Sunday, October 31, 2010

Guaranteed in America

Why should the Netanyahu government place any faith in the incentives offered by President Barack Obama in return for an extension of the moratorium on settlement construction? So grumble some Israelis, pointing for added emphasis to Obama's refusal to honor an earlier, Bush-administration pledge to Ariel Sharon. For these Israelis, such backtracking is another indication that Obama has broken with precedent and is bent on significantly shifting longstanding American practice toward Israel.

But what if the president is only following longstanding practice? As it happens, principles enunciated by one American president have regularly been ignored or silently repudiated by his successor, and some presidential commitments have enjoyed an even shorter shelf life than the one to which disillusioned Israelis now point.
Take the issue of borders. "It is clear that a return to the situation of June 4, 1967, will not bring peace," President Lyndon B. Johnson affirmed in a statement shortly after the Six Day war. Yet when the Nixon administration came into office in January 1969, Secretary of State William Rogers sounded quite a different note, insisting that "any changes in the [pre-war] lines should not reflect the weight of [Israeli] conquest."

Or take Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's 1975 promise that the U.S. would not negotiate with the PLO so long as that organization did not recognize Israel's right to exist. Two years later, the Carter administration came into office keen to open a dialogue with the PLO, and almost immediately began doing so through intermediaries. In 1978, Carter recognized "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people" and authorized the PLO to operate an information office in Washington. His ambassador to Lebanon reportedly met with Yasir Arafat, and his representative to the UN was forced to resign after his own meetings with the PLO were publicly exposed.

Under the Reagan administration, secret contacts with the PLO continued unabated, while Secretary of State George Shultz initiated open meetings with members of the Palestine National Council (not, technically, PLO operatives). Ultimately, judging that Arafat had renounced terrorism and recognized Israel, the administration extended diplomatic recognition to the PLO.

A similar story can be told about presidential commitments opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state. The 1982 Reagan peace plan, issued on the heels of the PLO's expulsion from Beirut, reiterated Carter's earlier recognition of the "legitimate rights of the Palestinians" but pledged that the U.S. "will not support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza." When George H.W. Bush came into office, he reaffirmed the pledge but pressured Israel into attending the 1991 Madrid peace conference, an event that included Palestinian representatives widely understood to have been pre-approved by the PLO.

During the Clinton years, when Israel's Labor government itself opened negotiations with the PLO that would eventuate in the Oslo accords, the American administration naturally became a champion of Palestinian statehood (while pledging no contact with Hamas—another commitment that may soon go by the boards). Even when the PLO reneged on Oslo and resumed terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration, in its 2003 Road Map, reaffirmed America's new commitment to statehood—provided the Palestinians abandoned violence—and the president reiterated this commitment in 2005 despite the fact that Palestinian violence had not ceased.

This brings us back to the 2004 letter from Bush to Sharon. That letter, issued to support Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, acknowledged that Israel's final borders would have to be based on "new realities on the ground including already existing major Israeli population centers"—i.e., settlement blocs—in the West Bank. This "1967-plus" formula is what Obama now appears to be rejecting.

It may be that the old saying is right and that certain kinds of promises are made to be broken. But if so, the obvious lesson is only the need to keep that cautionary principle in mind when undertaking important strategic decisions hinging on presidential guarantees.

--- Oct. 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Europe is of two minds

A plot by Arab men holding European citizenship to carry out Mumbai-like shooting attacks in France, Germany and Britain has been uncovered by Western intelligence services. The United States has apparently thwarted the planned attacks with an intensified targeted killing campaign, using drone aircraft, of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida-backed terrorists along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

However, the danger posed by radicalized Muslims in Europe is hardly diminished. Dozens of German, Dutch, French and British Islamists are presently undergoing military training in Pakistan-Afghanistan hoping to replicate the bloodletting carried out by their predecessors including the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191; and the July 2005 attacks on London's transport system that took 56 lives. That subsequent attacks failed, among them the second try against London's transport system, car bombs that did not explode in London, the failure to blow up Glasgow's airport terminal, can be put down to chance. Numerous other plots were frustrated by security forces before they could be carried out.

The heightened state of alert, the long security lines at airports, the bomb-sniffing dogs at railroad stations have fostered an atmosphere of frustration and intimidation. The result? Forbearance for Islamist "values" is on decline. There is, for instance, widespread support across the political spectrum for banning the burka. A poll found that 74% of Spaniards agreed that a "clash of civilizations" was underway. In France, only 45% of respondents believed the country's Muslims were loyal. In the UK, a majority of people associated Islam with terrorism and the repression of women.

Notably, however, the popular -- and in some cases public policy -- rebuff of Islamist bullying has not carried over to European attitudes about the Palestinians. The Islamist crusade against Israel has somehow been inoculated from reproach in Europe on both the governmental and grass-roots level.

Whatever their qualms about Islamism and Arab extremism at home, Spain's socialist government and France's center-right government collaborate within the European Union on behalf of a Palestinian Authority that, partly on Islamic grounds, rejects Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Nicolas Sarkozy's opponents have labeled him as pro-Israel, yet one would be hard-pressed to say where his positions differ from those enunciated by Mahmoud Abbas. Over the summer, France symbolically upgraded its diplomatic recognition of the Palestinian delegation in Paris. Madrid and Paris have jointly spearheaded efforts for European Union recognition of Palestinian statehood regardless of the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the PA. The situation is little better in the UK where the new Conservative-led government has embraced the Foreign Office's customary chilly outlook toward Israel, demanding a complete lifting of the quarantine against Hamas-controlled Gaza and labeling housing construction anywhere over the Green Line "a major barrier" to peace.

There is also no discernible backlash of Western public opinion over Palestinian bellicosity. Take the latest polling conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research which garnered considerable coverage for its finding that most Palestinian Arabs oppose negotiations with Israel unless the settlement construction freeze is extended. Considerably less attention has been drawn to another aspect of the survey: A majority of Palestinians supported the recent murders of two Israeli men and two women -- one of whom was pregnant -- near Hebron notwithstanding the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that were getting under way.

Europeans may be on their way to rejecting the scurrilous "root causes" explanation which seeks to excuse violent behavior by their own Muslim extremists, but this thinking does not carry over in the case of Palestinian brutality against Israel. The reasons are undoubtedly manifold: Palestinian groups have lately tended to confine their aggression to universally detested "settlers;" the deplorable campaign of demonization and de-legitimization of Israel manifest in the European media apparently excuses even the most contemptible Palestinian behavior; and the misguided decoupling of the Palestinian issue from the overall Islamist agenda has further muddied the waters. Hamas, an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, gets a pass because the target of its violence is Israel.

Europe appears to be of two minds, showing growing intolerance of jihadi terrorization at home while urging Israel to accommodate Islamist intimidation in the Middle East. Old fashioned prejudice may be part of the explanation. Three-quarters of all Spaniards surveyed in 2009 exhibited classic anti-Semitic tendencies, and polls show large European majorities hold negative views of the Jewish state. Rather than treat Israel as the "Jew among nations," Europe would do better to appreciate that Israel's security is integral to the future of Western civilization.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Minutes of War

The October 6th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War was accompanied this year by the unexpected release of war cabinet minutes by Israel's State Archives covering the opening days of the fighting. There were no startling revelations; certainly no references to Israel's purported nuclear capabilities; or confirmation that defense minister Moshe Dayan told prime minister Golda Meir that "the Third Temple is in danger." Still, the publication of the protocols reopened old wounds and temporarily threw "start-up nation" Israel into an existential funk.

Though there have been countless war histories, memoires by key participants, and the official findings of the Agranat Commission -- which blamed David Elazar, the country's top general, for allowing the army to be taken by surprise -- the cabinet transcripts provided a fresh sense of immediacy. Here was Meir worrying aloud that the dangers Israel faced were even greater than those it confronted during the 1948 War of Independence. The publicly unflappable Moshe Dayan is in despair telling the cabinet that the war was being lost; that Syria and Egypt could conquer Israel; that Jordan would likely open-up a third front. "I didn't sufficiently appreciate the strength of the enemy" and overestimated the IDF's ability to cope with this kind of attack, he admits. The Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles are taking a devastating toll on the air force. There is talk of calling up older high-school students, long-retired reservists, even enlisting Diaspora Jews. Meir offers to travel secretly to Washington where she would throw herself at Richard Nixon's mercy.

The released minutes created a hue and cry even though the peril Israel faced during those dark days is no secret. Elazar partisans press again for his full public rehabilitation; after all, the minutes show him cool-headed, wisely urging -- against Dayan's recommendation -- a full IDF mobilization. Some columnists take Dayan to task for his willingness to abandon wounded soldiers to their fate after Egyptian forces overran the Bar-Lev Line fortifications. His daughter Yael tells Israel Radio that her late father had written openly of his regrets in his memoirs.

Post-Zionists relish the harm done to Dayan's image -- another Zionist icon punctured. For Israel's left, the message of the minutes is about the limitations of Israeli military power. The current cabinet is urged to pursue compromise over political stagnation and more war. Security hawks draw other lessons. By the morning of October 6, 1973 Israel had compelling, albeit imperfect, intelligence to recommend a preemptive attack. Meir worried that if Israel struck first, the international community would blame the Jews for the war: “The world’s nastiness is plain to see. They won’t believe us."

The protocols strike a chord with Israelis who know that for all their country's technological prowess and despite its Western standard of living, the existential dangers the Jewish state faced 37 years ago are no less real today. Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons and unequivocal about its genocidal intentions toward the Zionist enterprise. Hezbollah has transformed Lebanon into an Iranian satellite. Syria, aligned with Iran, is a constant menace. Hamas controlled Gaza is also in Iran's orbit. Meantime, even moderate Palestinian Arabs reject the mantra: "Two states, one Jewish, one Arab, living side-by-side in peace."

Israelis know, too, that an all-out war nowadays, when missiles pose a near-insurmountable danger, could devastate Israel's civilian population concentrated along the country's narrow coastal plain. Fortunately, a combination of determination and healthy denial provides ordinary Israelis with the coping mechanism necessary to go about their daily lives.

The minutes inform contemporary decision makers that intelligence about enemy intentions especially in wartime is imperfect. Fortunately, the Syrians and Egyptians hadn't grasped the extent of Israel's unpreparedness and did not press their advantage. Perhaps their goals were limited in the first place. In any event, the minutes challenge the notion that the diplomatic fallout of a preemptive attack makes it smart policy to absorb the first blow. If that were the case, UN Security Council Resolution 338, which ended the war, would have given Israel credit for waiting to be attacked and suffering 2,656 dead and 7,000 wounded.

Israel's current top general, Gabi Ashkenazi, writes that the nation has taken on board the main lesson of the Yom Kippur War: never to underestimate any enemy and never to allow intelligence to lead to false certainties.

-- October 2010

Monday, October 04, 2010

The unlovable Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman's September 28th speech at the UN General Assembly – delivered in English and broadcast live by Al-Jazeera – was not well received. The doyen of Israeli left-wing columnists, Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea, dismissed his country's foreign minister as a "clown." Haaretz editorialized for Lieberman's resignation. Britain's Daily Telegraph characterized the address as "inflammatory.”

And dismissing Lieberman as "a West Bank settler" not "committed to peacemaking," the Los Angeles Times editorialized that Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin would never have allowed a foreign minister of theirs to articulate views that contradicted government policy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must either be duplicitous, in implying Lieberman's address did not have his backing, or politically enfeebled, the newspaper adjudged.

There is no disputing the fact that the speech was "off-message" -- differing from the accommodationist tone Netanyahu has set – and delivered by a reviled envoy. What is debatable is whether Lieberman's unhelpful address deserved the opprobrium heaped upon it; and whether the claim that foreign ministers loyally adhere to the political line set by their premiers is factual.

First to the substance of Lieberman's speech which began by stating the obvious: Israel's political arena is not divided between those who want peace and those who prefer a Greater Israel. Instead, Israel's majority is divided over how to secure peace. The Arabs controlled the West Bank and Gaza for nearly two decades and "no-one tried to create a Palestinian state," Lieberman pointed out. Yet, later, settlements notwithstanding, "peace agreements were achieved with Egypt and Jordan." There being no trust between Israelis and Palestinians and with policy differences as knotty as they are, Lieberman recommended that the parties aim for "a long-term intermediate agreement" rather than an absolute resolution of the conflict in a matter of months.

More controversially, he argued that "the guiding principle for a final status agreement must not be land-for-peace but rather [an] exchange of populated territory." Conflicts elsewhere, he stated, which had involved competing national and religious narratives -- post-communist Czechoslovakia and of East Timor, for instance – had been eased by redrawing boundaries. "Let me be very clear," Lieberman said, "I am not speaking about moving populations, but rather about moving borders to better reflect demographic realities."

Lieberman's plan may be geographically unworkable, as veteran Israeli journalist Yaron London has convincingly argued. Few imagine it will ever garner Palestinian approval. Yet on a purely moral plane, it would be hard to argue an exchange of populated territory is inherently a more nefarious idea than advocating a complete Israeli withdrawal to the hard-to-defend armistice lines in effect between 1949 and 1967 – Abba Eban's "Auschwitz borders."

Lieberman's decision to present his scheme at the General Assembly highlights a structural anomaly in Israel's political system. The job of foreign minister is a patronage appointment. Prime ministers usually have to tap rivals from within their own party or from among requisite coalition partners. As a result, foreign ministers seldom see themselves as loyal-bound to a premier. Moshe Sharett vehemently disapproved of David Ben-Gurion's security policies. Moshe Dayan represented Menachem Begin only to the extent that their views coincided. Shimon Peres offered territorial concessions to the Palestinians without first clearing them with Yitzhak Rabin. Tzipi Livni sessions with Ahmed Qurei were a sideshow to Ehud Olmert's bargaining with Mahmoud Abbas. Silvan Shalom was hardly Ariel Sharon's vicar of foreign policy any more than David Levy or Shimon Peres were for Yitzhak Shamir. Thankfully, during the crisis years of the second intifada, Sharon and Peres worked mostly in tandem because they agreed on the overriding need to quash Palestinian aggression.

It was therefore not all that odd for Netanyahu's office to distance itself from Lieberman's speech, to state that the foreign minister had not coordinated his address with the premier, and to recall that Netanyahu – not Lieberman – is actually heading negotiations with the Palestinians. Some will seek Machiavellian explanations for the speech and the premier's response to it, perhaps giving the two more credit, as politicians and statesmen, than they deserve.

What would it take for Israeli foreign policy-makers to speak with one voice?

Nothing short of jettisoning Israel's electoral system of pure proportional representation, and empowering premier's to dismiss wayward cabinet ministers without grievous political cost. Plainly, it is easier to lash out at the unlovable Avigdor Lieberman than muster the integrity and energy necessary to fix what is really wrong.

-- October 2010

Introducing Ed Miliband

The newly elected leader of the British Labor Party, 40-year-old Ed Miliband, pledged during his campaign to visit Gaza, the West Bank and Israel to see first-hand "what is happening on the ground." But Labor's first Jewish leader is expected to make Britain's budget and debt burden – not foreign affairs – his top priority. Though union support gave Ed Miliband his narrow margin of victory over brother David, he has moved quickly to jettison his "Red Ed" moniker.

What to make of Miliband's Jewishness? He makes no effort to deny his origins; neither is there any sentimentality for Jewish civilization. His parents fled Europe as Jews but raised their children to embrace exclusively "progressive" values. His Polish-born mother is an ardent pro-Palestinian activist. His late Belgian-born father was said to have evinced early Zionist sympathies before becoming permanently enamored with Marxism.

Plainly, Miliband will be no particular asset to Britain's 262,000-plus Jewish community. Likewise, his frosty attitude toward the Jewish state is not likely to undergo metamorphosis. He has described himself as a “critical friend of Israel” who opposes "blanket boycotts of goods from Israel." As a Euro-liberal he acknowledges Israel's right to self-defense purely in the abstract. For Miliband, even Israel's "right to exist" is implicitly conditioned on its ability to deliver "justice for the Palestinians." No wonder that party hard-liners fixated by the Palestinian Arab cause gravitated to his campaign.

Miliband takes the helm of a party that has always been of two minds about Zionism and Jews, its early association with the urban Jewish working classes notwithstanding. Nowadays, demographic and class shifts – there are fewer Jewish cabbies and more Jewish lawyers – have left Jews without influence in unions and their political loyalties mostly split between Labor and the Tories.

Founded in 1900, Labor began as an amalgamation of the Fabian Society, trade unions and a precursor socialist party. This did not automatically translate into tolerant attitudes toward Jews. The unions, for instance, supported passage of the 1905 Aliens Act aimed at restricting Jewish immigration from Czarist Russia. In 1911, trade unionists carried out a pogrom in Wales that forced out local Jewish merchants. On the other hand, in 1917, Labor warmly championed Jewish settlement in Palestine. And in 1922, Labor sent its first Jewish member, union leader Manny Shinwell, to parliament.

In the dark days before World War II, Labor only grudgingly accepted the necessity of rearmament against Nazi Germany. In opposition in 1944, Labor's platform was friendly toward Zionist aspirations; and in 1945 the party was calling for an end to Britain's heartless barring of Jewish immigration to Palestine.

All that changed within months of Labor's sweeping post-war election victory as foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, a former labor organizer with strong anti-Jewish prejudices, totally embraced the Arab line. The party remained hostile toward the Zionist enterprise until end of mandate and beyond. Paradoxically, this same Labor electoral victory sent an astounding 26 Jews to parliament. But as Prof. Geoffrey Alderman makes clear, not only did they not form a Jewish caucus, only six could be cajoled to venture the slightest public opposition to Bevin's catastrophic Palestine policies.

After Israel's War of Independence, the Labor government petulantly withheld diplomatic recognition until February 1949. Similarly, in 1956, Labor's Jewish MPs, then in opposition, refused to break ranks with party leader Hugh Gaitskell over his nasty criticism of Israel during the Sinai Campaign.

By the 1960s Labor's hard-left factions were on the ascendant. Yet even moderate prime minister Harold Wilson was cold to Israel's entreaties in the lead up to 1967 war. After Labor's 1979 defeat by Margaret Thatcher, the party only barely adjusted its leftward drift replacing Michael Foot with Neil Kinnock. The moderates regained control over the party when Tony Blair led "New Labor" to power in 1997. During Blair's long reign hostility toward Israel – and oftentimes obliquely toward Jews -- by Labor's supporters in the media, unions and academia became viral. Though Blair incessantly lobbied Washington to extract strategically costly diplomatic concessions from Israel during the second intifada, his continuing opposition to the Jewish state's de-legitimization tarred him as a philo-Zionist among leftists.

That era ended in May when Conservative David Cameron defeated Blair's successor Gordon Brown. Now, Miliband's victory makes it official: New Labor is finished.
Miliband is a radical optimist with a pragmatic streak. The new leader's hardheaded assessment may be that Israel-bashing provides few political benefits against an incumbent premier whose lack of empathy for the Zionist enterprise parallels his own.

-- September 2010

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