The idea that America’s Middle East policy is purely the result of the machinations of a shadowy “Israel Lobby” was once again proven to be a canard with the release of a new poll that shows that an overwhelming majority of the American people sympathizes with the Jewish state. The Washington Post/ABC news poll published today on the eve of President Obama’s visit to the country shows that Americans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinian Authority by a margin of 55 to 9 percent, with 35 saying they liked both or had no opinion. It also showed that a plurality of those polled thought the U.S. needed to pressure the Palestinians to make peace more than the Israelis. Most interestingly, an even more resounding majority thought the U.S. ought not to be the prime mover of the peace process, with fully 69 percent saying the decision should be left to the parties while only 26 percent thought it should play a leading role.
The results, especially with regard to support for Israel, are consistent with previous polls. But the number of those who want America to be running the peace negotiations has plummeted in the last decade as the futility of trying to coax the Palestinians to abandon terrorism and embrace a two-state solution has been amply demonstrated. This gives the lie to both the “Israel Lobby” theories as well as the notion that Americans want their president to be twisting the arm of the Israeli government to make concessions to revive a process that the Palestinians have shown no interest in.
The basic numbers illustrate why those who claim the across-the-board bipartisan support for the alliance with the Jewish state in Congress is bought and paid for by Jewish campaign finance donations (as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it) is a lie. Israel has the backing of every political and demographic group measured by the poll showing that backing Israel is simply a matter of political survival irrespective of how many Jews vote or donate money in a given district or state.
During a press appearance yesterday with the Jordanian foreign minister, a reporter told Secretary of State Kerry that “many people in the Arab world were disappointed” that President Obama made no mention of the “peace process” in his State of the Union address. The reporter asked if Kerry could “assure us that this Administration have this peace process as a priority.” Kerry responded that he’s an optimist, believes “there are possibilities,” but noted that:
“[T]he President is not prepared, at this point in time, to do more than to listen to the parties, which is why he has announced he’s going to go to Israel. It affords him an opportunity to listen. And I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities are and then begin to make some choices.”
It’s a better approach than the one Obama adopted in his first term, when he ignored experts who urged him to study the failures of President Clinton and President Bush before rushing right back into the process (as if all that was necessary was a new president). But even a “listening tour” ignores the lesson of the preceding peace processes, which was that the absence of peace was not the result of Israel’s failure to offer the Palestinians a state, or accept an American bridging proposal, or withdraw from territory, or dismantle settlements, or agree to a year-long final status negotiation with intensive American involvement, which resulted in yet another offer of a state. Israel did all those things and got no peace. The reason for the repeated failures of the “peace process” was something else.
Speculation about President Obama’s intentions to push a revival of the moribund Middle East peace process may increase today with reports of plans for a new European Union initiative. According to Ynet News, the British and French foreign ministries are concocting the plan with the support of Germany and the European Union. The conceit of the scheme is a return to the familiar theme of an accord based on the 1967 lines with a division of Jerusalem and agreed-upon swaps of territory between Israel and the Palestinians. It is expected that it will include specific details such as a demand for an absolute freeze in Israeli building in the territories including those areas that it might keep under the swaps. Even more troubling is the notion that the negotiations will be in the context of a regional committee which will include not only the Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians but also nations such as Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, a situation in which the Jewish state would be outnumbered, isolated and backed into a corner without much room for diplomatic maneuvering.
The only real variable as far as the push to implement such a plan is the United States. While the Europeans have reportedly held off on putting forward their plan until after President Obama was safely elected and then inaugurated, the question remains as to whether the administration will put its weight behind it. While on the face of it, the plan ought to be to President Obama’s liking since he has pushed Israel hard on settlements, Jerusalem and the ’67 lines, these attempts to strong-arm the government of Prime Minister Netanyahu have always been in the context of American-led negotiations. As with much of the rest of his Middle East foreign policies, it seems the administration is prepared to “lead from behind” on this track and throw its support behind a European initiative, marking a significant policy departure from past efforts in which the president made the Israel-Palestinian issue a priority. If he’s willing to defer to the EU here, it will be a step that could rightly be interpreted as abandoning Israel to a forum in which it will be treated badly.
But it could also be a sign that Obama has finally learned his lesson about the Middle East. The EU plan is doomed to failure just like every other past peace idea. Having been sandbagged by the Palestinians for four years, perhaps he prefers not to waste any of his time or his precious political capital in a second term on the Middle East.
One of the remarkable aspects of Israeli politics is that even as Benjamin Netanyahu cruises to what is likely to be a landslide re-election later this month, the political figure there who continues to be treated as an international celebrity is not the prime minister. Rather it is Shimon Peres, the 89-year-old veteran of virtually every position in Israel’s government and currently serving in the symbolic post of president that remains the focus of much of the world’s attention. No one enjoys the spotlight more than Peres, something that comes across in spades in Ronen Bergman’s fascinating interview with him in the New York Times Magazine. The piece gives us an excellent summary of his views on the challenges facing Israel. But put in the context of the nation’s upcoming elections, the irony is that his answers also give us a good explanation for Netanyahu’s ascendancy.
As Bergman points out, Peres was the focus of intense pressure from some of the prime minister’s critics to run against Netanyahu at the head of a center-left opposition ticket. He wisely refused, leaving the incumbent without any serious rival. That has only increased the fawning on Peres from foreign observers who can’t stand Netanyahu. But Peres’s stubborn refusal to give up his illusions about the Palestinians tells us all we need to know about the inevitability of a right-wing victory. If Israel’s January 22 vote is one in which Netanyahu’s real rival is a person who won’t be on the ballot, it should be understood that the reason why those who are trying to unseat the Likud are failing has everything to do with Peres’s failed legacy.
After more than a year of campaigning for it, the Palestinian Authority will have its moment tomorrow when the General Assembly of the United Nations will vote to upgrade the PA’s status to nonvoting observer. Israel’s foes will rejoice and many of its friends will worry. Some of that will be justified, as the decision will be a symbolic triumph that the Palestinians will attempt to portray as tantamount to UN recognition of their independence in the areas Israel won in the Six-Day War. But after working hard to prevent this from happening, the Israeli government has decided to downplay the outcome. Some will interpret this as nothing more than a feeble attempt to spin a diplomatic defeat; the reaction is more than just politically astute. It is an accurate reflection of the real-world impact of the vote since it won’t change a thing on the ground in the Middle East or even at the UN itself.
The Palestinian Authority knows all too well that the victory they will win tomorrow is of minimal use to them. They can use it to create mischief for Israel in the International Criminal Court as well as bolster their already secure niche in the hearts of most UN member states and the world body’s bureaucracy. But it won’t get them one inch closer to actual independence or — more importantly — give them any credibility with Palestinians who will be quick to note that it will change nothing in the West Bank or in Gaza where the PA’s Hamas rivals rule over an independent state in all but name. Rather than seeking to punish the PA and its leader Mahmoud Abbas for effectively trashing the Oslo Accords, Israel can afford to ignore the vote since it will not move him any closer to a state or genuine international legitimacy. The only reason European nations and even some of the PA’s third-world allies are backing the move is because they know it has no significance. After all, how can any government claim to be independent when a rival group already exercises sovereignty over part of the territory it claims?
Today’s announcement that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will not compete in the country’s upcoming election in January can’t be considered much of a surprise. Barak, who broke away from the Labor Party in 2011, knows that the odds are against his small Independence Party gaining enough votes to send him back to the Knesset. Thus, his statement that he is stepping down from electoral politics is more of a concession to reality than anything else. But this doesn’t mean he won’t continue in his current job.
Since the law allows the prime minister to appoint individuals who are not members of the Knesset to cabinet posts, it is more than likely that Barak will still be giving the orders at the Kirya in Tel Aviv next year. Yet, as Aluf Benn notes in Haaretz, even if Prime Minister Netanyahu does bring him back, his influence in the next government will be diminished since, unlike cabinet colleagues like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, he will have no political constituency at his back. This means that although the 70-year-old former prime minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces is probably not actually retiring from public life, it is an appropriate moment to ponder the significance of his career.
Barak is one of the most decorated soldiers in Israel’s history and his legacy as chief of staff and then later as defense minister is one that has generated wide and deserved praise. But he has also been the author of some of the biggest blunders in the country’s history without which his political failures would not have been explicable. While Barak will hope to be remembered chiefly for his exploits as a commando and then for successful military operations like the recently completed Operation Pillar of Defense, his role in ordering the IDF’s precipitate retreat from Lebanon and the diplomatic fiasco at Camp David in 2000 that led to the second intifada continue to loom large in his biography. Those who lament the demise of the peace process need look no further than Barak’s experiences as prime minister to understand why the country has rejected the policies of the left.
Nothing seems to be able to displace Fareed Zakaria from his current perch in which he is treated as one of the country’s leading foreign policy experts. In August, he survived a brush with what should have been professional disgrace when both CNN and Time magazine reinstated him following his suspension for blatantly plagiarizing an article in The New Yorker. His employers decided the star’s misdeed was “unintentional” and an “isolated” incident. So Zakaria continues on his merry way, promoting conventional wisdom about the world and calling it insight. But his latest column for the Washington Post undermines what little is left of his credibility. In a piece titled “Israel Dominates the Middle East,” Zakaria demonstrates again that being labeled an “expert” by the mainstream media has little to do with actual expertise.
The conceit of Zakaria’s piece is that recent events demonstrate again that Israel is the superpower of the Middle East. From there he jumps to the conclusion that because Israel has a prosperous economy and is strong enough to defend itself from dangerous foes who wish to destroy it, it therefore follows that all that is necessary for there to be peace in the region is for Israel to wish for it. That such a prominent member of the foreign policy establishment should espouse such magical thinking says a lot about what passes for expertise these days. But more than that, it shows that being an expert doesn’t require one to have even given a passing glance to the events of the last 20 years in the region.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is heading to the Middle East. The outgoing chief diplomat arrives just as a cease-fire may be about to take hold, even though rockets continued to hit Israeli cities today. But whether she seeks to take credit for the halt to the fighting or not, her arrival is bound to set off a wave of speculation about what price the Obama administration is about to try to exact from Israel for its diplomatic support in the past week.
The administration has been steadfast in its rhetorical backing of Israel’s right to self-defense against the storm of Hamas rockets that have been aimed at the country’s cities, towns and villages. But right now what may count most will be what President Obama and Secretary Clinton have been saying to the leaders of Egypt and Turkey as they sought to get Hamas’s allies to persuade the Islamist rulers of Gaza to stop firing rockets at Israel. If the U.S. has privately signaled support for concessions to Hamas or even hinted at eventual recognition of the Gaza regime, that could be the opening for another bout of administration pressure on Israel in Obama’s second term. If so, then the president’s kind words about Israel in the past few days will have come at a high price indeed.
The mini-boomlet fueling the attempted comeback of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert got a boost yesterday from an unlikely source: Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. As Haaretz reported, Abbas claims that had Olmert remained in office only a couple of months longer, peace might have been possible. Abbas praised Olmert in a meeting with a group of Israeli politicians in his Ramallah headquarters. This says more about Abbas’s desire to avoid blame for his walking away from Olmert’s offer of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace than it does about the latter’s political future. But even though Abbas has zero credibility with the Israeli public, this is a message that is integral to Olmert’s far-fetched hopes to replace Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Olmert scenario, promoted by such otherwise savvy observers like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, is based on the idea that the Israeli people can be made to forget just how rotten a prime minister Olmert was and how unpopular he became during his three years in office because he can persuade the Palestinians to make peace. If what’s left of his Kadima Party backs him along with other opposition centrists as well as the left-wing Labor Party, then it is theoretically possible that this coalition can hold its own against incumbent Prime Minister Netanyahu and his center-right and religious party allies. The problem with this scenario is not just that Olmert might not be eligible to run for the Knesset because of ongoing legal problems or even how utterly unlikely it is that such a coalition could be cobbled together. The real fallacy at the heart of the Olmert comeback is that the Israeli people are not so stupid as to forget what actually happened in 2008 no matter what Olmert and Abbas say.
Avigdor Lieberman is back in trouble today. His boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had to distance himself from a letter the foreign minister sent to the diplomatic Quartet urging the ouster of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu agreed with Lieberman “Abu Mazen” — Abbas’s nom de guerre — “creates difficulties in negotiations” but said he was dedicated to trying to work for peace with the Palestinians and had no interest in interfering in their internal politics. That was the appropriate response, but Abbas latest foray into “peacemaking” illustrates why many Israelis think Lieberman is right.
The PA president, who is currently serving the eighth year of a four-year presidential term, spoke today on the anniversary of an attack on the mosques of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by a deranged Australian Christian in 1969. The man started a fire that was quickly put out. He was tried and found to be clinically insane and eventually deported. But the Palestinians, who have deliberately desecrated Jewish holy sites such as the Tomb of Joseph in Nablus, are still milking the unfortunate incident for all its worth. Abbas falsely alleged that Israel is plotting to destroy the mosques and then demanded that all Jews be thrown out of the parts of the city that were illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967. That means over a quarter of a million Jewish Jerusalemites are, according to him, scheduled for eviction from their homes. This shows that Abbas’s vision of peace bears a strange resemblance to Hamas’s vision of unending war on Israel.
David Rothkopf has an interesting essay on Foreign Policy’s website arguing that Western, and especially American, involvement in and attention to the Middle East is out of proportion to the region’s importance. He gets a few things right–such as the discovery of oil and natural gas elsewhere in the world and the fact that both rising state powers and extremist threats are increasingly coming from Asia (and Africa). The “pivot,” he correctly notes, wasn’t so much a strategic calculation as an acceptance of reality.
He could also have mentioned our role in the competition between China and Russia in Central Asia, or President Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement, which was to identify Pakistan as the focal point of that region and plan accordingly. I think he underplays the threat of a nuclear Iran, but that may be (though he does not say this) because most of the world believes the U.S. or Israel will prevent that from happening anyway. But Rothkopf’s section on Israel gets a bit fuzzy, though in a roundabout way reinforces his underlying point. Here’s Rothkopf:
Barack Obama’s generation entered the workforce at the time Ariel Sharon was directing Israeli troops into the camps in Lebanon, a watershed that for many washed away much of the positive narrative about Israel the virtuous underdog. From then on, through the intifada and the construction of new settlements on contested land, Israel has systematically damaged its standing in the eyes of the world (which hasn’t been hard to do since so many around the world are predisposed for pretty awful reasons to dislike the idea of a Jewish state to begin with)….
But given the periodic flare-ups of unreasonable behavior at the top from the Israeli government, the embrace of Israel as an ally carries with it costs — and the new technologies of modern conflict offer many alternative ways to counterbalance these risks. That’s not to say America is better off without Israel as an ally. We are. Just not at any price.
The demographic and political tides in the region are turning against the Israelis in ways that rightfully have them nervous. Absent a deal with the Palestinians in the next several years, their situation is likely to grow more precarious — and, with the potential rise of Arab democracy, more difficult to defend for a country like the United States whose foreign policy is built (in theory at least) on ideas like the right to self-determination.
It is a fact of political life that the 2012 presidential election will not turn on foreign policy. Unless something terrible happens between now and November, the focus of most voters will remain on the country’s failing economy. That’s probably okay with Mitt Romney because, unlike most Republican nominees in recent decades, prowess in foreign policy and defense issues are not among his strengths. According to New York Times columnist David Brooks, Romney’s inability to delineate strong points of disagreement with President Obama’s policies is not only a sign of the GOP standard bearer’s weakness but an indication that the incumbent can go to the people claiming to be a success on foreign policy. Though Brooks is right to characterize Romney as having done an inadequate job of articulating his foreign policy vision, his praise for the president is undeserved.
Brooks likes the fact that, for all of his hope and change rhetoric when first running for re-election, President Obama has proved to be no bold visionary on foreign affairs. The columnist believes ours is a time when nuance and a grasp of the complexities of a changing world are paramount. But contrary to Brooks’ belief, most of what we’ve gotten out of Washington since January 2009 is not smart power but muddled policies that are the product of indecisive thinking and a lack of principle. Though the president’s record is not without his successes (as you may have heard, he killed Osama bin Laden), on the big issues of dealing with the nuclear threat from Iran, a resurgent and authoritarian Russia, China and the Middle East peace process, Obama must be judged a thorough failure.
The release of a report on the legality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank commissioned by Prime Minister Netanyahu is being widely dismissed by critics of his government as well as those of the Jewish state. Though its findings that Jews have the right to live in the territories and that Israel’s presence there does not fit the traditional definition of a military occupation are solidly based in international law, no one should expect the left to respect the report issued by a panel headed by former Supreme Court Vice President Edmond Levy. Nor should we be surprised if the international community ignores it. Opposition to the settlements is so deeply entrenched that there is no argument, no matter how grounded in logic or justice, that would persuade those committed to the myth settlements are the only obstacle to peace, that they are not illegal. As legal scholar David M. Phillips wrote in the September 2009 issue of COMMENTARY, international law supports this position.
But while we expect this effort to be trashed, those horrified by the fact that Israel is willing to assert that it has rights in the West Bank that are as worthy of respect as those of the Arabs are not just wrong about the legal arguments. Their assumption that a belief in the settlements’ legality makes a peace deal impossible is equally mistaken. Just because Israel has rights in the West Bank doesn’t mean it need necessarily exercise them on every inch of the territory. The assertion of Jewish rights merely means Israel has a leg to stand on when negotiating the permanent status of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Far from that rendering peace unlikely, it ought to give Palestinians an incentive to come to the table and work out a deal that will give them as much of the territory as they can get. The obstacle to peace is the Palestinian belief that the Jewish presence throughout the country — including pre-1967 Israel — is illegitimate.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has consistently refused to negotiate in good faith or to make peace with Israel since he succeeded the equally obdurate Yasir Arafat in 2004. He’s also been consistent in another way: he lies a lot. Abbas’s mendacity isn’t the garden-variety white lies, exaggerations and obfuscations that are the routine fare of American politicians. Instead, he is given to telling the barefaced lies we tend to associate with the heads of dictatorial regimes. Which is, of course, the sort of government the Palestinian Authority has more in common with than democratic systems such as that of Israel and the United States.
The latest example of this came in an interview Saturday night with Israel’s Channel Two in which Abbas was reduced to claiming that some well-documented statements of his never actually happened. According to Abbas, he never discussed Israel’s offer to allow some Palestinian refugees into the country with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He also claimed he never told respected Washington Post editor and columnist Jackson Diehl that he had no intention of negotiating with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That both of those figures can prove he did say those things goes without saying. But the point here is not just that Abbas is a liar, though that is exactly what he is. Rather, it is that Palestinian political culture is such that Abbas knows he has no choice but to lie about these things. To do otherwise would place him in opposition to the overwhelming sentiment of those opposed to peace or to even the appearance of compromise with Israel.