Category Archives: US foreign policy

Ray Takeyh’s nonsense on Iran-Palestine

Ray Takeyh, an Iranian-American expert on Iran at the Council on Foreign Relations, had an oped in today’s WaPo that makes the nonsensical claim that,

    The notion that the incumbent Arab regimes are reluctant to collaborate with the United States on Iran because of the prevailing impasse in the peace process is a misreading of regional realities.

Takeyh argues in the piece that the U.S. can and should operate on the basis that there is no real “linkage” between the U.S.’s (and Israel’s) ability to maintain or escalate tensions at will with Iran, and Washington’s performance on Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking.
His argument is plagued with gross errors of fact as well as some extremely tortured “reasoning.”
It’s a very dangerous argument, because its effect is to urge Americans not to worry about any possibility of negative fallout from continued escalation– or even, apparently, a U.S. or Israeli military attack– against Iran.
Here is one of the more bizarre parts of his argument:

    unlike the United States, Israel is not entangled in conflicts that Iranian mischief [whatever that is ~HC] can aggravate. Hamas and Hezbollah are not only unreliable proxies but ones that Israeli armor can handle.

Um, Ray Takeyh, can you tell me what evidence you’re basing this claim on??
Why does anyone publish this guy’s bellophilic rantings? Why does anyone pay him a handsome salary to sit at the august-seeming “Council on Foreign Relations”?
Nonsense. Just nonsense. But as I said, dangerous nonsense.

Walt and Rosenberg on the WINEP ‘elephant’

Stephen Walt has been getting into a really important online debate with Robert Satloff, the head of the chronically Israelo-centric ‘Washington Institute for Near East Policy’ (WINEP) on the issue of “dual loyalty”– or, as Walt prefers to call it, a “conflict of interest.”
Walt started the debate with a post on his FP blog on April 2 noting a recent news story about Dennis Ross having possibly fallen out of favor a bit within the Obama administration and exploring whether allegations of Ross having “dual loyalty”– to Israel as well as the U.S.– have any merit.
He examined the issue carefully arguing that it’s probably far better to discuss the issue in terms of a conflict of interest, such as may occur in any area of public life– and which is frequently used as a reason to bar someone from involvement in making important judgments in areas in which they have a demonstrated personal interest.
He concluded:

    Isn’t it obvious that U.S. policy towards the Middle East is likely to be skewed when former employees of WINEP or AIPAC have important policy-making roles, and when their own prior conduct has made it clear that they have a strong attachment to one particular country in the region? The point is not to question their patriotism, which is not the issue. Rather, the question is whether an attachment to Israel shapes how they think about the peace process, Iran, and the extent to which U.S. and Israeli interests are congruent. Their patriotism can be above reproach, but their advice may still be advancing policies that are not in the U.S. interest.
    By the way, I’d have the same worries if U.S. Middle East policy were turned over to key figures from the American Task Force on Palestine or the National Iranian-American Council. When there are important national security issues at stake, wouldn’t it make more sense to have U.S. policy in the hands of people without strong personal feelings about any of interested parties?

Rob Satloff, the current head of WINEP, struck back– also on the FP wbsite– accusing Walt of “McCarthyism.”
And then on April 9, Walt replied, noting,

    There are only two important issues here, and Satloff ignores both of them. First, do some top U.S. officials — and here we are obviously talking about Dennis Ross — have a strong attachment to Israel? Second, might this situation be detrimental to the conduct of U.S. Middle East policy?
    Regarding the first question, there is abundant evidence that Ross has a strong — some might even say ardent — attachment to Israel. These feelings are clearly on display in his memoir of the Oslo peace process, and they are confirmed by his decision to accept a top position at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy (WINEP) — an influential organization in the Israel lobby-upon leaving government service in 2000…
    Furthermore, Ross served in recent years as chairman of the board of the Jewish People’s Policy Planning Institute, a think-tank established by the Jewish Agency, which is headquartered in Jerusalem. Satloff does not mention this key fact, but the implications are unmistakable. Why would anyone take such a job if they did not have a deep-seated commitment to Israel?

Actually, I think Ross was President of the JPPPI. But no matter.
Walt went on to note how unsuccessful the U.S. was during those many years in the 1990s when Ross was the head of Pres. Clinton’s Arab-Israeli negotiating team. (My, doesn’t it looks as if he’s been reading JWN all this time!)
He concluded with this:

    WINEP is funded and led by individuals who are deeply committed to defending the special relationship, and promoting policies in Washington that they believe will benefit Israel. Its board of advisors is populated with prominent advocates for Israel such as Martin Peretz, Richard Perle, James Woolsey, and Mortimer Zuckerman, and there’s no one on this board who is remotely critical of Israel or inclined to favor any other country in the “Near East.”
    Although WINEP employs a number of legitimate scholars and former public officials, its employees do not question America’s special relationship with Israel and Satloff himself has a long track record of defending Israel against criticism. That’s his privilege, of course, but why does he get so angry when someone points out that WINEP is not neutral, and neither are the people who work there?
    In short, Satloff doth protest too much, and I think I understand why. He knows that what I am saying is true; he just doesn’t like anyone calling attention to the elephant in the room. Plus, he knows that plenty of other people can see the elephant too, and are beginning to realize that the lobby is pushing an agenda that is not in America’s interest. No wonder he’s so upset.

Well, M.J. Rosenberg was quite right to call Walt’s takedown of Satloff “delicious”!
In that post, M.J. shares some of his own rich information base on WINEP’s history, too:

    Satloff pretends that he does not know that WINEP is an AIPAC creation. Maybe that is because he was not in the room (he wasn’t) when Steve Rosen announced his plan for an AIPAC cutout that would do AIPAC’s work but appear independent.
    I was in the room. So was my friend, Tom Dine, the former head of AIPAC and other AIPAC staff. So what in God’s name is Satloff denying?
    Too many of us were there. WINEP and Satloff are as much part of the lobby as Larry and Barbi Weinberg (the AIPAC officers who funded it) and staffed it with AIPACers who just moved down the hall. (Now WINEP is in a different building, not AIPAC’s 8 story palace on the Potomac.)

So finally, we can all start talking much more openly about the elephant in the room that is the conflict of interest that means that Ross and the rest of the old WINEP/AIPAC crew are not “neutral arbiters” on anything that involves Israel.
Well, as longtime JWN readers know, I’ve been saying that for a long time. But it’s good to have people like Walt and Rosenberg speaking out on the matter, too.
Another thing they don’t go into is the whole myth that Dennis Ross, as such, is actually any kind of an “expert” on anything in the Middle East except Israel. He isn’t. He’s never written a single text anywhere that demonstrates any understanding of Arab or Iranian or Turkish affairs.
Finally, with “nuclear terrorism: etc being the topic of the day in Washington this week, maybe it’s finally time to talk about that other big elephant in the room, Israel’s own huge nuclear arsenal.

But is the U.S. able to secure Palestinian-Israeli peace?

Tuesday, veteran WaPo columnist David Ignatius published a very insidery report to the effect that Obama is considering rolling out a specifically “Made in America” plan for a final peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
This would– as David noted– be quite an abrupt reversal of the painstakingly incrementalist, strongly ‘CBM’-focused approach pursued thus far by special peace envoy George Mitchell. (It may also signal that Mitchell himself might be on his way out?)
David’s story got picked up on the news side of yesterday’s WaPo, as well as the NYT. The writers of most of these stories made a point of quoting one of the former Natinal Security Advisers Obama has been meeting with as saying that “everyone knows” what the main shape of any possible two-state-based deal would be… Namely, something like the “Clinton parameters”, which was a “take it or leave it” peace plan presented by Pres. Bill Clinton to both sides in late December 2000, less than one month before the end of his presidency.
Last night, Daniel Levy had a piece on The Middle East Channel, in which he writes,

    The spectrum of a plan’s possible content essentially looks like this: At one end, a comprehensive regional peace plan including an Israel-Syria deal, and implementation of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative’s offer of comprehensive normal relations with Israel; in the middle, a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement addressing all the core issues and with some regional add-ons; and at the minimalist end (yet not to be sneezed at), a deal that fixes two states, an Israeli-Palestinian border delineation, and security arrangements, but defers closure on all details of, for instance, refugees, Jerusalem’s Old City, and an end of claims. Even a one-sentence frame of reference might move the ball forward dramatically. It could read like this:

      Establish a border based on the 1967 lines with an agreed, minimal and equal one-to-one land swap taking into account new realities on the ground (settlements close to the Green Line), whereby the Palestinian state is on 100 percent of the ’67 territory and is demilitarized with security arrangements overseen by a multinational deployment.

Unlike Daniel Levy, I have grave doubts whether having the U.S. President announce that a “frame of reference” is from here on out U.S. policy would do very much to push anything forward, at all.
Hulloo!! Hasn’t anyone noticed that the world has changed a lot since December 2000? The most salient changes are

    (1) The situation on the ground has changed considerably over these past nine years. There are maybe 100,000 more Israeli settlers in the West Bank than there were then. There is the Wall/Barrier. There’s the long-running siege of Gaza and the separation between Gaza and the West Bank. There’s the lunge Israeli opinion has made deep to the ethnonationalist right… Ariel Sharon’s murder of the institutions of Oslo in 2000… The death of Yasser Arafat and the collapse of Fateh… etc etc.
    (2) The Palestinians and other Arab parties have seen so many prior promises about ‘deadlines’, ‘firm U.S. commitment to peace’, etc, come and go that just another announcement on its own, without any accompanying action, is not going to shift anything.
    (3) Most importantly, the balance of world politics has shifted considerably since December 2000, too. The U.S. is no longer the unquestioned king of the hill. Even if Washington should prove able to shake itself free of the pressures of the Zionist lobbies (whether Jewish Zionist or Christian Zionist)– which is a big ‘if’– I don’t see how on its own it would be able at all to rally the kind of regional coalition needed to make this peace happen.

Let’s be clear. This whole picture whereby the U.S. has come to be seen by far too many Americans (and some non-Americans) as “the only” power capable of brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace is really out-dated today. Successive administrations in Washington have worked vigorously, and very successfully, ever since the days of Henry Kissinger, to secure and then maintain American domination of the peace diplomacy. (And ways too many American pundits have grown up over the past 35 years with that being their only frame of reference. It just seems only ‘natural’ to them all!)
But it hasn’t worked.
Well, put it this way: It hasn’t worked in terms of securing a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. And it hasn’t worked for the Palestinians, who have seen the misery, dispossession, dispersal, and oppression in which they live continue or increase almost uninterruptedly throughout those 35 years. You might say it has worked, however for those participants in, and supporters of, the whole project of gaining ever greater Jewish colonial settlement in the land of Mandate Palestine, that is, the whole project of Zionism.
It certainly hasn’t worked for the real interests of the American people.
Clearly, it’s time for something new. Like taking the whole issue back to the U.N. Security Council where it rightly belongs, and where it should and can be addressed on the clear basis of international law and international legitimacy. No more of this unworkably complex business of redrawing loopy boundaries around illegal Israeli settlements and requiring millions of Palestinians to simply sign away their rights.
Levy’s suggestion of “deferring closure on all details of, for instance, refugees, Jerusalem’s Old City, and an end of claims” looks like a real non-starter. Right up there with the idea of a “shelf agreement” that Olmert and Livni came up with, during Annapolis. (Remember Annapolis?) Palestinians and Israelis, both peoples, desperately need to see an end to the conflict. And that can be won only by securing final status agreements on all these issues and thereby the settling and end of all outstanding claims.
Can any president in Washington be successful in heading up a process that secures these things? I doubt it. Back to the Security Council.

What’s with ‘direct negotiations’?

It is such a shibboleth in U.S. foreign-policy discourse these days– to say that such-and-such an issue on the final-status agenda between Israelis and Palestinians “must be solved through direct negotiations between the parties”. But why? Why on earth should the Palestinian representatives be forced into a position of being shut in a room one-on-one with representatives of their Israeli occupiers/dispossessors, with that highly unequal “negotiation” being the only one that’s allowed?
I mean, after Saddam Hussein had occupied and politicided Kuwait in 1990, did anyone in the U.S. and elsewhere say to the Kuwaiti Emir that if he wanted his people’s rights restored he should sit one-on-one in room with Saddam, with that negotiation being the only one that was allowed??
Of course not.
So why should Washington be continuously trying to force the Palestinian negotiators to resolve their issues with Israel through direct negotiations with the very state and government that has occupied and continues on a daily basis to spatiocide them?
Look, I think I understand where this demand– which was originally an Israeli demand– that the various Arab parties should sit down and negotiate peace with them directly, face-to-face, came from. It came from the sense that many in earlier generations of Israelis had, that they were upset at the refusal of their Arab neighbors to give their state due recognition as a neighboring state in the region; and they said that it would give them a lot of useful reassurance if they could gain the “recognition” of having their Arab neighbors deal directly and respectfully with them.
I have two comments on that:

    1. The PLO already gave the State of Israel full recognition, in the letters that were exchanged at the time of Oslo in 1993. And after that, PLO leaders sat down with the Israelis to negotiate both a final peace and numerous ‘interim’ agreements, on too many occasions to count. But none of those ‘direct negotiations’ led to anything like a workable final peace. Indeed, from the Palestinian point of view, the situation on the ground continued to get progressively worse after Oslo, as with every year that passed the Israeli authorities continued to gobble up more and more Palestinian land for their settler colonies.
    2. The Israeli leaders, and increasing portions of the Israeli public, don’t actually seem to give a toss these days about either the “acceptance” of their Palestinian or other Arab neighbors, or even the alleged “value” of direct negotiations with them. Right now, this seems to have become much more an American shibboleth and demand, than it is an Israeli one.

So on the one hand it’s moderately good news when Hillary Clinton or someone says that Israel should absolutely not be building new settler housing in East Jerusalem. But it is really pretty appalling that in the next breath she will say something like, “because the final status of East Jerusalem should still be on the agenda of the direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Like downtown Kuwait City? They expected the Kuwaiti Emir to sit down and negotiate that with Saddam, with no other factors intervening?
Okay, I am a realist, and I understand it is highly unlikely that anyone in the international community as it’s currently configured is going to do for Palestine what the international community did for Kuwait in August 1990. The U.S. and U.N are not, this time around, about to assemble a massive international military force and end the Israeli occupation through brute force.
But there is still such a thing as international law, and international legitimacy; and they, surely, should be the guide to the final outcome in Jerusalem and the rest of the OPTs and OSTs, just as much as they were in Kuwait, 20 years ago.
International legitimacy: “The inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force”, as stressed in resolution 242 and reiterated in 338. International law: The outright ban on any occupying power moving parts of its own civilian population into occupied territory. Etc., etc.
The whole concept of ‘direct negotiations’ between Israelis and Palestinians has been given an extraordinarily long run for its money. It started in the backdoor negotiations that led to Oslo, and continued in one way or another until, really, Sharon turned his back on the whole idea of negotiating with the PLO/PA, back in 2003-05. I guess Olmert and Condi Rice tried to kick some life back into the concept at Annapolis. But that whole sorry experience just proved how dead the horse was by then.
It strikes me that the continued insistence on just trying to resolve this conflict through direct negotiations, without any application of international law or international legitimacy, or any real support from outside for those important pillars of the international system, is a recipe for either the Israeli sumo kings ramming a highly inequitable (and therefore unsustainable) “peace agreement” down the throats of the Palestinian negotiators– or, for continued deadlock and conflict, under the cover of which Israel’s settlement construction program will continue apace.
For an “unsustainable” agreement achieved in just this way, think back to Israel’s short-lived peace with Lebanon, 1983.
… It strikes me, too, that this fondness that ways too many members of the US political elite have for “direct negotiations” stems to some degree from a fuzzy but dangerous misreading of what happened in South Africa. There is always this stress on “where’s the Palestinian Mandela?”, isn’t there? And this idea that through the sheer force of his personality, vision, and whatever else, Mandela was quite “miraculously” able to soften the Afrikaners’ hearts and persuade them to see the error of their ways, “allow” full political rights to the disfranchized 85% of the citizens who were not “White”, and join in singing Kumbaya, etc.
The Afrikaners found themselves “persuaded” to negotiate as a result of many factors. Among them: the fact that they’d suffered a damaging military setback in Angola, as a result of the over-extension of their forces there; the fact that the ANC’s mass-civilian arm, the UDF, had sustained a huge, rolling intifada throughout just about the whole of the country over a number of years, making massive tracts of it quite ungovernable; and the ANC still sustained a modest military capability (which had been founded, remember, by that very same Nelson Mandela, a man with a nuanced view of the relationship between mass movements and military threats)… PLUS, back in the 1970s the UN had declared apartheid to be a “crime against humanity”, and by the end of the 1980s, South Africa’s “Whites” were certainly feeling the effect of having been systematically shunned for several years by many of the international constituencies they cared most about.
So it wasn’t the sheer “magic” of Nelson Mandela sitting in the conference room near Pollsmoor prison with Pik Botha and F.W. de Klerk that led to the unraveling of the settler-colonial project in South Africa. It was Nelson Mandela, backed up by a powerful and disciplined ANC movement– and also, by that time, by just about the whole moral and economic power of the international community.
If F.W. De Klerk and his minions had had full and continuing access to U.S. arsenals and U.S. and E.U. free trade agreements in 1989-90, do you think De Klerk would have been suddenly “transformed” by having one-on-one meetings with Mandela??
So why do we imagine that Benjamin Netanyahu or any other Israeli leaders would be any different?
Get real, America. Stop engaging in all these fuzzy misreadings of what went on in South Africa. And let’s get back to upholding the real and very necessary principles of international law and international legitimacy– and using all the instruments of our national power to back them up.

Obama solidly with Israel in U.N. Rights Council

Okay, maybe I’ll have to reel back all those commentaries about a growing rift between the Obama administration and Israel. This week, in the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, in two out of five of the votes on matters related to Israeli government policies in the 43-year-occupied territories, the U.S. was the only country that voted against a resolution that otherwise had the unanimous support of Council members. (Hat-tip, indirectly, to CWF.)
One of these votes was about the Palestinians’ oft-reconfirmed right to self-determination. That resolution (A/HRC/13/L.27),

    reaffirms the inalienable, permanent and unqualified right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including their right to live in freedom, justice and dignity and to establish their sovereign, independent, democratic and viable contiguous State; also reaffirms its support for the solution of two States, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security…

The U.S. representative voted against. The other 45 members voted in favor.
Then there was this very important resolution (A/HRC/13/L.28), in which the Council

    condemns the new Israeli announcement on the construction of 120 new housing units in the Bitar Elite settlement, and 1,600 new housing units for new settlers in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo, and calls upon the Government of Israel to immediately reverse its decision which would further undermine and jeopardize the ongoing efforts by the international community to reach a final settlement compliant with international legitimacy, including the relevant United Nations resolutions; urges the full implementation of the Access and Movement Agreement of 15 November 2005, particularly the urgent reopening of Rafah and Karni crossings [into Gaza], which is crucial to ensuring the passage of foodstuffs and essential supplies, as well as the access of the United Nations agencies to and within the Occupied Palestinian Territory; calls upon Israel to take and implement serious measures, including confiscation of arms and enforcement of criminal sanctions, with the aim of preventing acts of violence by Israeli settlers, and other measures to guarantee the safety and protection of the Palestinian civilians and Palestinian properties in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem; demands that Israel, the occupying Power, comply fully with its legal obligations, as mentioned in the Advisory Opinion rendered on 9 July 2004 by the International Court of Justice; and urges the parties to give renewed impetus to the peace process.

This time: 46 to 1, with no abstentions.
On a resolution condemning Israeli actions in occupied Syrian Golan, the U.S. was also the only country to vote against, though this time there were 15 abstentions.
There were also a couple of resolutions in which the U.S. was not the only country to vote against. These included, very importantly, the one calling on both Israel and the authorities in Gaza to conduct the credible, independent investigations into allegations of gross rights abuses that have been called for by both the Goldstone Report and the General Assembly.
Regarding this resolution, the U.S. was joined in its opposition to it by Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia, and Ukraine; and eleven states abstained from voting. But 29 members of this important council supported the resolution.
In another significant resolution– one calling on Israel to end its 43-year-old occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza– and to immediately lift the siege imposed on Gaza, the U.S. was joined in its opposition by eight other states: Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; seven states abstained; and 31 voted for it.
Why does Obama feel he has to do this? Why not just abstain?

“Israel’s ‘consensus on Jerusalem’ has cracked” — Ben Meir

Today’s Haaretz carries a very significant op-ed from Yehuda Ben Meir, a former MK from the National Religious Party who, looking at the results of two recent polls asks,

    Who would have believed that we would reach a situation where more than 40 percent of the public supports a construction freeze in East Jerusalem and only half say building should continue? The significance of these surprising numbers is that the Jewish consensus on united Jerusalem has been cracked, if not shattered.

The polls he cited were:

    a Haaretz-Dialog poll, [in which] 48 percent of the respondents said Israel should continue building in all parts of Jerusalem, even if the price is a rift with the United States, while 41 percent said Israel should stop building in East Jerusalem until the end of negotiations with the Palestinians, [and] a Mina Tzemach poll, where 46 percent said building in East Jerusalem should be frozen and only 51 percent opposed such a move.

The present significance of these findings lies in the argument, very frequently made by Israel’s defenders here in the U.S., that “the administration shouldn’t put any pressure at all on the Israeli government because it will only cause Israeli voters to dig in their heels and become more hard-line, and the attempt to use pressure will therefore backfire.”
In fact, the last time a U.S. president attempted to use some (though not many) elements of real pressure on an Israeli government, which occurred under Pres. Bush I and Secretary of State James Baker in 1991-92, the attempt proved notably effective in Israeli terms. In the Israeli elections of June 1992 the Israeli public, seeing the pressure from Washington and assigning an appropriate value to the maintenance of strong relations with the U.S., voted out the inflexible, Likud Party government of Yitzhak Shamir and voted in Labour’s Yitzhak Rabin, who was perceived– quite rightly– as being a much more successful manager of Israel’s always vital relationship with the U.S. administration.
(The Bush-Baker campaign of calling Israel to some degree of account for its performance on the perennial issue of settlement building also did not, contrary to what the AIPAC types and neocons claimed, prove to lead to Bush I’s failure in his elections in 1992. What had the most effect then was, as we should all remember, “the economy, stupid!”)
Yehuda Ben Meir migrated from the U.S. to Israel in 1962. His current views place him at the leftward end of the spectrum of “nationalist-religious” thinking in Israel. I certainly hope he has a wide following there.
He writes,

    The Israeli public knows the difference between historical Jerusalem and those Arab neighborhoods that have never been part of the city. Therefore, the entire Jewish people, and the U.S. government as well, fully supported the restoration of the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City because this was justified. It embodies the revival of the Jewish people in their land, as well as their connection to the sites of their heritage and their right to possess them. Dispossessing Arabs of their homes and attempts to take over clearly Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are not accepted by the world, including most American Jews, and according to the poll results, not even by a large part of Israel’s Jewish population.

I find the claim about the U.S. government “supporting” the restoration of a Jewish synagogue in the Israeli-occupied portion of the city interesting. Let’s hope the U.S. government gives equal support to the restoration of the hundreds of Christian and Muslim holy places and cemeteries in the area of 1948 Israel, eh?
But that’s a side-issue. The main issue is that, according to the poll figures Ben Meir refers to, the recent apparent sparks of a possible U.S. campaign to start once again holding Israel to account for its (actually illegal) program of settlement building in the occupied areas have not caused the claimed “backlash” in Israel… Indeed, they may well even have spurred more Jewish Israeli voters to think deeply and sensibly about the value of the vast amounts of support they get from Washington (and from my tax-dollars.)

One last note: Many opinion polls in Israel report only the views of Jewish Israelis, ignoring the views of the 21% of the country’s citizenry who are ethnic Palestinians– or, they report the views of the two groups separately. It is not clear whether the two polls Ben Meir cited asked their questions of all Israelis, or only of Jewish Israelis. But the way he interpreted the results makes it seem as if he was referring only to the reported views of Jewish Israelis. The views of Palestinian Israelis should, of course, in any society claiming to be democratic, be given proportional weight to those of Jewish Israelis.

The new Baker initiative

Former Sec. of State James Baker has been helping to roll out a new report, issued by the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, that urges the Obama administration to put forward its own proposal for the final-status boundaries between Israel and Palestine.
The whole report is available in PDF form here. It is interesting because it is the result of a quiet, “Track 2” diplomatic effort convened by the institute over the past year and a half, in which un-named Israeli and Palestinian participants worked together to present and discuss their own proposals for where the final boundary between the two states should lie, if indeed there are to be two states.
In Haaretz yesterday, Akiva Eldar referred to a recent interview with the National Journal in which Baker– who of course is most famous in the Middle East for the hard-nosed way he dealt with Likud PM Yitzhak Shamir over the settlements issue back in 1991-92– displayed that he is still prepared to play hardball with the present Likud PM.
Eldar quoted him as saying there:

    “I would also stress that United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government. Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements.”

Eldar also reported on a phone interview he conducted with Ed Djerejian, who’s the founding director of the Baker Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Syria, and Russia.
Djerejian told Eldar,

    “The Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially the Palestinian issue, remains one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the entire Muslim world. Osama bin Laden exploits the plight of the Palestinians, as does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad … This has a direct influence on the United States, which is expending its blood and treasure fighting insurgencies in overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan.
    “We would be naive to think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will eliminate the problems of terrorism and radicalization in the Islamic world, but it will go a long way toward draining the swamp of issues that extremists exploit for their own ends.”

All excellent analysis. And a very important argument that we should all keep on making…
I was intrigued, however, to read as much as I could of the report itself in order to:

    a) Figure out as well as I could at what “level” the Palestinian and Israeli participants were operating, and crucially, How close are they to actually being able to represent the positions of their respective national leaderships?
    b) Learn the content of the “U.S. compromise proposal”– actually, three different options for a “compromise proposal– that the Baker Institute people were urging.

On the first of those points, there seemed to be no evidence in the report as to who these people. I believe, based on other evidence, that Yasser Abed Rabboo, who was Abu Mazen’s long-time designated lead person in the “Geneva Initiative” process was one of the participants on the Palestinian side, which would make that team fairly authoritative vis-a-vis the Ramallah leadership.
But who were the Israelis? I don’t know. But whoever they were, on p.5 it makes clear that they were operating on the basis of “reported positions put forward by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”– which indicates they were people far closer to Olmert’s Kadima Party than to Netanyahu’s Likud.
Which is interesting and very significant.
The initial map those Israelis put forward, which represents a swap of 7.03% of the West Bank’s land against an equal amount of land from inside post-1949 Israel, is on p. 63. On pp. 65 and 67 are maps that are described, on p. 5, as “reflecting reported positions put forward by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.” They represented a swap of 1.9% of the land of the West Bank for land inside post-1949 Israel, on the same 1:1 basis.
Interestingly, regarding the situation in occupied East Jerusalem, the “Palestinian map” presented in the report involved far fewer territorial concessions to Israel in Greater East Jerusalem than did the map that participants in the Geneva Initiative signed off on last September. (Which indicates that Abu Mazen’s position on East Jerusalem has hardened noticeably since then.)
And then, there are the three different options the Baker Institute itself proposes that the Obama administration should choose between if– as Baker and Djerejian urge– Obama moves rapidly to put forward, and hopefully also press very hard for, its own proposal for the final borders.
These three options are mapped out in full on pp. 101, 103, and 105. The first of those represents a 4.0% land swap, the second a 3.4% swap, and the third a 4.4% swap. (It is very common on U.S. diplomatic memorandums for the writer to end up presenting three options, with the hope that her or his boss will pick the “middle” one.)
Details of how these options differ in a number of sensitive areas are presented in the earlier pages.
I don’t have time to write much more about this report. I just want to close by noting three things:

    1. The Baker Institute seems to have proceeded in the continuing spirit of the disastrous April 2004 letter in which Pres. Bush assured PM Sharon that the U.S. supported a territorial outcome that would take major account of the existing facts on the ground, i.e. Israel’s completely illegal settlements, and in particular the large settlement blocs. And indeed, the way the various details are portrayed in the maps seems extremely settler-centric– i.e. just about all the maps are described as addressing the issues around this or that settlement bloc, not around the concerns of this or that large Palestinian urban center. Instead of calling an area the “Gush Etzion area”, why not call it “Greater Bethlehem”, and start from the concerns of the Palestinian Bethlehemites who are considerably more numerous than the (illegal) residents of Gush Etzion and who have suffered already for 43 years from the illegal grabbing of their lands. Where is any ethic of care or of respect for human equality in the Baker Institute’s approach?
    2. All the lines proposed on all the maps presented, by all three “parties” there, are extremely complex and sinuous… in many cases almost ridiculously so.
    3. If it was close-to-Kadima people who participated on the Israeli side, then why would we have any reason to believe Netanyahu might be interested in any part of this approach? And/or, is this all part of some plan to needle Netanyahu by trying to deal with Kadima instead of him?

On the current tipping point

    1. We really are at a tipping point.

AIPAC and its allies have really gotten their undies in a twist over last week’s confrontation between Netanyahu and Biden (and Sec. Clinton, too.)
Next week, AIPAC has its big, power-demonstrating policy conference in Washington. The list of confirmed speakers is topped by Clinton and Netanyahu. How will that go? Will it be a love-fest or some discreet form of a continued confrontation? Will one or the other find a reason not to attend? Whatever happens, it’s going to be important.
Meantime, Petraeus– along with, presumably, others in both the brass and the suits sides at the Pentagon– have started to discreetly weigh in on the real dangers Netanyahu’s current policies pose to the lives of U.S. soldiers… And in the commentatoriat even Tom Friedman has come out strongly critical of the Netanyahu government’s arrogance over Jerusalem.
AIPAC and its attack-dog allies have been fast, focused, and relentless. I’ve been receiving a stream of emailed news releases from the attack-dog group “The Israel Project”, whose head, Jennifer Mizrachi has also been robo-calling me on my cellphone to urge me to contact legislators and the Prez to urge them to reaffirm their support for Israel and back off from confronting Netanyahu over Jerusalem. The press release AIPAC itself issued Sunday publicly called on Obama TO WORK TO IMMEDIATELY DEFUSE THE TENSION WITH ISRAEL (their screech, not mine.)
And where have the alleged “counter-AIPAC” organizations like J Street, Americans for Peace Now, or even that sad little group the Council for the National Interest been all this time? Notably AWOL, compared with AIPAC, TIP, etc. J Street hasn’t put anything on their website on the Jerusalem-settlements issue, or on their email list, since March 11; APN hasn’t done anything on it March 10. And you can search CNI’s website and find nothing about it at all. Nor has the End the Occupation website.
This matters, because steering or dominating the narrative is really important in moments of crisis.
But anyway, the intense frenzy of activity from AIPAC, TIP, etc shows us that they think we are at what could well be a crisis for them. (And they are far from stupid.) After all, is the President simply going to wave away the concerns that have now, verifiedly, been voiced by the leader of Centcom about the dangers that Israel’s policies pose to the lives and wellbeing of American troops? I do not see that he can.

    2. In electoral politics, it still is ‘the economy, stupid.’

The present confrontation between an administration in Washington and a settlement-addicted Likud government in Israel harks straight back to the period in 1991-92 when Pres. George H.W. Bush and Sec. of State James Baker got into a similar confrontation with Likud leader (and lest we forget, former terrorist gunman) Yitzhak Shamir. We need to remember the political lessons from that incident– and remember them correctly.
The short version of what happened in that clash was that Bush and Baker drew their line in the sand against use of U.S. loan guarantees (however fungibly) to support the construction of settlements in the West Bank. During the Israeli elections of 1992, that principled U.S. stance persuaded Israeli voters, ever mindful of the need for good relations with Washington, to vote Shamir out and replace his government with a Labor-led coalition that enjoyed far better relations with Washington.
In the U.S. elections of later that year, however, Bush lost. The big question for us in the U.S. today, is why exactly did he lose?
The lobby people would have us believe the story that they and their allies have been spreading ever since Bush’s defeat in November 1992: that he lost precisely because he had had the temerity to confront a government in Israel. That understanding of November 1992 came to dominate many narratives and “elite” political understandings– in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
But it ain’t so!
I was here in the U.S. during that election. It was the first or second general election I voted in. Go back and read the news accounts of the time. Bush lost– and Clinton won– because of the immense power of Clinton’s slogan that “It’s the economy, stupid!” It was the terrible state of the economy then that dominated voters’ thinking– much more importantly than anything about the Middle East, including Bush’s previous set-to with Shamir. (And after all, most Jewish Americans were very happy to see Shamir replaced by Rabin.)
In the mid-term elections of November 2010, and in the presidential election of 2012, it will similarly be the state of the economy and of domestic governance in general that dominates voters’ thinking. Inasmuch as the Middle East intrudes on voters’ thinking at all– which would anyway be very trivial–only a small proportion of voters are going to end up having their behavior swayed by the screechy arguments that AIPAC and Co. make about distant Jerusalem. Many more could be persuaded by organizations or opinion leaders who take trouble to spell out the kinds of arguments about the true interests of the American people in the region, as spelled out made by Gen. Petraeus (and also, as it happens, back in November by myself.)
So we do need to underline to the President and his political advisers that they absolutely should not be be blown off course by any arguments AIPAC and and its shills might make about “Hey, don’t mess with us: Look what we did to Bush I back in 1992.” It still really is “the economy, stupid!”

    3. What Obama could do.

The administration has decided to delay, for an unstated length of time, the visit to Israel and Palestine that peace envoy George Mitchell was due to start yesterday. That’s good for starters.
The administration’s position, as described here by the WaPo’s Glenn Kessler, is that it is pressing Netanyahu to do three things:

    a. reverse last week’s approval of 1,600 housing units in a “disputed” [i.e. occupied] area of Jerusalem,
    b. make a substantial gesture toward the Palestinians, and
    c. publicly declare that all of the “core issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the status of Jerusalem, are on the agenda in the upcoming talks.

Kessler doesn’t say this, but I understand that the administration’s position is that unless Netanyahu does these things, then Mitchell won’t be launching the promised “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinians any time soon.
Notice there, by the way, the degree to which these proximity talks are being treated by Washington as a boon or reward for Israel, which can be delayed or withheld by Washington as part of its diplomatic bargaining with the Netanyahu government. But actually, Netanyahu might in the abstract be very happy not to have the proximity talks. Why does it need them? Does Washington need them, actually, more than Israel? Maybe.
There are a lot of other things the Obama administration could do as well if it really wanted to demonstrate its commitment to achieving a fair and sustainable peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis. In no particular order of doability or anything else it could do any or all of the following, and should consider doing at least some of them.
It could,

    A. Announce the launching of an administration-wide review of all U.S. policies that have any relationship to the Israeli settlements including policies affecting economic links and trade preferences being extended to settlements as well as to Israel proper; the activities and tax status of U.S. entities, including non-profit entities, that have dealings with or in the settlements. The terms of reference of this review should explicitly spell out that its purview includes the settlements in Jerusalem as well as elsewhere (including Golan.)
    B. Announcement of a similar review of policies and entities related in any way to Israel’s illegal Wall.
    C. Commit to a series of steps aimed at speedily ending the illegal and anti-humane siege that Israel maintains against Gaza and restoring all the rights of Gaza’s 1.5 million people.
    D. Sen. Mitchell should be empowered to talk to representatives of all those Palestinian parties that won seats in the 2006 PLC election which was, let us remember, certified by all international monitors as free and fair. Obama and Co. should also inform the Egyptians and all other parties that they want and expect them to be helpful rather than obstructive in the Palestinian parties’ efforts to reach internal reconciliation.
    E. Move speedily toward giving the other four permanent members of the Security Council more real role in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. They all have a lot to offer and can help the U.S. get out of the very tight spot it currently finds itself in, in the Greater Middle East region.

4. Finally, beware of ‘dirty tricks’.
We should all be very aware that Netanyahu and the even more militantly settlerist parties who are in his ruling coalition (and now well entrenched in the leadership of many of his security apparatuses) will not necessarily “play fair” in any continuing confrontation with Washington. No doubt many of these forces are already thinking up a variety of “dirty tricks” they might employ to try to reduce Obama’s power domestically and internationally, to make him look weak, and to “punish” him for daring to stand up to their plan to Judaize the whole of Jerusalem while America looks impotently on.
Let’s remember the history of, for example, the Lavon Affair in 1954, in which, according to the well-sourced Wikipedia entry,

    Israeli military intelligence planted bombs in Egyptian, American and British-owned targets in Egypt in the summer of 1954 in the hopes that “the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, ‘unspecified malcontents’ or ‘local nationalists'” would be blamed.

A country whose leaders could in relatively recent history act as cynically as that, including against British and U.S. targets, might well today have leaders who might think along similar lines.
Including, perhaps, even an action as explosive as launching some kind of military provocation against Iran, whose counter-attack would almost certainly engulf far more of the Americans who are on the country’s borders, than of Israelis?
The U.S. military, obviously, need to redouble their efforts to prevent any such provocation. But other Israeli “dirty tricks” against the U.S., in a wide variety of arenas, are also very possible in the period ahead.

The Biden factor: Iraq, Palestine– and Israel

Breaking news: late Wednesday evening in Cairo, Abu Mazen and his buddies at the Arab League decided there will be no ‘proximity talks’ between the PLO and Israel.
I’m kind of interested in the way Abu Mazen is getting Amr Moussa to front for him these days. It does indicate a serious lack of his own confidence in the depth of his support among Palestinians… But that matter is tangential to the main story here, which is–
The Amazingly Unsuccessful ‘Diplomatist’ Joe Biden!
Biden, lest we forget, is the man who in an interview with George Stephanopoulos last July, publicly gave Israel carte blanche to attack Iran whenever it wanted.
Biden was also, back in the pre-2003 day, one of Ahmed Chalabi’s main supporters in the U.S., and an enthusiastic backer of the idea of partitioning Iraq.
Since he became Vice-President, Biden has had a role “orchestrating” Washington’s Iraq policy on behalf of the president… Well, we’ve seen how that’s been going… To be fair, that is not as horrendously badly as it might have been going… But it hasn’t been going brilliantly, either– certainly not as brilliantly as most of the US MSM have been saying.
Biden has not done a particularly good job there, I think.
But he has really been bombing in Palestine.
Yes, of course we can and should lay the primary blame for what’s been happening in Jerusalem this past couple of days squarely on the Israeli government, the body that greeted Biden, on his first visit to Israel as vice-president, with not one but two announcements about the construction of new settler housing.
Notable that Yossi Sarid writes in Thursday’s Haaretz that,

    Don’t believe Benjamin Netanyahu for one moment when he says he “never knew” [about the 1,600 new settler housing units announced Tuesday.] The Jerusalem planning committee is only too aware of what the bosses want, and the government has decided to step up construction in greater Jerusalem. Dispossession and taking possession, kicking out and moving in – that’s what it’s all about.

Sarid also gave us these additional details about Biden’s time in Israel:

    This is one visit Joe Biden will not quickly forget. First he was compelled to sit through 25 minutes of an annoying speech in his honor by our president. Shimon Peres really believes that he is the destination for pilgrims from all over the world who drink in his musings and are intoxicated by his vision.
    Later, Biden was given a certificate memorializing his mother, but the glass broke. Once again, Bibi didn’t pay attention, leaned on it and shattered it. No fear, his speeches have always diverted attention from such mishaps. And finally, to add a finishing touch of infuriating disgrace, the Haredi neighborhood Ramat Shlomo was dumped on the vice-presidential head.
    Truth be told, the Obama administration just about asked for this slap. In Jerusalem, the lesson has been learned that the White House doesn’t fulfill its obligations – it just goes through the motions by issuing insincere rebukes.

Insincere rebukes, indeed.
Juan Cole and Pat Lang, two very seasoned analysts of Middle eastern dynamics, are just two of the people who say that, on hearing of the new settlement construction, Biden should simply have ordered up his plane and left Israel, rather than sitting there, going through the rest of the charade of the visit, while saying something on the record about how the Obama administration “condemns” the new construction.
I’m assuming Biden decided on this course of action after consultation with Washington. (He took 90 minutes to decide what to do.) Do he and his boss the Prez have no idea how disgusted most of the people in the world are with the fact that, though from time to time Washington might say something critical of Israel– meantime Washington never holds Israel to serious account, for anything, including “grave breaches of international humanitarian law” like implanting its settlers into occupied territories?
And the U.S. Congress continues to shovel money to Israel. U.S. diplomacy continues to get completely bent out of shape by defending Israel’s actions in every international forum, at every turn, and by zealously pursuing Israel-driven agendas throughout the entire Middle East, including with regard to Iraq and Iran.
And these actions by the administration and Congress put the lives of U.S. service-members deployed around the world, often in pursuit of Israel-driven agendas, in significant additional risk.
Regarding Biden, Pat Lang has this intriguing little vignette in his latest post:

    I was in Biden’s senate office on one occasion when Biden’s Zionism boiled over in a truly repulsive display of temper. I was there with my Arab employer to visit the senator… The Arab made some pro forma positive reference to the “peace process.” Biden flew into a rage, grew red in the face and shouted that this was an insincere lie and that his guest knew that it was only Arab stubbornness that prevented “little Israel’ from living in peace. His “guest” sat through this with what dignity he could manage. I would have walked out on him if I had been alone.

Assuming that the vignette’s true– and I tend to trust Lang on that– it reveals quite a few disturbing things about Biden. Not just the guy’s knee-jerk pro-Israelism, which is endemic just about everywhere in Congress, with a few notable exceptions. But also his evident lack of any diplomatic skills. I mean, why fly into a pro-Israeli rage like that if an Arab guest should happen to mention the “peace process”? What on earth good was he hoping to achieve by doing that? Nothing that I can think of– except to vent his own feelings.
… And meanwhile, George Mitchell, Mr. “Senior Peace Envoy”, has completely dropped off the map.
It is honestly not clear to me at all, right now, what it is that Obama and his people are hoping to achieve in the Arab-Israeli arena. Their entire “peace diplomacy” is in shambles. It’s as if Obama really doesn’t care any more about any of the lofty– but oh-so-important– goals he articulated back in the first days and weeks of his presidency. But he should realize that letting his “peace diplomacy” fall into disarray, as he has now done, is something that will have consequences far, far beyond Israel and Palestine. And quite possibly, more rapidly than anyone in Washington realizes.

Obama, Biden cave to Netanyahu

So Vice-President Biden arrives in Israel– and the very same day the Israeli government announces it will build 112 new apartments in the settlement of Beitar Illit.
This despite PM Netanyahu’s “pledge” to halt the building of settlements in the West Bank (outside of East Jerusalem) for ten months– and despite the Israeli government’s broader commitment to halt all settlement construction under the 2002 Road Map.
Does Biden get on the next plane out of the country the moment he heard of the Beitar illit plan?
The Israeli defense ministry said building the 112 apartments was needed “to plug a potentially dangerous 40-yard gap between two existing buildings.”
But oh my gosh! I understand that there are still a few other places in the West Bank where there are gaps between one settlement building and another… Or– even more dangerous!– gaps between one settlement and another! Evidently all these “gaps” need to be built on immediately! How can the settlers possibly be secure at any point before the whole occupied West Bank is covered with their apartment blocks???
(Irony alert.)
Honestly, if the Obama administration accepted this form of argumentation, as apparently it did, then it is being run by people who are either extremely stupid or irresponsible to the point of criminality.
I’m trying to get my head around why they feel they need to cave so completely to the Netanyahu government. It cannot only be the prospect of the upcoming mid-term elections here in the U.S. Could it be that Netanyahu is threatening that, unless the US goes along with his plans in the West Bank, then he cannot be responsive to the requests they make of him for restraint regarding Iran?
If so, this is outrageous blackmail. Obama and Biden should call Netanyahu on it immediately.