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.