Obama’s Speech in Jerusalem 21/03/13
WOW!!! Obama could certainly sell refrigerators to the Innuit. Facing a tough and justly cynical audience of young Israelis, Israelis who serve in the army, postponed their lives and careers, and live in the nastiest neighbourhood in the world in which every calumny possible is thrown against them, Israelis who themselves have increasingly given up hope and persuaded themselves to ignore or even hate Palestinians, he sold them on hope. He sold them on the possibility of peace. He sold them on the idea that it is their task, not just the government’s, to begin the true and the hardest struggle – the struggle to make peace.
How did one speech achieve so much? How is it that this one speech will go down in history as one of the great pieces of oratory? There was no soaring language. There were very few sonorous phrases that would echo and re-echo in your brain. There was none of the historic rhythmic black cadences that Martin Luther King used so brilliantly in his speeches. It was the structure of the speech and its comprehensiveness in a very tight format. It was the direct appeal to the hearts, the minds and, most of all, to the great courage and guts of Israelis – particularly Israeli youth.
I have attached the speech if you have not already read or heard it. When you read it, you want to stand up at certain points and applaud even though you are just reading the speech. It is a speech that gets you up off your ass.
First of all, whether or not it ever had any validity, Barack Obama put to rest, as he had tried to do in the previous 36 hours, the image of himself and Benjamin Netanyahu as not only not at loggerheads, as not being linked by icicles. He did it, not only by calling the Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi, but with humour: "just so you know, any drama between me and my friend Bibi over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet." At the same time, he showed that he knew the most popular satirical news show on Israeli television.
He did it by personally and institutionally identifying with the Jewish people. Not only had he introduced seders into the White House, but the story of Jewish wandering, Jewish homelessness, Jewish perseverance, Jewish religious faith, indeed, even the history of Jewish persecution, was his personal story even though he was not a Jew. It was the story with which he identified and that inspired him. "For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home."
As he said, however, the Zionist dream did not end with getting to the promised land, with getting a state of their own for the Jewish people. That was just a new beginning: "the work goes on – for justice and dignity; for opportunity and freedom." Barack Obama did not just say that the statement that Zionism is racism or that Zionism is apartheid. Barack Obama in effect said: I am a Zionist, just as John Kennedy had once said, I am a Berliner. "The Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea – to be a free people in your homeland." Israel is the realization of national self-determination for the Jewish people. "Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own."
The second part of the speech dwelt on Israel as the start-up nation par excellence. Israel is a country of innovators, of Nobel prize winners, a thriving democracy where referring to lively public debate is an understatement. And all this has been accomplished in the midst of intense hostility and physical insecurity. He then told a big white lie. Through it all, the United States of America has shared an unbreakable bond of friendship with Israel. In the context, it was totally understandable and forgivable.
America shares interests with Israel, shares $40 billion dollars annually in trade, shares a commitment to the security and stability of the Middle East, shares a belief in economic growth and the expansion of trade around the world, shares a belief in a strong middle class, shares a faith in democracy. But international realism is not all both nations have in common. Both are countries of immigration representing the ingathering of people from around the world. Both are countries enriched by faith. Both are countries made strong by a belief in the rule of law. Both are countries fueled by innovation and entrepreneurship. After he established his deep personal identification with Israel and America`s shared interests and values with Israel, Obama moved into the third and tough part of his speech – the issues of establishing security, peace and prosperity in the Middle East.
He began with security as he had adumbrated in his speeches over the last months when addressing the Issue of Israel. Security was basic – not simply in general but for the child in Sderot. Security requires an Iron Dome. Security requires a strong defence force. But these are not sufficient. These will not protect Israelis boarding a tour bus in Bulgaria. The only real protection is when the people in the region – specifically in reference to Syria – can live in states in which the leadership is responsive and responds to the needs and desire of its people while protecting all communities within and making peace with countries beyond those borders.
Obama brought up Iran, and without underlining any differences with Netanyahu over red lines, reaffirmed that America was committed to Iran not acquiring nuclear weapons. While giving diplomacy a chance, "America will do what it must to prevent a nuclear armed Iran." Then he delivered the lines that must have received the longest and loudest standing ovation. "Make no mistake: those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere. Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd."
You are not alone. I am with you. America is with you. Further, you are even justified in being sceptical about the prospects of peace. But I, Barack Obama, am not going to take the easy way out and express solidarity in the abstract without working to assure that security in the best way possible, through peace.
So Obama came to the fourth and greatest section of his speech – his arguments to say that peace was necessary, peace was just and peace was possible with the Palestinians.
1. First, peace is necessary. Indeed, it is the only path to true security. You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.
2. Second, peace is just. Though security must be at the center of any agreement, the only path to peace is through negotiation. The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
3. Third, peace is possible. Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state, and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable– that real borders will have to be drawn. But only you can make that dream possible. That is where peace begins – not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people; not just in a carefully designed process, but in the daily connections that take place among those who live together in this land, and in this sacred city of Jerusalem. Speaking as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see. Your hopes must light the way forward.
There will be many voices that say this change is not possible. But remember this: Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world. Israel has the wisdom to see the world as it is, but also the courage to see the world as it should be. Ben Gurion once said, "In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles." Sometimes, the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. After all, that is a lesson that the world learned from the Jewish people.
We bear that history on our shoulders, and we carry it in our hearts. Today, as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, you – the young people of Israel – must now claim the future. It falls to you to write the next chapter in the story of this great nation.
As a man who has been inspired in my own life by that timeless calling within the Jewish experience – tikkun olam – I am hopeful that we can draw upon what’s best in ourselves to meet the challenges that will come; to win the battles for peace in the wake of so much war; and to do the work of repairing this world. May God bless you, and may God bless Israel and the United States of America. Toda raba.
I believe that great words well said can change the course of history.
Tags: Obama, Israel, peace process, Zionism.
I hope you have seen the Gatekeepers. It is a terrific film. My take on it is both attached and below. On this one I would love feedback.
The Gatekeepers 17.03.13
Yesterday evening, my wife, I and a friend went to see the Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers. It had been nominated for an academy award for best documentary and had won the National Society of Film Critic’s award for best nonfiction film and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for best Documentary Film. I had eagerly been awaiting its release since I missed it when the movie played at the Toronto Film Festival. It has been in the theatres for over two weeks, but illness has meant no movie going this March until yesterday evening. All three of us were mesmerized by this gripping and disturbing film, but we had very different responses to this documentary that intertwines historical footage of events since the Six Day War with extracts from interviews with the six heads of Shin Bet who served between 1980 and 2011. Shin Bet is colloquially known in Israel as Shabak, the domestic intelligence agency of Israel.
Our friend was both proud that Israel was such a strong democracy that the six heads Shin Bet would feel free to talk about their experiences and reflections. What other country had produced such a film? On the other hand, she found it impossible to imagine Palestinians ever being able to permit anyone, let alone anyone in authority, to even survive if they had been as forthcoming as those intelligence service leaders. On the other hand, in discussions of two Israeli movies of the five films that had been nominated at the Academy Awards for best documentary, 5 Broken Cameras (directed by directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi) as well as The Gatekeepers (directed by Dror Moreh), Limor Livnat, the Minister of Culture and Sports in the outgoing Netanyahu cabinet, advised Israeli film makers that though she and others in authority opposed censorship, perhaps they would be well advised to practice self-censorship. “I, who am opposed to censorship, call on all of you to [conduct] self-censorship. After all, Israel is a democracy to be proud of but a democracy goes into self-defense mode when ranged against five broken cameras are thousands of families that have been destroyed by Palestinian terror. You do nothing about that."
Livnat’s comments were a response to criticisms by Israeli film producers, directors, screenwriters and documentarians of her initial comments on the two documentaries that too many Israeli movies made in the last few years, "libel Israel throughout the world". My wife had been very tense in the movie and came out feeling very defensive for Israel. While not advocating either censorship or self-censorship, she did experience the documentary as a polemical propaganda film of unbearable clarity that was very critical of Israel. And Dror Moreh says as much himself. He allows Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the Jewish theologian who criticized Israeli triumphalism and the occupation as far back as 1968 and whose criticisms are included in the film, to utter the words to which he subscribes. Even more powerfully, Yuval Diskin, the head of Shin Bet from 2006-2011, concurs that Leibowitz was 100% right.
It is clear throughout the film and in the many interviews Moreh has had since the film’s release, that this is where his sentiments lie. This is a message film. And that message is loud, clear and unequivocal. The occupation is destructive of the political and moral health of the nation. For Moreh, hopefully the movie will help serve to give new impetus to the peace process. In some interviews, he sees his own film in dramatic and prophetic terms. "If this film does not lead to change, there is no hope for Israel.” He clearly belongs to the camp that believes that Israelis are beyond saving themselves and supports an imposed solution. If Obama doesn’t “roll up his sleeves and use his power to make change, we are doomed.” However, as a filmmaker, Moreh’s voice in the movie as the interviewer is rarely heard. When it is, the voice is quiet and deferential even though persistent.
This does not mean that in intending his film to serve as a propaganda piece for change that Moreh did not practice self-censorship. For Moreh told the Huffington Post that Netanyahu participated in rallies in which Rabin was portrayed as a Nazi collaborator. Netanyahu never objected to those portrayals. In the segment of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, there are very brief clips showing Netanyahu associated with such rallies, but the implied critique of Netanyahu as sharing in the guilt of the assassination goes by virtually unnoticed. I would bet not 1 in 1000 viewers will spot the suggestion of Netanyahu’s complicity in the assassination.
On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the obvious. What makes the film powerful as a propaganda film is that it is totally one-sided. The only agents shown to be initiating action are the Israelis. We see the carnage of the horrific bus bombings by Palestinian terrorists, but we do no see them as humans deliberately planning attacks against civilians. We see their homemade videos before they go on their suicide missions, but these belong in newsreels. In contrast, the Israeli perpetrators of some of the atrocities against the Palestinians are the key protagonists in the film. What is even more important, they are all portrayed in a confessional mode, offering sin and guilt sacrifices on the altar of modern cinema and outlining inadvertent sins of omission – such as their inability to anticipate the first intifada or to notice an obscure right-wing Orthodox Jew, Yigal Amir, who came out of left field to assassinate not only Yitzchak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, but to shatter the hopes for a fragile peace process. Shin Bet was just unable, according to Carmi Gillon, to prevent Amir from "changing history". In contrast, Palestinian terrorists, even the worst of them, are objects rather than subjects or agents in the film. We never see them instructing their trainees, inculcating them with a fannatic ideology, portrayed as killing Palestinians on the spot who are alleged to be collaborators, or even how they inadvertently killed their own children when setting off rockets headed for Israel which then misfired, hit a nearby Palestinian home and killed many children. We never see them deciding to hide their tracks and place the blame on Israel.
I agree that the film is a tribute to the thriving democracy in Israel which still manages to foster open debate and pluralism in its portrayal of leading figures of the security establishment candidly criticizing their own actions and those of Israeli governments over the last thirty years with devastating comments precisely because those comments are uttered by hard headed pragmatic and ruthless heads of the domestic intelligence service. I also agree that the movie is a powerful propaganda film, though I do not agree that its message is very urgent and more challenging to conventional wisdom. Instead, insofar as it is a propaganda film, it is an expression of the once dominant, at least in a minority sense, different conventional take of the peace camp, not simply about the dead end in which Israel finds itself, but that the dead end is of its own making and the only way out requires the intervention of America imposing its will.
Unlike various reviewers, I did not see it as offering a history of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians from 1967 to 2011 or even of just their conflict, though certainly key highlights of that period were used in the film. I do not even think it offered a particularly harsh appraisal of the Israeli occupation. The film was certainly not a documentary about how Shin Bet operates and makes decisions, and it does not offer a "jarring insight into Israel’s defence establishment" as one headline of one review read. Although there is a great deal of material in the film that refers to decisions made and actions taken, we do not witness how the information is gathered and analyzed, how different scenarios are outlined and again analyzed and different options for options set out. Instead, I think the movie is primarily an educational film on the ethics of just war. But I warn readers that this appears to be my interpretation and so far I have been unable to find anyone who supports that angle. Because that message is not clear at all, and because the narrative is not chronological, nor are the six leaders clearly identified thoughout so that the viewer, unless very familiar with Israeli politics, would not be able to recognize which leader is which and when they served since there are no reminders after the opening, let me begin by clearly identifying each of the six leaders of the Shin Bet and the key episode and ethical dilemma that they faced:
General Theme: No strategy, Just Tactics
Name Dates Key event(s)
Avraham Shalom 1980-1986 killing of two suspected terrorists captured alive after bombing of No. 300 bus; forget about morality; torture
Yaacov Peri 1988-1994 capture of Jewish terrorists who plotted to blow up Dome of the Rock and al-Asqa Mosque on the Haram-al-Sharif or Temple Mount; Oslo Accords
Carmi Gillon 1994-1996 Missiles against terrorists vs suicide bombings in Tel Aviv; Nov. 4, 1995
Yitzchak Rabin assassination
Ami Ayalon 1996-2000 Definition of Victory: to see you suffer
Avi Dichter 2000-2006 assassination of Yahya Ayyash
Yuval Diskin 2996-2911 failure to blow up Hamas leadership (sterile operation)
One way of approaching these incidents and the leaders is whether they achieved successes or failures. There were clearly specific successes: the decline in terrorism, the prevention of the Jewish terrorists from blowing up the al-Aqsa Mosque, a series of clean hits, the process of involving and recruiting informers and of acquiring human intelligence. Those continue. This morning I read that Shin Bet had foiled a Hevron terrorist cell led by an operative released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner-swap. On the other hand, there were clear failures: the killing of two suspects captured alive in a 1984 bus hijacking that led to the resignation of Shin Bet director Avraham Shalom and threatened to bring down the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the inability to anticipate the first intifada, the inability to prevent the Rabin assassination, the failure to destroy the Hamas leadership in Gaza when there was a clear target and solid information. But the film maker does very little to explore the reasons for success or failure. What the director does focus upon is the moral issues at stake in each incident.
The movie is about the relationship of intelligence to politics within a moral frame. The moral frame used in that of just war theory. There is no question that the 1967 Six Day War was just. It is one thing for a country to defend itself against Arab states around it which declare war on Israel. It is another to conquer and hold the territory captured in that war – the Sinai, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The movie does not analyze the case and come down on the assessment that occupation was immoral. It presumes that immorality and directly or indirectly gets every one of those heads of intelligence to explicitly or implicitly concur with that judgement. For the fundamental moral issue is whether a war fought decade after decade to continue the occupation is a just goal. Just wars require just purposes. The conclusion presumed by quotes from Leibowitz is that it was and is not just. Not only because of what it does to the one million Palestinians being ruled by Israel. But because of what it does in corrupting the Israeli soul.
Dror Moreh could have quoted Hebrew University historian, Jacob Talmon, as well. But he mostly conveys the message that the continuation of the occupation was carried out because of an absence of a goal rather than the deliberate policy to occupy the West Bank. As Avraham Shalom put it, there were tactics but no strategy. Only Yitzchak Rabin is excused from this failure in justice. He was the only politician to genuinely pursue peace. Begin did it with the Egyptians but he is largely ignored. Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza but he is given a very ambivalent assessment. Shamir is presented as totally indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians, but Moreh could have treated him much worse by portraying his personal history of terrorist activities. Perhaps, Benjamin Netanyahu comes off worst of all.
In the end, it is not the Palestinians that these ruthless leaders of the intelligence service feel so sorry about as the way the intelligence service was used and abused by politicians who abandoned their own duty to protect the service so dedicated to serving them and the Israeli people whenever a crisis arose. Politicians only want to hear binary options and not various shades of grey. They want to make decisions – Yes or No. When mistakes are made or when the consequences of some decisions get too hot, it is the intelligence service that is left holding the bag.
The film is structured in terms of a series of themes. This theme of the overall justice of the occupation and the way the intelligence service is treated is the main thrust of the opening episode and the one theme referred back to in every other episode. But the movie opens with a much simpler just war moral equation – the responsibility of fighting the war over the occupation in just ways. One of those principles requires that innocent civilians be protected as much as possible from being injured and killed as collateral damage when terrorists are directly targeted. That is a decision largely within the purview of the Shin Bet and with some exceptions, as in the opening scene, the Shin Bet performs commendably. It may be an unjust occupation – quite aside from whether it is illegal or not – but the Shin Bet tries to fight it with just means. Or at least since the reign of Avraham Shalom over Shin Bet! It is clear that he has little regard for the just war protection of terrorist captives.
The film seems to have two different moral narratives along this line. The immorality of means is portrayed as starting in 1980 when Avraham Shalom was in charge from 1980-1986. In 1984, what became known as the Kav 300 affair took place. The details were eventually uncovered by the Landau Commission which henceforth set down strict guidelines for the treatment of prisoners. Twenty-nine years ago on 12 April 1984, four Palestinian terrorists from the Gaza Strip boarded a regular Egged bus (#300) heading south and hijacked the bus. At Ashdod, they let a pregnant Israeli get off the bus. She alerted the Israeli authorities about the hijacking. The army set up road blocks. The bus smashed through two sets of roadblocks until the army shot out its tires when the bus had reached a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza, Deir el-Balah, ten miles north of the Egyptian border. In the standoff, the hijackers demanded to exchange the occupants of the bus for the release of 500 Palestinian prisoners. The Chief of Staff of the IDF, Moshe Levi, the Minister of Defence, Moshe Arens, and the Director of Shin Bet at the time, Avraham Shalom, had all reached the scene. At 7:00 a.m. the next day, a special unit of the IDF under Yitzchak Mordechai – later to become infamous for other matters – stormed the bus, shot and killed two of the four hijackers through the windows and captured two of the hijackers alive. Only one passenger, Irit Portugese, a 19 year old Israeli soldier, who was a passenger on the bus, was killed, and she died as it turned out by "friendly fire". Otherwise, it appeared to be a triumphant operation.
The movie omits all that detail. It focuses on the pictures of the two captured terrorists who are alive and then the report that they died in the attack. As Avraham Shalom testifies in the film, he was informed that they had been terribly beaten by Israeli soldiers once in captivity and he personally authorized Ehud Yaton, the Shin Bet chief of operations at the scene, to put them of their misery when he saw the condition of the captives. Yatom took the badly wounded captives elsewhere to another site and smashed their heads in with a heavy rock.
Initial reports in Israel reported that all four were killed when the bus was stormed but The New York Times three days later ran a story that told of the two hijackers captured alive with the photographs we see in the movie. One Israeli newspaper got around the censors by reporting The New York Times story. Needless to say, "the shit hit the fan". It is that aspect and only that aspect of the story and the political consequences that the movie covers. It does not deal with the decision to blow up the houses of the families of the hijackers after the incident. It does not deal with the attempts to censor Uri Avnery, the editor of the weekly, HaOlam Hazeh, that first ran a picture of the hijacker in captivity and alive. The focus is on the illegal and totally unethical treatment of the two captured prisoners who were killed in cold blood. The film did not replay the television tapes at the time of Moshe Arens and IDF, Chief of Staff, Raphael Eitan, boasting that terrorists who hijack buses cannot expect "to come out alive". The movie does refer to the arrest of and trial of Brigadier General Yithak Mordechai (and eleven other officers) for kicking the two prisoners to death. They were found not guilty.
The movie does not tell us that in 1986, the Deputy Chief of the Shin Bet, Reiven Hazak, went with two other officials, Rafi Malka and Peleg Raday, to see then Prime Minister and current President, Shimon Peres, to tell him that Shalom had not only ordered the fatal blow but had coordinated the testimony of the witnesses to undermine the prosecution case. The three official whistleblowers were fired from the Shin Bet. The story then went into broad public circulation. Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir launched an investigation. When he refused to halt that investigation, he too was forced to resign. Eventually a public inquiry was ordered and Shalom himself had to resign. It seemed clear, and this is suggested in the movie, that Yitzchak Shamir, the Prime Minister at the time of the incident, had approved Shalom’s decision before it was carried out. The matter was fully aired in a television mini series in 1987 called Kav 300, but Moreh chose to focus on only three items – the killing of the captives, Shalom taking the hit for a political decision and Shalom’s opinion that when dealing with terrorism you can forget about morality. The film does not remark on the fact that subsequent heads of Shin Bet had abandoned the latter position though it is clear from their comments. This belies Shalom’s cynical view of the downward spiral of the Zionist dream and his amoral view towards the treatment of captives.
In Yaacov Peri’s period as director of Shin Bet from 1988-1994, the big political story was the Oslo Accords The big intelligence story was the Jewish terrorist plot to blow up Dome of the Rock and al-Asqa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, the messianic vision of the Jewish terrorists and the expertise of their explosives genius,
Menachem Levi. In Avi Shlaim’s book, The Iron Wall – Israel and the Arab World, he quotes Uzi Narkis, the commander of the Israeli forces that captured the Temple Mount in 1967, as having been urged by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren to blow up the Mosque of Omar. As I wrote earlier, the army did seize the keys to the al-Masjidul or Moroccan Gate and demolished the Maghariba and al-Sharaf Arab neighbourhoods to make room for the space in front of the Western Wall and the reconstructed and resurrected Jewish Quarter.
There were previous terrorist attacks on the Mosque, one by an Australian Christian Zionist, Michael Dennis Rohan, in 1969 who set a fire that gutted the ancient wood and ivory minbar of Sallahudin. On 2 March 1982 a Jewish Talmudic student attacked the mosque but was subdued by Muslim guards. On 11 April 1982, Allen Harry Goodman, an IDF soldier, went on a shooting rampage on the Temple Mount with his army-issued M-16 and killed a mosque guard and wounded others before being subdued; he received a life sentence. In October 1982, Yoel Laerner, a follower of the extremist, Meir Kahane, tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock but was arrested. On 10 March 1983, 45 Jewish terrorists who were followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane planned a military raid, but they were intercepted before the plot could be executed; they were tried but not convicted. On 1 August, 1984, a Jewish terrorist plot to blow up the Mosque was thwarted by the Al-Aqsa security guards; Yosef Zeruya was sentenced to only three years in prison for the plot. On 8 October 1990 Jewish extremists tried to lay the cornerstone for a Jewish temple in the Haram al Sharif plaza and in the protests by the Palestinians, the border guard killed 22 Palestinians and a judicial inquiry under Israeli Judge, Ezra Kama, later determined that it was the Israeli police who provoked the violence. None of these Jewish terrorist efforts were nearly as extensive or as well coordinated or would have been nearly as devastating as the plot broken up and discussed in the movie. The Shin Bet and many political analysts, in a view echoed by Yaacov Peri, believe that if such a plot had been successful, it would have set off a war between Muslims the world over and Jews. What was most revealing in the film was the charge that the plotters network extended to the highest levels of politics and the revelation that, after serving relatively light sentences, they were freed. But this is mentioned as an aside and not explored.
Carmi Gillon served as head of Shin Bet from 1994-1996 until he resigned over the Shin Bet’s failure to stop the Rabin assassination on 4 November 1995 at a rally in support of the Oslo Accords. What is not revealed in the film is that the assassin, Yigal Amir, had been under Shin Bet surveillance but the agent assigned to him had concluded that Amir did not pose a threat to the Prime Minister. Though it is widely believed that Rabin’s assassination totally undermined the possibility of a peace agreement based on the Accords, the evidence in my mind does not support such a contention. In fact, Rabin`s terms were far less generous than Barak`s or Olmert`s and the latter two were also unable to conclude a peace agreement.
With the last three heads of Shin Bet, we return to Palestinian terrorism and the ethics of conducting a just war against terrorism. Ami Ayalon, who served as director from 1996-2000, had an epiphany when a captured Palestinian terrorist told him that their definition of victory was not a conquest of Palestine but seeing Israelis and Jews suffer. He realized that such a war could never be won. It was one thing to hold onto occupied territories but to do so at the cost of a peace agreement was clearly immoral. What was not put in the film was that Ami Ayalon had rounded up his three predecessors in 2003 to sign a letter to the Prime Minister strongly supporting a peace agreement based on a two state solution.
Avi Dichter who was director of Shin Bet from 2000-2006 oversaw the organization when the first intifada broke out and ordered the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, the Hamas engineer and explosives expert, by means of an explosive cell phone. Though it is mentioned, the intricate weighing of targeted killings versus the political costs and dangers to nearby civilians is mentioned but inadequately discussed. Similarly, the great success in drastically reducing terrorist attacks on Israel and what went into that receives insufficient attention and no analysis. Nor does Avi Dichter`s subsequent career as a member of Kadima and the Knesset and his role as Minister of Internal Security and the reforms he put in place. Yuval Diskin who ran Shin Bet from 2006-2011 discussed the opportunity and failure to blow up the Hamas leadership when it was decided to use a 1/4 ton bomb instead of a full 1 ton bomb knowing that if the leadership were on the first floor they would escape death but if on the second floor they would all be killed. This was done to minimize collateral damage that would have been the inevitable result of using a one tone bomb. The effort to conduct a "sterile operation" in this case meant the sacrifice of a success in favour of a strict application of the just war norm demanding minimal intentional risk to civilian lives.
The film ends where it begins with Ayalon`s reference to a long corridor but one which does not lead to a door behind which a leader sits in his office and makes these momentous decisions. According to Ayalon, there is no door and no one to take responsibility for an occupation that is sapping the moral strength of Jewish Israelis. This metaphorical story echoes a sentiment he uttered earlier in the film: "We don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle, but we lose the war." My own sense from the film is that the occupation, however bad it has been, especially for the Palestinians, has very much sharpened the moral acuity with which Israeli members of Shin Bet have been making their decisions, a message that is the very opposite to the one overtly conveyed by the film.
Obama 23: Tactics as Strategy – The Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 06.03.13
Vali Nasr in his forthcoming volume, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat,criticizes the Obama administration’s foreign policy for substituting tactics for strategy. “It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.” The resort to and emphasis on tactics is correct, but they are emerging as primarily foreign policy tactics in the case of the Israel-Palestine peace process. Second, the emphasis on tactics has been the strategy deliberately adopted by the Obama administration.
Obama was offered two strategic options. One was to concur that the time was not ripe to make peace since the positions of the parties were too far apart. America should, therefore, stand by in a passive but supportive role waiting for an opportunity to help. In any case, it was up to the parties themselves to resolve their dispute and America was in no position to impose one. Investing its political capital for such a purpose would have been a waste. The second option said that the agreements discussed at Taba and then between Abbas and Olmert were so close that a deal was doable if only America intervened with bridging proposals backed up by American pressure and even a willingness to impose such a solution. This strategy was backed up by claims that the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian problem jeopardized American interests in the region and undercut its credibility as a neutral broker. If something was not done quickly, the situation would blow with disastrous consequences to peace in the region and America’s future influence.
Passivity, however, seemed to benefit the Israeli right and the settler movement, leaving a running sore between America and its other allies in the region. On the other hand, charges that the situation was the key source of unrest in the region seemed not only to be totally exaggerated, but a misreading of the unstable politics in the region. There was no question, however, that leaving the situation alone courted enormous risks to stability. But what realistically could be done?
In his first term, Obama had supported an active role for the U.S. in the peace process, but without a willingness to impose solutions or even put "undue" pressure on either party. This hybrid of an activist diplomatic role without bringing in any heavy diplomatic, political and economic modes of pressure failed abysmally. Obama was unwilling to abandon dealing with a problem in urgent need of a solution. At the same time, he was unwilling to become the mediator promoting let alone imposing a particular solution. Obama wanted to resurrect a very activist role. On the other hand, he was still unwilling to adopt a strategy that put the US in the central position to propose or even impose a solution. How could America abandon the sidelines once again but not get terribly mauled as it became caught up in the centre of the fray?
The only approach is tactical rather than strategic because it accepts a number of seemingly contradictory propositions as both being true.
1a. Only the parties in dispute can come to an agreement;
1b. The parties are incapable of coming to a resolution on their own.
2a. The political position currently is relatively stable.
2b The stability is misleading for the situation could blow at a moment’s notice.
3a America cannot force the parties to agree.
3b. Only America is in a position to facilitate the parties coming to an agreement.
4a. There is an enormous gulf that separates the parties on borders, refugee return and the status of Berlin.
4b. The gap between the parties is infinitesimally small and can easily be bridged with a modicum of sustained effort.
Obama was presented with two very different strategies for dealing with the stalemate in the peace process between Israel and Palestine. Opting for one strategy or the other, or some variation of either, entails support for either the (a) or the (b) camp. Further, the (a) set, favours the Israeli settler position. The (b) set favours the Palestinian position. Choosing a strategy was itself inherently a problem. If America sat idly by for another four years saving its political capital in the hope that an opportunity would emerge would itself almost help insure that there would be no such opportunity on the horizon. On the other hand, opting to present U.S. parameters for a two-state outcome to kick-start negotiations, then, absent constant U.S. pressure, the president would be squandering his credibility unnecessarily for the existing asymmetrical negotiating paradigm guaranteed failure.
The irony is that America was as polarized on the domestic front as the situation in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Congress represented and was polarized between red and blue states because "Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America." (Daniel Levy "From Illusions to Solutions," The New York Times 18 May 2011) In the Middle East, on each side there is also a peace camp and a war camp. Only the war camp has the credibility to negotiate with the other side. But only the peace camp can make peace across the divide.
What are President Obama’s options? If he presents a plan to force Netanyahu and the Israeli body politic to make a choice by endorsing a border based on 1967 with equal land swaps, he corners the rejectionist Netanyahu who cannot challenge the USA in a direct confrontation. President Clinton adopted such a strategy in 1998 at the Wye River Summit in dealing with Netanyahu. It appeared to work since both Arafat and Netanyahu signed the Wye River Memorandum on 23 October 1998, an agreement that the Israeli Knesset endorsed by a vote of 75-19. Israel withdrew from area "A" and transferred total jurisdiction to the Palestine Authority. Israel transferred civil jurisdiction to the PA in area "B". In return, the PA agreed to adopt a policy of zero tolerance with respect to terrorism and would participate with Israel in a bi-lateral effort to eliminate any incitement, support structure for financing, planning, or abetting terrorism. The agreement was imbedded is a series of implementation and confidence building formulae to facilitate a final full peace agreement. Given Palestinian demands that were unattainable and Israeli requirements that would not be fulfilled without adequate trust, rather than serving as a framework for enhancing confidence, the effort to implement the agreement enhanced the level of distrust for the other side. For the agreement was based on a fundamental Catch-22. The agreement had to be implemented to enhance mutual trust. However, mutual trust was a necessary prerequisite for implementation of the agreement. The agreement proved to be a recipe for failure.
There were proposals that Obama go over the heads of each of the governments and direct an appeal directly to the people on both sides. He could ask the Israeli public to make a fundamental choice between remaining both a democracy and a state with a majority of Jews or continue an undemocratic occupation. He could ask the Palestinians whether they wanted a state of their own alongside Israel but committed to non-violence. The problem with such a populist appeal is that that its success would be too easy and obvious, for the answers from both publics would be a resounding affirmation. But since there would be no implementable result, the cynicism on both sides would be reinforced now supplemented by greater distrust of America being able to make a positive contribution.
Alternatively, the US could reach for a radical game change and bet on all or nothing. A year ago, Professor Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University, a former adviser to the Barak government and a Geneva Initiative negotiator, and author of A Possible Peace Between Israel and Palestine and The Shift: Israel-Palestine: From Border Struggles to Ethnic Conflict, published an article, "We Need a Game Change" in The New York Times (8 March 2012) in which he advised Obama that the current political and psychological gap between the Israeli and Palestinian mindsets was too wide to bridge so that the chance for a successful negotiation was close to zero. The only option was to bet all or nothing. Make a total commitment to investing 100% of one’s political capital, time and energy into brokering a deal or continue to remain on the sidelines. Otherwise it was unrealistic to expect the United States president to perform the job that neither the Palestinian nor Israeli sides have been able to achieve. On the other hand, the piecemeal approaches of Oslo and Wye offer poor precedents and further efforts along those lines are doomed to eventual failure. But such advice was merely another version of waiting on the sidelines.
Alternatively, the United States could throw up its hands in despair and quit the field, turning the problem over to the UN or another consortium of interveners as Rashid Khalidi has advised in his September 2011 article in The New York Times, "An End to the Status Quo". The world cannot afford to wait while America fiddles and the region goes up in flames. Following the Arab Spring and the revolutionary eruptions of the last few years, the Arab public will no longer acquiesce in a fifth decade of occupation and more and more blather. Negotiations without issue are no longer tolerable for millions of young people around the region emboldened by the taste of freedom and tired of what they perceive as America’s coddling of Israel. Is Obama going to be on the wrong side of history in the Middle East or will he resolutely oppose the oppressive and untenable status quo before the peoples of the region take the matter into their own hands?
It is already clear that Obama will not be abandoning the field. Neither has he opted to continue to sit on the sidelines. What can he do to avoid getting ploughed under by the muscular approaches of either side? Obama is not a football but a basketball player. He will adopt a full court press but the phrase means precisely the opposite of what it connotes. It stands not for a risk all offensive strategy but for a set of tactical defensive procedures. Instead of concentrating on pushing with all your might to score, the team enters the game and adopts a person-to-person zone defence with specific diplomats assigned the task of blocking and corralling one particular player and position from the other side. The United States must not see itself as mediating or brokering between two competing teams but must enter the game determined to beat both of the other sides, not by concentrating on scoring points but by preventing both the Palestinians and the Israelis from using the period of play to score points themselves. The aim is to entrap each of the sides in their own courts beneath their own nets so that each side tires and gets worn down. It is a process of tactical harassment of each of the main ball handlers from the other side while preventing the ball from being passed off.
The analogy is meant to point to the following:
1) America is not a referee but a team playing against both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
2) America is not out to score points but to prevent either the Palestinians or the Israelis from using their time to score points and make an agreement impossible.
3) America should itself avoid prescriptions for a solution other than mouthing banal platitudes about peace, good will and good intentions while recognizing that its opponents are in short supply of both.
4) The main object of American involvement is to get the players committed to a series of round robins that will produce an agreement between them that will be implemented and will endure rather than once again be attenuated or possibly abandoned altogether.
5) The narrative of the past has to be rewritten from a series of failed attempts to get a final agreement to a series of increasingly successful efforts in teaching the two players to play basketball together. And in the series of games as they continue, each side may win in turns but both will only really win when they become committed to playing basketball and not fighting.
6) Since the United States will never retreat into isolationism and since it remains committed in the Middle East, then it should recognize that it is not a referee but a player itself competing with both sides, but a player not determined to win each or all the games but determined to teach the game.
7) That is why the rhetoric must change from telling either player what it can and must do to challenging each player to learn and adapt its tactics to see if that side can get by the blocking tactics of the United States. Changing its own attitude in redefining its roll is a critical first step. That is why Obama is dead on in saying he is not going to advance proposals but to listen and hear. Obama does not have to say that he is also going to block and tie up their players in their own ends to give each side time to get their own acts together.
8) Israel is an economic, security and innovation partner of the United States; The largest economic support for Palestine comes from America. The USA can work on the terms of its partnerships with either entity with both positive and negative incentives to the degree each moves towards a peace agreement with the other.
I have already portrayed Obama as a social democrat and a community conservative, but that refers to his ideology. However, his style affects his approach to a problem like peace between the Israel and Palestine. Recall that Barack Obama is a left-handed basketball player who likes to fake right and go to the left. He also plays point guard responsible for setting up the plays rather than scoring himself and, even more importantly, controlling the ball to ensure that it gets to the right player at the right time. In his first term in office, Obama totally lost control of the ball with respect to the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, advising Valerie Jarrett, he told her, "You need to just calm down. This is gonna be fun! Valerie, you’re not a guy but let me explain it to you in sport terms. It’s like we’re in a basketball game, and I’m gonna fumble the ball, and someone’s gonna steal the ball, and I’m gonna miss a free throw, but we’re gonna win the game." (cf. Larissa MacFarquar’s "The Conciliator, The New Yorker 7 May 2007) This, of course, reinforces the widespread agreement that he is unflappable and cool, an aloof but pragmatic searcher for consensus. "We must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side."
However, in that search for consensus, he is not a glad-hander. Unlike Clinton, he dislikes the hassle and the political hustle, the detailed tactics to get votes and legislators on your side. It is not the tactics of politics but political tactics that intrigue him. And the bottom line of his tactics is that, though he writes in a different genre than the homespun strung-out tales of Abraham Lincoln, he is a teller of tales, a narrator, but one focussed on his own life and how the presidency fits into it as an outlet for his own "special qualities" and his determination to produce an experience he found common in Black Protestant churches, "collective redemption". Barack Obama is not interested primarily in the details of negotiations, the going back and forth and the give and take to reach a deal. He is not President Johnson’s scrappy wheeler-dealer. He wants to reconcile Palestine and Israel because if they can be reconciled, it makes possible redemption for anyone.
Kyle-Anne Shiver’s critical article on "Obama’s Politics of Collective Redemption" (American Thinker 11 February 2008) begins by depicting a great leader poised to redeem collective sins and "change nearly everything, bringing about a new era in which permanent solutions are found to age-old conditions." In the case of Israel-Palestine, the specific issues of where the border will run, how many if any refugees will be allowed to return and under what rubric, the governance of the holy basin as well as border and security issues are matters of pragmatic possibility. The redemption of a liberation process, however, will result from the peace agreement itself made between and by the two parties and that will bring about the greatest transformation in which hope replaces cynicism, and dreams of new possibilities replace the constraints of dealing with the necessary demands of self-protection and security.
Obama recognizes the difference between the prudence and calculation of interests and considerations and the search for common ground that go into making an agreement. On those elements he will offer his and his team’s services as facilitators. (See Ryan Lizza, "The Obama Memos: The making of a post-post-partisan Presidency," The New Yorker, 30 January 2012)But he is also aware that beyond detached reason, each of the sides in the conflict is driven by a more basic yearning: "Zionists’ yearning for homecoming…to a place where they believed Jews had once led authentic, independent, and pristine lives of simplicity and purity: a pastoral kind of life, with the golden city of Jerusalem at its center," and the almost erotic attachment Palestinians have "toward the landscape of Palestine – a landscape that was lost" and "is more important for many Palestinians than the lost community." (Avishai Margolit, "Palestine: How Bad & Good, Was British Rule?" New York Review of Books, 7 February 2013) Olive trees, figs and apricots permeate the nostalgic longing for return not captured by characterizing return as a right. (See Howard Adelman and Elazar Barkan (2011) No Return, No Refuge. New York: Columbia University Press) The longing and sense of loss also have to be dealt with through a redemptive process of restoration. Making peace will require as much sensitivity to these affective dimensions as to the detailed back and forth trade-offs.
Parties to a conflict can reconcile with each other over conflicting interests and needs. But, at the same time, each party has to reconcile with itself concerning its dreams and aspirations. Obama is as sensitive to the latter as to the former and sees himself providing even more input into the latter for each party is more than capable of looking after its own interests. Besides, in that equation, America has its own interests, however relatively small compared to the parties in the conflict, and America can best deal with each party on that level by trying to reconcile American interests with Israeli interests and American interests with Palestinian interests. Precisely because of that, Obama will have an easier time being non-partisan in the Middle East than in dealing with the intractable divisions in Congress.
Obama has to control the tempo of the new game he has set in motion and not let the clock run out as Olmert did. He has to recognize when opportunities open up and he can push for a fast break and when to hold back, and which of his team to assign to carry the ball at any one point. He has to be able to handle and pass the ball while having an overview of the whole game. And if he is going to play a full court press where the Palestinians and the Israelis in turn try to carry the ball, he has to demonstrate not that he is the best friend of each, but that he can block every move unless they begin to conform to a reconciliation process. This does not require a well thought-out strategy but a mastery of the various skills and tactics, a situational awareness and a short response time so that he can control the game from the perimeter of the play. He has to be as sensitive to the fears of Israelis as he is to the aspirations of the Palestinians. He knows that the problem is not the solution per se, because these have been negotiated ad nauseum, but how to finish the game without a brawl breaking out. To do that, he must immerse himself in the process but not by offering his own framework agreement or road map or bridging proposals.
He has to stick to tactics and eschew setting down an overall strategy. That is and will be his strategy.
Next Blog: Obama, Religion and Politics
agreement, Obama, Israel,
Obama 22: Conditions for an Israel-Palestinian Peace Process 05.03.13
Two weeks before his inauguration, Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza. Barack Obama, America’s first African-American President, was inaugurated into office on 20 January 2009 two days after each side in the Gaza War declared unilateral ceasefires and a day before Israel withdrew its ground troops from Gaza. In the United States, Obama inherited a disintegrating economy, the implosion of America’s financial institutions, rapidly rising unemployment, the collapse of the housing market all alongside a dysfunctional health system with by far the highest costs in the Western hemisphere, decaying infrastructure and an educational system that was of middling rank. Obama had two long wars to wind down and a war against al Qaeda to win. Iran was going nuclear and North Korea already was and continued to flex its meagre muscles in threatening ways. China was becoming a rising military and economic power. Pakistan, a nuclear power, always seemed to be on a razor’s edge of imploding. And these were just the problems that were in the headlines. Who would expect Obama to take on the challenge of advancing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
Obama ignored the signs and the warnings. He surprised many with initiatives on other fronts where there had been few expectations. He had campaigned on a shift to Asia, but a wide assault on various problems in Latin America and the Caribbean had not been anticipated. As President-elect, the only foreign leader he met was Felipe Calderón of Mexico. The first foreign visitor he invited to Camp David was the President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He then welcomed President Michele Bachelet of Chile and President Ălvaro Uribe of Columbia. Key cabinet members travelled to various Latin American and Caribbean capitals. Obama loosened travel restrictions to Cuba and entered into negotiations for postal telecommunications and migration agreements with the Castro regime. (Cf. Abraham F. Lowenthal (2012) The Obama Administration and the Americas, 2)
With initiatives of all kinds on various fronts across the globe in the face of the most horrendous problems on the domestic front, Barack Obama made peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority. He appointed Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy. When Secretary of State Hilary Clinton traveled to Israel in March, she immediately got the backs of the government up when she denounced the settlements in East Jerusalem and demolition of Palestinian houses as "unhelpful". Netanyahu responded by saying that resumption of negotiations and freezing of settlement activity would be conditional upon the Palestinian Authority recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. On 12 April, Mahmoud Abbas phoned Benjamin Netanyahu to officially restart the peace negotiations.
Obama then antagonized the Israeli government further in his speech in Cairo on 4 June addressed to the Muslim world where he called for a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two state solution and declared that settlements were illegitimate and undercut the possibility of peace. Finally, Obama got a positive result. Netanyahu in a speech at Bar Ilan only ten days after Obama’s Cairo speech endorsed the two state solution based on a demilitarized Palestinian state, but insisted that Jerusalem had to remain as the undivided capital of Israel. The Likud Party, that historically had opposed the two state solution, had officially and publicly reversed its longstanding position.
The parties seemed very far apart and discussions did not proceed from where Olmert and Abbas left off. Netanyahu refused to cede the major settlements, insisted on a united Greater Jerusalem, rejected any right of refugee repatriation and demanded a demilitarized Palestine. Abbas insisted on the green line being the borders and that not one centimetre of the West Bank would be ceded to Israel, demanded territorial contiguity between Gaza and the West Bank under Palestine sovereignty, insisted that the right of return be recognized and rejected any settlement building even for organic growth within the existing settlements. Nevertheless, on 23 August 2009, President Netanyahu announced the resumption of negotiations in September. After Barack Obama arranged a three way meeting with himself, Netanyahu and Abbas on 22 September, all sides announced that the negotiations would be re-launched. Abbas had conceded without a formal settlement freeze. Netanyahu had agreed to a two-state solution. They were still far apart but at least they were talking and a goal was in sight.
However, in Shakespearean terms, events in nature seemed ominous. Climate change threatened the future and increasingly violent storms seemed to adumbrate an ominous end as well as raise emergency costs and infrastructure challenges of its own in the interim. The world seemed cursed by fire, earth, air and water. The worst bushfires in Australian history took place in February killing well over a hundred people. Devastating earthquakes struck in Italy (6 April), New Zealand (15 July) and Samoa (29 September) the latter resulting in a tsunami. While Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations on 24 September 2009, introducing himself as the Prime Minister of a Jewish state just a day after the President of Iran’s anti-Semitic rant and denial of the Holocaust, and while he boasted of his state being at "the forefront of many of these advances, in science and technology, in medicine and biology, in agriculture and water, in energy and the environment" standing for a future of hope against nostalgic and often fanatical efforts to resurrect a dormant past, after challenging the international community to "stop the terrorist regime of Iran from developing atomic weapons, thereby endangering the peace of the entire world," and confronting the seeming unteachability of mankind and the United Nations as it hypocritically prepared to condemn Israel for attacking Gaza in self-defence against Iran-sponsored missile attacks, as the United Nations prepared to condemn Israel for violations of human rights based on an error-filled and unjust report, Ondoy Typhoon began to strike the Philippines killing almost 500 over the next few days. On 25 November in Saudi Arabia of all places the 2009 Jeddah floods swept hundreds of cars and people to their death right in the midst of the Haj. Talk about auspicious signs!
Except for East Jerusalem and construction already underway, on that same day, 25 November 2009, Netanyahu finally imposed a settlement freeze for ten months. In fact, an informal de facto freeze was even put in place in east Jerusalem. Obama thus far seemed to have succeeded beyond almost all expectations.
All this took place against a domestic economic collapse in the United States in which both Chrysler (30 April) and General Motors (1 June) had filed for bankruptcy protection, North Korea had tested its second nuclear device, the protests against the rigged Iranian elections were being quashed, Pakistan was beset with one firebomb after another beginning with the horrific attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on 3 March to the 28 October Peshawar bombing that killed 117 and wounded twice that number. Recall the year ended with the 28 December suicide bombing of Shias in Karachi while observing the Day of Ashura.
Events were not going well in Iraq either from bombing throughout April to the 19 August bombings in Baghdad that killed over hundred and injured over 500, to the 25 October bombings that upped those casualty rates by 50%. At least the 8 December bombing casualty rate from bombings in Baghdad had receded to the ordinary horrors of 19 August.
However, on the Israel-Palestine peace process, 2010 would prove that everything put in place in 2009 was for naught. There were American outbursts over constructions projects even though they were in the heart of existing settlements that would eventually be involved in land swaps. On 31 May 2010, the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla with a loss of nine lives was denounced as a massacre by both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Abbas met with the Arab League in July and said that Palestinians would once again revert to violence if the Arab states would agree to invade Israel. The situation seemed to be getting worse. The period of the freeze was being squandered and the two sides seemed to be getting further apart. Yet Hilary Clinton in August 2010 still opined that a peace agreement could be in place in a year. Finally, in September 2010 direct talks were initiated.
Hamas tried to sabotage the talks by resuming attacks on Israel. But the talks were imploding on their own as Netanyahu would only extend the freeze if Palestine formally recognized Israel as a Jewish state and Abbas replied that not only would he not recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition of resuming peace talks but would never recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The U.S. kept offering further incentives such as security offers and military aid to get the talks back on track but all efforts failed and the Palestinians went the UN route to seek recognition of a Palestine state.
Both sides were embittered by the experience and more distrustful of the other side. The United States which had staked so much political capital on the effort was thrown under the bus by both sides. So why would the U.S. once again commit its political capital, in increasingly less supply, to resurrect the peace process in 2013?
The situation since 2009 had radically changed. Netanyahu, though emerging from the elections with the largest number of seats, his combined total with Lieberman’s party only came to 31. Netanyahu had been severely weakened. Israelis were disinterested in the peace process and only Tsipi Livni campaigned to make it a priority but won only seven seats. Israeli society in the meanwhile was growing richer and more prosperous. As the Israeli government continued to fill in settlements for strategic reasons, Israel was on the verge of self-sufficiency in energy because of tremendous reserves of fossil fuels discovered in the past few years.
If the domestic economic situation, other than the growing disparities between the rich and the poor, made Israel feel more secure, the immediate neighbourhood had deteriorated considerably. An increasingly unstable Egypt has shifted from a cold ally to a frozen foe headed by a leader of an Islamic party with a relationship with Hamas and a record of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist assertions. In a protracted two year civil war, the president of Syria, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, certainly no friend of Israel, seemed on his way to eventual defeat as Syrian rebels captured the northern city of Raqqa and, in imitation of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad almost ten years earlier, toppled Hafez al-Assad’s Bashar’s father’s statue in the provincial capital of the north. Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist rebels in Syria allied with al Qaeda captured the long-range Scud missiles in a military complex in Deir al-Zour and also swept the Syrian army from their posts on the Golan Heights. Except for the West Bank and Jordan, Israel was surrounded by implacable enemies – Hezbollah on the north, now Jabhat al-Nasra on the north-east, Hamas in Gaza on the south-west and an increasingly Islamic Egypt in the Sinai.
As Israel was weaker in political security, and stronger in economic security, its military security had become precarious. Iran was closer than ever in operating its centrifuges to produce weapons grade nuclear energy. Turkey had slipped from a friend ten years earlier to an implacable foe unwilling to reconcile over the Gaza flotilla incident. Israel seemed more vulnerable than ever and more dependent on American goodwill as Europe became increasingly shrill in opposition to Israel. Since Obama could do little on the domestic front in dealing with the recalcitrant Republicans, he was freer to turn his attention to international affairs and the Israel-Palestine issue itself. Obama hated being a loser and had a record of picking himself up and trying even harder a second time. But this time it was unlikely he would lead with his chin.
President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, as I have shown, have not enjoyed the best relationship as leaders of two states that are ostensibly allies. To rehearse Bibi’s resentments, in his first year of his first term, Obama visited Saudi Arabia and Egypt but had no time for Israel in his first itinerary to the Middle East. The two leaders have differed over settlement policy. Bibi demanded that Obama draw a red line in the sand with respect to Iran’s nuclear program; Obama demurred. Bibi visited the White House in March 2010 and was left stewing in his seat when Barack Obama went off to have dinner with his family. Further, Obama refuse to have his picture taken with Bibi. Bibi tried to audition as Mitt Romney’s campaign manager by holding a tremendous welcoming reception for Romney during the presidential campaign.
In the recent Israeli elections, Bibi’s joint party with Lieberman managed to only muster 31 seats. Moderate Likudniks like Benny Begin and Meridor had been driven off the electoral lists and Bibi had an even more extreme right wing party to his right led by Naftali Bennett with 12 seats. Bibi is considerably weaker while Obama, with no election facing him, is much stronger. If Obama is going to face that group down, he will have to come with strong words and a very big stick.
Bibi announced that as a priority he wants to restart the peace talks with the Palestinians and his first announcement of an agreement with another party was with Livni who ran on giving the peace talks first priority. Though Obama virtually ignored Israel during his re-election campaign, he did appoint Senator John Kerry as his Secretary of State and Kerry has unequivocally said that he is determined to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The first trip he announced about going abroad was to Israel. After speaking to Benjamin Netanyahu on January 28th, Barack Obama then announced that he too would be going to Israel on March 20th. Obama would also be visiting Jordan and the Palestine Authority.
However, most Israelis and Palestinians simply don’t believe that peace is possible. Israelis do not want to repeat the mistake of Gaza. Palestinians do not want to see years and years of further negotiations as Israeli settlements expand and strengthen. Israelis do not want to risk an existential threat from the Judean Hills. While both sides believe the other is now genuinely committed to a two-state solution, the two state visions of the two sides are not congruent. Abbas sees Netanyahu as committed to a Palestine state made up of three truncated Bantustans, one north of Jerusalem, one south of Jerusalem and one in Gaza with wiry links between them. Netanyahu sees Abbas as committed, not to a Palestinian and a Jewish state living side-by-side in peace, but to a Palestinian and a bi-national state living side-by-side until the Arab birth rate and Jewish emigration allow a re-amalgamation.
Obama will keep his word and will not be coming to Israel and Palestine to impose a solution or even to offer a bridging formula. What will he bring? Lots of negatives! To Netanyahu, he can reaffirm that America is drawing down and shrinking its military but Obama is prepared to offer a security agreement with Israel that will include American boots on the ground. He will also be able to offer firmer guarantees that America will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Obama will want to know what he will get in return. Netanyahu will have to bargain with Obama.
Obama will tell Abbas that the American economic belt is shrinking and the American public is no longer willing to make personal and collective economic sacrifices for the Palestinians unless they firmly and formally are committed to peace with a Jewish state. "Since the establishment of limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s, the U.S. government has committed over $4 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians, who are among the world’s largest per capita recipients of international foreign aid." (Jim Zanotti, "U.S. Foreign Aid to the Palestinians," Congressional Research Service, 18 January 2013) That aid was contingent upon Palestine fostering stability, prosperity, and self-governance in the West Bank in peaceful coexistence with Israel and committed to a genuine “two-state solution”. The United States has already held back allocated funds when Abbas, against American wishes, went and asked UN endorsement and recognition of Palestine as a state and admitted Palestine as a non-voting state member to the UN, holdbacks that have weakened the economy significantly.
"Annual regular-year U.S. bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip has averaged around $500 million, including annual averages of approximately $200 million in direct budgetary assistance and $100 million in non-lethal security assistance for the PA in the West Bank. Additionally, the United States is the largest single-state donor to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)." As the USA moves towards fossil fuel independence in the next few years and is less susceptible to pressures from the Gulf States, Obama may ask what Abbas is willing to offer in return for continuing US economic life support since lack of progress toward a
politically legitimate and peaceful two-state solution could undermine the utility of and American public support for U.S. aid.
After all, in the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace and because of Palestinian pursuit of
international support for statehood contrary to American clearly expressed wishes, and given Hamas’s heightened role in Palestinian politics, Obama could signal that lasting aid has become fragile over and on top of existing Congressional holds.
Tomorrow: Tactics as a Strategy
[Tags Obama, Israel, Palestine, peace process}