Thursday, July 20, 2017
Ross explains how some American Presidents and their administrations have sought to distance U.S. policy from Israel. Included in this category would be Eisenhower, Carter, Nixon, Bush Sr. and Obama, as well as others to a lesser extent. Ostensibly, the goal of those administrations was to avoid upsetting the various Arab governments in the region. Ross also explains that some of those administrations held the belief that if they would only pressure Israel, that would lead to Mideast peace.
Along the way, Ross canvasses some key aspects of those policies. The Eisenhower administration's refusal to provide military equipment to Israel even in the face of Soviet supply of Israel's enemies. Nixon's refusal to supply Israel with weapons even in the face of an existential crisis during the 1973 Yom Kippur War (until it was almost too late). Reagan's decision to supply Saudi Arabia with some of the most sophisticated weaponry available, even where that weaponry could be used against Israel. And of course, Obama's decision to skip Israel on his Mideast tour at the start of his presidency to send a message to Israel about the "new Middle East."
There are many other examples and discussions of these various incidents and events.
By way of contrast, Ross looks at the efforts of other Presidents, including Clinton and Bush Jr., who were generally more sympathetic to Israel's concerns and advanced the Israel-U.S. relationship in significant ways. Some presidents like Truman, Reagan and even President Obama are portrayed has having a mixed record.
Ultimately, Ross suggests that those presidents and administrations who have sought, primarily, to distance Israel from the U.S. have made it more difficult to advance the cause of peace. If the U.S.suggests that it is prepared to guarantee Israeli security and international standing as part of a peace deal, it is logical to assume that the U.S. would demonstrate to Israel that Israel can count on that guarantee. Otherwise, asking Israel to take significant security risks without appropriate assurances would be suicidal for Israel.
Perhaps Carter was the exception here, in that he managed to arrange a peace deal even while distancing the U.S. from Israel. To this point, Ross seems to suggest that the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal may have happened with or without Carter, given the significant role that both Sadat and Begin played. While he acknowledges the significant efforts made by Carter and does not downplay that role, he does seem to suggest that Carter may have been able to do more with the other parts of the conflict if he had built up more confidence with the Israeli administration.
Ross also challenges the notion that it has been Israeli intransigence that has caused the lack of a peace deal. He repeatedly cites Arafat and Abbas' espousals of only "maximalist" bargaining positions and their failure to compromise to get a deal. Even President Clinton, who built up the confidence of the Israeli administration and extracted significant concessions from the Israeli side was unable to obtain sufficiently reciprocal concessions from the Palestinian side.
That is not to suggest that Ross lays all of the blame on the Palestinians. He suggests in no uncertain terms that Israel would need to agree to a Palestinian state to resolve the current conflict. He suggests that Israel should refrain from building in those areas of the territories which are not likely to be held by Israel as part of a future peace agreement. But he also suggests that the Palestinian side has quite a number of issues to address itself. Those include recognizing that the Palestinians will only be able to solve their refugee problem within their own future state; that they will need to stop inciting and paying for terror attacks; and that they will need to build a culture of peace rather than a culture of animosity if a two state solution is ever to become a reality.
Reviewing the major historical events over the course of Israel's statehood, as Ross has presented it, one is left with the clear understanding that only Israel has been able to guarantee and take responsibility for its own security. From the early wars of 1948 and 1956, in which Israel scrambled to find weapons suppliers, through the 1973 War, Israel has had to rely on itself, first and foremost. Even decisions which were opposed by U.S. administrations, from the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor to the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor seem, in retrospect, to have been both important and successful for Israel. In this respect, Begin, Netanyahu and even Shamir are all portrayed sympathetically, at times.
Ross's coverage of the 1973 War may be exceptional here. His analysis implies that Nixon intended to hold back on resupplying Israel for long enough to ensure that the Arab attackers caused sufficient damage to Israel to restore the "Arab dignity" after their disastrous war loss in 1967. But Ross's version ignores other historical accounts which suggest that the U.S. only began to resupply Israel after Gold Meir made significant military threats against Cairo in which Israel would use all appropriate means to defend itself. This account, if accurate, would fit in more appropriately with Israel's record of, ultimately, defending its own interests without really being able to rely on the U.S.
That is not to say that the book does not criticize Israel. The 1982 Lebanon War is largely characterized as a debacle. In later years, some of Netanyahu's interactions with Obama and others are roundly criticized. Other Israeli actions are also assessed critically.
But I think it is fair to say that Ross strongly prefers the view of those who would advocate for a special relationship between Israel and the U.S. Given that Israel is the only real democracy in the Middle East, that it is one of the only countries, if not the only one, with a truly independent judiciary, a respect for the rule of law, and protection for its religious, ethnic and other minorities, Ross argues that it is very much in the U.S. national interest to foster a close relationship with Israel. He also argues that there is no evidence that a close U.S.-Israel relationship has damaged the U.S. relationship with its Arab allies. On the contrary, Ross argues that Obama's efforts to tilt towards Iran and away from Israel and some other traditional Arab allies of the U.S. had significant and detrimental consequences to the U.S. relationship with its Arab allies. Ross argues that Obama tilted back towards Israel later in his presidency, though the book seems to have been completed before the misguided U.N. resolution at the conclusion of the Obama presidency.
Ultimately, I suppose one must be skeptical about some of what Ross has written. It is after all the view of someone who was very much involved in the process and there is a natural inclination to smooth over one's own shortcomings. You would probably need to cobble together at least two or three different accounts of many of the historical events to be able to come to conclusions about what really occurred. But Ross tries to be reasonably objective and, at times, cites areas of disagreement between himself and others. In that respect, the book seems to have a reasonable degree of balance.
Overall, as someone with an interest in Middle Eastern history (and history in general), I enjoyed the book. It covers a great deal of ground (disputed territory mostly) and provides much to consider. We can only hope that the title was chosen for dramatic effect rather than as a statement about the likelihood of a future with a more peaceful Middle East.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
After reading and reviewing the wonderfully optimistic book Start-Up Nation, I decided to "balance" it by reading Peter Beinart's The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is a self-described liberal Zionist with a serious interest in Judaism and in the future of Israel. His book is an attack on Israeli policies with respect to the disputed territories and a call for action in the form of a boycott of West Bank products. Unlike other members of the anti-Israel left, Beinart calls for those boycotting West Bank products to make an equally vigorous effort to buy products and patronize companies from within Israel's "green line." This, he proposes, is intended to offset the idea that boycotting the West Bank is "anti-Israel."
Beinart's book is well written and interesting but ultimately, somewhat flawed. His view of Israel's role in its ongoing dispute with the Palestinians is either naive or willfully blind in that he seems to place the blame for just about everything squarely on Israel's shoulders. There is little discussion in the book of Palestinian extremism, nor is there any real discussion of a legitimate compromise proposal for ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Moreover, throughout the book, Palestinian acts of terrorism are minimized or downplayed. Beinart even finds a way to blame the failure of Camp David and the subsequent 2nd Intifada on Israel, even though he concedes that Arafat does not even appear to have made a genuine counter-proposal in response to the huge concessions that were proposed by the Israelis. Nevertheless, Beinart's focus on the urgent need to reach a peace deal with a two state solution is intended to benefit Palestinians and Israelis and is laudable.
His chapter entitled "The Crisis in Israel," focuses on the discrepancy between Israeli democracy and equality of rights within the "green line" area and the current situation in the disputed territories. There is nothing new here about the idea that Israel is facing an increasingly difficult challenge in trying to reconcile the idea of a "Jewish State" with the goal of a liberal, democratic State, while trying to find a way to resolve the issue of the territories. The current status quo threatens not only the lives and living conditions of the Palestinians but also threatens Israel's condition as a viable liberal democracy. It is hard to disagree with this part of Beinart's analysis and many Israelis, on the left and in the centre of the Israeli political landscape would agree.
Beinart then switches over to the United States, where he paints a grim picture of American Jewry. Characterizing the vast majority of Jews as liberal democrats, Beinart rails against "America's major Jewish organizations" as having lurched to the right. A particular focus of his attacks is Abe Foxman, National Director of the ADL, who is "beholden to no one but the philanthropic dollar." Beinart attacks the ADL and the AJC (American Jewish Committee) for supporting the policies of the Israeli government and for failing to "challenge the occupation." He even manages to defend former President Jimmy Carter, despite the overwhelming evidence that Allan Dershowitz has put forward with respect to Carter's ill-will towards Israel.
In a chapter entitled "Is the Occupation Israel's Fault?," Beinart minimizes the security threat to Israel that an immediate withdrawal from the territories would entail by arguing that Israel is already within rocket range of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. He suggests that Israel should rely on its "credible deterrent." Of course, this is not been a great success with respect to Gaza from which Israel has faced numerous rocket attacks after withdrawing its forces. Beinart then runs through the peace deals offered by former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert and concludes that these offers were rightly rejected by the Palestinians as insufficient, even though, he concedes, "there is a dispute about whether Arafat made any offer at all." While there were (and still are) clearly disputed issues, including the future of Jerusalem (in particular the Temple Mount), the issue of Palestinian refugees and the exact nature of the land swap envisioned, Beinart seems to suggest that Israel should have fully conceded its position on each of these issues. Moreover, despite the fact that the issue of "land swaps" was supposedly negotiated down to a difference of 4% of the total area of the West Bank (the Israelis proposing to keep 6% and the Palestinians proposing 2%), Beinart also lays the blame for this failure on the Israeli side. From Beinart's viewpoint, the dispute comes down to the disputed West Bank city of Ariel, which Israel refused to agree to dismantle.
Beinart goes on to describe subsequent events when former President Bill Clinton outlined parameters that "went well beyond Barak's proposal at Camp David": "Arafat accepted the Clinton parameters in principle, but then offered reservations that rendered his acceptance virtually meaningless." Beinart paints former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza as part of a "hidden agenda" to allow Israel to continue to hold the rest of the West Bank. By way of contrast, on the Palestinian side, even Hamas gets off lightly. Its charter, calling for Israel's destruction is downplayed and Beinart justifies Hamas' decision to fire missiles into Israel. Again, he concedes that "Hamas had been killing Israelis since the 1990s," but somehow makes the case that if Israel had just lifted its blockade against Hamas and ceased any attacks (including retaliatory attacks), everything would have been wonderful and the Hamas rocket attacks would have ceased. None of this is intended, on my part, to argue that the situation in Gaza is very good. However, I think it is fair to say that if the Palestinian leadership took a different tactic following Israel's unilateral withdrawal, there could have been significant economic cooperation between Israel and Gaza that would have greatly improved the situation for Gaza's Palestinians. Instead, Gaza's leadership focused on amassing weapons, firing rockets and public relations exercises instead of working towards an arrangement with Israel that would have ameliorated conditions for Gazans.
In a chapter entitled "the Jewish President," Beinart reviews President Obama's credentials as a liberal, philo-Semitic president, whose own daughters attended a Solomon Schecter Day School in the Chicago era. Describing Obama as having been influenced by the late influential Conservative Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.), Beinart also describes the connection between Rabbi Arnold Wolf of Chicago's Temple Solel, who was one of Obama's "earliest and most prominent supporters." Overall, Beinart describes Obama as sharing a liberal Zionist view of Israel with a range of influential Jewish friends. According to Beinart's description, this would include pressuring Israel to make concessions with respect to the occupied territories, but in the name of preserving a liberal Zionist vision of Israel rather than as a way of attacking Israel.
As much as Obama is described in the book as a supporter of everything that is good about Israel, Netanyahu is no doubt, in Beinart's view, the devil incarnate. Describing Netanyahu as an heir to the chauvinistic Jabotinsky school of right wing Zionism, Beinart traces Netanyahu's political lineage from Jabotinsky to Benzion Netanyahu (Prime Minister Netanyahu's late father) to Netanyahu himself. Along the way, he suggests that Netanyahu is a racist, advocates a policy of physically transferring Palestinians out of Israel and the West Bank, and sprinkles in selective quotes from Netanyahu's 1993 book, A Place Among Nations, and its 2000 reprint, A Durable Peace. Overall he describes Netanyahu as a monist Zionist, who "subordinates external moral considerations to Zionism itself." He also reviews Netanyahu's close connections with AIPAC and wonders about the source of Netanyahu's electoral campaign funding. While Beinart may ultimately be accurate in his description of Netanyahu's reluctance to agree to the type of peace deal that Netanyahu's predecessors were being pressured to sign (if only the Palestinians would have also agreed), Beinart omits the massive swing in Israeli popular sentiment that followed the collapse of the peace talks and the onset of a new wave of violence. In a sense, Beinart's book advocates boycotting Netanyahu as much as any given policy. Ultimately, with the recent change to Netanyahu's coalition to now include the Kadima party, it remains to be seen whether there is any accuracy to Beinart's description.
Beinart's antipathy towards Netanyahu comes through even more clearly as Beinart describes the public clashes between President Obama and Netanyahu. Noting that Obama received 78% of the Jewish vote in the 2008 Presidential election, Beinart argues that he and many others were hopeful that Obama could lead a shift in U.S. policy to bolster the liberal Zionist vision of Israel that they shared and bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the territories. But Beinart goes on to describe a series of confrontations between Obama and Netanyahu and concludes that Obama was completely "humbled" as a result of pressure from AIPAC and other powerful, sometimes unnamed, Jewish and fundamentalist Christian sources. Ultimately, Obama was forced, as Beinart describes it, to back down from insisting on a complete settlement freeze and was publicly embarrassed and humiliated in the process. Of course, another possibility is that Obama began to rethink some of his policies with respect to Israel but that wouldn't fit too well with Beinart's thesis.
Beinart's chapter on the future of American Jewry hits closer to home since his description is also somewhat applicable to Canadian Jewry - and even Israeli Jewry. Jewish families who send their children to Jewish day schools are the ones who are continuing to carry on Jewish traditions and minimize the likelihood of intermarriage and assimilation. These families, especially in the United States, but in other areas as well are predominantly Orthodox. This means, in Beinart's view, that the number of actively involved, liberal, non-Orthodox Jews is steadily declining, relative to the overall population of committed Jews. Since these liberal Jews are the people who would share Beinart's view of a liberal Israel, their influence is steadily waning in the Jewish community. I have to note that this is also the case in Israel, which provides full state support for Orthodox schools but does not have a sufficient number of liberal, Jewish schools in which children can learn about and practice liberal Judaism. For Beinart, the net result is a prediction that the major American Jewish organizations will come to be dominated increasingly by Orthodox Jews with an illiberal agenda. This type of change is also occurring in Israel and has led to many different challenges pitting Orthodox Jews against others who advocate an egalitarian, democratic agenda. The ultimate result, if Israel does not save itself now, according to Beinart, would be a lurch towards a non-liberal version of Jewish Zionism at the expense of the liberal Zionist vision that many of the founders of Israel originally shared, and which included principles of democracy and equality for all Israeli citizens.
Beinart's solution to all of this is to propose a modified version of the "Boycott, Divest from and Sanction" ("BDS") campaign. He calls for people to refer to Israel as being divided into two parts - "democratic Israel" and "non-democratic Israel." He also calls for a boycott of settlers and their products while tempering that with an "equally vigorous embrace of the people and products of democratic Israel." He proposes that East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights not be included in the definition of "non-democratic Israel" since the Palestinians in those areas can actually obtain full Israeli citizenship.
If the only existential issue that Israel faced was dealing with the territories, Beinart's analysis might make some sense. But he dramatically minimizes that true existential threats to Israel. He barely mentions the 2006 war with Lebanon, the Iranian nuclear threat, the ongoing missile attacks from Gaza and the other threats that Israel faces. In short, he has a very rosy picture of how Israel might defend itself from attacks that would emanate from very close range following a full withdrawal from the territories. Moreover, given the fact that he has shifted the blame for the failure to reach a peace deal to Israel, almost entirely, he implicitly absolves the world from the need to pressure the Palestinians equally.
With the two sides, according to Beinart, having come as close to a deal as he describes, one would think that it would make sense to pressure both sides. For example, it seems quite unrealistic to expect that Israel will accept a "right to return" for the Palestinian refugees. Most Jews living in surrounding Arab countries left or were expelled following the establishment of Israel. Moreover, one state was designated as a Jewish state and the other as a Palestinian state. Sure, the Palestinian state should be entitled to offer an unlimited right of return for Palestinians from anywhere in the world who wish to return to the area and live in the Palestinian state. But to this point, even as Beinart describes it, the Palestinians appear to be demanding the right to have refugees return to and live in Israel, while having a Palestinian state that is virtually, if not completely, free of Jews.
Many in Israel, on the left and even the centre of the political spectrum will agree with Beinart's overriding thesis that Israel cannot continue as a liberal democratic country without reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians. And many would like to see that deal concluded as soon as possible and believe that Israel should be willing to make significant concessions to reach a deal. Yet many in Israel, even those on the centre and the left, have real concerns, based on experience from the last go-round, that the Palestinians are not prepared or are not politically able to make corresponding concessions that will be required to reach a deal. The central flaw of Beinart's book is that he downplays this possibility and places virtually all of the blame on Israel, which allows him to advocate joining the BDS crowd, with a modifying twist. A more balanced recount of historical events might have led Beinart to advocate pressuring (or boycotting) both sides in an effort to reach a lasting deal.