Saturday, March 29, 2008

A New Gulf

Despite the US Congress's predictable, one sided expressions of support for Israel, there is a widening gulf of understanding between Israelis and Americans regarding US policy in the Middle East. If a Democrat is elected president, especially if it is Obama, the next administration and Israel are likely to be at odds over whether Israel needs to take any steps toward settling its conflict with the Palestinians or cooperate with the United States in seeking some stability in the Middle East. This is because the present limbo is far more acceptable for many Israelis and their government than outcomes of steps toward accommodating Palestinian needs and Syrian interests. To them, the rockets falling on Sderot, the threats from Hezbollah, the building demographic problem and the risk of become evermore an apartheid state are minor compared to fears about a coherent Palestinian state, an invigorated Syria, and a region where nations compete for preeminence without assured outside intervention.

Without claiming that Israel through its American neo-con supporters shares some responsibility for the invasion of Iraq, one can easily argue that Israel welcomed and benefited from it and the subsequent occupation. The invasion removed Saddam, a feared, if over-rated enemy; the occupation has prevented the reconstitution of a state whose leadership would likely be hostile to Israel. More importantly, the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, bracketing Iran dissuades any conventional, direct action against Israel, that Iranian ideologues might consider. On the other hand, the Bush administration's perceptions of Iranian meddling in the occupation strengthens its inclination to use force to thwart Iran's presumed ambitions, most notably the acquisition of nuclear weapons, a possibility that Israel dreads. No one wonder John McCain, with his open-ended commitment to keep US troops in Iraq and his declared hostility to Iran, is the favored presidential candidate in Israel and among its right wing supporters in the United States.

Signs of the potential gulf have already appeared at the rhetorical and symbolic levels. The Bush administration has finally heard that pushing Israel toward peace with the Palestinians can help restore the US's prestige in the Middle East and the world at large. So W. has declared his desire to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace by the end of his term and pushed Israel and the PLO government (nominally in control of only the West Bank) to restart formal negotiations. Each side has declared its desire to meet Bush's goal, the leaders and negotiating teams have met, but nothing has changed on the ground. The IDF continues in full the West Bank road blocks and travel restrictions, which fragment the territory and undermine the possibilities of its economic development. Israel continues building and settlement activities instead of freezing them as required by the roadmap. Gaza remains under Israel blockade and Hamas which controls it is excluded from participation in any negotiations. For its part, the Palestinian Authority (a.k.a. Fatah) remains unwilling or unable to suppress activities by terrorist groups in the West Bank. It has failed to soften Hamas's insistence on Israel withdrawal to the 1967 borders as a precondition for any change Hamas's rejection of Israel, and Hamas continues to reject Fatah's claim to lead the Palestinians. The headline, as Secretary of State Rice admitted a few weeks ago, is neither side has done enough to move the peace process forward. But the not-so secret story is nobody in the Bush administration, Rice possibly excepted, cares. She is now in the Israel and the West Bank trying to restart the negotiations for the third or fourth time. A fool's errand or photo op?

But the next administration will need to move to a more substantive level. In some way, the US will need to extricate itself from Iraq; the cost of its present engagement is unsustainable. One of the better scenarios for the pullback will involve a loose regional alliance of the Arab states and Israel partly to promote stability in Iraq and partly to blunt Iranian ambitions in the region. That can only happen if Israel begins serious efforts to settle with the Palestinians. At its meeting last week, the Arab league, perhaps recognizing the possibilities for such a scenario, again endorsed the Saudi proposal for peace with Israel on the basis of total Israel withdrawal to the 1967 borders and creation of a Palestinian state. The next administration might have little choice but to accept that, rather than the status quo, as the starting point for negotiations with the Arab states and an Israel government would do well to recognize such constraints on its American partner. Otherwise push could come to shove.


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