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The Freeze is Dead

Obama thought bubble: Bibi, wipe that silly smirk off your face before I do it for you.

Obama thought bubble: "Bibi you asshole, wipe that silly smirk off your face before I do it for you." (Doug Mills/NYT)

Yesterday, at the UN Bibi Netanyahu scored a major victory for Israeli rejectionism.  He beat Barack Obama at his own game.  He beat someone who until this moment had been thought of as a political master.  He beat someone who American observers thought would finally bring an intransigent Israeli prime minister to heel.  Bibi won.  Don’t let any other Obama supporters or progressives like Daniel Levy or J Street tell you otherwise:

A number of J Street supporters have asked me [Jeremy Ben Ami] in the past few hours both what happened to the settlement freeze and whether the events of the past 48 hours amounted to anything more than a “photo op.”

I’ve urged them to take another look.  We are actually very pleased to see the President put the focus on final status issues, and, in fact, view the week’s events as a sophisticated pivot by the White House from debating the minutiae of settlement construction to addressing the core issues at the heart of the conflict.

This is simply wishful spin.  Today is a very dark day in the history of Israel-Arab peacemaking.

Today, Obama gave up on the freeze.  Bibi simply outlasted him.  And Obama judged that either he didn’t have, or was unwilling to expend the political capital to force Bibi’s compliance.  The administration is attempting to paint a rosy portrait and say: “OK, we failed on the freeze. So let’s get right to final status talks.”  That’s all well and good.  But Bibi is riding high.  His coalition is strong.  He is relatively popular.  He just faced down an American president who isn’t very popular in Israel.  Why would the Obama people think that Israel will be any more forthcoming?  And given what the Arab states now see, why would THEY be willing to help Obama out of this situation?

Mr. Obama, unable to extract that concession from Israel or other confidence-building moves from Arab states, seems intent to press Palestinians and Israelis to negotiate all the difficult issues between them toward a final deal that has eluded negotiators, and bedeviled American presidents… The pivot toward tackling issues that include the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the borders of a future Palestinian state greatly increases the stakes for an administration that has found even small advances to be beyond reach. It also risks making Mr. Obama appear ineffective in having not gained a tangible early goal of his Middle East policy.

Daniel Levy is quoted in this article spinning this development as a positive:

“They are blocking off his escape hatches,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “They’re saying, if you can’t do the interim, then we’ll do the final status.”

That’s all well and good.  But I simply have not seen any ability on Obama’s part to move Bibi in a direction he doesn’t want to go.  Unfortunately, there is only one way to do this.

Obama has several options, all of which are politically painful and could lead to failure: he can decide that he will get a final status agreement at whatever cost it takes; or he can decide he simply doesn’t have the balls/will/stamina to do it.  If he goes the former path, he will have to rally an international coalition to enforce an agreement on the parties (though most notably the Israelis).  He will have to endure a possible painful drop in support from the American Jewish leadership and those who follow their dicta.  Not to mention tremendous opposition from Israelis themselves.  Does Obama have both the leadership and courage to take this Lincolnesque path?  Can he weather the fire and brimstone that will be hurled at him?  I don’t know.

The other option is for Obama eventually to throw up his hands and say he tried, but just couldn’t succeed.  This might look like the more attractive path since despite the loss of face in abandoning a major initiative of his presidency, he could at least save his political capital for domestic issues which might be more at the heart of his political agenda and ensure his re-election.

But if this president gives up on solving this conflict (of course Obama would never put it that way, but we’ll know it when it happens), it will essentially leave Israel to its own devices.  Yes, it will still have American support.  But all of Israel’s opponents will be emboldened.  The Palestinians and Arab states will see that the world has abandoned them.  They will realize that the only way to end the Occupation is, as Malcolm X used to say, “by any means necessary.”  Then all the gloves will be off.  Resistance of all forms, violent and non-violent, will be ratcheted up.

Jeremiad (Avi Katz)

Jeremiad (Avi Katz)

One of my worst fears is that the ultimate result will be the end of Israel as we now know it.  And in case any reader chooses to distort what I’ve said let me make clear that this is not an outcome I welcome.  But Israel under Bibi Netanyahu has just told an American president and the world that he knows what’s best for the Middle East and that he can impose Israel’s will on the U.S. and his enemies.  This effrontery will not stand.  Maybe it will stand for a month or a year.  But Israel, if it maintains this attitude, will eventually be humbled.  It will lose.  And when it does, those who might have felt sympathy previously will not feel any.  Israel will be left to its own devices and its enemies will have more control over its fate than it will.

It will remind us all of Jeremiah’s widow sitting disconsolate in the symbolic ashes of a Jerusalem we once knew.  She will be keening for the state of Israel that used to be.  Certainly, there will be an Israel though it might be called that or something different.  Israel’s residents will remain.  But their form of government will not be one of their own choosing, at least not willingly so.  I have always advocated that Israel come to embrace true democracy and become a state of all its citizens willingly.  But I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion after today that such an evolutionary process of moving toward the good may not be possible.  Maybe the only thing that can bring real change is a disaster like the one that befell Jeremiah’s Judea.

Will it come to this?  Lord, I hope not.  But if Obama fails, what else can happen?  I simply don’t believe all the Arabs of the Middle East will sit back and allow Israel to have its way.  Bibi and many Israelis may live under the delusion that this is possible.  But it isn’t.  The chickens, again quoting Malcolm, will come home to roost.

{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Alex Stein September 23, 2009, 10:02 PM

    “Israel will be left to its own devices and its enemies will have more control over its fate than it will.”

    But I thought we learnt the other day that its enemies (Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran, to name but a few) are no real threat to it?

    • Richard Silverstein September 24, 2009, 1:03 AM

      Not now. But I’m talking about the future after Israel loses the support of what few remaining friends it has and becomes further weakened both internally & externally, failing to understand the implication of its choices.

  • Yossi September 23, 2009, 10:20 PM

    The apocalyptic scenario that you predict, Richard, is the most likely outcome. I wouldn’t pin it on Obama. It’s just the natural course of these colliding national movements. Who knows what would happen after that. One thing for sure, this will cause a great rift in the Jewish people. The progressives of North America will not support the atrocities that will unfold, but they will have to shoulder some of the guilt-by-association. What kind of backlash American and European Jews would face after an Arab capital will be nuked? We will be disgraced for centuries.

    • Koshiro September 24, 2009, 5:32 AM

      Well, I’m looking at this from another angle. Even if I adopted the attitude that Israel could just go to hell for all I care, I would still have reasons to be worried because of the inevitable repercussions for the US and the world.

      Israel’s own political horizon is extremely limited. It essentially extends to a) American Jewry and b) all Muslim countries within missile range. In many cases, not even that far – most of its political energy is consumed by colonising a comparably tiny speck of land and terrorizing its inhabitants.

      At the same time, Israel’s own global influence is immense. It’s a central player in conflicts which involve billions of people, and it constantly and decisively sabotages efforts to reach a rapport between Muslim countries and the “West”, especially the US, not only by its own permanent belligerence and the continuing mutual hostility with the Arab world, but especially by giving a bad example.

      No Muslim skeptical of Westerners promoting liberal democracy has to look any further than to Israel to see what this kind of sweet-talk is worth in practice. Delusional right-wingers who really seem to believe that Israel could be some kind of shining light of civilization to its neighbours nonwithstanding. Israel is the only Western-style democracy which rules over a large population of native Muslims, and their status ranges from impoverished underclass citizens to unfree helots.

      As long as Israel continues on this path, establishing positive, lasting ties with Muslim countries, let alone winning them as real, reliable allies is hopeless. But unfortunately, that’s exactly what will be necessary in a world where India, China, resurgent Russia and yes, also Iran have their own considerable ambitions backed by ever-increasing political, economic and military capabilities.

      In short words: The US lets an ally which objectively is no more important than Norway used to be in cold war, poison its increasingly important relations with countries representing about 20% of the world’s population. President Obama obviously realized this to some extent – so much was clear from his Cairo speech. The question is if he will actually find the strength to act in America’s best interest instead of catering to lobbyism and shortsighted right-wing ideologies.

  • DICKERSON3870 September 23, 2009, 11:18 PM

    RE: “I am reluctantly coming to the conclusion after today that such an evolutionary process of moving toward the good may not be possible. Maybe the only thing that can bring real change is a disaster like the one that befell Jeremiah’s Judea.” – Mr Silverstein

    MY COMMENT: Franz Alexander (1891-1964), a Hungarian American psychoanalyst and physician, stated:[citation needed] “The patient, in order to be helped, must undergo a corrective emotional experience suitable to repair the traumatic influence of previous experiences….”

    WIKIPEDIA: (excerpt) Repetition compulsion is psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations that have a high probability of the event occurring again….This concept was noted formally by Sigmund Freud in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which he observed a child throw his favorite toy from his crib, become upset at the loss, then reel the toy back, only to repeat this action again…
    …Another is a participatory form, wherein a person actively engages in behavior that mimics an earlier stressor, either deliberately or unconsciously. In particular, this is often described by the statement that events that are terrifying in childhood become sources of attraction in adulthood. For instance, a person who was spanked as a child may incorporate this into their adult sexual practices. Another example is a victim of sexual abuse, who may attempt to seduce another person of authority in his or her life (such as their boss or therapist). Psychoanalysts describe this as an attempt at mastery of their feelings and experience, in the sense that they unconsciously want to go through the same situation but that it not result negatively as it did in the past [1].
    Franz Alexander (1891-1964), a Hungarian American psychoanalyst and physician, stated:[citation needed] “The patient, in order to be helped, must undergo a corrective emotional experience suitable to repair the traumatic influence of previous experiences….”

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repetition_compulsion

    • Suzanne September 27, 2009, 4:27 AM

      Excellent and exactly. I have believed this is so for quite awhile. I look at and read about the effects of trauma on an individual level jump to think more broadly, communally. The pain and suffering that comes from this trauma and re-enactment can be so shattering again that it can awaken and force an evolution but does not have to though- it can go on and on. I think this is what we see from some on both sides. To focus on Israel- the baggage goes deeper into history culminating in the last horror in Germany. Unfortunately the lesson/s taken from this pain and self -inflicted pain is to cause and insure more pain and suffering to itself down the road and to “the enemy”.

      A “communally mutually nurtured emotional dysfunction” (pardon) needs to heal by evolving. So far it seems to have been going the other way. Those who were willing to coexist, to take chances, seem to have withdrawn especially after suiciders, the intifadas and the rockets. That is also why Israel is armed to the teeth and will, like a scared animal, use whatever it has to protect itself from not only perceived but manufactured (or cultivated) threats.

      The Israel that we now know, that will be gone, presumably, is not the Israel that many knew in the past anyway (about pre-67). Some mourn that lost Israel and would not mourn the loss of this one too much.

    • Suzanne September 27, 2009, 4:33 AM

      This I think accounts for most of the divisions between the right-wingers and the left/progressives/peace activists, the former withdrawing to perennial defensive posture out of fears from past trauma that have taken hold and that are taken advantage of and even nurtured by those with political ambition (ie Netanyahu). If we don’t want to call these opportunists evil, then I think we have to say they are not fully aware of what they are doing. I often ask myself how Israel could be committing this slow suicide. The only answer that makes sense is the blindness that comes with this PTS syndrome. I don’t think that awakening can come about by dialogue or even “self-reflection” (which Obama advised rightly, playing the parent). So I do think that there will be some more war if Israel continues on this path.

  • Mike September 23, 2009, 11:55 PM

    Uri Avnery suggests that Netanyahu accomplished this by threatening to deny Obama a health reform law:


    THE INESCAPABLE conclusion is that Obama’s defeat is the outcome of a faulty assessment of the situation. His advisors, who are considered seasoned politicians, were wrong about the forces involved.

    That has happened already in the crucial health insurance debate. The opposition is far stronger than anticipated by Obama’s people. In order to get out of this mess somehow, Obama needs the support of every senator and congressman he can lay his hands on. That automatically strengthens the position of the pro-Israel lobby, which already has immense influence in Congress.

    The last thing that Obama needs at this moment is a declaration of war by AIPAC and Co. Netanyahu, an expert on domestic American politics, scented Obama’s weakness and exploited it.

    Obama could do nothing but gnash his teeth and fold up.

  • coldale September 24, 2009, 12:27 AM

    Even more important than settlement expansion, is nuclear proliferation.NO SERIOUS DISCUSSION can take place on nuclear arms reduction and non proliferation until full exposure takes place of the massive, secret ISRAELI nuclear arms arsenal in the Negev desert, that is currently completely outside of IAEA inspection.

    To do so and ignore this ‘giant elephant in the room’, would simply be nonsensical.

    It would lead to a situation whereby not only US foreign policy lies with the Israeli lobby but also global military and political control.

    Such a decision would be indefensible.

  • Donald Johnson September 24, 2009, 2:56 PM

    Regarding Obama, I hope you’re wrong but I think you’re right. The Levy and J Street analysis sound too much like the 11 dimensional chess theory Obama acolytes are always claiming he plays. So far it’s hard to see much evidence of that alleged political skill–he looks to me more like a centrist-liberal Democrat doing what they always seem to do—trying hard to placate the right if at all possible. And as you say, caving in to Netanyahu only makes him look weak to everyone over there.

    Regarding Israel, the claim I’ve seen is that Obama’s approval ratings there are in the single digits and they see him as hostile to Israel. If true, this is so at variance with reality I think they’ve taken leave of their senses.

  • editorsteve September 24, 2009, 6:07 PM

    I agree. This was a disastrous day for near-term peace prospects. Remember, Bibi insisted on this, and got it, AFTER Obama gave him cover on the Goldstone report.

    So why would the Palestinians agree (in the near term) to come to the negotiating table?

    At my age I take the long view, though. At least Bibi said he’d come to the negotiating table with no preconditions. Taking him at his word, I guess that means Hamas does not have to recognize the right of Israel to exist, before it sits down.

    Mitchell’s mantra is that NOTHING matters before going into a negotiation anyay — that the result will NOT be based as much on relative strengths (real or imagined) or history, or threats, as on what i most likely to guarantee peace down the road. It is true both sides understand this and that thus technically “a freeze doesn’t matter” to the final result.

    But it DOES matter because, again, what brings the Palestinians to the table?

    • Shirin September 24, 2009, 7:09 PM

      A freeze matters because there can be only one reason for not freezing, and it is not to accommodate illegal “natural growth” of illegal settlements that should never have come into being and must be dismantled, or better yet handed over the the Palestinians intact when Israel brings the colonists back home.

  • Yossi September 24, 2009, 10:51 PM


    The comical commentator who goes under the name Bar Kochva here and Akbar Palace in SyriaComment.com has been whining lately about the lack of symmetry between Palestine and Israel: Palestine would not allow the settlers to become Palestinian residents… I have bashed him a little bit here: http://1r1f.wordpress.com/2009/09/25/no-bounds-to-hypocrisy-settlers-whining-about-not-being-able-to-become-citizens-of-palestine/

    No bounds to hypocrisy, not with settlers and their supporters…

    • Richard Silverstein September 24, 2009, 11:02 PM

      This is a common argument of the hasbara crowd: look at Israel which has Israeli Palestinians citizens, while Palestine doesn’t want any settlers among them. The major fallacy underlying this “argument” is that Israeli Palestinians predated the creation of the State of Israel & indeed predate the influx of Jewish immigrants who eventually founded that State. There were there. Israel merely accepted them as citizens of the new state. If they had not done so the State would have immediately destroyed its claim to being a democracy.

      The settlers on the other hand, are new implants to the West Bank and were introduced against international law. Mahmoud Abbas & others, btw HAVE said they would accept settlers who wished to remain behind as long as they accepted Palestinian citizenship & sovereignty & renounced any Israeli jurisdictional claim over them.

      • Yossi September 24, 2009, 11:07 PM


        Exactly… and this was infinitely generous on their behalf, given the settlers’ attitudes towards the Palestinians and the whole suckiness of the deal that is offered to the Palestinians. They have to shared their meager scrapes with people who were not taught the meaning of “sharing” when they were little kids, and they have agreed to that, which is pretty remarkable.

        So Mr. Bar Kochva/Akbar Palace, of course knows all of that, but he will repeat his hasbara argument a million time nonetheless.

  • richard01 September 25, 2009, 12:28 AM

    Your illustration is priceless; Obama looks as if he is about to vomit, Netanyahoo looks like a smug winner granting a conciliatory handshake, and Abbas a grateful sheep, as he always has been.

    Who pays for Abbas’ smart suits? Starving Gazans? He may not have a greedy wife like Yasser Arafat had, but I bet he wouldn’t mind giving up humiliation for a quiet life in some Swiss or Argentinian village.

  • Brett September 25, 2009, 9:57 PM

    Then all the gloves will be off. Resistance of all forms, violent and non-violent, will be ratcheted up.

    That’d be bloody, but – and this is going to sound awful – it might actually settle some of the issues that are nagging any type of “settling of accounts”. After all, if you think about it, it was the 1948 War that created Israel and defined its initial boundaries while getting rid of many of the Arabs that lived within its pre-1967 boundaries. Beyond that, it seems like minor wars simply generate more hostility – it’s only the major wars that really settle anything. The Franco-Prussian War simply generated a ton of hostility along with unifying Germany – World War 2 (in which Germany lost 10% of its population) more or less helped set the boundaries for Germany for decades, and ended any potential German military aggression.

    Israel will be left to its own devices and its enemies will have more control over its fate than it will.

    If all else fails, Israel could simply wipe out all its neighbors. It would be horrific, and it would turn Israel into a pariah state, but if it came to that, they were probably heading down that road anyways.

    • Shirin September 25, 2009, 11:32 PM

      You sound like someone who has no clue what war actually looks like, and what it does to everything it touches, humans, animals, objects, and the environment. You are talking about the lives of human beings here, do you realize that? It sure doesn’t sound like it. You sound completely detached from the reality of what you are proposing.

      • Brett September 27, 2009, 1:41 PM

        I’m well aware of what it would entail. I’m just pointing out the history.

    • Koshiro September 26, 2009, 5:36 AM

      Actually, it would turn Israel into a radioactive desert in all likelihood.

      Even if Western nuclear powers restrained themselves from first-striking Israel out of existence before this happens, the chance that Pakistan would *not* take up the opportunity to take out “one bomb country” Israel, would be minimal.

      I know that there are some fringe Israeli politicians who blow the same horn as you do. “We could just go berserk and nuke everybody who doesn’t like us.” Except that something like that doesn’t just happen all of a sudden and that somewhere down Israel’s road towards nuke-toting, but distressingly second-strike-incapable, rogue state, some other nuclear power(s) will probably come to the conclusion that an atomic Holocaust 2.0 is not such a heavy price to pay for saving the world from global war.

      • Brett September 27, 2009, 1:44 PM

        Except that something like that doesn’t just happen all of a sudden and that somewhere down Israel’s road towards nuke-toting, but distressingly second-strike-incapable, rogue state,

        I pointed it out as an ultimate end-game strategy. By the time they actually used it (if it came to that), they’d already be a pariah state.

        the chance that Pakistan would *not* take up the opportunity to take out “one bomb country” Israel, would be minimal.

        That’s possibly true, although Pakistan is in a similar boat – if the Israelis ground-bursted nukes far enough up the Indus River, they’d basically render much of Pakistan uninhabitable.

  • Shirin September 25, 2009, 11:34 PM

    One of my worst fears is that the ultimate result will be the end of Israel as we now know it.

    That, to me, is an outcome devoutly to be wished for. One only hopes that it happens with minimal or no additional devastation beyond what Israel has managed up to now.

  • Shiko September 26, 2009, 5:35 AM

    Dear Richard,

    It was as back as on June 12 (around Obama’s Cairo speech) that I thought that your overall reading of his as well as inflamed optimism were UNFORTUNATELY wrong and expressed wishful thinking when I wrote this:

    Astute commentator Richard Silverstein prefaced his latest post as follows:

    “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor
    And I don’t like it very much” (Bibi Netanyahu and children’s song).

    Is Silverstein’s optimism justified? Does it rest on any solid foundation? The post-1967 empirical record does not support such optimism. Put differently, it doesn’t seem likely that the Obama administration will manage to bring the Israeli government to a settlement dismantling that would be able to meet the minimal one needed, required and demanded by even the most “moderate” Palestinian leadership. My subjective belief, then, is that Obama will fail (even if I hope to be proven wrong). […]


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