Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”
The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.
The lead article above the fold in Sunday’s New York Times teases President Obama’s visit to Israel by focusing on what it represents as a serious threat to the chances of peace: the building of homes by Jews in Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem. As the piece states, the government of Israel is not looking to provide any pretext for a fight with the Obama administration. So there will be no announcements of government-sponsored housing starts in the capital that have been portrayed as “insults” to the U.S. in order for the president to gin up spats between the two allies. As Eli Lake writes today in the Daily Beast, a “détente” now exists between the two governments that de-emphasizes the moribund peace process with the Palestinians and is allowing them to cooperate more closely on the nuclear threat from Iran. But for those determined to pin blame on Israelis for the lack of progress toward an end to the conflict with the Palestinians, Jerusalem remains a hot-button issue.
As the Times reports, the purchase of property in the Old City and in other parts of Jerusalem that are majority Arab is viewed as an unwelcome provocation by the United States, but it can’t pin the blame for it on Prime Minister Netanyahu since these are private initiatives. In the past, Obama foolishly picked fights about building in existing Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem that even he understands would remain part of Jerusalem in the event the Palestinians ever decided to make peace. Such building in those places as well as in the settlement blocs that Israel would also retain has no effect on the prospects for peace. But peace plans backed by the U.S. and offered by past Israeli governments did offer the Palestinian Authority sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in the city. So would the presence of a few scattered groups of Jews in those areas really “complicate” a solution for peace if the will for peace existed on both sides? The only honest answer to that question is no.
The UN Human Rights Council yesterday released a predictable report deeming Israeli settlements–including huge Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem–a “war crime” and demanding the evacuation of all their hundreds of thousands of residents, thereby throwing every Israeli-Palestinian peace plan ever proposed out the window: All such plans envision Israel retaining parts of East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs. The report would thus seem unhelpful to the “peace process” that Western governments so ardently support. But it’s arousing far less ire among these governments than Israel’s refusal to cooperate with the HRC’s Universal Periodic Review process, under which every country’s human rights record is supposed to be scrutinized every four years. As U.S. ambassador to the council Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe explained, “The United States is absolutely, fully behind the Universal Periodic Review, and we do not want to see the mechanism in any way harmed.”
Yet as Professor Anne Bayefsky pointed out, it’s immensely hypocritical to insist on universality of obligations without universality of rights. And in two important ways, Israel doesn’t enjoy the same rights at the HRC as every other country does. First, it’s the only country whose alleged human-rights abuses are a permanent agenda item: The council has one agenda item for Israel, and one for all the other 192 UN member states. Second, it’s the only country that isn’t a full member of any regional working group. Bayefsky therefore proposed a simple quid pro quo: Israel should promise to uphold the universality of the review process the moment the council upholds the universality of Israel’s rights as a member state.
After the 2012 presidential election, liberals gave conservatives a piece of advice: do some soul searching, and get out of your media bubble. Conservatives were wrong about the election, they were told, because they turned their assumptions into predictions. So it will be interesting to find out if the leftist foreign-policy press is ready to take its own advice, after a colossally botched year of coverage leading up to this week’s Israeli Knesset election.
In his wrap-up of just how wrong the media was, Walter Russell Mead gives his readers the following tip: “As negotiations to form a coalition government unfold in the next few weeks, expect more of the same from the MSM”–referring to the mainstream media. I imagine he’s right about that; the liberal press in America got the Israeli election so wrong because they get Israel itself so wrong. But it’s easy to understand how this happens by reading the article that Mead singles out as the “piece of journalism that got furthest away from the facts”–David Remnick’s essay in the New Yorker, dated for this week to coincide with the elections, on the rise of Israel’s right. Remnick writes:
Peace Now is calling this a “deal breaker for the two-state solution,” which is a great joke after yesterday’s UN debacle. This is Israel’s reply to the Palestinian Authority’s resolution, and why not? You’d think shredding the 17-year-old Oslo framework might merit some sort of response.
The New York Times reports:
As the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade the Palestinians’ status Thursday night, Israel took steps toward building housing in a controversial area of East Jerusalem known as E1, where Jewish settlements have long been seen as the death knell for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said on Friday that the decision was made late Thursday night to move forward on “preliminary zoning and planning preparations” for housing units in E1, which would connect the large settlement of Maale Adumim to Jerusalem and therefore make it impossible to connect the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem to Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Israel also authorized the construction of 3,000 housing units in other parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the official said.
One of the observations that unites the Middle East commentariat–right, left, and center–is that the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements has been counterproductive to peacemaking efforts. That doesn’t mean everyone approves of settlement building, just that there is wide agreement on one of the enduring truisms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: settlements are not the main obstacle to peace.
But according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, they are the main obstacle preventing American Jews from staying connected to Israel. Yoffie writes in Haaretz:
I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. “Israel is out,” he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.
This was a man who understands the U.S. Jewish zeitgeist, and I was initially stunned by his statement. After all, he was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.
Omri ably dismantles the justification for Peter Beinart’s latest back-of-the-classroom arm-waving attempt to get attention by writing in approval of a limited boycott, divestment and sanctions strategy against the Israelis who don’t share his liberal opinions. The most obvious issue is that it is a slippery slope that will never simply remain targeting only settlements. (There are also other very good reasons to oppose the policy, as Omri notes as well.)
But there is another aspect of Beinart’s suggestion that is, like his BDS suggestion, both morally reprehensible and a dangerous slippery slope. That would be Beinart’s suggestion that we divide Israelis between those who live within the 1949 armistice line (good) and those who live beyond it (bad). Here is Beinart:
Instead, we should call the West Bank “nondemocratic Israel.” The phrase suggests that there are today two Israels: a flawed but genuine democracy within the green line and an ethnically-based nondemocracy beyond it. It counters efforts by Israel’s leaders to use the legitimacy of democratic Israel to legitimize the occupation and by Israel’s adversaries to use the illegitimacy of the occupation to delegitimize democratic Israel.
Having made that rhetorical distinction, American Jews should seek every opportunity to reinforce it.
Such list making is an atrocious excuse for reasoned debate, even without the slippery slope that will follow.
These posts, about J Street conference speakers who advocate anti-Israel boycotts and sanctions, are becoming an annual tradition. Last year the ostensibly pro-Israel group hosted BDS advocates from fringe left-wing Jewish groups, raising questions as to why J Street’s commitment to “expanding the debate” over Israel only seems to involve stretching the spectrum to include the anti-Israel side.
This year J Street is hosting the book launch of Peter Beinart who — will wonders never cease — just published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for a “Zionist BDS” campaign that would seek to economically suffocate all Israeli Jews who live beyond the 1948 armistice lines.