A leading Middle East specialist and author of earlier analyses of Israeli-Palestinian politics looks at the current state of U.S.-Israeli relations and what may be a way forward. —The Editor
Balancing Support for Israel Against Other American Interests
by Alon Ben-Meir
As the Obama administration is reviewing how to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the depth of its involvement, the parties on all sides of the conflict are looking to see the real nature of the United States-Israeli relationship, and whether the current tensions run deeper than what may appear. Although U. S. and Israeli strategic interests seem to have diverged in the past few months, there is no denying that their ultimate goals for the region are both interlinked and complimentary. While both nations would like to see an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and have high stakes in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, their problems lay mostly in their miss-assessment of each other’s concerns and priorities. But since very little progress, if any, can be made to unlock the Arab-Israeli Gordian knot without direct and active American involvement and a willing Israeli government, the Obama and Netanyahu administrations must demonstrate a better appreciation of each other’s shifting strategic priorities. They must now find a way to agree on a modus operandi to end the festering Arab-Israeli conflict and rein in Iran’s nuclear threat bearing in mind that time is of the essence.
Both Israel and the United States have a number of legitimate concerns that must be aired, and both sides must not only acknowledge these concerns but act in full coordination bilaterally to address them. This will not only start to ameliorate tensions on key issues between the two sides but will also suggest to the Palestinians, Syrians and other key Arab states that the greater American-Israeli cooperation is, the safer Israel will feel in making necessary concessions. The last sixteen months have clearly demonstrated that a lack of coordination and strained relations between the two allies will only stymie continued negotiations to the detriment of all parties to the conflict.
|Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu|
The Israeli concerns:
The Israeli concerns center on three issues that the majority of Israelis deem critical to their national security and a deeply rooted connectedness to the holy city of Jerusalem. Israel’s first and immediate concern is the Palestinians’ inability to assume long-term security responsibility. Whereas most Israelis grasp the inevitability of a two-state solution and understand the Palestinian sentiments and larger Muslim historic ties to East Jerusalem—they are not convinced that any Palestinian government is capable, at the present time, to prevent a major security violation as long as irredentist Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to thrive and deny Israel’s right to exist.
Notwithstanding the impressive advances in security that the Palestinian Authority has made recently in the West Bank, Israelis still recall with deep trepidation Hamas’ takeover of Gaza following the Prime Minister Sharon’s withdrawal, using the evacuated territories as a staging ground to attack Israel. Israel is deeply troubled by the prospect that a similar scenario could be played out in the West Bank, be that through the use of force or through democratic elections where Hamas enjoys widespread popularity. Moreover, although the Israelis do not doubt America’s commitment to their country’s national security, there is very little that the United States can do to prevent, for example, the shelling of rockets against Israel from Gaza other than condemning Hamas’ provocations. Under the current circumstances, no one can rule out this possibility. This explains why the Israelis insist that under any peaceful agreement the IDF should be allowed to retain residual forces along the Jordan valley to prevent not only a Hamas takeover but also the infiltrations of weapons and extremists into the West Bank across the long and porous border with Jordan.
Israel’s second concern is Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons and their repeated existential threats against its right to exist in the region. The Obama administration takes the Iranian threats and their regional aspirations quite seriously and has been cooperating with Israel in this regard, but still the two allies differ sharply in their intelligence assessments as to when Iran might reach a breakout capacity. In this connection, Washington and Jerusalem also differ about the urgency in dealing with the Palestinian problem and how that might impact on Iran’s behavior. While the Obama administration believes that a solution to the Palestinian conflict would dramatically change the regional political dynamics and weakens Iran’s resolve, the Netanyahu government feels that the focus should first be on Iran’s race to acquire nuclear weapons.
What has further aggravated the relationship is that Washington has occasionally linked its efforts to contain Iran’s ambitions to progress on the Palestinian front. Furthermore, Israel is very unhappy with the slow pace to mobilize a new set of international sanctions since the negotiations with Tehran failed to accomplish the intended goal by the end of 2009. Some in the Israeli intelligence community argue that the Iranian regime will not suffer seriously under new sanctions, especially because under the best of circumstances the new sanctions will be watered down to satisfy the Russian and Chinese requirements as a precondition for support. Some Israelis have expressed even a deeper concerns that although the Obama administration has not officially removed the military option off the table to force Iran’s hand, the on-going war in Afghanistan and the continuing instability in Iraq has made nearly impossible for the Obama administration to contemplate a military strike against Iran should the new set of sanctions fail. In a recent secret memo sent by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to top administration officials, Gates indicated that the United States does not have an effective long-term policy to deal with Iran’s continuing and steady progress of obtain nuclear weapons. In response, National Security Advisor General Jones stated: “On Iran we are doing what we said we were going to do. The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the whole world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies—we do.” The fact that Secretary Gates wrote the memo in the first place raises serious concern, however.
From the Israeli perspective, time is running out and Israel may sooner than later be faced with one of the two grim options: an Iran with nuclear weapons posing an existential threat and changing in a dramatic way the balance of power in the Middle East, or taking a military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities which will almost certainly unfold catastrophic developments and drag in the US into another violent and unpredictable conflict.
The Israelis are particularly perturbed that by a third issue, arguing that it was the Obama administration that has made the settlements issue—especially in East Jerusalem—a zero sum game, creating obstacles that heretofore did not exist. Although President Obama is correct in his assumption that a solution to the Palestinian problem can help mitigate the Iranian threat, he has approached the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a manner that has alienated many Israelis because of what they deem to be the wrong focus. From the Israeli perspective, the Palestinians historically have always negotiated while the settlements’ activity has been expanding, and a solution to the borders would have automatically provided an answer to the future of the settlements. Many of Obama’s policy advisors concur with the notion that giving Israel a carte blanche in the past has significantly aided Israel’s entrenchment in the occupied territories, perhaps to its own detriment. As the settlements movement grew in strength and the number of the settlers nearly doubled in the last ten years, it has made it increasingly more difficult to reverse gears. To suggest that no Israeli government stopped the settlement activity during past negotiations offers no justification, as it flies in the face of the whole idea of a two-state solution. The fact remains that these past negotiations in 2000 and in 2008 still led to no agreement. Now with more than half a million settlers in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, the problem is increasingly difficult. As a result, Israel lost its credibility as both friends and foes no longer believe that it is serious about reaching an agreement.
|Jerusalem-The Wailing Wall|
In conjunction with that, what has irked the Israelis the most is the focus on Jerusalem, to which they have deep affinity that goes back millennia. Although many Israelis realize that ultimately East Jerusalem will end up being the capital of the Palestinian state, they do not subscribe to the notion that such an eventuality should necessarily exclude the Israelis from exercising their religious and sacred rights to the city. To them, co-habitation in East Jerusalem is sine qua non to achieving a permanent settlement to the future of the city. From the Israeli viewpoint, Jerusalem exemplifies the embodiment of Jew’s very being from a historical, religious, emotional, psychological and cultural perspective, and as such it occupies an unmatched place in Jewish life. Many Israelis insist that demanding from Israel a halt to the expansion of a certain settlement in East Jerusalem, regardless of how provocative and untimely that might have been on the part of the Israelis, it has, in fact diverted the focus from other far more urgent issues, such as borders, which would facilitate the solution to the future of Jerusalem as well. In previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations both at Camp David in 2000 and in 2008, Israel and the Palestinians have agreed in principle to a solution to Jerusalem along with the administration of the Jewish and Muslim holy places.
Finally, one other important point that must be underlined here is that perception plays as an important role as reality itself in this region. The tendency to dismiss, for example, Israel’s security concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions as a national security paranoia is not only counterproductive but could force the Israelis, who have been existentially threatened by Tehran, to resort to unilateral action. The same applies to the perception of the Palestinians about Israel’s conduct in and outside the occupied territories, suggesting that Israel is inherently an expansionist state, deliberately subjugating and humiliating the Palestinian people. The Israelis obviously are not exempt from having certain perceptions about the Palestinians as being largely untrustworthy, harboring ill intentions or as a people who will never accept Israel’s existence even if they profess to the contrary today. More than six decades of violent conflict have taken a heavy toll and left many deep scars while creating a deep sense of mutual skepticism, cynicism and disdain.
|U.S. President Barrack Obama|
Balancing U. S. Strategic Interests:
The Israelis who have been accustomed to near unconditional American support find themselves at odds with a new the administration, not because the Obama administration is less supportive of Israel, but due to the changing regional geopolitical conditions that must now be balanced. The Netanyahu government seems to missassess the changing strategic interests of the United States in the Middle East, especially in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Israel must understand that notwithstanding the United States’ unshakable commitment to Israel’s national security, the Obama administration does not feel that such a commitment is isolated or in any shape contradictory to the other vital American interests in the region and beyond. In his press conference in mid-April which he gave on the heel of the Nuclear Summit, President Obama declared that solving the long-running Middle East conflict was a “Vital national security interest of the United States.” He went on to offer a far-reaching assessment about the situation in the Middle East when he declared that the conflict like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of blood and treasure.” The President was, in fact reinforcing what General Petraeus, the Commander of the Central Command said in his recent Congressional testimony that “the impasse in [the Israeli-Palestinian] negotiations it does contribute, if you will, to the overall environment within which we operate.”
President Obama views the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a source of regional instability that feeds into Islamic extremism, and the sooner is brought under control the easier it will be to deal with other conflicts, especially in combating terrorism in the Middle East and in many other part of Asia. Regardless of the real or perceived linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Islamic extremism, it makes it extremely difficult for the United States to simply ignore it. For this reason, as long as the Israeli-Palestinian crisis persists it will continue to undermine American war efforts. President Obama shares the same desire as his two predecessors to end the conflict, except that he has openly identified the real impediments to peace and is trying to overcome them through a realistic approach. From his point of view, America is a global power and has no choice but to assert itself if it wants to live up to its commitment to protect its friends and allies. The United States should want a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace as much as the conflicting parties. The notion that America should not want peace more than the Arabs or Israelis is no longer consistent with the changing regional realities.
President Obama has participated and listened in on continuous deliberations amongst his top policy advisors as to how to balance the United States’ support of Israel against other American interests, and he believes that an Israeli-Palestinian peace serves not only American interests but Israel’s national security as well. The Obama administration sees continued Israeli occupation as a serious liability to Israel’s security. From the American perspective, Israel’s search for permanent security is completely inconsistent with occupation and the building or expansion of settlements. A part of the American commitment to Israel’s national security is to neutralize the sources of threats by ending the occupation, forging a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and establishing a long-term security arrangement.
Moreover, the Obama administration believes that for Israel to maintain its current progress, prosperity and military edge that was made possible in large by the United States’ enduring friendship and assistance, it must use its overwhelming economic and technological advantages and military strength to make the necessary concessions for peace. Israel’s impressive achievements, otherwise, could risk being a mirage that could vanish in the face of a new major regional conflagration which may be inevitable if the current hostile climate persists. Israel cannot expect unequivocal American commitment to its security and then pursue policies that are not only contrary to its own long-term national security interests but also undermine American overall strategic interests in the region. In the final analysis, the US’ overriding four pronged interests in the area—insuring Israel’s national security, repairing its moral leadership in the Arab world, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and securing the flow of oil—are not contradictory, but do require a balanced strategy. The Obama administration deems a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict central to such a strategy.
The third factor that enters the equation is the United States’ extensive interest in many Arab states to which it can no longer take for granted as the previous administration did. The domestic concerns in most of the Arab states have too gone through major changes. They view the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a major threat to their internal stability. For the Arab Sunni states, the changing geopolitical conditions post Iraq war have altered the power equation in the Middle East which have given rise to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. Whereas in the past, the Arab states have largely used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to cover for their internal shortcomings, they have now realized that the greater threat to their national security emanates from Iran and the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict has allowed Iran to establish a strong foothold in the Mediterranean through Hamas and Hezbollah. Here is where the Obama administration sees a direct connection between the Palestinian problem and Iran, which explains why President Obama wants to ensure some progress on the Palestinian front. The Arab states, on the other hand, feel handicapped to side with the Israelis against Iran as long as the Palestinian conflict hovers over their heads and it remains uncertain as to whether the United States will succeed in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Although admittedly the Arab states have done very little to nudge the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward, and even less to effectively promote their Peace Initiative which offered an historical framework for a comprehensive agreement, they look now to the Obama administration to deliver the goods.
Finally, as President Obama championed multilateralism, he must also listen to what America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere are saying. They are generally sickened by the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and they increasingly see Israel as the culprit behind the stalemate. In the past, many allies blamed the United States for a lack of evenhandedness in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and now expect the United States to end its preferential treatment of Israel, which they are convinced has ill-served the Israelis. Many European nations are running out of patience with Israel, especially since the Arab states have clearly indicated their willingness to make a comprehensive peace with Israel and they are at a loss as to why Israel is not seizing the opportunity.
A New American Strategy:
Pursuing a comprehensive approach: Following seventeen months of diminutive progress and repeated breakdowns with the Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians, the Obama administration must now advance its own version of what a final solution should look like. Although bilateral negotiations should provide the basis for the new approach, these negotiations must be conducted in the larger context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. The new approach will have a chance at succeeding, however, only if the Obama administration follows a few guidelines and stays committed and engaged in the process. It is necessary at this point that he provides the Israelis with better understanding of America’s intentions, involves other leading Arab states in the process by embracing the Arab Peace Initiative, and deals effectively and more publicly with Israel’s national security concerns. The Obama administration must remain tenacious, committed and willing to invest the political capital necessary to achieve a breakthrough.
Addressing the Israeli public: President Obama must first and foremost reach out and directly address the general Israeli public and media. If he will not visit Israel, he must talk to Israelis directly through news outlets to disabuse those who still may have doubts about America’s understanding of the region’s inherent complexities and the US commitment to their country’s national security. Having visited the Middle East twice as a President while skipping over Israel, President Obama has created the impression that he does not view the importance of Israel as America’s staunchest ally in the same manner that his predecessor did. The administration’s demands that Israel freezes the settlement expansion and its souring relations with Prime Minster Netanyahu has added to the suspicion in some Israeli circles that this administration is out of touch with the Israeli needs and concerns. The President needs to explain in interviews and speeches to the Israeli public how and why American strategic interests have changed and how his vision of peace offers Israel’s ultimate security guarantees. Moreover, he will need to explain that America’s commitment to Israel’s national security is not a slogan but real, and make clear to the Israelis as well as to their adversaries where America stands.
In the context of preparing an American peace plan, President Obama would be well advised to formally invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington, listen to Netanyahu’s vision of peace and share his with the Israeli leader. The President must allay any Israeli concerns that peace be superimposed and that America’s peace plan is there to jump start the process. This will also allow the President to know how far Netanyahu is willing to go and what the real prospect of achieving peace is with the current Israeli government. To be sure, restoring full cooperation and mutual confidence in the American-Israeli bilateral relations is a prerequisite to moving the process forward.
Advancing an American peace plans: President Obama’s peace plan must be comprehensive and based on prior agreements and an understanding between the parties since the 1993 Oslo accords. The incremental approach favored by NSC veteran Dennis Ross and the so-called confidence building measures no longer resonate, as the majority of Israelis and Palestinians are exhausted from the never ending peace process with little to show from it. General Jim Jones, who heads the National Security Council, is right in advocating an American peace plan based on prior negotiations between the parties where the United States can mediate to bridge the remaining gaps. Unlike his predecessors, President Obama is best positioned to seek a comprehensive peace provided he adopts a new strategic approach resting on three major pillars: The plans should necessarily be reinforced by the Arab Peace Initiative, it should not impose an incrementalist solution, and it should provide a frame of reference based on prior agreements and understandings between the parties. While confidence-building measures may still be necessary, they will work only in the context of an overall vision of a comprehensive peace. This is why the Obama administration must aim for a settlement with a clear vision of the end game. Such a vision in place will strengthen the hands of those who actively support it against the detractors who will inevitably try to undermine it by whatever means available including violence.
Moreover, the negotiations should not be limited to a single track at a time. In fact, the sooner the Israeli-Syria negotiations resume in earnest, the greater contribution it would make to the Israeli-Palestinian track. An agreement with Syria that would entail the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control under certain security assurances to Israel would have transformational impact throughout the region. Syria’s influence over the Palestinians through Hamas and in Lebanon through Hezbollah and its closeness to Iran could either facilitate or hinder the other set of negotiations. In fact, to jump start the regional approach, the process should begin with Syria. The second critical component is that other leading Arab representatives must be present in some bilateral negotiations under the banner of the Arab Peace Initiative. This will provide a wider context to the peace process and would signal to the Israelis in particular that the Arab collective body is behind any accord that may emerge from these negotiations. The United States has always played an active and pivotal role to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process and there is no reason to believe that any real progress can be made now without direct American involvement. But this time the United States must abandon the incremental approach which has failed to achieve its objective and instead follow the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian models. The United States must present its own framework for a comprehensive peace in conjunction with the Arab Peace Initiative and remain stay the course regardless of how daunting the process will be.
Meeting Israel’s security requirements: The President must in particular alleviate the Israeli concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Although President Obama has worked diligently to isolate Iran and is making every effort to mobilize the International community to rein in Tehran, Iran may still be in a position to frustrate his efforts. Regardless of how prepared the United States is to deal with Iran, Defense Secretary Gates’ memo and the discussion that ensued within the defense and NSA further heightens the Israeli concerns and may stiffen Tehran’s resistance to comply with the international demand to come out clean about its nuclear program. Moreover, since the Arab states are just as concerned as Israel and the US over Iran’s nuclear potential, the Obama administration must make it abundantly clear to Iran that under no circumstances would the United States allow it to cross the nuclear threshold. President Obama should convey through private channel to Tehran that in addition to a new set of sanctions the United States will be prepared to take, should it become necessary, additional unilateral ‘crippling’ measures, especially the importation of refined gasoline. Israel needs to be satisfied that the United States determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is backed by credible measures that only the United States with its close allies can in fact implement.
The Obama administration may disagree with Israel’s assessment as to when Iran may reach the point of no return, but regardless of any disagreement, the two allies must reach a clear understanding and act in concert. Moreover, the Obama administration must not convey even the impression that it can control Israel’s actions concerning Iran and instead use that as leverage against Iran. Finally, Israel must never be put in a situation where it must choose between its survival and its friendship and loyalty to the United States because, in the final analysis, survival will trump any alliances. President Obama may have to be prepared to declare that an Iranian attack on Israel even by conventional weapons will be considered as an attack on the United States.
To allay Israeli security concerns in the West Bank if an Israeli presence in the Jordan valley is not acceptable following an agreement, then the United States must come up with a concrete alternative that can satisfy Israeli requirements. Ideally, Hamas should be brought to the negotiating process or at a minimum accept the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian (the Palestinian Authority) peace negotiations. Fearing, however, a repeat of what happened in Gaza, the Obama administration must also consider the establishment of a robust UN peacekeeping force acceptable to Israel and the Palestinians. A force that may include military troops from the leading Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, under the command of the United States to be annually renewed or removed only by a security council resolution where the United States exercises a veto power. Such a force must have the mandate and the means to deal with any violation and deter any Palestinian group from realistically challenging its presence.
The Obama administration must also show greater sensitivity to the Israelis’ attachment to Jerusalem and table the negotiations on the future status of the city until other critical issues ate settled including borders and the Palestinian refugee problem. Under any circumstances, Jerusalem must remain united and open city serving as the capital of Israel and the Palestinian state. The ultimate solution could be the easiest or the most intractable depending on how and when the negotiations over the city are taking place. It must be a given that no Israeli government regardless of its political leanings will evacuate from East Jerusalem, but it must also be a given that Israel cannot continue to expand, at will, its settlement activity in the future Palestinian capital. With the largest Israeli and Palestinian communities living side-by side in Jerusalem, the city must become a microcosm and the symbol of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.
Although there are many requirements and concessions that must be met by Israel and the Arab states to move the peace process forward, the one indispensable prerequisite to achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is full cooperation and understanding between Israel and the United States. Strained relations between the two allies will not only freeze the process and undermine the interest of all parties who seek a lasting solution, but it plays into the hands of the detractors, such as Iran and its surrogates, who will miss no opportunity to capitalize on US-Israel discord. President Obama has shown tremendous courage and tenacity in dealing with some of the most difficult domestic and foreign issues; he must now demonstrate the same capacity to restore not only the fundamentals but also public perception about the uniqueness of the special American-Israeli bilateral relations.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. Ben-Meir is also the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York. He travels frequently in the Middle East and has built relationships with many Arab and Israeli leaders. He has authored numerous books and articles about the Middle East and has been interviewed on CNN, Fox, PBS, al-Jazeera, and other major media outlets. Born in Baghdad, he is fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and he holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford. His website is www.alonben-meir.com, email Alon@alonben-meir.com.