring the unending violence that is openly encouraged by Palestinian leaders. That is especially the case with negotiations that involve the United Nations, the Russians, and the Europeans. I encourage President Obama to work against that tendency, and to set the tone in these talks by stressing the very real national security concerns Israel is dealing with.

And what happens when the talks go nowhere? Will we face yet another intifada? Will the bridging proposals morph into a imposed peace plan? Who knows — not even Day 2 is set yet.  The administration has imbibed the peace process Kool-Aid, but there is little evidence that it promotes peace or that the Obami are competent to oversee negotiations. And meanwhile the real Middle East crisis — the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon looms on the horizon. In a real sense, the “peace process” is nothing more than a dangerous distraction.

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A Question for Obama Today

By my count, State Department spokesmen have declined 21 times over the past year to answer a straightforward question: does the Obama administration consider itself bound by the 2004 Bush letter given to Israel in exchange for the Gaza disengagement plan? On Friday, a key White House official logged the 22nd refusal to address the question:

The April 14, 2004, letter from Mr. Bush to Mr. Sharon said a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should reflect “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers,” and that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” …

During a conference call Friday with reporters, Dan Shapiro, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, declined to say whether the 2004 letter reflected the Obama administration’s understanding of the parameters or borders of a final settlement to the conflict.

The Bush letter reassured Israel of a “steadfast [U.S.] commitment” to “defensible borders” and to Israel’s ability to “defend itself, by itself” (a coded reference to Israel’s retention of its ultimate means of defense). Such borders require retention of the major settlement blocs, since they are located on the high ground surrounding the center of the country and other militarily significant points in the West Bank. (The 1967 Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum on defensible borders is summarized here, and a useful video showing the topography of such borders is here.)

In referring to the “realities” on the ground and what is “realistic” for final-status negotiations, the Bush letter set forth the requirements of a serious peace process — since no Israeli government is going to cede territory essential to its strategic defense — and represents in any event a commitment that cannot be repudiated simply by ignoring it (at least not in normal diplomacy).

The reason Shapiro and the State Department spokesman have ducked the question of adherence to the Bush letter may be that they in fact do not know the answer. Michael Oren reportedly said that his access to senior administration officials and advisers of the president is good but that Obama exercises very tight control and “[t]his is a one-man-show.” In the Obama-Netanyahu press conference scheduled for later today, perhaps someone will address the question to the only person in the administration who apparently can answer it.

By my count, State Department spokesmen have declined 21 times over the past year to answer a straightforward question: does the Obama administration consider itself bound by the 2004 Bush letter given to Israel in exchange for the Gaza disengagement plan? On Friday, a key White House official logged the 22nd refusal to address the question:

The April 14, 2004, letter from Mr. Bush to Mr. Sharon said a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should reflect “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers,” and that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” …

During a conference call Friday with reporters, Dan Shapiro, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, declined to say whether the 2004 letter reflected the Obama administration’s understanding of the parameters or borders of a final settlement to the conflict.

The Bush letter reassured Israel of a “steadfast [U.S.] commitment” to “defensible borders” and to Israel’s ability to “defend itself, by itself” (a coded reference to Israel’s retention of its ultimate means of defense). Such borders require retention of the major settlement blocs, since they are located on the high ground surrounding the center of the country and other militarily significant points in the West Bank. (The 1967 Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum on defensible borders is summarized here, and a useful video showing the topography of such borders is here.)

In referring to the “realities” on the ground and what is “realistic” for final-status negotiations, the Bush letter set forth the requirements of a serious peace process — since no Israeli government is going to cede territory essential to its strategic defense — and represents in any event a commitment that cannot be repudiated simply by ignoring it (at least not in normal diplomacy).

The reason Shapiro and the State Department spokesman have ducked the question of adherence to the Bush letter may be that they in fact do not know the answer. Michael Oren reportedly said that his access to senior administration officials and advisers of the president is good but that Obama exercises very tight control and “[t]his is a one-man-show.” In the Obama-Netanyahu press conference scheduled for later today, perhaps someone will address the question to the only person in the administration who apparently can answer it.

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What Do the Obami Believe? What Should We?

Each day sees another member of the administration seeking to mollify critics of its Israel policy. The latest is Dan Shapiro. No, no, the Obama administration really doesn’t think Israel’s failure to reach a deal with the Palestinians causes the deaths of Americans. No, no, they really understand Iran is not going to care even if there is a peace deal. And sure, sure, the Obami won’t be imposing a peace deal. This report recounts the spin offensive:

“We do not believe that resolving this conflict will bring an end to all conflicts in the Middle East,” Dan Shapiro, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, told an Anti-Defamation League conference. “We do not believe it would cause Iran to end its unacceptable pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Shapiro also emphasized, to applause from the audience, that “we do not believe that this conflict endangers the lives of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.” …

Shapiro explained that the US thinks that “depriving Iran of a conflict it can exploit by arming their terrorist proxies is very much in our national interests,” and that images broadcasting Palestinian state-building rather than suffering “would do much to transform attitudes positively and deprive extremists of an evocative propaganda tool.”

Shapiro is himself returning to the region this week as the sides are set to begin proximity talks.

He noted that the US sees direct talks as the only effective means of ultimately resolving the conflict.

“A solution cannot be imposed on the parties from the outside. Peace can only come from direct talks,” he said.

Do we believe him — or more precisely, believe he represents the president’s views? Shapiro’s spiel certainly is what the Jewish audiences want to hear, but it bears little resemblance to what the administration has been saying and doing (and leaking) since March. And in fact, Shapiro hints that there is a certain amount of wordplay at work when it comes to what it means to “impose” a deal: “There could be times and contexts in which US ideas can be useful, and when appropriate we are prepared to share them.”

Hmm. What does that mean? One supposes it means this:

Mitchell has made clear that he has no intention of merely shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages, but that he intends to put forward American bridging proposals wherever they might be helpful. He  also has indicated to both sides that if the talks falter, the Obama administration will not be slow to blame the party it holds responsible. Indeed, Palestinian officials say Mitchell told them that the United States would take significant diplomatic steps against any side it believed was holding back progress.

In other words, it’s time to strong-arm the Jewish state with the threat of “blame” — and perhaps some abstentions at the UN — if the Obami’s latest threat is to be believed. The Palestinians need not come to the table, because Mitchell will do their work for them. It is noteworthy that even if done without the intention of exerting extreme pressure on the Jewish state, excessive American intervention in the talks is likely counterproductive. For this reason, the Bush administration eschewed bridging proposals. As a knowledgeable source says, “We truly believed they must negotiate themselves. All our presence did and does is slow things down because both sides play to us rather than seriously addressing each other.”

And if proximity talks fail to bring about a deal, we hear:

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, is proposing that Obama put a new set of peace parameters on the table and urge the parties to negotiate a final peace deal within the U.S.-initiated framework. Should either side refuse, Brzezinski says the United States should get U.N. endorsement of the plan, putting unbearable international pressure on the recalcitrant party.

Brzezinski reportedly outlined this position to Obama in a meeting of former national security advisers convened in late March by Gen. James Jones, the current incumbent.

This is precisely the type of scenario Israeli analysts are predicting for September, especially if the proximity talks fail to make progress: binding American peace parameters serving as new terms of reference for an international peace conference and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

So what then to make of Shapiro’s fine words to the ADL? A healthy dose of skepticism is in order. And if we have learned anything, it is to ignore what the Obami say (a nuclear-armed Iran is ”unacceptable”) and watch what they do (delay and work for carve-outs for Russia and China in congressional petroleum sanctions).

Each day sees another member of the administration seeking to mollify critics of its Israel policy. The latest is Dan Shapiro. No, no, the Obama administration really doesn’t think Israel’s failure to reach a deal with the Palestinians causes the deaths of Americans. No, no, they really understand Iran is not going to care even if there is a peace deal. And sure, sure, the Obami won’t be imposing a peace deal. This report recounts the spin offensive:

“We do not believe that resolving this conflict will bring an end to all conflicts in the Middle East,” Dan Shapiro, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East, told an Anti-Defamation League conference. “We do not believe it would cause Iran to end its unacceptable pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Shapiro also emphasized, to applause from the audience, that “we do not believe that this conflict endangers the lives of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.” …

Shapiro explained that the US thinks that “depriving Iran of a conflict it can exploit by arming their terrorist proxies is very much in our national interests,” and that images broadcasting Palestinian state-building rather than suffering “would do much to transform attitudes positively and deprive extremists of an evocative propaganda tool.”

Shapiro is himself returning to the region this week as the sides are set to begin proximity talks.

He noted that the US sees direct talks as the only effective means of ultimately resolving the conflict.

“A solution cannot be imposed on the parties from the outside. Peace can only come from direct talks,” he said.

Do we believe him — or more precisely, believe he represents the president’s views? Shapiro’s spiel certainly is what the Jewish audiences want to hear, but it bears little resemblance to what the administration has been saying and doing (and leaking) since March. And in fact, Shapiro hints that there is a certain amount of wordplay at work when it comes to what it means to “impose” a deal: “There could be times and contexts in which US ideas can be useful, and when appropriate we are prepared to share them.”

Hmm. What does that mean? One supposes it means this:

Mitchell has made clear that he has no intention of merely shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages, but that he intends to put forward American bridging proposals wherever they might be helpful. He  also has indicated to both sides that if the talks falter, the Obama administration will not be slow to blame the party it holds responsible. Indeed, Palestinian officials say Mitchell told them that the United States would take significant diplomatic steps against any side it believed was holding back progress.

In other words, it’s time to strong-arm the Jewish state with the threat of “blame” — and perhaps some abstentions at the UN — if the Obami’s latest threat is to be believed. The Palestinians need not come to the table, because Mitchell will do their work for them. It is noteworthy that even if done without the intention of exerting extreme pressure on the Jewish state, excessive American intervention in the talks is likely counterproductive. For this reason, the Bush administration eschewed bridging proposals. As a knowledgeable source says, “We truly believed they must negotiate themselves. All our presence did and does is slow things down because both sides play to us rather than seriously addressing each other.”

And if proximity talks fail to bring about a deal, we hear:

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, is proposing that Obama put a new set of peace parameters on the table and urge the parties to negotiate a final peace deal within the U.S.-initiated framework. Should either side refuse, Brzezinski says the United States should get U.N. endorsement of the plan, putting unbearable international pressure on the recalcitrant party.

Brzezinski reportedly outlined this position to Obama in a meeting of former national security advisers convened in late March by Gen. James Jones, the current incumbent.

This is precisely the type of scenario Israeli analysts are predicting for September, especially if the proximity talks fail to make progress: binding American peace parameters serving as new terms of reference for an international peace conference and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

So what then to make of Shapiro’s fine words to the ADL? A healthy dose of skepticism is in order. And if we have learned anything, it is to ignore what the Obami say (a nuclear-armed Iran is ”unacceptable”) and watch what they do (delay and work for carve-outs for Russia and China in congressional petroleum sanctions).

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The Perils of Freelance Diplomacy

Shaul Mofaz has spent the past two weeks hawking his peace plan overseas. He has met with Obama administration officials Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Jeffrey Feltman; U.S. congressmen; UN officials; and the American, Turkish, Russian, Egyptian, and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel. But unless you follow Israeli politics closely, you’re probably wondering, “Who?”

And that’s the point: Mofaz isn’t a member of Israel’s government or even a party leader; he’s the No. 2 man in the largest opposition party, Kadima — which has yet to even discuss his plan. In other words, the plan he’s marketing abroad is one he hasn’t yet managed to sell even to his own party, much less to the Israeli public; moreover, he occupies no post that would enable him to implement it.

Nor is this unprecedented: other freelance Israeli diplomats have received equal or greater attention overseas. Yossi Beilin, for instance, met with high-ranking officials worldwide about his Geneva Initiative (a proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement) in 2003, though he held no public office at the time. And when he did run for the Knesset three years later, the party he headed won five seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence from Israel’s public.

Were these foreign officials merely wasting their time, nobody would care. But this behavior has two pernicious effects.

First, it feeds the illusion among overseas governments that they don’t have to contend seriously with the positions of actual Israeli governments elected by actual Israeli voters; they can just sit and wait until the inconvenient incumbents are replaced by their pet opposition politician. Barack Obama’s failure to realize that treating Israel’s capital as a “settlement” would bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than weaken him, since Netanyahu’s positions on Jerusalem in fact reflect those of Israel’s majority, is a classic example of the pitfalls of such illusions.

In reality, people freelance precisely because they are unable to convince their own public to put them in power. Beilin, for instance, went freelance after failing to make it into the Knesset in 2003; Mofaz is freelancing now because he lost Kadima’s leadership contest last fall. And there is no reason to believe such freelancers will be more electable in the future.

Second, international backing for freelancers can panic Israeli governments into moves that undermine the world’s stated goals. Global enthusiasm for the Geneva Initiative, for instance, helped push Ariel Sharon to unilaterally quit Gaza: he considered Geneva disastrous and wanted to distract attention from it. Yet the disengagement, which Palestinians considered a victory for terror, led to Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and its subsequent takeover of Gaza in 2007, both of which complicated peacemaking efforts.

Thus the proper response to freelance diplomats should be “first, convince your own public; then we’ll talk.” Granted, that would force world leaders to deal with actual Israeli positions rather than unelectable fantasies. But since Israel must ultimately approve any deal, a plan that can’t command an Israeli majority isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on anyway.

Shaul Mofaz has spent the past two weeks hawking his peace plan overseas. He has met with Obama administration officials Dennis Ross, Dan Shapiro, and Jeffrey Feltman; U.S. congressmen; UN officials; and the American, Turkish, Russian, Egyptian, and Jordanian ambassadors to Israel. But unless you follow Israeli politics closely, you’re probably wondering, “Who?”

And that’s the point: Mofaz isn’t a member of Israel’s government or even a party leader; he’s the No. 2 man in the largest opposition party, Kadima — which has yet to even discuss his plan. In other words, the plan he’s marketing abroad is one he hasn’t yet managed to sell even to his own party, much less to the Israeli public; moreover, he occupies no post that would enable him to implement it.

Nor is this unprecedented: other freelance Israeli diplomats have received equal or greater attention overseas. Yossi Beilin, for instance, met with high-ranking officials worldwide about his Geneva Initiative (a proposed Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement) in 2003, though he held no public office at the time. And when he did run for the Knesset three years later, the party he headed won five seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence from Israel’s public.

Were these foreign officials merely wasting their time, nobody would care. But this behavior has two pernicious effects.

First, it feeds the illusion among overseas governments that they don’t have to contend seriously with the positions of actual Israeli governments elected by actual Israeli voters; they can just sit and wait until the inconvenient incumbents are replaced by their pet opposition politician. Barack Obama’s failure to realize that treating Israel’s capital as a “settlement” would bolster Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than weaken him, since Netanyahu’s positions on Jerusalem in fact reflect those of Israel’s majority, is a classic example of the pitfalls of such illusions.

In reality, people freelance precisely because they are unable to convince their own public to put them in power. Beilin, for instance, went freelance after failing to make it into the Knesset in 2003; Mofaz is freelancing now because he lost Kadima’s leadership contest last fall. And there is no reason to believe such freelancers will be more electable in the future.

Second, international backing for freelancers can panic Israeli governments into moves that undermine the world’s stated goals. Global enthusiasm for the Geneva Initiative, for instance, helped push Ariel Sharon to unilaterally quit Gaza: he considered Geneva disastrous and wanted to distract attention from it. Yet the disengagement, which Palestinians considered a victory for terror, led to Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and its subsequent takeover of Gaza in 2007, both of which complicated peacemaking efforts.

Thus the proper response to freelance diplomats should be “first, convince your own public; then we’ll talk.” Granted, that would force world leaders to deal with actual Israeli positions rather than unelectable fantasies. But since Israel must ultimately approve any deal, a plan that can’t command an Israeli majority isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on anyway.

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Is He Or Isn’t He?

The Robert Malley mystery deepens. Yesterday Marty Peretz wrote:

There are all kinds of spooky rumors that a man named Robert Malley is one of Obama’s advisers, specifically his Middle East adviser. His name comes up mysteriously and intrusively on the web, like the ads for Viagra. Malley, who has written several deceitful articles in The New York Review of Books, is a rabid hater of Israel. No question about it. But Malley is not and has never been a Middle East adviser to Barack Obama.

But also yesterday, confirming previous reports in the Washington Post and Newsweek, the Politico reported:

An Obama spokesman, Tommy Vietor, says, “Rob Malley has no day-to-day advisory role in the Obama campaign. He is among many people who has given his advice to the campaign. The actual day-to-day Middle East advisor is Dan Shapiro.”

Is it possible here that someone misled Marty Peretz about Malley’s involvement in the campaign? Or is Marty just being perhaps a bit too clever in saying that “Malley is not and has never been a Middle East adviser to Barack Obama”? (Emphasis added.)

The Robert Malley mystery deepens. Yesterday Marty Peretz wrote:

There are all kinds of spooky rumors that a man named Robert Malley is one of Obama’s advisers, specifically his Middle East adviser. His name comes up mysteriously and intrusively on the web, like the ads for Viagra. Malley, who has written several deceitful articles in The New York Review of Books, is a rabid hater of Israel. No question about it. But Malley is not and has never been a Middle East adviser to Barack Obama.

But also yesterday, confirming previous reports in the Washington Post and Newsweek, the Politico reported:

An Obama spokesman, Tommy Vietor, says, “Rob Malley has no day-to-day advisory role in the Obama campaign. He is among many people who has given his advice to the campaign. The actual day-to-day Middle East advisor is Dan Shapiro.”

Is it possible here that someone misled Marty Peretz about Malley’s involvement in the campaign? Or is Marty just being perhaps a bit too clever in saying that “Malley is not and has never been a Middle East adviser to Barack Obama”? (Emphasis added.)

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