Monday, April 13, 2009

Openminded Thinking on Policy toward Israel & Iran

My suggestions on specific ways to move toward an accommodation between the U.S. and Iran (some already published, others soon to appear) of course cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. An essential additional piece of the political pie is U.S. relations with Israel, which have been too accommodating (think of a see-saw, perhaps, with the U.S. in the center, Israel at one end and Iran at the other; the goal is a balance).

The bottom line is that foreign policy is an art seldom carried out with professional skill. Admittedly, it's hard. Just when you devise an expert policy, something else comes up or someone mistranslates something. And how many decisionmakers get their power because they are actually qualified? Even when an actual political scientist gets power, the likelihood of the lucky academic actually making intelligent decisions seems, judging from history, shockingly poor. And most of the others are in power because they were owed a favor or are considered safe by other power-holders or because they just managed to grab power or because, perhaps, they have some other expertise, but not because they have any real expertise in judging how to design effective and proper foreign policy.

The upshot is that policy in practice all too often is squeezed like toothpaste into a tub of intellectual constraints composed of taboos and outdated "commonsense." So all manner of options right before our eyes are simply not seen. They magically become invisible!

My point in exploring possible steps that might in the future be taken to improve U.S. relations with Iran is not to claim to have discovered the "solution" but to make clear that many, many options--a few of which I happened to think of--exist. I would guess that Walt was trying to make exactly the same point relative to relations with Israel. Let 100 flowers bloom...

Walt provides invaluable thinking on the specifics of restoring a measure of balance and good sense to U.S.-Israeli relations:

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.

1. Cut the aid package? If you add it all up, Israel gets over $3 billion in U.S. economic and military aid each year, which works out to about $500 per Israeli citizen. There’s a lot of potential leverage here, but it’s probably not the best stick to use, at least not at first. Trying to trim or cut the aid package will trigger an open and undoubtedly ugly confrontation in Congress (where the influence of AIPAC and other hard-line groups in the Israel lobby is greatest). So that’s not where I’d start. Instead, I’d consider a few other options, such as:

2. Change the Rhetoric. The Obama administration could begin by using different language to describe certain Israeli policies.  While reaffirming America’s commitment to Israel’s existence as a Jewish-majority state, it could stop referring to settlement construction as “unhelpful,” a word that makes U.S. diplomats sound timid and mealy-mouthed.  Instead, we could start describing the settlements as “illegal” or as “violations of international law.”  The UN Charter forbids acquisition of territory by force and the Fourth Geneva Convention bars states from transfering their populations (even if voluntarily) to areas under belligerent occupation.  This is why earlier U.S. administrations described the settlements as illegal, and why the rest of the world has long regarded them in the same way.  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.

3. 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.
4. 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. There is in fact a precedent for this step: after negotiating the original agreements for a “strategic partnership,” the Reagan administration suspended them following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Today, such a step would surely get the attention of Israel’s security establishment.

5. Reduce U.S. purchases of Israeli military equipment. In addition to providing Israel with military assistance (some of which is then used to purchase U.S. arms), the Pentagon also buys millions of dollars
of weaponry and other services from Israel’s own defense industry. Obama could instruct Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to 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.
6. 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. This makes no sense: 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. 

7. Place more limits on U.S. loan guarantees. The United States has provided billions of dollars of loan guarantees to Israel on several occasions, which enabled Israel to borrow money from commercial banks at lower interest rates.  Back in 1992, the first Bush administration held up nearly $10 billion in guarantees until Israel agreed to halt settlement construction and attend the Madrid peace conference, and the dispute helped undermine the hard-line Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir and bring Yitzhak Rabin to power, which in turn made the historic Oslo Agreement possible.  

8. 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.

I don’t think Obama needs to employ all of these steps --and certainly not all at once -- but the United States clearly has plenty of options if pressure turns out to be necessary. And most of these measures could be implemented by the Executive Branch alone, thereby outflanking die-hard defenders of the special relationship in Congress.  Indeed, even hinting that it was thinking about some of these measures would probably get Netanyahu to start reconsidering his position.

Most importantly, Obama and his aides will need to reach out to Israel’s supporters in the United States, and make it clear to them that pressing Israel to end the occupation is essential for Israel’s long-term survival.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Journalist Philip Weiss on the Neoconservative agenda:

"In terms of their politics, they were almost all Democrats and then as soon as the Democratic party suggested that it wasn't going to have a strong military, Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, the grandfathers of this movement, they went Republican. Why? Because they said, back in the 70's, a strong American military is needed to protect Israel."

Download an mp3 of Phil saying the above here (9:45 minutes in) - 07/12/ - 03/18/2009Watch the BBC documentary "The War Party", part 1 of 5Read Phil's blog on the Neocons, AIPAC, Israel/Palestine @