In the Arena

Neoconservatives, Loyalty and Logic

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Elliott Abrams, who ran the Middle East desk at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush Administration, has unloaded a longish essay on the Obama Administration’s policy toward Israel in the latest Weekly Standard. You’ll be shocked to know that Abrams doesn’t like the policy. Still, I can’t dispute much of what he says…about the past. The historic Palestinian refusal to accept Israeli peace gestures has been disastrously stupid; the historic Palestinian inability to govern their own territory honorably and effectively has caused Israel to be rightly wary; the historic Palestinian policy of using lethal force against innocent Israeli citizens–and the continuing policy of groups like Hamas, who refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist–has caused the Israeli public to assume not merely bad intent, but also a barbarity, on the part of their neighbors and rightly so.

But. I do have a problem with the things Abrams doesn’t say–which stand as a purposeful distortion of the Obama Administration’s policy (as does the hysteria emanating from neoconservative quarters on this issue, the foreign policy equivalent of Tea Partyism). Abrams simply is not honest about the current situation. He notes, accurately, the dedication of a Palestinian square in memory of a terrorist (without noting, of course, that Israel has celebrated, and elected, terrorists who bombed the King David Hotel and other British outposts–a significant omission, since this is purportedly an essay about history). Nor he does note recent, gratuitous provocations by the Israeli government, like the plan to unilaterally “restore” historic sites located in Palestinian territory–or the daily humiliations visited upon law-abiding Palestinians by Israelis on the West Bank. The “historic sites” announcement, as I’ve written here before, could have been constructed as a joint Jewish-Christian-Muslim Commission; instead, it seemed a unilateral, and purposeful, slight of the West Bank Palestinian government, for the purpose of soliciting rock-throwing from the Palestinian youth in advance of the planned proximity talks. In this same manner, the announcement of new housing blocks in East Jerusalem–at the moment Vice President Biden was arriving in Tel Aviv–was intended to scuttle the talks. So Abrams’ reporting isn’t quite balanced or accurate, especially when it comes to recent Israeli activities.

Another thing he doesn’t talk about–at all–is the Israeli colonization of Palestinian lands. As I wrote several weeks ago, when you drive north from Ramallah to Nablus almost every hilltop has an Israeli settlement or outpost. None of these is legal. Another example: in the center of Hebron, the largest West Bank city and home to 500,000 Palestinians, there exists a colony of 400 Jewish extremist settlers–few of them native Israelis. They claim, correctly, that Hebron was a Jewish city 3000 years ago (as, of course, Arabs can claim evidence of their presence throughout the current land of Israel as least as long-standing…and, more to the point, a much stronger evidence of their presence, and the absence of Jews, far more recently). In any case, these 400 settlers are protected by 4000 Israeli army troops. Their area is cordoned off, which means that a Palestinian who lives on one side of downtown Hebron, and wants to see his mother on the other side, has to drive an 8 kilometer detour around downtown to visit her. This is a daily provocation for the residents of Hebron, which also happens to be the most industrious Palestinian city, home to a burgeoning middle class that seeks only stability.

This is the context for the Palestinian complaints about building more settlements in East Jerusalem. The proposed incursions are relatively small; they always are. But they add up to a direct threat to the future existence of a Palestinian state. In one East Jerusalem case, the new housing is in a neighborhood that will undoubtedly be Jewish once the maps are redrawn. But that is a matter to be negotiated. Abrams implies that since the Palestinians have never negotiated a successful agreement in the past, they probably won’t in the future–and therefore Israel should just go ahead expanding its colonization. That is one point of view.

Another point of view–denigrated by American right-wing Jewish extremists as anti-Israel–is this: The West Bank Palestinians seem to be getting their act together. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has tackled corruption in the government and is intent on building a stable economy; with the help of US advisors, a new Palestinian security force has made tremendous progress eliminating violence and anarchy in the streets. (The Israelis have acknowledged this improvement by removing many, but not all, of their checkpoints.) If Israel is to remain a democracy and a Jewish state, negotiations leading to a stable Palestinian state are an existential necessity…unless Israel wants to force the removal of the existing Palestinian population from the West Bank and Gaza, a project that seems plausible to only the most delusional Jewish extremists.

The negotiation of a two state solution involves several prerequisites. The most important condition for the Palestinians is the cessation of violence against Israel. This condition has been met, unequivocally, by the West Bank Palestinians (unless you count the recent, minor incidents of rock-throwing elicited by the Israeli provocations); it has even been mostly complied with–a few exceptions–by Hamas in Gaza, since the outrageous rocketing of Israeli civilians was ended by Israeli military action in December-January of 2008-9. The most important condition for Israel–a condition agreed upon by the entire international community, including the Bush Administration in which Abrams served–is the cessation of settlement building on Palestinian lands. That condition hasn’t been met.

And so: the “anti-Israel” activity by the Obama Administration is merely an insistence that Israel comply with a condition–which it agreed to meet in the Road Map talks–that the entire world, including the Administration of George W. Bush, has assumed was mandatory before peace talks could begin. The efforts by the neoconservative extremists to make this seem an extraordinary and hostile act by “the most anti-Israel Administration in history,” as the pro-Likud fanatic Jennifer Rubin recently lied, are simply nonsense–a Big Lie, indeed.

The efforts of Abrams and Rubin–and AIPAC–to undermine this long-standing American policy at this moment of truth teeter on the brink of treachery. Leaving aside the injustice–and foolishness–of the Israel incursion onto Palestinian lands, there is a very strong reason for Israel to stand down at this moment: the U.S. is trying to build a regional, and international, coalition to contain and deter Iran–to prevent it from building nuclear weapons, if possible–that will work to Israel’s benefit, if it is successful. A sense that Israel is interested in making peace with the Palestinians may help the U.S. in convincing the Sunni Arabs to join publicly in this effort; a sense that Israel isn’t interested in peace only serves to strengthen Iran’s hand (especially in places like Syria, where there is a–slight–chance that Assad government can be weaned from its alliance with Iran and into peace talks with the Israelis).

Again, disagreements on the proper strategy for the U.S. to pursue are inevitable. The American Likudniks have a right to their beliefs–although the Likud party has a definitive history of foreign policy disaster since it came to power in the late 1970s, including invasions and massacres in Lebanon that led to the creation of Hizbollah. On the other hand, there are more than a few of us who believe the rantings of those who style themselves “pro-Israel” are anything but; indeed, that they are a long-term ticket for disaster. They notion that they would be accusing us–and their President–of being anti-Israel is simply vile.

The need for a supple Palestinian state has been acknowledged by every recent Israeli Prime Minister except Netanyahu (the failure of the Palestinians to respond to their entreaties has been self-destructive in the extreme). So it needs to be said: AIPAC and the neoconservative extremists like Abrams stand well outside mainstream thinking on this issue–they certainly stand outside American policy that has been pursued, unanimously, by American Presidents since the six-day war in 1967. They are making their case in ways that encourage the enemies of Israel; they are making their case in ways that encourage right-wing American extremists who deny the legitimacy of our President. They are walking on very thin ice here. They should think hard about their rhetoric and the next actions they take.