Over the weekend, I had a couple of revelations. One was that I really need to find a cheaper booze habit than Scotch. The other is that the US administration is heading towards a crossroads with regard to our Middle East policies.
If you pay attention to the high-stakes tomfoolery that is international diplomacy, you may have heard about the supposed “humiliation” suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the hands of notorious meanie-pants Barack Obama.
Here’s some backstory. The White House is irritated by Israel’s recent announcement of planned expansion of Jewish settlements into East Jerusalem. The timing was pretty horrible — Vice President Joe Biden, a staunch ally of Israel, was in the middle of a visit, and US envoy George Mitchell was about to facilitate indirect talks between Palestinian and Israeli leadership. The London Times:
After failing to extract a written promise of concessions on settlements, Mr Obama walked out of his meeting with Mr Netanyahu but invited him to stay at the White House, consult with advisers and “let me know if there is anything new”, a US congressman, who spoke to the Prime Minister, said.
“It was awful,” the congressman said. One Israeli newspaper called the meeting “a hazing in stages”, poisoned by such mistrust that the Israeli delegation eventually left rather than risk being eavesdropped on a White House telephone line. Another said that the Prime Minister had received “the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea.”
Sources said that Mr Netanyahu failed to impress Mr Obama with a flow chart purporting to show that he was not responsible for the timing of announcements of new settlement projects in east Jerusalem.
I’m sorry, Mr. President, but how can you not be impressed by flow charts?
Netanyahu is in something of a pickle at home. His hard-right Likud party is the majority coalition, and they don’t seem at all interested in negotiations. If you believe this piece in the New Yorker, Likud is starting to sound a lot like the American’s Tea Party, at least in terms of how they view Obama:
Polls and conversations with right-leaning Israelis have long reflected a distrust of Obama and a free-floating anxiety about what they imagine to be his view of the world—specifically, his indifference to Israel. At the margins, and sometimes within them, one even hears the familiar aspersions about the President’s middle name, his childhood interlude in Indonesia, and his marination in a South Side milieu supposedly composed of incendiary preachers, black nationalists, fading Weathermen, and (Oy! Vey ist mir!) Palestinian intellectuals.
Yet many in the US see Obama as having always had a special relationship with Jews:
As a rising politician with Ivy League connections, Obama had financial backing from all over, including from a class of young black entrepreneurs. But he has had Jewish mentors throughout his career. Philanthropists like Bettylu Saltzman, Penny Pritzker, and Lester Crown were crucial to his campaigns. His friend and neighbor the late Arnold Jacob Wolf was a rabbi. Michelle Obama’s cousin Capers C. Funnye, Jr., is the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis and the spiritual leader of Beth Shalom, a congregation on the South Side. One of Obama’s closest colleagues in Springfield was Ira Silverstein, an Orthodox Jew, with whom he shared an office suite in the Capitol building; Obama acted as Silverstein’s shabbos goy, turning on lights and pushing elevator buttons for him on Saturdays.
Obama’s Jewish friends and supporters report that they were convinced of his ease among Jews and of his advocacy for a two-state solution, with an emphasis on justice for the Palestinians and on real security for the Israelis. Obama also listened carefully to the arguments of Palestinian friends, such as the historian Rashid Khalidi. And why not? Obama told fund-raising audiences that it was entirely possible to support Israel, even passionately, without endorsing the platform of Likud and the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. One of his mentors in Chicago, Abner Mikva, a former congressman, federal judge, and counsel to Bill Clinton, jokingly told the Chicago Jewish News during the campaign, “I think when this is all over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.”
Netanyahu has to understand that he can’t stand in defiance of the US forever — we give Israel not only arms, but also international legitimacy. The country’s policies aren’t always popular with the rest of the world, but America’s “special relationship” with Israel guarantees a lot of political (and military) cover. And, were he to do the math, Netanyahu would see clearly that demographic shifts in the region will severely impact the future viability of Israel in the abscence of a negotiated Palestinian state. So it’s in his best interest to come to the table. Except that the hard-liners in his party won’t let him.
Which leads me to my prediction.
You may also have heard that Iran is in flagrant noncompliance with their nuclear program. Western intelligence agencies and international inspectors now believe that the country is pursuing new sites, which makes the Israeli stance that much more hawkish. But it also may represent an opportunity to jumpstart direct negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
Look at it like this: Israel wants nothing more than to launch an attack to knock out suspected Iranian nuclear facilities. The US hasn’t been too keen on that, as we see it as potentially destabilizing to our security efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s nothing like an attack on an Muslim nation — even one as mistrusted as Iran — to inflame anti-Western sentiment on the Arab street. Even a so-called “surgical” airstrike would give Al Queda a rallying point, potentially upset the balance in Saudi Arabia and put Europe on high alert.
Still, it’s not hard to imagine a backroom quid pro quo deal going down between the American and Israeli administrations. We’d simply stand down when Netanyahu authorized a strike. On the international stage, we’d defer to Israel’s “sovereign right to protect her security.” This would be in exchange for participation in a new “road map” for a Palestinian state, with a far more aggressive timeframe than that suggested by the previous administration. It would also give Netanyahu political cover with the Likud hardliners, who won’t be able to say he’s not aggressively safeguarding Israel from perceived external threats.
Win-win, right? Not so fast.
This maneuver will not, and I repeat, WILL NOT solve our Iran problem. If anything, a strike will play right into the theocracy’s hands — Ahmadinejad and the mullahs have a very precarious grip on authority, and an attack would only help them consolidate their power in the name of national security. Even the segment of the Iranian public that hates the current leadership would rally behind it if attacked by Israel. And keep in mind that Israeli airstrikes would likely only delay a nuclear Iran, not prevent it.
So if we choose this carrot with Israel, we must be prepared for a short-to-medium term regional flare-up. This could complicate our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and finally get the hell out of Iraq. Yet if we manage to accelerate the peace process between Israel and Palestine and have the structures in place to achieve a Palestinian state by, say, 2015, it could be worth it in the long run. Iran will continue marginalize itself with or without nukes, and we simply do not have the capacity to attempt regime change by force. So we have to live with that. On the other hand, we’d be dealing Al Queda a major PR blow by cutting through their bullshit Palestine propaganda.
Has the White House gamed this out? The status quo is untenable, and Israeli-Palestinian peace is an even shinier trophy for Obama than health care reform. How aggressively will the US pursue it? What concessions are we willing to make?
What do YOU think of the likelihood of what I’ve just described playing out in the really real world?