Steve Walt has offered Pres. Obama a remarkably clear set of policy options that he could use serially or in combination, should Israel’s new rightist government prove recalcitrant about entering serious negotiations or should it refuse to accept a two state solution. This is policy analysis that is sharp and pragmatic, something we need to see more of regarding U.S. policy for the region:
The United States has only rarely put (mild) pressure on Israel in recent decades (and never for very long), even when the Israeli government was engaged in actions (such as building settlements) that the U.S. government opposed. The question is: if the Netanyahu/Lieberman government remains intransigent, what should Obama do? Are there usable sources of leverage that the United States could employ to nudge Israel away from the vision of “Greater Israel” and towards a genuine two-state solution? Here are a few ideas.
…Change the Rhetoric. The Obama administration could begin by using different language to describe…Israeli policies. While reaffirming America’s commitment to Israel’s existence as a Jewish-majority state, it could…start describing the settlements as “illegal” or as “violations of international law”…U.S. officials could even describe Israel’s occupation as “contrary to democracy,” “unwise,” “cruel,” or “unjust.” Altering the rhetoric would send a clear signal to the Israeli government and its citizens that their government’s opposition to a two-state solution was jeopardizing the special relationship.
Support a U.N. Resolution Condemning the Occupation. Since 1972, the United States has vetoed forty-three U.N. Security Council resolutions that were critical of Israel (a number greater than the sum of all vetoes cast by the other permanent members). If the Obama administration wanted to send a clear signal that it was unhappy with Israel’s actions, it could sponsor a resolution condemning the occupation and calling for a two-state solution. Taking an active role in drafting such a measure would also ensure that it said exactly what we wanted, and avoided criticisms that we didn’t want included.
Downgrade existing arrangements for “strategic cooperation.” There are now a number of institutionalized arrangements for security cooperation between the Pentagon and the Israel Defense Forces and between U.S. and Israeli intelligence. The Obama administration could postpone or suspend some of these meetings, or start sending lower-grade representatives to them…Such a step would surely get the attention of Israel’s security establishment.
Reduce U.S. purchases of Israeli military equipment…The Pentagon…buys millions of dollars of weaponry and other services from Israel’s…defense industry. Obama could…slow or decrease these purchases, which would send an unmistakable signal that it was no longer “business-as-usual.” Given the battering Israel’s economy has taken in the current global recession, this step would get noticed too.
Get tough with private organizations that support settlement activity. As David Ignatius recently noted in the Washington Post, many private donations to charitable organizations operating in Israel are tax-deductible in the United States, including private donations that support settlement activity…It means the American taxpayer is indirectly subsidizing activities that are contrary to stated U.S. policy and that actually threaten Israel’s long-term future. Just as the United States has gone after charitable contributions flowing to terrorist organizations, the U.S. Treasury could crack down on charitable organizations (including those of some prominent Christian Zionists) that are supporting these illegal activities…
Encourage other U.S. allies to use their influence too. In the past, the United States has often pressed other states to upgrade their own ties with Israel. If pressure is needed, however, the United States could try a different tack. For example, we could quietly encourage the EU not to upgrade its relations with Israel until it had agreed to end the occupation.
Obama has already begun acting on these types of ideas in subtler ways. His Ankara speech contained an implicit rebuke of Avigdor Lieberman’s rejection of the Annapolis process.
As an Israeli journalist noted, it’s been a long time since a U.S. president’s first foreign Middle East trip didn’t include a stop in Jerusalem. The fact that Obama made two major addresses in Turkey on this trip and never stepped foot in Israel probably wasn’t lost on the Netanyahu government. It certainly indicates that the next four years are not going to be the cakewalk that they were for Israeli governments under the previous president. Further, the first major Middle East leader to step foot in the Obama White House will not be Bibi, but rather Jordan’s King Abdullah. Again, as we say in Hebrew: Ha-mayvin yavin (“he who understands, will understand”).
For any Walt-Mearsheimer trashers out there–yes, Walt does call for pressure on Hamas to moderate its positions and he also acknowledges that the U.S. has put pressure on the Palestinians to change their own stances. Nor does Walt shrink from our reasserting such pressure should it be necessary. But clearly Walt, and probably Obama himself, notes that the major obstacle is not going to be Hamas or Fatah, but the Israelis–especially in Israel’s current political configuration.
I would take slight issue with one of Walt’s more optimistic statements:
I suspect it would not take much U.S. pressure to produce the necessary shift in Israel’s attitudes.
Having been an observer of this conflict for several decades I never underestimate Israel’s ability to abscond from inconvenient realities in its relationships with friend and foe alike. As Reagan was the Teflon president, Israel is the Teflon ally. When it doesn’t want something to stick, or seeks to avoid the unpleasant, it manages to finds ways–thousands of ’em.
If Walt is right then I’d be delighted. But I fear it will not be as easy as he believes. But that is no reason not to give our best effort.
Walt’s position seems to think the Arab-Israeli conflict exists in a vacuum, both in domestic American political life and in international relations.
First, this assumes that the reason there isn’t peace is largely or entirely Israel’s fault, thus pressure on Israel will bring about peace. However, I don’t know that Obama really thinks this way.
Second, if Obama were to do this, supporters of Israel in the US will view this as a hostile act. There are a lot of supporters of Israel, far more than there are people who believe that it is Israel’s fault that there isn’t peace. What would be the political price for such a move?
Thirdly, how would the Arab/Muslim enemies of Israel react to this? Would they say, “good, we are getting closer to peace, we can now reach a compromise peace”, or would they say “good, the Americans are cutting Israel loose, we can now escalate our demands because the Americans will eventually come around to pressuring Israel to capitulate on these as well”?
This is what happened in 1967. De Gaulle told everyone he was cutting Israel loose. This led to Nasser escalating his demands and rhetoric and it led to war. De Gaulle, in trying to prevent war instead made it inevitable.
Richard Silverstein says
Wow, I had no idea that the ’67 War was DeGaulle’s fault! That’s amazing. Where do you get this stuff from? Do you make it up or read it somewhere? What gives you the idea that Nasser was influenced in anything he did by anything DeGaulle did or said?
RE: “I suspect it would not take much U.S. pressure to produce the necessary shift in Israel’s attitudes.”
MY COMMENT: I fear that Israel may have reached a ‘tipping point’ so that external pressure (even from the U.S.) will now only engender intransigence. Time will tell.
Alan Pritchard says
Just a thought:
How is it that downgrading the massive military or economic aid is not considered as an option?
One of the sickest elements of the US:Israeli relationship seems to be Israel’s use of American supplied munitions on its opponents and neighbours, whether cluster munitions in Lebanon or Phosphorous or DIME in Gaza … particularly when the deployment of those munitions would at times seem to be part of considered and deliberate crimes against humanity… Surely Obama must be able to see the need to publically dissociate the US from Israel’s military excesses?
Arie Brand says
What is for obvious reasons lacking in Walt’s policy directions is an indication of how much of this President Obama can afford and yet get a second term.
gene schulman says
I agree with Walt’s suggestions, but I think he forgets his own analysis of the Lobby and its influence on U.S. foreign policy vis a vis Israel. There is no way Obama will buck the Lobby, which is 100% behind the current Israeli government.
He may talk the talk, but he won’t walk the walk, anymore than he has on the bank bailouts. Mr. Obama is not his own man, for all his charm.
Arie Brand says
An earlier post led to this one. De Gaulle says in his memoirs remarkably little about Israel – less than one and a half page in all. But some of what he says is still relevant today:
“But while the existence of Israel seemed to me to be more than justified, I considered that a great deal of caution was called for in her handling of the Arabs. The latter were her neighbors, and would always remain so. It was at their expense and on their lands that Israel had set herself up as a sovereign State. In doing so, she had wounded them in their religion and their pride. For this reason when Ben Gurion spoke to me of his plan to settle four or five million Jews in Israel, which could not contain them within her present frontiers, and revealed to me his intention of extending these frontiers at the earliest opportunity, I urged him not to do so. “France”, I said, “will help you to survive in the future as she has helped you in the past, whatever happens. But she is not prepared to provide you with the means of conquering new territory. You have brought off a remarkable achievement, Do not overdo it now. Suppress the pride which, according to Aeschylus, “is the son of happiness and devours its father.” ‘
I wonder, did Ben-Gurion also have this advice in mind when he counseled against retaining the bulk of the territory occupied in the Six Day War?
And what is this about Israel not being able to have four to five million Jews within its 1967 borders? One doesn’t immediately have to refer to a City State as Singapore but a country I am rather familiar with, the Netherlands, is barely, including its inland waters, twice the size of that Israel and has now about 16.5 million people. I note this to preempt “Lebensraum” arguments.
Miles Stuart says
I think Israel is going to be very lucky to maintain the relations it’s got now even with US arm twisting in its favour. Other countries at least pretend to take the human rights conditions seriously. There is only so much Israeli middle finger the European Parliament is going to tolerate. It had already postponed a vote on Israel’s latest upgrade before operation Drop Dead.
Richard Silverstein says
That’s great. I wish I’d heard that phrase before now.