Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Obama’s Answer to Iran

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

That didn’t take long.

One day after Iran announced a nuclear deal with Turkey and Brazil — a transparent stalling effort designed to ward off international sanctions aimed at curtailing its nuclear program — the Obama administration has announced its own deal with the other major powers, including Russia and China, to go ahead with tough new sanctions.

It’s a draft plan. But, still, for those of use who care about Israel and Middle East stability, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement today is nothing short of huge.

As the negotiations on the draft resolution were in their final hours on Monday evening, a senior administration official said that one of the most critical sections of the proposed sanctions were modeled on a resolution passed last year against North Korea, after its second nuclear test. That resolution authorized all nations to search cargo ships heading into or out of the country for suspected weapons, nuclear technology or other cargo prohibited by previous United Nations resolutions …

Other elements of the sanctions resolution are aimed at Iranian financial institutions, including those that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The corps is responsible for overseeing the military aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. But it has also played a central role in suppressing protests against the government, and the Obama administration is betting that the organization is now despised by a large enough portion of the Iranian public that the sanctions may be welcomed by part of Iranian society. That is a big bet, however, because the corps also runs large elements of the country’s infrastructure, including its airports.

The deal, struck with the veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council (France, Russia, China, and the U.K.) plus Germany, is the Obama administration’s answer to Iran’s not-so-subtle high stakes gamesmanship.

Mrs. Clinton said the new offer [with Turkey and Brazil] would still leave Iran “in clear violation of its international obligations” because it “is continually amassing newly enriched uranium.” She also criticized what she called the “amorphous timeline for the removal” of the low enriched uranium. Reading the terms, she said, “that could take months of further negotiation and that is just not acceptable to us and to our partners.”

To those critics who say that sanctions will not hurt or deter Iran, I would ask: Why, then, is Iran going to such great lengths to undermine them?

As the Times reports:

Iran has been working mightily to ward off new sanctions, sending its foreign minister to the capitals of countries sitting on the Security Council to make the case that the sanctions amount to an American conspiracy to deprive Iran of its right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Maybe you saw this photo of a Ahmadinejad in today’s Times, raising the V for victory sign after inking the deal with Brazil and Turkey. If Obama and Clinton succeed in getting these sanctions through the United Nations, it will be the end of Ahmadinejad’s smirking.

Why I Mistrust Criticism of Obama on Israel

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A good friend of mine in Israel sent me an article this morning from Y-Net, Israel’s largest and most popular news site. Headline: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians.”

My first thought: Oy. This is not the way to improve relations with the Jewish state, and earn back the trust of the Jewish community.

The subdeck went from bad to worse: “National Security Advisor James Jones says peace could prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but adds ‘it must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside.’ ”

Double oy, I thought. Peace preventing Iran from getting the bomb? It sounds foolishly naive: Obama, exactly as he is portrayed by his fiercest critics.

I read the article, an account of Jones’ remarks yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Curiously, nowhere in the article was Jones quoted expressing disappointment with Israel. And nowhere was he quoted saying anything close to to what the subdeck asserted, vis-a-vis Iran and nuclear weapons.

So I went to the transcript. Jones doesn’t say he’s disappointed with Israel. (He does say: “we are disappointed that the parties have not begun direct negotiations.” But presumably, so is Bibi Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stated his desire to open direct negotiations toward peace.) And Jones doesn’t say peace between Israel and the Palestinians will prevent Iran from getting nukes. (He does say: “Advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.” This isn’t warm and fuzzy hope; it’s shrewd Realpolitik that, whether you agree with it or not, highlights Iran’s corrupt core.)

For those who haven’t read it, you should; Jones’ talk is a virtual love note to Israel. You can read it here.

Jones was absolutely steadfast on the need to stop Iran from getting a bomb, asserting that if Iran continues on its current path, it “will face ever deepening isolation.”

Iran’s government must face real consequences for its continued defiance of the international community.  We hope that Iran will make the right choice and acts to restore the confidence of the international community in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. However, should Iran’s leaders fail to make that choice, President Obama has been very clear, and I want to repeat it here: the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

He goes on to say there has been “a lot of distortion and misrepresentation” of U.S. policy regarding Israel. Though the two have had differences, he said, “we will always resolve them as allies.” Not once, but twice he referred to the absolute imperative for Israel to be a “secure, Jewish state.” Note the emphasis: Jewish.

As President Obama declared in Cairo, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known.  This bond is unbreakable.”  They are the bonds of history—two nations that earned our independence through the sacrifice of patriots.  They are the bonds of two people, bound together by shared values of freedom and individual opportunity.  They are the bonds of two democracies, where power resides in the people.  They are the bonds of pioneers in science, technology and so many fields where we cooperate every day.  They are the bonds of friendship, including the ties of so many families and friends.

 This week marked the 62nd anniversary of Israeli independence—a nation and a people who have survived in the face of overwhelming odds.  But even now, six decades since its founding, Israel continues to reside in a hostile neighborhood with adversaries who cling to the false hope that denying Israel’s legitimacy will ultimately make it disappear.  But those adversaries are wrong. 

 He goes on to criticize the Palestinians for refusing to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. “America’s commitment to Israel will endure,” the National Security Advisor said:

And everyone must know that there is no space—no space—between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.  It is as strong as ever.  This President and this Administration understands very well the environment—regionally and internationally—in which Israel and the United States must operate.  We understand very well that for peace and stability in the Middle East, Israel must be secure. 

 The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security. 

The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security.

That’s why, he explained, the U.S. spends billions of dollars annually in security assistance to Israel; consults with Israel to ensure its “qualitative military edge”; and undertakes joint military exercises, including one that involved more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers.

I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America. Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats. 

Over the years, and like so many Americans—like so many of you here tonight—I’ve spent a great deal of time with my Israeli partners, including my friends in the IDF.  These partnerships are deep and abiding.  They are personal relationships and friendships based on mutual trust and respect.  Every day, across the whole range of our bilateral relationship, we are working together for our shared security and prosperity.  And our partnership will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.

And yet Y-Net, the most popular news site in Israel, chooses to run with: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians”?

What bothers me most about this, is not only that it’s inaccurate, but destructive. And whether this particular headline was intentional or not, it fits a false narrative — purveyed by too many in the Jewish community — that goes back to before the election: Obama is a Muslim; he has anti-Israel advisors; he removed “Next year in Jerusalem” from the White House Passover seder; his State Department is denying visas to Israeli nuclear scientists; he snubbed Bibi Netanyahu; he “hates” Netanyahu; he hates Israel.

False. False. False. False. False. False. And false.

It’s dishonest. And it’s a big reason that, while I have specific concerns about how Obama’s handled Israel and the peace process, some of which I’ve blogged about, at the end of the day, my money’s on him.

Concrete versus Sand

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Richard Cohen has an important column in the Washington Post this week (“Obama, don’t forget Jerusalem.”)

There are some nuggets in the piece that should reassure the Jewish community vis-a-vis the recent dust-up between the U.S. and Israel.

For starters, Obama did not snub Netanyahu by interrupting a meeting with the prime minister so he could have dinner with his family. “There was no snub, say the most informed of informed sources,” Cohen writes.

Moreover, in some important arenas, U.S.-Israeli cooperation is actually greater than it’s ever been.

In fact, Israelis and others say that when it comes to military aid and intelligence operations, the two countries have never been closer. As an example, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz tell us that three American-made Hercules transport aircraft are in the pipeline to Israel. …

… Most Israelis still like Obama and approve his approach; they, too, want a two-state solution.

The problem, Cohen argues, is one primarily of perception.

[Obama] gives every appearance of not “getting” Israel; not appreciating its fears or its history. Israel is not half of the equation, as if both sides are right. It is a democracy with American values that has tried, over and over again, to make peace with a recalcitrant and unforgiving enemy.

Israelis would give up the West Bank and East Jerusalem for peace — but they fear, and with good reason, that more concessions won’t work, and will leave Israel more exposed. Many believe Hamas would quickly over-run a weak Palestinian Authority, and Israel would be suddenly faced with not one but two terrorist mini-states breathing down its neck. (Hamas was elected, after all, in Gaza; what’s to prevent that from happening in East Jerusalem?)

Obama “needs to address Israelis’ fears,” the Israeli philosopher Carlo Strenger wrote recently in Haaretz. So far, Obama has done just the opposite, even going to Cairo to assure the Palestinians and the greater Arab world that he appreciates their plight without assuring Israelis that he appreciates theirs. His coolness toward Netanyahu, earned or not, has chilled the Israeli public and encouraged Palestinian defiance. He is on the cusp of an enormous diplomatic blunder.

Cohen concludes by saying that Obama has the “right policy,” but needs to go to Jerusalem to address Israeli fears. (I’ve repeatedly advocated the same thing with this blog, as early as this post, from July 9, 2009: “The Time is Right for Obama to Visit Israel.“)

There’s another way Obama can start changing perceptions. When his administration pressures Israel, he asks for concrete concessions (freeze settlements, open checkpoints, declare support for a two-state solution, etc.) When pressure is exerted on the Palestinian Authority, it’s much less concrete. Just this week, for example, Hillary Clinton called on the PA to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians.”

We’ve heard that trifecta before.

But what does a crackdown on corruption look like? How should the Jewish community measure PA efforts to ingrain a culture of tolerance? Can you show us any hard steps the PA has taken to end incitement? From our vantage point — when we see, for instance, Fatah naming a square in el-Bireh after a Palestinian terrorist — it seems like just the opposite is occurring.

With the Israelis, so far, this administration is asking for concrete. With the Palestinians, it seems to be asking for sand.

Until Obama demands painful concessions from the Palestinian side — let’s see the Palestinian police arrest Hamas leaders, or others inciting violence against Israel, for example — trust is going to be in short supply.

That Time is not Now

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The Obama administration has no imminent plans to introduce a U.S. peace plan, which would impose final status  agreement on Israel and the Palestinians.

“That time is not now,” Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Charlie Rose, as reported by JTA. The “time now is to get back to the proximity talks, have those conversations that eventually will lead to direct negotiations, start to make the hard decisions to bring a balance between the aspirations of the Israelis for security and make that blend with the aspirations of the Palestinian people for their sovereignty.”

According to the JTA, Obama and Hillary Clinton have pushed back against the claim, as well. For now, they continue to hope the parties can work toward agreement themselves, in indirect talks facilitated by the United States.

An ‘Unbreakable Bond of Friendship’

Monday, April 19th, 2010

A good friend of mine in Israel sent me a powerful column this morning by Haaretz political columnist Ari Shavit, “An Open Letter to Netanyahu: Act Before It’s too Late.”

It’s a moving, personal missive. In it, Shavit argues that on the eve of Israel’s 62 Independence Day, the state faces an existential crisis like none other in its history.

Mr. Prime Minister, here are the basic facts: The grace period granted the Jewish state by Auschwitz and Treblinka is ending. The generation that knew the Holocaust has left the stage. The generation that remembers the Holocaust is disappearing. What shapes the world’s perception of Israel today is not the crematoria, but the checkpoints. Not the trains, but the settlements. As a result, even when we are right, they do not listen to us. Even when we are persecuted, they pay us no heed. The wind is blowing against us.

The zeitgeist of the 21st century threatens to put an end to Zionism. No one knows better than you that even superpowers cannot resist the spirit of the times. And certainly not small, fragile states like Israel.

Shavit argues that Israel has been abandoned by its allies, including the United States, and stands at the precipice of war with Iran, besieged. “The sense that once again, we must meet our fate alone.”

You are a hated individual, Mr. Prime Minister. The president of the United States hates you. The secretary of state hates you. Some Arab leaders hate you. Public opinion in the West hates you. The leader of the opposition hates you. My colleagues hate you, my friends hate you, my social milieu hates you.

The possibilities — what to do going forward — are known, Shavit writes:

Offer the Syrians the Golan Heights in exchange for ending its alliance with Iran. Offer Abbas a state in provisional borders. Initiate a second limited disengagement. Transfer territory into the hands of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to enable him to build a sane Palestinian state. Reach an agreement with the international community on an outline for partitioning the land into two nation-states.

Ultimately, he urges the prime minister — who he clearly respects tremendously — to change his approach:

Israel needs a courageous alliance with the Western powers. In order withstand what is to come, Israel must once again become an inalienable part of the West. And the West is not prepared to accept Israel as an occupying state. Therefore, in order to save our home, is necessary to act at once to end the occupation. It is essential to effect an immediate and sharp change in diplomatic direction.

It’s a powerful argument, coming from one of Israel’s leading thinkers: End the occupation to save the Jewish state — not because of demographics; not because it will end terrorism; not because it is risk-free — but so that Israel can face down Iran fully supported by the West.

Obama could help Netanyahu choose this path by visiting Israel himself, and by making more public statements like the one he released today, on the occasion of Israel’s 62nd Independence Day:

Minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, realizing the dream of a state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland, the United States became the first country to recognize Israel. To this day, we continue to share a strong, unbreakable bond of friendship between our two nations, anchored by the United States’ enduring commitment to Israel’s security.  Israel remains our important partner and key strategic ally in the Middle East, and I am confident that our special relationship will only be strengthened in the months and years to come. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments over the weekend, praising Netanyahu, strongly urging Palestinian President Abbas to join talks with Israel, and calling on the Palestinian Authority to “redouble its efforts to put an end to incitement and violence, crack down on corruption, and ingrain a culture of peace and tolerance among Palestinians,” were also welcome.

More is needed.

I know, because I correspond with my friend in Israel nearly every day, that there is a true siege mentality in Israel right now. Iran has said repeatedly it wants to wipe Israel off the map, and it is actively seeking the nuclear weapons to do so. Sitting here in relative safety thousands of miles away, it’s easier for this threat to be intellectualized; our children are not threatened by a lunatic Iranian regime. In Israel, there’s not much room for nuance; the last time we heard talk like Ahmadinejad’s, 6 million Jews were annihilated.

Shavit is wrong about one thing, though. Obama and Clinton don’t hate Netanyahu.

It’s incumbent on the U.S. president and secretary of state to make him believe it.

Is Middle East Peace Really ‘Vital’?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

I’d like to test an assumption.

For the longest time, I’ve held that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not only in Israel’s long-term interest — it’s in America’s, as well.

A dramatic news analysis in the Times today — “Obama Speech Signals U.S. Shift on Middle East” — makes clear that this assumption is propelling Obama’s approach to the conflict. And it might mean that Obama will offer his own peace plan, and try to impose it from the top down — instead of waiting for the parties to negotiate a solution themselves.

Resolving the Israel-Palestinian dispute, Obama said, is a “vital national security interest of the United States.”

The article goes on to explain why … sort of.

Mr. Obama said conflicts like the one in the Middle East ended up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure” — drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It goes on to cite Gen. David Petraeus’s recent Congressional testimony, in which he argued that, as the Times writes, “the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States.”

The impasse in negotiations “does create an environment,” [Obama] said Tuesday in a speech in Washington. “It does contribute, if you will, to the overall environment within which we operate.”

Condoleeza Rice made similar comments three years ago, arguing that resolving the conflict is a U.S. “strategic interest,” in part because “The prolonged experience of deprivation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people.”

Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now at Brookings, argues that the issue is central because we have thousands of troops fighting in the Middle East.

“Will resolving the Palestinian issue solve everything?” Mr. Indyk said. “No. But will it help us get there? Yes.”

I guess my question is: how?

The assumption — which has always been my assumption — is that peace between Israel and the Palestinians will remove a major radicalizing element across the Middle East. But that’s a hypothesis that’s hard to test. Do we really believe that if peace broke out tomorrow, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and all of the anti-Western clerics would suddenly cease their anti-American rhetoric and find common cause with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank?

Isn’t it more likely that they would find another convenient propoganda tool to agitate followers? Might they not continue to rail against a shrunken state of Israel, or point to injustices in Gaza, or cite American troops in Afghanistan as a rallying cry?

Do American military commanders really believe Muslim radicals will suddenly lay down their arms and sing kumbaya?

“I don’t think that anybody believes American lives are endangered or materially affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Mr. [Robert] Wexler, [a former Democratic congressman] who has close ties to administration officials. “That’s an oversimplification. However, you’d have to have blinders on not to recognize that there are issues in one arena that affect other arenas.”

This argument seems a bit mushy to me. What other arenas would it affect? And how, specifically? What evidence do we have, anecdotal or otherwise?

Thomas Friedman made this argument in a recent column:

America [has gone] from having only a small symbolic number of soldiers in the Middle East to running two wars there — in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as a global struggle against violent Muslim extremists. With U.S. soldiers literally walking the Arab street — and, therefore, more in need than ever of Muslim good will to protect themselves and defeat Muslim extremists — Israeli-Palestinian peace has gone from being a post-cold-war hobby of U.S. diplomats to being a necessity.

He points out that both Biden and Petraeus have recently made this case, arguing that “the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict foments anti-U.S. sentiments, because of the perception that America usually sides with Israel, and these sentiments are exploited by Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran to generate anti-Americanism that complicates life for our soldiers in the region.”

“I wouldn’t exaggerate this,” Friedman writes, “but I would not dismiss it either.”

This seems like a sensible place to land. Which raises the question: Is Obama, by calling this a “vital national security interest,” exaggerating it?

I think it will be critical, in the coming weeks and months — particularly if Obama continues to pressure Israel — for the administration to make its case, in concrete terms.

If we could wave a magic wand and have a peace deal tomorrow, how much less complicated would life be for our soldiers in the Middle East? How much Muslim good will would really be generated, and how enduring would it be? Will it really help us snuff out Islamic radicalism, or will the goalposts simply shift? How can we be sure?

With Israel’s security at stake, this is no time for mushy thinking or wishful strategizing. The answers to these questions are vital.

Jews Still Support Obama

Monday, April 12th, 2010

For all the hyperventilating from American Jewish leaders about how terrible Obama is on Israel – Caroline Glick at the Jerusalem Post has gone as far to suggest that Obama is intentionally “fomenting a crisis in U.S. relations with Israel” — the latest polling shows a majority of American Jews firmly support the U.S. president on Israel.

According to the poll, 57 percent of American Jews support Obama, while 38 percent disapprove. And a full 55 percent approve of how Obama is handling Israel, while 37 percent take the opposite view.

(By comparison, only 50 percent of Jews approve of the way Obama is handling health care; 48 percent disapprove.)

And, despite all the huffing and puffing about a crisis between the two countries — a supposed material breach — a full 73 percent still view the U.S.-Israel relationship as somewhat or very positive.

What this tells me is that Obama may be more in touch with the pulse of the American Jewish community, writ large, than the Jewish leaders who pillory his policies.

Perhaps the most telling — and frightening — number in the entire poll is the very last one. While a solid majority (74 percent) say they feel fairly or very close to Israel, a full 25 percent say they feel fairly or very distant. That’s one out of four American Jews. And it does not bode well.

Glick, in her column, argues unpersuasively that Obama is intentionally trying to sabotage Israel’s image among American Jews, to drive down popular support for Israel.

These numbers suggest to me that Israel’s support is already diminished, as a generation of Jewish Americans who haven’t known anti-Semitism and have little connection to the Holocaust come of age — amid interminable Middle East conflict.