Earlier posts have criticized President Obama for his minimalist foreign policy vision (here and here) and lack of leadership skills. But it’s also worth noting that some of his multiplying problems overseas have to do with his aloof personality and inability to forge strong personal relationships with international counterparts.
Tag Archives | Israel-U.S. Relations
As Hamas continues firing rockets (and allowing other groups to fire rockets) at Israel from Gaza, and Israel responds with airstrikes, people are beginning to wonder how this round of fighting will end. During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, a ceasefire was brokered with U.S. and Egyptian intervention – and we can debate all day about how much Mohamed Morsi himself had to do with that, although my sense is that his role was overstated – but this time around such intervention does not seem to be coming.
Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website).
Charles Dudley Warner’s oft-quoted suggestion that “politics makes strange bedfellows” is never better illustrated than the prospect of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Stimulated by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) rapid military advances in Iraq, both sides find themselves on the same side – albeit for vastly different reasons.
Perhaps the most perplexing element of the ongoing (and going and going…) Israeli and Palestinian conflict is that nearly every effort to bring resolution is met with the same stubborn fate of failure, despite changes in players, interests, contexts and environments over the last 60 years.
As this latest attempt ends with more of a whimper than a bang, it is worth asking, was this conclusion forgone from the beginning? Is another outcome ever possible? We suggest that the best way to answer this is to examine the three primary parties involved in the newly ended talks and we contend that the reason for the failure – and perhaps another year’s success – lies less with lines on a map and more with perceptions of strategic reality.
The Israeli Story
We can begin the discussion with Israel, a state increasingly internally divided about the role citizens should play in the future of the state. Right now, of course, Israel is led by Likud Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu – a man who has traditionally favored a hawkish and conservative approach to the so-called peace process, and who has more recently been a vocal supporter of a two state solution. However, Netanyahu is increasingly at the mercy of the ideologically opposed but strategically aligned Jewish Home and Yesh Atid parties whose continued support determines the sustainability of Netanyahu’s governing coalition. The Jewish Home and Yesh Atid fundamentally disagree about what role Israel should play in the peace talks.
Poor John Kerry. This week he emitted a sound that was more expressive than pages of diplomatic babble. In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations committee he explained how the actions of the Israeli government had torpedoed the “peace process.” They broke their obligation to release Palestinian prisoners, and at the same time announced the enlargement of more settlements in East Jerusalem. The peace efforts went “poof.”
As the US-imposed April 29 deadline for a ‘framework’ agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority looms, time is also running out for the Obama administration itself. The Obama administration must now conjure up an escape route to avoid a political crisis if the talks are to fail, as they surely will.
Chances are the Americans knew well that peace under the current circumstances is simply not attainable. The Israeli government’s coalition is so adamantly anti-Arab, anti-peace and anti any kind of agreement that would fall short from endorsing the Israeli apartheid-like occupation, predicated on colonial expansion, annexations of borders, land confiscation, control of holy places and much more. Ideally for Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies in the right, far-right and ultranationalists, Palestinians would need to be crammed in disjointed communities, separated from each other by walls, Jewish settlements, Jewish-only bypass roads, checkpoints, security fences, and a large concentration of Israeli military presence including permanent Israeli control of the Jordan Valley. In fact, while politicians tirelessly speak of peace, the above is the exact ‘vision’ that the Israelis had in mind almost immediately following the 1967 war - the final conquest of all of historic Palestine and occupation of Arab lands.
Palestinians are currently paying the price of earlier Israeli visions, where Vladimir Jabotinsky’s ‘Iron Wall’ of 1923 was coupled with the Allon plan, named after Yigal Allon, a former general and minister in the Israeli government, who took on the task of drawing an Israeli design for the newly conquered Palestinian territories in 67. Not only would it not make any sense for a Zionist leader like Netanyahu - backed by one of the most rightwing governments in Israeli history - to bargain with Palestinians on what he considers to be Eretz Yisrael - the Whole Land of Israel -he has shown no desire, not even the most miniscule, to reach an agreement that would provide Palestinians with any of their rightful demands, true sovereignty notwithstanding.
Almost one year after Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to patch up relations with Turkey with his phone call apology to Tayyip Erdoğan as Barack Obama stood by looking over his shoulder, Turkey is again talking about normalizing relations with its former ally.
In the eleven months since the apology, Turkey and Israel have been negotiating over the terms of an agreement, with precisely how much compensation must be paid to the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara the major sticking point. Turkey has seemed in no rush to get a deal done, and at various times has made noise about Israel having to admit fault or to pay more money than Israel is prepared to do. And of course, Erdoğan and others have wasted no opportunity to bash Israel whenever convenient, either directly such as blaming Israel for the Egyptian military coup, or indirectly in referring to “dark forces” and “foreign powers” seeking to bring Turkey down. Formal negotiations may be taking place, but Israel and Turkey haven’t seemed terribly close to actually burying the hatchet.
Last month, however, news leaked that Turkish and Israeli negotiating teams were getting close to a final deal over compensation, and last week Ahmet Davutoğlu publicly confirmed that an agreement to normalize ties was in the works. As usual when it comes to this subject, I have been skeptical that this will actually happen, which is why I have resisted the impulse to write about it. Right on cue, two days after Davutoğlu made his announcement, Erdoğan came out and said that normalization won’t happen until Israel agrees in writing to completely end the blockade of Gaza. Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said yesterday that Israel is ready to sign an agreement but that Erdoğan himself is the stumbling block holding up a deal.
In light of Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and the spate of political bombings in Lebanon, contradictory objectives for US policy in Lebanon are reducing the stability of an already volatile region.
Swinging from support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), to concern for Israeli security, to fear of Hezbollah, to worries over the Syrian refugee crisis, US foreign policy has rarely been more schizophrenic. “A comprehensive review of the Lebanese military aid program, along with acknowledgement of the fundamental inability of the LAF to uproot Hezbollah due to sectarian divisions, is necessary to restore consistency to the US-Lebanon relationship,” confirmed former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer in an interview for this article.
The US has in the past been the most influential consistent donor to Lebanon though a number of other nations provide it military aid such as Saudi Arabia, which recently announced an unprecedented $3 billion aid package. Aid to Lebanon is carefully balanced; too little and Hezbollah can reign freely in the southern border area adjacent to Israel, too much and Israel becomes concerned that the LAF itself will pose a threat. If Saudi aid is indeed provided to the LAF, it may tip the balance the US has been trying to maintain.
What’s wrong about the demand that the Palestinian leadership recognize Israel as the “nation state of the Jewish people”?
Well, practically everything. States recognize each other. They don’t have to recognize each other’s ideological character. A state is a reality. Ideologies belong to the abstract realm. When the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, it recognized the state. It did not recognize its communist nature. When the PLO recognized the State of Israel in the Oslo agreement, and in the exchange of letters preceding it, it was not asked to recognize its Zionist ideology. When Israel in return recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people, it did not recognize any particular Palestinian ideology, secular or religious. Some Israelis (including myself) would like to change the self-definition of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state,” omitting the word “Jewish.” Some other Israelis would like to omit or demote the word “democratic.” Neither of us believe that we need the confirmation of the Palestinians for this. It’s just none of their business.
I don’t know what the real intention of Netanyahu is when he presents this demand as an ultimatum. The most flattering explanation for his ego is that it is just another trick to sabotage the “peace process” before it reaches the demand to evacuate the Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. The less flattering explanation is that he really believes in it, that he is driven by some deeply rooted national inferiority complex that needs outside assurance of “legitimacy.” Recognizing the “National State of the Jewish People” means accepting the entire Zionist narrative, lock, stock and barrel, starting from the divine promise to Abraham to this very day.
Saudi Arabian interest in the Middle East is primarily focused on Iran.
Saudi leadership has stated that the Gulf Cooperation Council may acquire a nuclear deterrent should Iran acquire one. They are suggesting, however, a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) as a way to pressure Iran and also Israel to give up nuclear weapons and rely on the umbrella security provided by the permanent members of the UN Security Council, despite their reservations over the Council’s treatment of the Palestinians. The U.S. deal with Iran will shape the Iranian nuclear narrative, but if things start to fall apart, Saudi Arabia may press forward quickly to acquire a GCC bomb.
Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it will provide Lebanon with $3 billion dollars in military aid to support the Lebanese Armed Forces should not be seen as a surprise, given that it is intended to counter Iranian influence in the region. What is more significant is how it serves to emphasize the current and developing fissure between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi leadership’s willingness to adopt an independent approach to regional relations. Saudi Arabia has been vocal about its view of America’s inadequacy in dealing with Iran and Syria and is now implementing its own plan.
Since assuming power in 2002, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to position Turkey as a leading Middle Eastern power, prompting some analysts to allege ‘neo-Ottoman’ ambitions.
The ‘Turkish model’ of modernism and moderation has been hailed across the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) as a model to be emulated, and was enhanced by the Arab Awakening. Prior to the AKP assuming power, Ankara and Jerusalem had a unique military alliance, based on their shared security interests. However, since 2008, Ankara has regularly spouted anti-Israel rhetoric – which contributed to the AKP’s ‘street cred’ across the Arab world – while at the same time continuing some aspects of its military cooperation with Jerusalem.
The two states’ shared economic and security interests have created an unusual dynamic that permits both to extend an open hand, as well as a clenched fist. While that bilateral relationship was severely strained — and even at times hostile — as a result of the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, it has recommenced following Israel’s apology earlier this year for the Turkish loss of life. Yet Turkey has moved at a snail’s pace on the path to restoring full diplomatic relations, raising questions about Ankara’s sincerity about normalizing diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.
As US-Iran rapprochement inches toward at least partial consummation in Geneva, I wish to offer a few observations. The Iran nuclear weapons threat has always been a McGuffin, an excuse for various powers to advance an anti-Iran agenda.
Chief among the usual suspects is, of course, Israel under PM Netanyahu. If the Israeli government is able to spin Iran as a nuclear (almost) capable existential threat to Israel, then Israel can make an absolute claim on US sympathy, support, and protection. If Iran returns to good relations with the United States, the US will arguably become less willing to bear the sizable political, diplomatic, and economic cost of deferring to Israel’s priorities—on the Palestinian question, on regional security, and its obstinate refusal to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal and integrate it into the international arms control regime.
The other regional power most interested in thumping the Iran-threat drum is Saudi Arabia. However, I would argue that the high-profile anti-Iran stance of the Kingdom (probably symbolized but not necessarily created by the notorious Prince Bandar) has little to do with the threat of “Iran hegemonism” (a canard frequently retailed in the big-name press) and a lot to do with Saudi Arabia’s decision to go pro-active against the popular democratic agitation expressed by the Arab Spring uprisings by supporting conservative Sunni theology and governance, not just in Shi’ite inflected countries like Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, but also in nations like Libya (where Saudi Arabia and its creature, the Gulf Co-Operation Council were the primary motive force in demanding intervention against Gaddafi) and Egypt.
The latest news coming out of Israel has revealed that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has proposed “toppling” President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority should Palestine’s bid for UN non-member observer status be approved when it is put to the General Assembly on November 29th. Palestine is seeking non-member status with the United Nations as a step towards creating an independent Palestinian state, adhering to the pre-1967 Six Day War boundaries. This proposed area would include the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem—which would also serve as its capital.
Abbas and the Palestinian Authority began to seek recognition as a full member state last fall. However, this failed, due to a lack of support in the Security Council, mainly at the behest of the United States, as it threatened to block any admission of Palestine with their permanent member veto power. This has pushed Abbas to seek a downgraded status as a non-member observer. Last October, Palestine managed to obtain the necessary votes to join UNESCO—the cultural arm of the United Nations. This move led to an immediate punishment by the Israeli government in the form of accelerated illegal settlement construction and withholding tax revenues. The U.S. also withheld funding from UNESCO as part of a legal requirement regarding recognition of the state of Palestine.
Recently, President Barack Obama phoned President Abbas upon winning reelection and urged him to defer the application to the UN. This request was rebuffed by the PA citing that it had been offered zero incentives or concessions to encourage the move. This is just the next level of drama in the seemingly endless and fruitless negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Since the 1993 Oslo Accord promised a resolution to this matter, next to nothing has been accomplished over the last two decades that showcase the promise of a settlement any time soon.
US elections are manifestly linked to the Middle East, at least rhetorically.
In practical terms, however, US foreign policies in the region are compelled by the Middle East’s own dynamics and the US’ own political climate, economic woes, or ambitions. There is little historic evidence that US foreign policy in the Arab world has been guided by moral compulsion. When it comes to the Middle East – and much of the world - it is mostly about style. The country’s two leading political parties have proven equally to be interventionists. In the last two decades Democrats seemed to lean more towards unilateralism in foreign policy as in war, while Republicans, as highlighted by the administration of George W. Bush, are much less worried about the mere definitions of their conducts.
The US administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) maintained a draconian siege on Iraq that caused what former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark described as ‘genocide.’ Two years later, W. Bush chose the direct war path, which simply rebranded the ongoing ‘genocide’. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis died. Despite the warrior-like saber-rattling by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney about his intentions to transform the Middle East to suit US interests shall he be elected, few would take that as more than despairing attempts at reaching out to the most zealous members and groups of his party, especially those who wield political influence, media access and, of course, funds. The pro-Israeli gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson is referenced more than others, but there are many others who demand such satisfactory rhetoric before reaching out for their checkbooks.