During a recent visit to Israel this writer spent an evening with a group of army commanders.
Deep disagreement exists between the United States and Israel on ways to reduce Holy Land tensions. Each side believes that the other’s “mistakes” are inflaming the Arab-Israeli crisis. Hal Lehrman, just returned from his third trip through the Middle East, here reports the Israeli and American viewpoints. In a previous article, “Kibya, Jerusalem, and the River Jordan,” in April, he discussed some of the more local issues of disagreement between Israel and the West.
During a recent visit to Israel this writer spent an evening with a group of army commanders. Their senior officer gazed toward the nearby hills of Jordan and latterly said: “In Palestinian times the Arabs sometimes broke out and began to kill. If the British Mandate police interfered, the Arabs stopped. If the British didn’t, the Arabs paraded the streets and shouted The government is with us!‘—and killed more Jews. Today the Arabs are killing people again. This time, the UN is in charge. But the UN does not interfere. It gives the Arabs microphones. It lets the killers make speeches. And over there”—he gestured at the night-shrouded border—“the Arabs now are shouting The world is with us!’ With such incentive to murder, why should they ever make peacei?”
This officer felt perhaps more intimate outrage than most Israelis. As a child, in a remote kibbutz, he had seen his whole family slaughtered by marauding Arabs. Yet, as a man and citizen, his views reflect a national attitude. There are few Israelis without a sense of personal injury from Arab action, and not many more who do not blame the UN—and the United States—for, willingly or unwillingly, encouraging Arab truculence.
They know that the United States is Israel’s friend. They are intensely pro-American by instinct, kinship, need, and gratitude. But in one important corner of their collective mind they tend to identify the United States with the UN, and with American military personnel holding prominent posts in armistice commissions. Many Israelis rightly or wrongly attribute unfavorable UN behavior to Washington’s direct instigation. And, entirely apart from the UN, the conviction is deep in Israel that the United States, as the dominant power in the Middle East, pursues policies whose results are often unhappy for Israel. Since the Arabs profess to read the same American policies in an exactly opposite light, the United States finds herself resented by both sides.
In this three-way argument, it is important to note and stress at once, for American readers, that Israel and the United States agree on several large and fundamental principles. These principles are relevant to the Israeli-Arab dispute, essential to the American national interest in the Middle East—and rejected by the Arabs.
Washington and Jerusalem accept in full the need or the following for the entire southeast Mediterranean area:
- Introduction or continuation of far-reaching programs for democratic social reform and economic improvement.
- Restoration or maintenance of peace and stability within and among all the countries.
- Recognition of the common menace of Soviet totalitarianism.
- Organization of a regional defense against that menace.
Furthermore the United States—although pro-Israel opinion sometimes suspects Washington of the contrary—is sure that Israel is in the Middle East to stay. No responsible American policy-maker envisages the possibility, or desirability, of Israel’s disappearance. The United States knows that this would contribute nothing to the strength or unity of the region, and would create problems as grievous as those which now prevail.
The Arabs, on the other hand, are less inclined today to acknowledge Israel’s existence as permanent than at any time since their 1948 invasion of the infant state. They do not desire peace. They see Israel, not the Soviets, as their common enemy. They feel no compelling need to prepare against Communist aggression. The attitudes of Arab leaders toward the economic and social betterment of their people range from luke-warmness to total antagonism.
The disagreements between Israel and the United States are disagreements between friends, not foes. Nevertheless, they cannot be lightly treated. They carry a high emotional charge: the strong fear on the part of both the United States and Israel that the other’s errors, if persisted in, may produce an explosion—not between themselves, but between Israel and the Arabs.
One should distinguish between two categories of disagreements in Israeli-American relations. The first type is what might be called “classic”—being general disagreements, not over a particular issue or of limited duration, but long-time and springing from prime causes. These causes are the emergence of Israel, the Arab refusal to accept her, her own need to survive, and the American need to fit the Arabs somehow into free-world planning. These differences, manifest from the start, have not shrunk perceptibly, since the situation which created them has not essentially changed.
The second type of Israeli-American disagreements arise from the first, but are tactical, specific, immediate, and concerned with day-to-day issues. They shift ground as other elements in the particular dispute shift ground and the dispute itself moves forward. In the current phase of the Arab-Israeli crisis, observers see a tendency for the United States and Israeli positions to converge tactically. Each tactical position, however, remains attached to its unchangeable “classic” base. The gap of disagreement, though reduced, is still wide enough to cause dangerous tension and frequent deadlock.
The long-time disagreements are over two questions. Are the Arabs capable of regional cooperation? If so, how enlist their cooperation?
Without defining the form or degree of such cooperation, the United States affirms that the Arabs are not only capable of it, but indispensable to it. The United States proposes to get their participation by persuasion and conciliation.
Israel strongly doubts that the Arabs, given the nature of their present leadership and social structures, can be organized at all for a positive contribution to regional unity. And even if they can, Israel believes that the application of sweet reasonableness and nothing else to the Arabs will fail.
A dependable partner, the Israelis contend, should have a good previous record, an awareness of the partnership’s common objective, and a degree of stability at home. He should also give evidence of good faith.
Where, or when, has the Arab world cooperated substantially in any large-scale economic or political undertaking sponsored by the West? Nowhere, reply the Israelis, except in oil exploitation—an operation conducted with private Western companies, not governments, for the profit of native rulers and regimes, not of their peoples. Arab response to Western offers of economic aid has been grudging. In World War II the Arab leaders showed, at best, indifference to the Allied cause; at worst, as in Iraq, they sided with the Axis. The Arabs are incapable, it is asserted, of cooperating even among themselves—except for negative purposes. The British conjured up the Arab League in hopes that it would help unify the Middle East and assist the British in controlling that area. The League has produced Arab unity on nothing except antagonism to Israel and the West—including the British.
Is the Arab world anti-Soviet? Communist parties, it is true, have been outlawed, but mainly because they seemed to be against the local regime, not because they were a conspiracy in favor of a foreign power. Indeed, the Communist parties themselves in Arab countries are often muddled in doctrine, ignorant of Marxism, and even of current Muscovite gospel. In this they reflect the greater ignorance of the Arab ruling class. For most Arab potentates and effendis, Moscow is very remote geographically and intellectually—so remote as almost not to exist, certainly not as a threat. Arabs have encountered Russians at the UN and, if anything, liked them, as Jordan’s parliament recently indicated by sending formal thanks to Andrei Vishinsky.
No, declare the Israelis, the only “menace” the Arabs see is Israel—“imperialist, ambitious, aggressive Zionism.” The Arabs proclaim this on every occasion. Western efforts to secure Arab participation in an anti-Soviet defense system have been and will continue futile, Israelis predict. The Arab rulers are so innocent of Soviet totalitarianism’s true meaning for themselves—their total destruction—that they sometimes even declare readiness to throw themselves into Moscow’s arms rather than make peace with the real “enemy,” the State of Israel.
Do the Arabs have enough internal stability to participate in cooperative international ventures? Recent headlines from the Middle East, Israelis point out, say no. Lebanon at one recent juncture was changing cabinets almost daily. In Syria and Egypt the local strong men—on whom the United States had openly reckoned as pillars of reform and regional defense—have exposed themselves as straw-men. Where is the Syrian savior, Adib Shishakli? Where is Egypt’s great hope, Mohammed Naguib?
The Israelis invite world opinion to compare the Arab with the Israeli picture. When David Ben Gurion retired as prime minister, a new government came tranquilly and democratically into office after inter-party negotiations and a parliamentary vote of confidence. In the Arab world, ten kings, presidents, and premiers have been assassinated, exiled, or otherwise violently deposed since 1945.
The Israelis call attention to the incessant Arab propaganda charge that it is Israel who threatens regional stability by lawlessness, terrorism, and territorial ambitions. Was there ever a better opportunity for Israel to prove this charge than during the late convulsions in Egypt or Syria? With the Syrian defense forces split down the middle between Shishakli and his rivals, what effective resistance could have been offered to an Israeli invasion? Could anything have prevented capture of Damascus by the Israeli army? The occasion for adventure with little risk was as golden as in 1951, when King Abdullah’s assassination threw Arab Jerusalem into anarchy. The Israeli garrison in the New City could then have settled the problem of “divided” Jerusalem in a single afternoon. But no garrison marched. There was not even an emergency mobilization, although this would have been mere prudence in view of the chaotic situation on the other side of the border.
Where are similar proofs of good faith, and active will toward peace, the Israelis demand, from the Arabs? Defeated in a war they started, the Arabs obtained armistice agreements in which they pledged to negotiate a final peace. Yet in five years they have not moved one inch toward such negotiations. Instead, as one of the absolute prerequisites to peace talks, they call for Israel’s repatriation of “a million refugees”—who would never, Israelis contend, have become refugees if the Arab League had not made war on Israel and then provoked panicky flight.
The Arabs further expose their bad faith, say the Israelis, by insisting on repatriation when they know that: (a) it is a social and economic impossibility for Israel to comply, because the society and economy which supported the former inhabitants have vanished; (b) it would create an intolerable security risk by establishing inside Israel a made-to-order fifth column. The Arab leaders continue to demand repatriation despite UN, American, and Israeli willingness to finance resettlement in amply available Arab territory under conditions which would immensely benefit the refugees and the countries absorbing them. These same leaders do virtually nothing to alleviate the wretchedness of their refugee kinsmen, and actually derive income from it through such devices as tariffs on food purchased and delivered for them by a UN agency.
Nevertheless, the Israeli argument continues, the great powers persist in courting the Arabs as if they were trustworthy and desperately needed. Is it because the Arabs would otherwise run amok? Even in their threats the Arabs are unreliable, according to the Israelis. Before the General Assembly’s vote on Partition, and later before the wide spread diplomatic recognitions of the new state, and later still before the admission of Israel to the UN, the Arabs blustered that they would break diplomatic and commercial relations with governments taking pro-Israeli action. The governments went ahead—and there were no ruptures and no boycotts. The late King Ibn Saud warned he would cut off the flow of oil to the United States: not a drop of oil has been lost. When Belgium and Sweden were competing for a valuable Arab contract, Belgium delayed recognition of Israel but Sweden gave it: the Arabs awarded the contract to Sweden. Most flagrant of all, the Arabs threatened horrendous consequences for West Germany if Bonn signed a reparations treaty with Israel: Bonn signed, but the Arabs have increased rather than reduced their zeal for political and economic relations with West Germany.
On the other hand, Israelis declare, the Arabs do get tougher when taken seriously or conciliated. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s temporary move against American economic aid to Israel, made—perhaps inadvertently—shortly after the Kibya incident though really linked to the B’not Ya’akov water dispute, caused the Arabs to feel they could attack Israel when they pleased; for if she retaliated the U. S. would chastise her. The same effect resulted from the Security Council resolution that denounced Israel for Kibya but failed to denounce Arab provocation, or to call for peace negotiations. In fact, the net outcome of the Eisenhower administration’s apparently benevolent attitude toward the Arabs has been more Arab stubbornness—and greater American difficulties—though many informed Israelis concede that Washington, for all its large pronouncements, has actually done very little to justify Arab hopes. Nevertheless, Washington now finds it necessary to stress to the Arabs a point that needed no affirmation two years ago: its belief in the need and certainty of Israel’s survival.
What should the powers do to win the Arabs, if they are to be won at all? Talk straight and act firmly, the Israelis recommend. Britain, to begin with, is in the position to compel cooperation with Israel by Jordan, currently the chief troublemaker. Deprived of British funds, personnel, and support, Jordan is nothing, and would disintegrate. The truth is, it is guessed, that Britain at times shows disfavor towards Israel simply in order not to be outdone in Arab eyes by the U.S. After thirty years’ experience, the British have learned that appeasement of the Arabs won’t work, as witness their present grimness in Egypt. But the U. S., Israelis think, seems to have taken up where Britain left off, and is repeating her mistakes.
Hypnotized by the fancied need for positive Arab friendship, Washington again and again holds back just when a strong stand could be decisive. Therefore, say the Israelis: dispel the Arabs’ notion that the U.S. fears them. Make it clear that, if necessary, the West will go on with Israel alone. In the past, the Arabs have acquiesced when they had no alternative—as when they signed armistices with Israel. If they can again be confronted with no alternative, they may even make peace with Israel.
These current examples illustrate that “long-time” Israeli view which remains constant despite transitory events. There is a corresponding “long-time” American view. It admits, privately, that the Israeli case has a certain logic, but finds a serious flaw in the perspective: Israel sees clearly her own interests and grievances, but not the immensely larger frame in which the small Arab-Israeli conflict is set.
Israel is a pinpoint of territory with a population of less than two millions; the Arab world is almost a continent with more than 40 millions. Even if this mass were totally apathetic, it could not be ignored, nor could so huge a territory be treated as wasteland, the Americans point out. The people and the land are anything but apathetic. To test the soundness of Israeli assurances that firmness would bring tranquillity, one would have to risk the alternative possibility of conflagration. Such a risk is unthinkable.
The Israelis tell us to be stern, to use pressure, the Americans observe. But how? With what weapons? On whom? There once was a time when the Arab rulers could turn anti-Zionism on or off at will. They no longer enjoy such facilities for manipulating popular hysteria True, Israel is a robust democracy, steadfastly on our side. By contrast, the Arab systems may well be decrepit, feudal, un-dependable. The paradox is that the democratic Israeli state would fall apart if out-side aid were cut off—but the backward Arab states could in their misery go on forever without any aid at all. Israel’s very dependence on Western help encourages the Arabs. They calculate that boycott and harassment may yet cause her internal collapse, especially if the West can be persuaded to abandon her. So long as Israel’s economy requires American bolstering, the Arabs will go on hoping—and talking tough. As for aid to the Arabs, they themselves spurn it, the Americans protest. Their leaders consider us and our gifts suspect. They are obsessed with fear and envy of Israel. Rather than make peace with her, they are ready to contemplate committing class and national suicide by selling out to the Soviets.
The American view contends that the Middle East—with its oil, communications, and bases—is too vital to jeopardize for any consideration. The Arab world possesses an indispensable asset which Israel lacks: space. Space for large armies, space for maneuver. Yes, Israel has a competent little army—but in global arithmetic it is of importance only to Israel. “As far as sheer value of territory is concerned,” General Eisenhower once said, “there is no more strategically important area in the world” than the Middle East. Soviet influence would be ominous, Soviet seizure catastrophic. Widespread disorders could sap the entire Western position. Therefore we must placate the Arabs.
These, then, have been the changeless positions of the United States and Israel since 1948. However, interim policies on both sides have often swerved from them.
For example Israel, though sure that the Arabs cannot be conciliated, has on different occasions offered to do so, notably in the refugee dispute: by expressing willingness to take back a limited but sizable number of refugees, to discuss compensation before a general peace treaty, and by actually beginning to repay money left behind in refugees’ blocked bank accounts. Similarly the United States, while anxious not to alienate the Arabs, has objected strongly to such things as Egyptian interference with Israeli cargoes in the Suez Canal. At times the American position in the UN, as on the Jerusalem question, has been closer to Israel’s position than to that of the majority of the membership, and has been outvoted. As far back as during the Truman administration, the two governments were fairly agreed on what should be the settlements in the Jerusalem, refugee, Suez, and Arab-Israeli border-fixing disputes. The difference between them—and it of course was cardinal—was on how far to go in compelling Arab agreement as well.
It has not been generally noted that the Eisenhower administration has already made one tactical revision of fundamental significance that diminishes the projected role of the Arabs in Middle East defense. The change dates roughly from Dulles’s visit to the area last summer. He went out seeking, as others before him, ways to bring the Arab states into some kind of regional security organization. He came home persuaded that—with one or possibly two exceptions—they were for the time being incapable of preparing any active defense against future Soviet aggression. Dulles had learned for himself that most of the Arab governments were too engrossed in hating Israel, too “neutralist” in the cold war, or even too amiably inclined toward Moscow. (The later fate of Naguib and Shishakli also showed him they were too unstable.) Of the two possible exceptions, Saudi Arabia seems more recently to have been scratched because of King Saud’s excessive fulminations against Israel (tantamount to an appeal for Holy War) and certain disquieting views attributed to him concerning American oil contracts (reminiscent of Mossadegh). This leaves just Iraq. The cessation of efforts, even temporarily, to enlist the other Arab states in the Western defense system is seen—at least by Washington—as an important change in tactics in a direction desired by Israel.
But the Arabs, according to the classic American view, are still in the Middle East and still have to be courted. If they are not to be asked for active contribution to regional security, they must in any event be induced to refrain from hostility. To achieve this, the U. S. has now apparently taken up with renewed vigor the idea of improving the social and economic health of the Arab world through large American-financed development programs.
Since Congress is hardly likely to appropriate more for the Middle East in 195455 than in the current fiscal year, the Arabs may get more, and Israel less, than hitherto. Even if Congress does not cut the $130 million requested for next year, more than $14 million of this is expected to go to Iran, Libya, and Ethiopia, leaving under $116 million for Israel and the Arab states. The State Department is understood to be asking a free hand in allocating the balance, with a view to enabling larger Arab participation. This emphasis is justified in Washington by the following reasoning:
Since 1948 Israel has received just about as much in U. S. government grants ($191.6 million) as all the Arab countries together ($192.6), although the Arabs outnumber the Israelis thirty to one. Actually, the imbalance has been even greater in a sense, because Israel’s share went entirely to her government, while only $68.2 million went to the Arab governments, the UN having spent the other $124.4 million directly on Arab refugees.
Israel admittedly has used her share well—so well, in fact, that her economy is now showing solid improvement. Aid to Israel may therefore begin to be shaved down. But the Arab territories continue to be sadly underdeveloped. The time has come for a major effort. In particular, there is urgent need to harness water resources in Lebanon and Jordan for power and irrigation. Plans are afoot for aid programs in Syria and Egypt too. All this, one American official has predicted, will “transform the Arab states out of recognition in the next five years.” The inference is the Arabs will become more sturdy and enlightened, and less inclined to sabotage if cold war emergencies should arise.
Before examining the Israeli reaction to this, one might inquire why Washington should think that the Arab regimes are suddenly going to reverse themselves and become eager for the same American aid which for several years they have either been rejecting outright or accepting in only puny amounts. Or why, in the few places where fairly substantial American- or UN-financed projects have been allowed, one should count on brilliant results tomorrow when until today the native performance has been so sluggish. In a major speech this April, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Henry A. Byroade, spoke of a “general evolution” now occurring in his area, “whereby leaders are becoming more responsive to the demands of public welfare.” Is there really “general” evidence of this among the generals, landowners, and effendis? And if, as in Egypt, one now hears much talk of economic uplift, do the meager achievements recorded there justify optimism for the future?
Further, Israel is not to blame if her government was willing to take responsibility for the integration of her immigrants, and therefore directly received United States grants to maintain them, while the Arab governments declined responsibility for the refugees on their soil, compelling the United States to send the aid through non-Arab channels. Incidentally, the immigrants were also “refugees,” about equal in number to the Arabs. And since when has the United States given her assistance according to size of population rather than need, capacity, and ability to use? There are fewer Greeks than Turks, but Greece has had more economic aid than Turkey. The yardstick has been economic, and Washington has never before suggested that a country which received less than another had the right to accuse the United States of being less friendly. As a matter of fact, American aid until now has gone to countries which, by definition, were presumably friendly. Can the Arabs, by any stretch of the imagination, be so described?
The Israelis wryly declare themselves “flattered” by American statements that they have employed United States aid well. They suggest that, if this is so, why reduce it prematurely and endanger the whole investment? For this fiscal year, Israel has received $52.5 million from the Foreign Operations Administration. There is reason to believe that the State Department now wants to cut this down to thirty-five or even thirty millions. Such a slash, Israelis fear, would do much harm at a crucial moment. It may not be evident in Washington, but Israel has a considerable way to go before grants-in-aid can be sharply cut without hampering the pace of a development on which the United States itself has counted so much for the health and strength of a vital area.
As for increased economic assistance to the Arabs, the Israelis could hardly make legitimate objection, and they know it. Israel does not say the United States should withhold such aid—even though, in terms of power, improvement of the Arabs’ economy would clearly strengthen them vis-à-vis Israel. In fact, Israel has always felt that a prime reason for mass Arab antagonism to her is the plight of that mass. She would sincerely welcome, I think, any and all efforts to lift the Arab peoples from their misery and make them both less susceptible to anti-foreign hysteria and more inclined to good neighborliness. This has long been the view also of true friends of America in the Middle East, and of Israel’s friends over here, including the most fervent American Zionists. The one kind of aid to the Arabs which Israel and her supporters do deplore is military. That is why there has been no protest against reported American plans for extra economic help to the Arabs—but an avalanche of protest against the recent decision to give arms to Iraq.
The Iraqi military-aid program stems from the revision in American thinking mentioned above about regional defense patterns. Having discovered that the Arabs are generally “not ready” for alliance with the West, the United States has evolved a so-called “Northern Tier” formula. Instead of building outward by organizing the Middle East for defense as an ultimate target of Soviet assault, the new plan starts with the Soviet frontier itself and works backward. Thus Turkey and Pakistan become the core of the system, with northern Arab territory (Iraq) and oil fields (Saudi Arabia, in the first concept) on the fringe as a defensive extension.
The United States believes that the “Northern Tier” is a large concession to Israeli views. Earlier regional proposals—“Supreme Allied Command Middle East” (SACME) and “Middle East Defense Organization” (MEDO)—had been joint Anglo-American projects. They envisaged inclusion of all the Arab states, without any real indication of where Israel would fit. The new proposal is purely American in concept and financing, and excludes all the hostile countries on Israel’s frontiers.
Iraq, the Americans point out, does not touch Israeli territory (nor does Saudi Arabia). This shows how sympathetically Israel’s concern is taken into account in Washington. Iraq is sworn not to use the American-donated equipment except for defense against the Soviet. This has been demanded by Washington as an ironclad precondition. Moreover, the amount of arms to be given is not serious. The bulk of a $30million fund at the State Department’s disposal is for Pakistan. At most, only about $5 million probably will be available for Iraq. There has been no Congressional or public clamor against the much larger program for Pakistan. Why all the excitement about Iraq? From the American point of view, the insignificant quantity going to this one Arab state makes the grant purely “symbolic.” It is meant to serve notice on Moscow, not strengthen Iraq against Israel. So why worry?
American critics of the State Department regard such arguments as hovering on naivety.
If the arms for Iraq are merely “symbolic,” the critics contend, how are they ever going to impress the Soviet Union? Will not Moscow, on the contrary, regard the transaction as bluff? The Russians know, if the West has forgotten, that even an Iraqi army armed to the teeth would hardly slow one Soviet column. In World War II, the troops of the pro-Nazi revolutionary Iraqi regime folded up before a handful of British soldiers. The “arms for Iraq” policy is an invention, not of the Pentagon, but of the State Department, it is suggested—to conciliate the Arab world politically.
But a “symbol,” though worthless against the Kremlin, can be deadly against Israel. It is all right to say that the U. S. is for peace in the Middle East. The question Israelis ask is: Are the Arabs for peace? Especially the Iraqis, who are perhaps the most venomously anti-Israel of all the Arab peoples, indeed the focus of anti-Jewish feeling in the region. Iraq went over to Hitler once, or tried to. After Israel’s emergence, around 90 per cent of the Jews in Iraq fled while they could. Some who could not were hanged in Bagdad’s public squares. Israeli passengers in an airplane making an emergency landing in Iraq were jailed and treated like criminals. As the loudest saber-rattler against Israel, can Iraq be trusted with gifts of shooting weapons? If there is any “symbol” in the American plan, it is simply this: Iraq will take it as proof either that the United States can be beguiled into believing her pledges of peaceful intention, or that the United States knows her real intention and doesn’t care.
Arms to Iraq, Israelis say, strengthens the Arab (not just Iraqi) resolve to avoid a negotiated Israeli settlement. Encouraging the Iraqis would be troublesome enough. They do not border on Israel, true, but in the Arab war they contributed five regimental combat units and over one hundred armored vehicles which, while the Jewish defense was spread out, managed to cut Jerusalem’s water supply and get within eight miles of Tel Aviv. What is ominous is that it is not Iraq alone but the Arab League which the U.S. is arming spiritually.
Against Israel the League performs like a team. Egypt’s blockade at Suez, Jordan’s refusal to obey Article XII of her armistice, Syria’s meddling with electric projects—such obstructions, the Israelis emphasize, are due to the League, not the spasmodic malevolence of individual states. It is simply foolish to compare the cases of Iraq and Pakistan. In the latter instance, where India is the complainant against United States policy, Pakistan is smaller in land and population than India, is not at war with India, does not insist that she is at war with India, and does not periodically announce her intention to destroy India. Exactly the reverse of all this prevails in Iraq, and the U.S. in effect is telling all Arabs they may proceed in their vendetta against Israel and not distress the State Department.
And, the Israelis add, if Iraq is an ally of the United States, then what about arms for Israel too? Aren’t we at least as good an ally? About two years ago, Israel submitted an arms-aid request to Washington. Though Israel was declared eligible to buy arms here the State Department took no action on the aid request, explaining that the United States had not yet developed a policy for arms grants to the Middle East. Well, say the Israelis, now you have a policy. If you give Iraq arms—is there no place in your policy for a grant of weapons to us?
Economic and military assistance to Arab states affects Israel, not directly, but because she is part of the Middle East. But other facets of American policy directly affect specific Arab-Israeli disputes. In this category, comprising such matters as the Jordan border and Suez, Israeli and American policy have lately shown a trend, willy-nilly, toward mutual accommodation. Both sides have been learning that the Arabs are very, very hard to get along with.
The Eisenhower administration entered the Middle East with the firm belief that it could be pacified and organized by bold and Sweeping approaches. Mr. Dulles learned that these were not advisable. He then tried the piecemeal method, attempting to patch one hole here, sew another there. This only made the Arabs more intransigent, particularly towards Israel. Despairing of swift solutions, the United States has since fallen back on a tactic of merely keeping things from getting worse. Only the other day Assistant Secretary Byroade publicly confessed that the possibility of a peace treaty “just does not exist.” In the UN the United States has taken up a juridical position: let us all observe the legalities, respect the Charter, fulfill pledges, obey injunctions. This has brought American and Israeli lines superficially closer. The process has been aided by the Arabs, who are habitually belligerent and extreme—and by the Israelis, who have increasingly adopted a legal attitude inside the UN, however vigorous their conduct may have become outside.
Thus the Americans—and the British—have found themselves more and more arguing for the Israeli view. Once Israel had stopped defying the UN suspension order at the B’not Ya’akov diggings, the West was able to look into the case and see that the project was not, as the Syrians had claimed, a menace to Arab life and limb. It was Commissar Vishinsky, not Ambassador Lodge, who prevented the Security Council from achieving a decision. When Israel appealed against Egyptian defiance of UN orders on Suez, the West again had to take note, particularly since the British had their own reason for being unhappy over Suez. In the Jordan dispute the West supported the Israeli position that all aspects of border unrest be examined and that Israelis and Jordanians negotiate face to face, while the Soviets seconded the Arab refusal—for fear of being ultimately inveigled into a peace conference—to talk about anything except their own wounds.
Meanwhile, the Israelis have begun to realize that the present emergency is too desperate for total solutions, that small mea sures which may work are better than large ones which won’t. In an earlier period, when the armistice agreements were more or less functioning, the Israeli objective was peace, entire and unqualified. The West was thought capable of compelling the Arabs to negotiate, and a final settlement was believed practical. The past months, however, have seen Arab truculence wax instead of wane. The Arabs have not only rejected a peace treaty, but have been retreating from the armistices too. Israelis are sure this would not have happened if U. S. policy had not inflamed Arab illusions. Now they would consider it an achievement just to restore order on the frontiers.
Israel would desire, among other things, extension of the 1950 Anglo-Franco-American guarantee against territorial changes by aggression to include a ban on other forms of violence such as border raids and economic hostility. She would like the United States to force the Arabs to help in solving the refugee problem (as suggested in a recent Congressional report). She observes that, if Egypt is allowed to continue the Suez blockade under cover of Soviet veto, it will be the sole instance of such tolerance of Soviet obstructionism in the non-Communist world. (Previously the West, when it has tried, has been able to circumvent Russian veto, as in Greece and Iran—and even in Syria and Lebanon, when Moscow vetoed a resolution facilitating withdrawal of foreign troops from those countries after World War II!) But peace is so remote that Israel would settle at this time for mere armistice enforcement.
Return to the armistices would be a harsh substitute for the real peace Israel needs. But it is nonetheless terribly important—not only for Jerusalem but also for Washington, which has lately expressed panicky fear of an Arab shift toward the Soviets. Without effective armistices, there is the danger—let it be emphasized here—of an Israeli outburst. If this occurs, the aftermath will make present Arab-Israeli friction seem trivial.
The incessant turmoil on the borders has worn Israel’s patience down. When this happens in any country, the result is a move toward extremism—and increased strain among friends at home as well as against foes abroad. Israel is no exception.
Views on what to do about the Arabs have been varied and bitter. There has been a difference between the government’s public statements and its discussions in camera; a difference between the civilian leaders and the military leaders; an even greater difference between responsible officials and public opinion—which has no responsibility and, in a democracy, submits to no controls. But the greatest peril of all is that these differences are now, dimly but perceptibly, beginning to fuse into agreement. If this process continues—and the persistence of Arab hostility under cloak of the armistices will make it continue—then even the armistices may be swept away.
The divergences in view and expression were already apparent after Kibya last October. In the UN, Israel expressed formal regret at the killing of Arab women and children. But in the Knesset, no orator dared, with the country listening, to denounce the attackers. In the cabinet, one faction regretted only that this raid by para-military Israeli frontier settlers had slipped out of control. Many other ministers, however, who had not been told in advance, were outraged by Kibya; even in Ben Gurion’s own party, a caucus of Mapai ministers revealed shock. Yet no outward sign of backing down was ever made. The blot on Israel’s name for civilized behavior—and on the Prime Minister’s reputation for truthfulness as impugned in the Security Council proceedings—was allowed, almost casually, to remain.
Failure to offer a convincing explanation for Kibya (or any explanation at all to counter the unrestrained Arab charges during the first inarticulate days) was partly due to the ineptitude of the persons in Israel handling the government’s press relations. But it gradually became apparent that it was also due to a defiant attitude at top level, combined with confusion and division down the line. Even weeks later, after the UN’s bald denunciation of Israel, when the full story of Kibya could only have clarified the situation to Israel’s advantage, this writer was denied clearance of the facts by highest authority. To this day there are cabinet members who have not yet been told exactly who attacked Kibya, how, and why.
More ominous was the temper in the streets. Some Israeli citizens expressed horror. More were sorry that innocent persons had died. But most of them expressed no remorse at all—and even some satisfaction—over the attack itself: “How long are we to sit and let them slaughter us? It’s time we taught them a lesson. Is Jewish blood cheaper than Arab? If the Arabs want war, let it be war!” Later, the long UN wrangles, the speeches, resolutions, and voting, got little attention. The average Israeli just didn’t seem to care that his country was being condemned. If anything, he felt contempt for the impotence of a faraway conclave of diplomats eternally passing resolutions.
In the early post-Kibya period it was also possible to detect several basic differences on what to do next. The extremist view was voiced by the Herut party and other descendants of old fire-eating Revisionism, who called for counter action as cynical and deliberate as Arab action but with more sweep and impact. It was charged that Kibya had been criminally bungled. The government should first have staged a demonstration by Israel’s border settlements against the Israeli government, including demands for reprisals and even clashes with police. Then the settlers could have roared across the frontier and wreaked systematic havoc, to be followed by official disavowal and the explanation that the settlers had been goaded beyond endurance. Then the world would, presumably, have sympathized with the embattled Israeli farmers—and the Arabs would have been stricken with dread, as at Deir Yassin.
Next came the army, less vociferous but not much less extreme. Top commanders were not prepared to recommend open attack in force on the Arabs—inviting possible UN sanctions and embroilment with the British through the Anglo-Jordanian defense alliance. But they were willing to contemplate calculated risks falling short of organized war. Many regretted that UN intervention in the Independence War had come so soon. “If we had just kept going a little while longer,” one officer told me wistfully, “we could have had Suez without any trouble. We could have cut out Jordan’s ‘Little Triangle.’ We could have reached the Litani River in the north. There was nothing in our way. We could have restored practically all of Mandate Palestine. And we’d have no problem now about secure frontiers or room for water-development programs. . . .”
The conviction was spreading among the military that the Arabs were heading for war. If so, shouldn’t Israeli policy be revised to take the inevitability of war into account? Wouldn’t it be desirable, even, to have the test come soon rather than late? I met no officer with doubts of victory. The problem seemed rather to be how to have war without starting it. It was hoped that the Arabs would oblige. In the interim, it was felt that all Arab outbreaks should be met by limited but swift and emphatic reprisal. There were even some who wanted authorization to smash into Egyptian-held Gaza or forcibly “straighten” the Jordan frontier. The military does not make government policy in Israel, but it is popular and has influence. There were enough civilian leaders too, in perhaps subtler manner, who envisaged similar tactics as the best reply to Arab terrorism.
In opposition to such “activities” were, first and least representative, the Communists and their followers, who automatically blamed “fascism” for the friction between the equally downtrodden Arab and Jewish masses. After them stood the sincere and near-saintly but numerically insignificant group around the magazine Ner, which advocates brotherhood with the Arabs and large concessions to prove Israeli benevolence. But the main effective opposition centered around those elements of Israeli leaders who considered the West’s good opinion and American friendship indispensable to Israel.
Especially to men dealing with the state’s economic problems, or with its foreign relations, American support was so obviously crucial that gambling with it for any restricted objective like free use of a river or reprisal against a raid seemed sheer irresponsibility. In particular, officials in the Foreign Ministry and diplomatic service—who understood international opinion best and were obliged daily to justify Israel’s behavior to her friends overseas—regarded the impatient military as dangerous romantics. What good would it accomplish to seek a violent solution? Granted that the situation was intolerable, would it be any less intolerable if an Israeli assault, such as a march into the Triangle, created a larger Arab irredentism, this time with the whole world behind the Arabs? And if the UN ordered the army to withdraw, what then?
The selection of Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett to replace Ben Gurion, the departing prime minister, disclosed a major effort to install moderation in an office that had been previously distinguished for a boldness which many thought insufficiently aware of Israel’s interests abroad. But conditions permitting a prudent policy have degenerated. Frontier disorder has multiplied. Temper inside Israel has risen instead of cooled. Activists have gained ground at the expense of the moderates, and even the latter have begun to turn. After Kibya it was still possible for an Israeli government to apologize to the world. But five months later, after the slaughter of eleven Israelis in a Negev bus and Arab incursions from all around Nahallin in Jordan, there was an undisguised Israeli assault on the Arab Legion and National Guard in that outpost—and there was no apology, nor was any apology possible. There is less and less attempt to minimize such reprisals as the “uncontrollable” response of private citizens provoked to fury by Arab assassins—and more and more impatience with armistice commissions. The sentiment is growing that, all else failing, prudence itself now dictates the frank use of force against force, or else the Arabs will get out of hand entirely. And as a plain political fact, any Israeli government that now tried a policy of the other cheek might shortly be put out of office. Its successor would be no comfort to the surviving advocates of moderation.
In the view even of those who make the United States the cornerstone of Israel’s future, the deterioration of Arab-Israeli relations is due to the deplorable American penchant for encouragement of Arab intransigence. Washington’s spokesmen in the UN may frequently take legalist positions on the Israeli side—but any benefit is erased by Washington’s parallel practice of verbal rebuke for Israel. Such declarations—reinforced at intervals by positive acts like the Iraqi arms grant—feed Arab flames with every syllable.
What could the United States do at this late date, it is asked, to strengthen the moderates in Israel? Certainly not continue in the vein of recent State Department announcements, the moderates suggest. Not summon Israel to cease acting like a “conqueror,” as was recommended in one speech which the Arabs waved aloft as proof of their charges. Nor advise Israel publicly to reassure the Arabs, by “correcting” her drive for immigration, that she has no expansionist dreams—thereby intimating to the Arabs that Washington agrees with them about alleged Israeli “imperialist” ambitions.
If anybody needs to be reassured today, the moderates observe, it is the people of Israel. They are beginning to suspect that the United States might consider Israel expendable if her disappearance would facilitate Arab cooperation. They are beginning to doubt that Washington would react with more than mournful regrets if the Arabs ever drove Israel into the sea. They want the United States to cease bewailing every Israeli violation of an armistice without stigmatizing, at least with equal energy, every Arab violation. They contrast the outcry over Kibya with the apathy over the Negev bus murders, the swift action against Israel at B’not Ya’akov with the lack of action against Egypt at Suez, or against Jordan over Article XII. They want the United States to worry less about losing ground with the Arabs and make the Arabs worry more about losing ground with the United States. If Washington can devise means to give large-scale aid to the Arabs, then Washington can also devise means to give them a sense of responsibility and bring them to negotiate with Israel. This will never be accomplished, Israelis are persuaded, unless the United States stops wavering and abandons a species of double-talk which convinces the Arabs that their hostility to Israel is sympathetically regarded in Washington as the natural yearning of a great and noble people for self-expression.
It would be rash to predict how far the Israelis, in their indignation, are prepared to go. From this distance, one can only note that an extreme solution would endanger everything achieved by Israel and the world’s good will until now. But Israel would not be the sole loser. The breaking of the dikes around her would be a major defeat for Western defense in the Middle East. There is deadly historic irony in the prospect that the United States, by straining at all costs to win Arab stability, might lose the one element of stability which we truly possess in the Middle East.
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American Policy and Arab-Israeli Peace:Our Course in the Light of Near East Realities
Must-Reads from Magazine
Process for its own sake.
European Union bureaucrats love to speak of “European values,” and their media allies on both sides of the Atlantic take it for granted that the EU stands for all that is good and just on the international scene. For a certain type of journalist or NGO worker, if the EU does or says something, that act or statement must be admirable by dint of the fact that it originated in Brussels. Yet too often, the EU stands for diplomacy for its own sake, process for its own sake, bureaucracy for its own sake–even when insisting on diplomacy, process, and bureaucracy for their own sake ends up empowering murderous enemies of European values.
Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the bloc’s hysteric response to President Trump’s decisions to withdraw Washington from the flawed Iran deal and move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. In a statement posted to her blog, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini made it clear that she views America and Israel as the Middle East’s real troublemakers. The blog post was notable for the cold tone Mogherini took with Washington. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime and Hamas, those unshakable friends of European values, came out unscathed.
Here’s Mogherini on her efforts to save the Iran deal:
On Tuesday I gathered in Brussels the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom – the three European countries that negotiated the deal together with the US, Russia and China. We decided to start working on a package of measures to protect the deal, to make sure that Iranian citizens can enjoy the benefits of it, and to safeguard our economic interests. Our goal is to maintain and deepen our economic ties–including with new projects, starting with energy and transport–while defending and incentivising small and medium enterprises investing in Iran . . . There is a metaphor [sic] that came up several times over the last few days: the deal is like a patient in intensive care, and our shared goal is to restore it to health as soon as possible.
As for the Jerusalem move and the other crises in the region, Mogherini said:
Once again the European Union is the reliable partner, and it is indispensable in such a moment of instability for the Middle East. We continue to go through dramatic events: from the clashes on the border between Israel and Syria, to the unspeakable suffering of the Yemeni people, to tens of deaths in Gaza after the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem . . . As the European Union, we won’t stop working to find a political solution to all these crises: there is no other way to reach a just and lasting peace.
From the mullahs’ nuclear-weapons program to Hamas’s calculated campaign to rush the barrier fence with Israel to the Iranian-led insurgency in Yemen, Mogherini and the EU see only diplomatic challenges to overcome. And the answer is always, always to convene a gabfest in Basel, Lausanne, Vienna or some other plush Continental city, where civilizational clashes and historic animosities and sharp moral contrasts can be dissolved in technical solutions.
Never mind that the Iranian nuclear deal on its own terms puts Tehran on the glide path to the bomb, and never mind that it fails to address the mullahs’ missile program, regional aggression, and human-rights violations. “We had a process,” say the Brussels mandarins, “and that process must be preserved at all costs.” Never mind that Hamas is constitutionally committed to the destruction of world Jewry and has been staging terror attacks and bloody stunts for decades. “We had a process,” say the mandarins, “and Trump’s embassy move disrupts the process.” In this worldview, the likes of Iran and the Palestinians can appear as friends and good guys, because they cynically embrace European process games. All the while, the U.S. and Israel are cast as the bad guys since they don’t play geopolitics the European way.
Along with Mogherini, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel epitomized this bankrupt mindset. One of the three, Obama, has already exited the world stage. The tectonic electoral shifts underway in Europe mean the other two are likely to fade sooner than later.
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A transactional theology.
To understand the liberal worldview, the contrived campaign to make Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into some kind of a folk hero is a useful object of study. She has been the subject of a variety of hagiographical portraiture, ranging from fawning magazine profiles and sycophantic treatment in film to illustrated children’s books. She inspires her followers to get her image tattooed onto their bodies, to mimic her fitness routines, to feel as she felt and to weep as she wept.
This behavior lends itself to quite a few descriptors, but you cannot call it a cult. The cult leader is nigh infallible, but that is not Ginsburg’s role. Her relationship with the flock is transactional, and she can transgress against progressive tenets as easily as anyone. When Ginsburg called former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick “arrogant” for leading his teammates in a “dumb and disrespectful” protest against the American flag, for example, the liberal blogosphere rose up in revolt. Some went so far as to imply rather unambiguously that Ginsburg’s anachronistic lack of racial consciousness rendered her undeserving of the left’s veneration.
Identity politics is relatively shallow politics, and Ginsburg’s transgression was soon forgotten under a mountain of substance. Her value to the liberal movement as a lifetime appointee to the nation’s highest court is self-evident, but it is her unique facility for lending intellectual heft to the left’s ideological pragmatism and single-mindedness that makes her so important to Democrats and their allies in media. The reaction to Monday’s Supreme Court decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis illustrates this phenomenon.
In that decision, the Supreme Court determined that employers can appeal to the arbitration clauses in the contracts that non-union employees sign to prevent those employees from joining class-action lawsuits against them. “In the Federal Arbitration Act, Congress has instructed federal courts to enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms—including terms providing for individualized proceedings,” Justice Neal Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “This court is not free to substitute its preferred economic policies for those chosen by the people’s representatives.”
That 5-4 decision was correctly interpreted by much of the press as a blow to organized labor, but the political media was led to that conclusion by Justice Ginsburg, whose dramatic reaction to this ruling was designed to generate as much attention as possible. In an uncommon move, Ginsburg read a portion of her dissenting opinion from the bench. “Federal labor law does not countenance such isolation of employees,” she said, fretting that the Court’s “egregiously wrong” decision may lead to the “underenforcement” of other statutes protecting workers’ rights. Yet Ginsburg appeared to reinforce the majority’s logic when she noted the ambiguity of the National Labor Relations’ Act’s handling of arbitration and suggested that Congress needed to update federal labor laws. Even her Democratic allies, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, reinforced her contention that Congress should act to resolve this ambiguity.
That vagueness was hard to find in reported accounts of events in the Supreme Court on Monday. Rather than approach reporting around this issue as though it were a complex matter on which the Court carefully found grounds to rule as it did, media professionals took their cues from Ginsberg’s personal conduct. CNN’s “legal analyst and supreme court biographer,” Joan Biskupic, wrote that “the gloves are off and the collar is on.” That is, her “classic dissenting collar,” tastefully adorned with “silver crystal accents,” which Ginsburg adopts when she reads her dissents aloud. “So dire was her warning,” Biskupic continued, that Gorsuch was compelled to spend five of his 25 pages rebutting her dissent.
Indeed, Ginsburg’s perspective was the angle taken in many press accounts of this ruling, but they did not strictly adhere to her logic. Again and again, news outlets and analysts lamented the effects that this decision might have on non-unionized workers, not the vagueness of the law, in order to buttress a predetermined conclusion. NPR called the decision “a major blow to workers” that stopped them from banding “together to challenge violations of federal labor laws.” The Huffington Post insisted that this ruling meant that women “will no longer be able to band together to fight systemic sexual discrimination or harassment in court.” Quartz took this logic a step further and insisted that, though the majority opinion’s language was “coded” (read: legalistic), Gorsuch had dealt a “devastating blow to the #MeToo movement, and the fight for gender equality at work.” To come to this conclusion is to actively ignore Ginsburg, who wrote that the Court’s decision did not “place in jeopardy” anti-discrimination protections for workers.
There are limits to political media’s willingness to serve as Justice Ginsburg’s stenographers, and those limits are usually met when the “Notorious RBG” complicates the realization of liberal objectives. In July of 2016, for example, Ginsberg violated a taboo when she weighed in on presidential politics, expressing unreserved fears over how a prospective Donald Trump presidency could change the country and bench on which she sat. Democrats in the Senate castigated her for getting out “over her skis” and getting “very close to the line” that justices should not cross.
Ginsburg’s offense wasn’t having an opinion that Democrats shared, but expressing it in a way that reinforced Trump supporters’ arguments about the bias inherent in elite American institutions. Suddenly, Ginsburg was “injudicious” and had made a “mistake” by imperiling the court’s apolitical aura, and the justice was eventually compelled to withdraw her remarks. There were no such condemnations of her behavior when she boycotted Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on similar grounds. After all, many of her fellow Democrats had done the same.
To a disturbing degree, the story that the press tells when it comes to the conduct of the Supreme Court is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story. It is through her eyes that they interpret the logic and impact of its decisions, even if that perspective does more to obscure than to clarify the Justices’ thinking—including, ironically, her own. The theology surrounding Ginsburg is doubtlessly unhealthy in a republic of laws, but it is clearly a means to an end. That end is not jurisprudence or even the empowerment of women, but the advancement of liberal policy objectives. When she becomes an impediment to those objectives, few of her so-called allies have any compunction about throwing RBG under the bus.
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It's not scheming when we like it.
By now, those who began the Trump era convinced that the president was Vladimir Putin’s puppet are surely frustrated by the dearth of supporting evidence. Donald Trump has spent his tenure repaying the Russian Federation for its interference in the 2016 election by imposing stiff sanctions on the Kremlin and its associates, arming the regime’s opponents, and degrading the capabilities of its allies. While there are few areas where Washington and Moscow have collaborated, that is not to say that they do not exist. If there is one particularly important arena where the White House has been happy to cede turf to the Russian president, it is in Syria.
President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to see the United States extricate itself from its commitments in Northwestern Syria as soon as possible. In early April, the president announced that all U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawing “like very soon”—an announcement that confused his State Department and contradicted the statements of his commanding generals, who had assured the public that the American mission in Syria has only just begun. Cooler heads might have convinced Trump not to create a power vacuum in the heart of the former ISIS caliphate on a whim, but the president seems unpersuaded that either U.S. interests or allies in the region are of much value. If America cannot simply cut ties with its partners in Syria, it seems, it will simply allow those relationships to wither on the vine.
Last week, the administration announced that it would cut off all non-humanitarian aid to groups on the ground in Northern Syria. Some $200 million in recovery funds for the region devastated in the fight against ISIS were frozen in late March, and they are not going to be restored. If the civilian infrastructure devastated in that part of Syria is going to be repaired, it won’t be with American reconstruction funds. Among the organizations that the White House has abandoned is the Syrian Civil Defense, known colloquially as the “White Helmets,” which have attracted positive attention from American lawmakers for their highly-publicized efforts to rescue civilians from collapsed buildings over the course of the seven-year Syrian civil war.
All of this will be welcome news in Moscow. Russia has alleged that the “White Helmets” staged a recent chemical weapons attack on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Daouma. Moscow-backed mercenaries and Assad regime forces have repeatedly attempted to make inroads in the territory Americans occupy east of the Euphrates, recently resulting in a bloody armed confrontation between U.S. forces and Russian contractors. A U.S. withdrawal from Northern Syria would allow Russia and Iran to flood the zone while allowing Turkey a substantial presence in the North (where it could at finally neutralize America’s Kurdish allies). More troubling still, American withdrawal could provide enough space for Islamist organizations like ISIS or the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra group to reconstitute themselves. That would serve Assad’s purposes just fine. The existence of brutal Islamist groups creates a favorable contrast with his genocidal but secular regime, and it is a contrast Assad has skillfully deployed to generate Western sympathy for his ruling cabal.
The Trump administration has long sought to enlist Russia’s help in its effort to extricate U.S. troops from that conflict, no matter the costs to U.S. interests. In early 2017, the Trump administration entertained the prospect of ceding its position in Syria as a bargaining chip that, it was thought, might convince Russia to abandon its Iranian allies. It became clear that overture failed when Russian officials began telling regional governments like Israel that Iran’s military presence in Syria was a permanent feature of the landscape.
The Trump administration’s belief that Russia could be convinced to share American aims in Syria did not abate even after the president ordered strikes on Assad regime targets. In July of last year, the Trump administration ended a CIA program that armed and trained anti-Assad regime rebels in the hopes of currying favor with Russia. The president has all but surrendered the post-war planning process to Russia, which began ironing out a power-sharing arrangement with its Turkish and Iranian partners last November.
Despite the souring of Russo-American relations, the Trump White House still appears to cling to the notion that Russian and U.S. interests can align in Syria. In truth, the only alignment is that both Washington and Moscow want to see American soldiers and their Western allies leave. Yet for both the dovish left and the isolationist right, this is the kind of collusion that raises no eyebrows. It is the sacrifice of American influence and allies that generates no calls for Trump’s resignation from the usual suspects on the left. Conservatives, too, are loath to reconcile their conclusion that the “collusion” narrative is hollow with this conspicuous display of deference toward Moscow.
If there is one thing recent history has taught us, it is that Russia is not a reliable steward of U.S. interests. Americans who rediscover their mistrust of Vladimir Putin’s goals only when it suits their partisan interests are invested in a political game. Unfortunately, the stakes are so much higher than that.
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The biggest microphone.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an American organization founded in the 1970s as Helsinki Watch to campaign for the release of political prisoners in the Soviet Union, reinvented itself with the end of the Cold War. It is now a political lobby, selectively using human rights and international law to promote the ideological causes of its main patron, George Soros.
Israel is a favorite target for HRW and its long-time leader, Kenneth Roth. With an annual budget of $70 million, the organization produces a stream of “reports” condemning Israel for alleged war crimes and related violations, which are then cited in boycott resolutions and petitions to the International Criminal Court. Roth has stocked the Middle East and North Africa division with a number of BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) and lawfare activists, supported by a highly skilled public relations team.
Omar Shakir is one of HRW’s professional BDSers, hired in 2016 as a “researcher on Palestine.” He applied as a “foreign expert” for an Israeli work visa–routinely provided by the low-level clerks in the Interior Ministry to NGOs, including many deeply involved in propaganda wars. But by this point, the benign image of NGOs was gone, other ministries were consulted, and in early 2017, HRW received a letter denying the application and citing the organization’s track record of demonization. Sixteen years after HRW’s leading role in the infamous NGO Forum of the UN Durban Conference that launched BDS and labeled Israel an “apartheid state,” and nine years after HRW helped shape the Goldstone report fiasco, it appeared that Israel was finally taking NGO demonization seriously.
However, by sending Roth’s organization the response directly and not making it public on its own terms, Israel allowed HRW to control the story and spin the denial as another ostensibly anti-democratic move by the Netanyahu government. A flood of condemnations predictably followed (ignoring the fact that all democracies routinely deny visas on various grounds), and Israel suddenly and inexplicably reversed itself, and Shakir got a one-year visa.
If the ministries, including Strategic Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office, weighing in on NGO visas expected the reversal to cause HRW or Shakir to tone down the propaganda and seriously take up human rights violations of Hamas, they were wrong. Instead, the anti-Israel accusations and media performances (videos, press conferences, interviews, etc.) intensified. In the past year alone, HRW pushed divestment from Israeli banks, targeted Israel’s membership in FIFA (the international soccer association), called for arms embargoes and ending security cooperation, lobbied the UN to “blacklist” companies doing business in Israel, and petitioned the International Criminal Court to open prosecutions against Israeli officials. In the political theater of human rights, HRW displayed its mastery.
Shakir quickly assumed center stage. In a highly publicized May 2017 trip, he flew to Bahrain, ostensibly to push participants in a meeting of FIFA’s congress to take action against Israel. He also used Bahrain’s refusal to give him a visa to gain favorable press coverage for HRW’s campaign. On social media, he supported proposed US legislation to restrict military aid to Israel, repeating false NGO allegations on theme of systematic mistreatment of Palestinian children.
In response to the government’s apparent ineptness on this issue, an organization known as Shurat HaDin (Israel Law Center) filed suit arguing that Shakir’s activities violated a recent amendment designed to block visas for BDS activists and groups. This triggered a formal review by the ministries involved, and Shakir was informed in November 2017 that his visa was being reviewed. Shortly afterwards, in a particularly cynical move even for HRW, Deputy Director for the Middle East Eric Goldstein suddenly appeared and posted selfies of himself and Israel/Palestine Advocacy Director Sari Bashi at the site of a protest in Jerusalem demanding action to free Avera Mengistu, an Israeli who had crossed into Gaza in 2014 and was being held, along with two others also with mental health issues. Goldstein and Bashi said nothing about the two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed in the 2014 war. Their bodies are still being held by Hamas, in blatant violation of all human rights norms.
HRW’s token interest in the human rights of Mengistu did not save Shakir’s visa, and he was notified that it would not be renewed. But again, the bureaucratic and political process that has no understanding of the theatrics of human rights gave HRW control over the story. For the second time, and without interference, HRW was able to sell the image of Israel as suppressing legitimate NGO criticism to sympathetic media and diplomatic audiences. Shakir, with the support of the wider NGO network, became the symbol of human rights, victimized by dark right-wing antidemocratic forces. In this role, he was embraced by the EU Delegation in Tel Aviv, including a group selfie with Shakir that described HRW as a “globally renowned” human rights organization.
Shakir and HRW then used the Israeli courts as a stage, claiming that “neither HRW – nor Shakir as its representative – advocate boycott, divestment or sanctions against companies that operate in the settlements, Israel or Israelis (sic).” The Israeli High Court rejected a stay on deportation pending legal review of the case, but Shakir got another round of media interviews and sympathetic coverage. The appeal, which can be expected to repeat the process, will be conducted without his physical presence. HRW will no create a virtual stage for Shakir, as well as sending talented proxies.
In over a year of engagements and skirmishes across many stages, Shakir and HRW emerged with their images enhanced. The Israeli government, in contrast, bumbled through every act–first in the botched handling and then reversal of HRW’s initial visa application, and then by giving HRW the basis for stage managing the decision not to renew it. While government officials belatedly recognized that HRW and soft power warfare are serious threats, their one-dimensional strategies are still blind to the crucial theatrics.
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Podcast: The confidential informant who came in from the cold.
President Donald Trump has ordered his Department of Justice to investigate the claim advanced by his political allies that Barack Obama’s FBI introduced a “spy” into his campaign in 2016. The COMMENTARY Podcast explores this claim and lays out the timelines, which so often get confused. Who was talking to the Russians and why, and what do we know about how the FBI responded to those revelations? Give a listen and find out.
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