Wednesday, February 27, 2008

More Than A Friend

It would be understandable if Barack Obama were frustrated by responses to his candidacy in parts of the American Jewish community. Last Sunday, he met with a hundred communal leaders in Cleveland. He used the occasion to clarify matters, speaking with both characteristic grace (“we need tikkun olam in Washington”) and, at times, the kind of syntax you produce when straining to sustain characteristic grace.

(You can read the remarkable, if rough, transcript of the Sunday meeting here; it was released by the Obama campaign to the Jewish Telegraph Agency.)


Obama decried “guilt by association.” He distanced himself from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who endorsed his Iraq policy, but who also endorsed the Walt and Mearsheimer book on the Jewish Lobby, which Obama does not endorse (“I’ve had lunch with him [Brzezinski ]once, I’ve exchanged emails with him maybe three times”). He distanced himself, more affectionately, from his retiring pastor, Jeremiah Wright—a man “from a different generation”—who has expressed admiration for Louis Farrakhan (“hey, don’t any of you have an uncle who says shvartza?”).

Last night, in his final debate with Hillary Clinton in Cleveland, he reaffirmed America’s special relationship with Israel and denounced Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism yet again. Then he added, letting in more fresh air:

“You know, I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans, who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task in this process is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.”

None of this should obscure the novelty in Obama’s comments to the meeting in Cleveland last Sunday. He asked if we can hope to move peace forward or secure Israel if we cannot look for solutions that are “non-military or non-belligerent.” He said he admires the debate in Israel, where views of the Palestinians are often “more nuanced” than in the US. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community,” Obama lamented, “that says unless you adopt a unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, that you're anti-Israel. And that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”

YOU’D THINK OBAMA’S stance would be welcomed in Israel, and by the peace camp especially, but even the liberal Haaretz can’t hide its anxiety. The paper’s Washington correspondent, Shmuel Rosner, is exercised by Obama’s insinuation that he would, of all things, find it difficult to work with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whom most of the paper’s columnists otherwise revile. It could be interpreted “as meddling in Israel's internal politics,” Rosner wrote, immediately adding (and as if to add to the incoherence of his misgivings) that Bill Clinton had problems with Netanyahu, too, while Israelis have themselves meddled in American electoral politics.

But this reflects a more general disquiet, which is not simply about a suspect foreign policy team, or the allegedly tortured relations between African-Americans and Jewish Americans. For most Israelis, even liberal Israelis, things have always boiled down to a single question which their politicians and diplomats have posed since Harry Truman recognized the Jewish state over the objections of his Secretary of State, George Marshall. Is this American a friend of Israel?

THIS QUESTION IS meant in a particular way, reflecting how Israelis view the attitudes of gentiles more generally. Israeli political culture understandably preserves a memory of European anti-Semitism the way America preserves the king’s suppression of liberty. Israeli writers and journalists instinctively project a world in which American gentiles do not like Jews deep down, the way boardrooms do not like insurgents, and jocks do not like book-worms. (The fact that evangelicals say they “love” Jews is hardly reassuring on this score.)

Besides, Israel’s journey to political power was at least as “improbable” as Obama’s movement has been. Zionism, too, had to change Western minds in the shadow of unspeakable racism; some of Zionism’s gains meant losses to others. So Israelis take for granted that to sympathize with its dilemmas, one has to feel the justice of Israel’s founding in one’s gut. They assume that sympathy does not come naturally to others—especially not since 1967, and not to those who may have historical grievances of their own against Western prejudices.

Nevertheless, the question—are you a friend of Israel?—was never a particularly good one, and Obama is right not to be suckered by it. He did not quite say so, but he is shrewd to imply that if friendship means unconditional support it has become positively dangerous for Israelis and Palestinians both: it means, in effect, being a friend of the Israeli right. The more serious question for any incoming American president is, rather, are you a friend of peace? And are you prepared to act as if peace in the region is an American interest, which it inarguably is?

TO UNDERSTAND THE danger, you have to understand a peculiar dynamic in Israeli politics—something I have written about often before, but cannot be emphasized enough. First, although details still need to be worked out, the contours of a peace deal are not really mysterious. Bill Clinton’s bridging “parameters,” along with Arab League proposals of 2002, resolve the core issues: borders, Jerusalem, security guarantees, recognition, and refugees. Almost two-thirds of Israelis endorse this deal.

But, second, the Israeli right-wing that opposes the deal is deeply implicated in the settlement project, either as settlers, or as ideological supporters of Greater Israel, or as ultraOrthodox acolytes of Jerusalem. The Jewish residents of Jerusalem are overwhelmingly in this camp. If a referendum on the deal were put to Israelis, it is likely that the vast majority of greater Tel Aviv would vote for it, while an even larger majority of greater Jerusalem would oppose it. It is widely understood that thousands of settlers would resort to violence, if necessary, to resist the kind of evacuation we saw in Gaza.

Third, Israelis understand this threat to their social fabric and are appalled by the prospect. Indeed, the same polls that show a majority for the peace deal, also show this majority collapsing when you have to split the country to get it. No Israeli prime minister will be accorded the personal authority to precipitate divisions of this kind. Imagine how much harder it will be for a political fixer like Olmert to stand up to his opposition for the sake of a Palestinian leadership that can so easily be discredited as insufficiently popular, or not trustworthy, or (in some cases) connected to past terror attacks.

WHICH BRINGS ME to the main point. The only way to get us out of this conundrum is to get American sponsorship for the deal itself. America (along with the EU) need to stop saying that they cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. America certainly needs peace between Israelis and Palestinians if it is going to rebuild its relations with the Islamic world as it is exiting its misadventure in Iraq.

But just as important, if America shows itself first and foremost a friend of peace, it will actually strengthen the Israeli leadership. It should be clear to all Israelis that this is American policy, and that opponents of the deal are risking relations with Washington—that the risk of temporary disunity is less than the risk of ultimately alienating American public opinion.

If what you mean by being a friend of Israel, in other words, is that you remain reticent regarding what a just outcome looks like, or, say, refrain from putting pressure on the Israeli government to accept international forces in Palestine, then you really mean that you are a friend of the status quo, which will bring the Likud back to power. A president who is a friend of peace will also be a friend of the majority of Israelis who are trying, at last, to bring change. This is Obama’s promise, it seems, and long overdue.

8 comments:

bar_kochba132 said...

So Bernie, here you give us the bottom line for your "imposed solution". I have called it in the past your "Deus Ex Machina" solution, a foreigner will come, wave his magic wand, and everything will be allright...Israelis will agree to hand over Jerusalem, including its holiest places to Judaism over to the Arabs and will agree to recognize the Palestinian "right of return" (which implies that the creation of the State of Israel was a historic crime) and somehow the Palestinians will agree to limit its implementation. The magic wand will frighten Israelis into accepting such a suicidal pact, (which most Israelis realize is indeed suicidal) because they will be told that the United States will punish us for not accepting it.

The question is, will your scheme work? In your article in the Los Angeles Time you say that foreing forces will help keep the peace. Well, at this moment the United States is now attempting to impose, by force, peace on Iraq and Afghanistan, with lots of military muscle being applied. How is that working out?
One assumption that exists in your scenario is that the President of the United States will issue threats to the Israeli people that they had better go along, or else. Is the President really in a position to do such a thing? President Bush I did something like that and he was defeated for re-election and it is reasonable to assume that it played some role in that, those who ran against Bush (Clinton and Perot) did criticize him for it. The fact is that Clinton decided to use his full-court press for a settlement, pretty much along the lines you suggest and failed, and what's more, he waited until the end of his second term to do so. How much political capital will a new President be willing to use up for trying to impose a solution when it has been proven to have failed in the past?

Your outline of an agreement has large doses of wishful thinking...according to your column in the Los Angeles Times, Jerusalems will be a "open city" under two separate soveriegnities...something like Berlin was supposed to be after the Second World War. NO ONE in Israel believes that would be the outcome....everyone knows that Arab parts of the city would be used as launching pads for attacks on the Jewish areas, as was the case before 1967. Everyone knows that the first to suffer from Arab control of Jerualem would be the Christian Churches, as has been the case in Bethlehem since it was handed over to Palestinian rule after Oslo. This would have repercussions in the United States, and the President would have to take domestic pressures into account.

You also keep painting a picture of despair that if we don't take immense risks that have only a slight chance of working out, Israel is "doomed", as our own Prime Minister has said. You wrote in the Times:

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They know full well that Israel cannot sustain an economy like Singapore's through an ethnic war like Serbia's.
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However, there is another example, and that is Taiwan which also has a booming economy and which has varying levels of tension with mainland China and diplomatic relations with almost no one. Israel's economy not only grew during the "relatively peaceful" 1990's but also during the terror-filled years after 2001 and even during the Lebanon II war even though the northern part of the country was paralyzed for weeks. Israel, in fact grew and thrived for decades before there was any "peace process" at all.

The fact is , that the Arabs view the Arab-Israeli conflict as a zero-sum game. You and your friend Sam the Grocer don't and your position is quite reasonable sounding. The only problem is that it doesn't work, because the Arabs simply don't accept your view of things. Sharon and Olmert gave exhaustive explanations why the unilater withdrawal from Gaza would "strengthen Abbas" and "weaken HAMAS', and why it was in their "interest" to make Gaza quiet and prosperous to serve as a prototype for what Judea/Samaria would become. Did any of that happen? Alon Liel, a former Israeli Foreign Minister, close friend of Yossi Beilin and veteran member of the "peace camp" said on Israel radio that Egypt opposes ANY peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians because they view an Israel at peace as a mortal threat to their interests in the Middle East. You and I might say that is preposterous, everyone would benefit by the stability and economic benefits, but they view it as a threat to themselves and the oligarchy that rules Egypt, and the Palestinians can't simply ignore what such a powerful neighbor thinks (this is why Egypt has supported the arming of HAMAS and their rocket attacks on Israel..this allows Egypt to maintain a cold war of attrition with Israel without endangering the Billions of dollars in American aid they receive each year).
Thus, I recommend, instead of looking to your "Deus Ex Machina", we all take a more realistic view of things. I do NOT view the situation as hopeless, but it is going to require rethinking the assumptions you and the Israeli Establishment have been holding for years.

bar_kochba132 said...

Let me develop the thought I started. In Bernie's "Deus ex machina" imposed settlement, there is an unstated assumption that the whole "Israeli/Palestinian conflict" can be isolated. Let's say that the talks between the two sides bog down over the Temple Mount, Old City of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Right of Return. Olmert faces a rebellion of coalition of Knesset members who are not willing to accept Palestinian demands on these things. President Obama is conducting the talks. He now intervenes in the way you want..he announces that Israel is the intransigent party and that it is reasonable that Israel accept the Right of Return and should hand over the Temple Mount and access to the Jewish Western Wall to the Arabs. He then announces that in order to get the concessions, he will demand a cut in aid and hold up military supplies, all of this in order to intimidate the Israeli population. What may happen? Bernie assumes that the Israeli will buckle under, but you never know, there might be a boomerang effect. What would be the reaction of Congress. Israeli is a heck of a lot more popular in the US. Israel is viewed as a true friend and ally, whereas the Palestinian regime is a client state with a population that is very anti-American, as is the case in the other client states in the Middle East such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Congress and the American public might say "wait, you can't treat our friend like this". Many Christians would object to seeing their churches and interests in Jerusalem endangered.
Then there is the question of how the other Arab states would react. What would Syria and Iran do seeing that the US is threatening to cut Israel loose? This is exactly what happened in 1967 before the Six-Day War. France announced that they were suspending all arms shipments to Israel. This encouraged Nasser to increase his belligerency and war was the result. Maybe the same would happen, and it could also affect Egypt as well, forcing them to start issuing threats to Israel if Israel doesn't capitulate. With Iran involved at some point in the future, the whole thing could go nuclear. On a smaller scale, there could be an outburst of Palestinian violence.
Thus, we see Bernie's scenario for an imposed peace is a potential minefield and and not the simpl surgical procedure he laid out here.

Anonymous said...

bar_kochba132: Like most right wingers, you do a wonderful job of tossing out half-truths and slinging mud. I don't know what the right answers are for Israel, but one thing is plainly obvious. yours aren't working. And they have resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi's, thousands of US soldiers, and the bankrupting of America.

I guess that's fine with you as long as its everyone else whose getting exterminated this time, eh? Funny thing. I'm Jewish too. And my family was impacted by the holocaust. Yet somehow I manage to find sympathy for all innocent people.

The right wingers in the US and Israel would now have us go to war with Iran. Do you know how many innocent Iranians would get killed if that happened? Or how much wider of a war that would result in?

You sit there and bash the left (I've read some of your other posts on here), but at least the left is using their resources and influence to try and create PEACE.

What I resent most of all, though, is that as much as you whine about the left having equal power in Israel, that is certainly not the case here in the US, where "pro-Israel" has been completely hijacked by the well financed and well connected AIPAC crowd. The 70% or so of us who abhor their policies have been cut out of the picture, and smeared as anti-semites.

bar_kochba132 said...

To Anonymous:

I am afraid you don't know what you are talking about. You ASSUME that since I am "right-wing" on Israeli/Arab matters, then AUTOMATICALLY I favored pushing the US to go to war (even though I don't live in the US) in Iraq and I want the US to go to war with Iran. YOU ARE WRONG, I opposed the US going into Iraq because I believed that trying to impose "democracy" there would be folly. I have no opinion about what to do with Iran, the question is just too difficult and complex for me to know what position I support.
I WANT PEACE at least as much as you are Bernie...what I point out here all the time is that Israel has been carrying out the policies Bernie and his camp have been advocating for years and all it has done is INCREASE the violence. I do not believe a contractual peace is possible and so I believe the emphasis must be shifted to controlling the violence and ultimately reducing it to a minimum. This will only occur when Israel stops convincing the Arabs that it is on the verge of collapse, like when Olmert said "Israel can't fight any more" or "Israel is finished if we don't hurry up and create a Palestinian state", as if Abbas and his gang are going to sign an agreement just to help strengthen Israel.

The Left, whatever their motives, have NOT succeeded in moving towards peace, their policies have brought the most extreme Arab/Muslim forces to power, like HAMAS in Gaza, and HIZBULLAH in Lebanon. Time to shift gears.
You are woefully uninformed about the situation in Israel and I suggest you read internet sources like Ha'aretz (www.haaretz.com), the Jerusalem post (www.jpost.com) or Arutz 7 (www.israelnationalnews.com).

You claim I am "tossing out half-truths" and "smears". I aspire to know the truth, if I am saying something untrue, I would welcome you or others to correct me. If I am "smearing" Bernie, show me how I am wrong.


Finally we on the "Right" have far more compassion for the Palestinians than the Left does....it was them who imposed Arafat's terror gang on the Palestinian population who has robbed them and pushed a death cult on them. The Palestinians will be the biggest benefactors if the policies I have been suggesting will be carried out.

Anonymous said...

THe simple truth is there is no peace process from the Arab side, beyond merely creating the image of one to get gains that they cannot obtain by war, but will ultimately go to war to carry out to destroy the Jewish state. What the Arabs say about peace in English is routinely abrogated in Arabic that calls for the ultimate end of Israel. It is not a conservative or liberal issue; it is one of finally using common sense. The Arabs are using the peace process as a new means to make war as Mochammed did with his hudna. That is the reality.

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