Middle East: the Biden visit – another view

With the trip of the Veep to Israel and the Palestinian territories, there has been extensive commentary on the FPA site about the conflict in the region, including a report arguing for a two-state solution, produced by the Boston Study Group.  I agree with the prevailing view that the Israeli government made a huge gaffe by embarrassing the Veep with the announcement of the construction of 1600 homes for Israelis in East Jerusalem.  No gain at all for Israel at the cost of modestly damaging US-Israeli relations, which, at least with the Obama administration, could prove hard to repair.  Having met Prime Minister Netanyahu a number of times when I was involved with rating Israel’s bonds, I suspect the buck stops with him. His hubris was behind this, if only in spirit rather than in deed. On the other hand, the point that Jerusalem should not be divided, should remain under Israeli sovereignty with strong guarantees for Muslim control over Islamic holy sites, should not be dismissed out of hand.

FPA’s Israel blogger points out that the announcement on home construction, while the voluble Veep was in the region, was a snub at Israel’s most important ally.  As I said, I couldn’t agree more.  On the other hand, FPA’s Middle East blogger suggests that what Israel is ultimately up to is “ethnic cleansing,” a controversial term suggesting the forcible removal of ethnic groups, usually during war and often involving genocidal killing. A polemical, perhaps rabid statement, especially given that the blogger should have included, by his/her measure, the dismantling of Jewish settlements by the Israeli government under heavy international pressure.  Actually, ethnic cleansing is what occurred in the Krajina region of Croatia in 1995, when hundreds of thousands of Serbs were driven from their homes and many killed, as the Croatian army overran the region (with a blind eye turned by the West).  There are many similar such instances of ethnic cleansing.  Should the IDF overrun the West Bank and Gaza and drive Palestinians into Jordan or Egypt, then our friend at the ME blog would have a point.  Till then, pipe down.

The paper featured on the FPA site from the Boston Study Group advocating a two-state solution seems reasonable.  A two-state solution is clearly the best solution to the bi-national competition among Jews and Sunni Arabs for the same territory in the region.  The major problem I had with this document was the inclusion among the authors of Stephen Walt, whose bias against Israel and the US-Israel alliance is well-known.  His inclusion undermines the seriousness of the document.  (More on Dr. Walt below.) 

As for Bibi’s gaffe with the voluble Veep, I am not of one mind.  My principal position would be as noted above that the Israeli government achieved little and lost a great deal.  Maybe Bibi was suggesting that holding off on announcing construction in Jerusalem should be reserved only for a presidential visit.  While President Obama cannot visit every country, he has made Middle East peace (and his special pull in the Arab world) a centerpiece of his foreign policy.  Perhaps he should stop off in Israel some time. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this is an unadulterated diplomatic fiasco for Israel. Way to go, Bibi.  You should stick to economics and limit Yishai and other right-wingers to committees in the Knesset .

My secondary position comes more from emotion and a sense of what is right and wrong.  A few years ago, the Israeli leftist and peace activist and former Labor minister, Yossi Beilin, said that the deal with the Palestinians should be a swap – a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (including dismantling most Jewish settlements, aka “ethnic cleansing”) in exchange for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.  Believe it or not, that’s what Yossi Beilin said before he participated in the much-more generous Geneva initiative.  The nature of any deal is — you give something up, I give something up.  Yet the Arab position, notably in the much vaunted 2002 Saudi peace plan, is, Israel gives something up (withdrawing to the 1967 borders) and the Arabs agree not to make war.  I concede and you agree to take the gun away from my head. 

History shows that no city should be divided.  Berlin was reunified.  Jerusalem is the third holiest city of Islam, but is the holiest spot on Earth for Judaism, not to mention the importance it holds for Christians.  During Jordanian rule over East Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed to visit the Cotel, or Western Wall.  Today, under Israeli sovereignty, the Islamic Waqf administers Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem.  In the West Bank, Jewish shrines have been destroyed under Palestinian Authority rule.  Israel protects Islamic sites under its control.

Thus, the deal should be a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and all of Gaza in exchange for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, but with mechanisms for Islamic interests to be under the control of Muslim/Palestinian entities.  Much as the Ottoman Turks allowed the French and Russians to oversee the interests of Christians in Jerusalem in the 19th century, some such mechanism involving a new Palestinian state, the Saudis, Jordanians and the Islamic Waqf could be found. That would be fair. 

Under Jordanian and Egyptian rule from 1948-67, the West Bank and Gaza were not permitted to become an independent Palestinian state, nor were refugees there allowed to integrate into Jordanian or Egyptian society, where other Sunni Arabs live.  A separate Palestinian nationality is a recent creation resulting from the war over Mandate Palestine (which at one time included Jordan, which even today is majority Palestinian).  By contrast, under Israeli rule, there have been Palestinian elections in the territories (much to everyone’s chagrin in Gaza) and a devolution of power to the Palestinian authority. The Palestinians can declare the capital of their new state Al-Quds if they want to, locating it on the outskirts of metropolitan Jerusalem, or they could keep it simply where it is today, in Ramallah.  The Germans moved theirs from Bonn to Berlin, so the Palestinians would likely follow their lead. 

The swap – Palestinian state and dismantling of most settlements for Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem – is the right thing to do in my view.  Israel’s ultimate leftist, Yossi Beilin, backed this a while back. But, the Palestinian/Arab side has succeeded in moving the debate.  It is now about splitting Jerusalem. In return, maybe, just maybe, the Palestinian side would give up the so-called right of return of Palestinians to their pre-1947 homes in Tel Aviv, Haifa and elsewhere.  (Should Jews demand a return to Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Tunisia and other states where they lost all they had – or even just financial compensation?) This is called staking out an extremist position as a negotiating tactic.  Your adversary may ultimately concede out of exhaustion. Arafat was a master of this strategy, using terrorism and the intifadah as levers. 

US policy, which many argue is biased toward Israel, inadvertently backed the Arab view on Jerusalem, thanks in large part to the handiwork of Bill Clinton at Taba (and quite frankly of Ehud Barak).  Bubba was guided only by his desire to be the man who brought peace to the Middle East, a sort of redemption for his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  It has been very good PR on the part of the Arabs to move the debate this way, and woeful PR on Israel’s part.  Israel has been woeful at PR since 1967.

But as they say in Texas, that dog won’t hunt.  The debate has already been moved. In order for Israel to obtain international legitimacy, it must negotiate over Jerusalem.  That is why I don’t think it was productive for the Netanyahu government to have approved this housing project while Biden was in town.  And contrary to what Stephen Walt and others would say, time is not on Israel’s side.  Israel’s power will decline relative to its neighbors.  So, I agree with the Boston Study Group – a two-state solution is needed now, however unlikely under Bibi.

As for Stephen Walt’s participation in the Boston Study Group paper, he and offensive Offensive Realist John Mearsheimer have argued that US Middle East policy has been captured by Jewish power.  While discussing the influence of the Israel lobby on US foreign policy is fair and the political climate should be one in which criticism of this lobby should not be reflexively labeled anti-Semitism, the vehemence of the Walt & Mearsheimer claims and their clear distaste for Israel undermined their argument.  What’s more, the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis that the US-Israel alliance runs against US interests flies flagrantly in the face of the theory that Stephen Walt himself created, namely, the realist theory of alliances.  According to Walt, alliances that run counter to a nation’s interests will not endure. Well, the US-Israel alliance has endured, Steve, and many, including the voluble Veep, agree that Israel’s security and interests are often in America’s interests, much to your and your buddy John’s chagrin. 

Further, Walt’s chapter in the Boston Study Group report appears eminently reasonable, but reading carefully, one can discern his tilt against Israel.  He pushes heavily the argument of Israel’s invincible military and of the paper tigers that are Israel’s regional threats.  I would argue that history has shown that a mistaken belief in one’s invincibility, driven by perceptions from wars past, often precedes a military defeat.  A foreign policy realist like Walt should understand this.  So, friends of Israel would do well to be cautious about how strong they think little Israel, with its small territory, small population, dysfunctional political system, and few allies, is relative to its enemies.  Finally, thwarted on the conventional battlefield over the last 60 years, Israel’s enemies are finding effective non-conventional means to seek Israel’s destruction, including guerrilla warfare, WMD, human rights calls for one-person-one-vote, one state, the right of return, and an end to “apartheid” in Israel (yes, that means you, Jimmy Carter), the role of the Israeli Arabs, terrorism, the ballot box, usage of oil wealth, etc.  The myth of Israel’s invincibility could be one way Israel-bashers can weaken the state.

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