Saturday, October 9, 2010

US Israel relationships: the making of the Israeli exclamation mark, part 2; unbalancing outreach with go-between

Sixth in a series of seven
parts: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7

Given the state of relationships between the United States and the Muslim world during the Bush era, president Obama's outreach is understandable and logical from both the moral and strategic points of view. But as more gestures were made towards the Arab world the more shunned and alienated Israelis felt. It is not hard to understand why it happened; it is basic human psychology. When one is trying to win over one side that is engaged in a conflict, the other party to that conflict will be apprehensive. And the best oratory and charisma are more likely to magnify this rather then contain it. Contrary to the popular belief oratory and charisma have their limits. There are only two persons that are believed to be able to cross boundaries of conflict and mutual suspicion. They are Jesus and the anti Christ, and president Barack Obama is none of them.

In Cairo on June 4 2009, president Obama had the opportunity to put Israel’s case in front of the Muslim world as a part of his outreach. He used the same arguments George Bush Sr. used on September 23rd 1991, when he got the General Assembly of the United Nations to revoke its infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism. Both of them cited the entire Jewish history of persecutions including the holocaust, as a reason for Israel’s existence. George Bush Sr. was talking to the whole world and convinced most of it, except the Muslim world. Barack Obama was talking only to the Muslim world, the result was the same; no one from that part of the world was convinced.

As far as Israelis are concerned, Israel’s right to exist is not based on pity, but on the right of self-determination. But arguing for that right in front of the Muslim world is risking shaking it and destabilizing it, since many Arab and Muslim countries contain separatist movements within their borders. The office of the American presidency has its limits. So while the Cairo speech was an important effort it gained no political capital, not from the Muslim world and not from the Israeli public opinion.

George Bush Sr. Address to the 46th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City:
UNGA Resolution 3379, the so-called "Zionism is racism" resolution, mocks this pledge and the principles upon which the United Nations was founded. And I call now for its repeal. Zionism is not a policy; it is the idea that led to the creation of a home for the Jewish people, to the State of Israel. And to equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history and forget the terrible plight of Jews in World War II and, indeed, throughout history. To equate Zionism with racism is to reject Israel itself, a member of good standing of the United Nations

Barack Obama, Cairo speech, June 4th 2009:
America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction -- or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews -- is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.
On this background came the Obama's administration new ideas for the peace process. They went as follows, Israel will make gestures to the Palestinians and the Arab countries will repay her by increasing normalization with her. This idea raised more then a few eyebrows in Israel. Why should Israel accept the normalization with other Arab countries in exchange for the concessions it is making to the Palestinians? Shouldn’t the Palestinians offer something in return?

On the Arab side it had a more concrete impact. Usually normalization is something that happens with little to no third party public encouragement. A handful of Arab countries initiate low-key normalization with Israel as a response to progress in the peace process and because of their economic interests. And countries like the United States, or some other European country, do what they can to help. It is always done behind the scenes or with low-key media exposure to avoid pressure from opposition groups and hardline Arab and Islamic countries. By making it a publicly declared US interest the market value of normalization increased. And the Arab states withdrew their product, the normalization that was already taking place, in order to get a better price for it, and the peace process took a step backwards. This forced the United States to invest time and energy in reestablishing the normalization between Israel and the moderate Arab world at the expense of the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Probably in order to put some substance in their overture towards the Muslim world the Americans made their opposition to Israel’s activities in East Jerusalem publicly known, and condemned every Israeli activity there. And they did so even if it meant attacking decisions made by Israel’s supreme court, which meant attacking Israel’s sovereignty. Right or wrong aside, they were introducing a new component to the peace process, micro commenting. They were loudly condemning minor events, the kind of which previous administrations had ignored or made non-confrontational protest against. And this new policy was definitely one sided, because other previously ignored events, such as Hamas motivated rioters throwing stones and bricks from Al Aqsa mosque on Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall, were still been ignored. When Israeli and Jewish representatives asked about this one-sidedness, criticism of the Arab side did come, but it was a part of another one-sided routine. A routine in which Israel was been lambasted publicly, in front of Israeli leaders and representatives and in front of Arab leaders, while the Arab side was been criticized only in front of Israelis or American Jews, with very little media attention. As a result Israelis naturally drifted farther away, but even at the Palestinian side the results were not constructive.

Ignored by the Obama administration.
Hamas motivated rioters throwing cinder blocks on Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall from the Al Aqsa Mosque.
 Source, Yediot Achronot, March 7th 2010, originally from AP & AFP

In the long history of Palestinian internal politics there has always been a competition as to who is the toughest guy against Israel. When both Hamas and Fatah have no military options the competition is mostly verbal. Now the Americans became a third competitor in that contest. And since the Palestinian Authority could not afford appearing less patriotic then the Americans, they took the only harder line position they could, and refused to sit in the same room with the Israelis. Thus the peace process went seven years backwards, as it was before the Aqaba summit, when the leaders of both sides where unable to sit together and talk because of Arafat’s brutal and unreliable policies. Fortunately this time it was only in the diplomatic level and without accompanying brutal violence on the ground.

Then came the Ramat Shlomo crisis. That crisis came to be because the American administration claimed Israel offended them when it announced the planning of 1600 new apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in East Jerusalem, at the same day Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting. The Americans objection to the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem is well known. Been offended by a statement made by a zoning committee of the Jerusalem municipality, a low level of authority, is understandable, but to turn it into an international crisis? Over something that is virtual, since the construction is scheduled for two years after that announcement? Won’t such precedent hijack international relationships by statements made by any low-level functionary or politician?

What turned this puzzlement into a credibility gap was the fact that it did not happen in a vacuum. At that same day the Palestinians were naming a square in Ramallah after one of their heroes, a 19 year-old terroris by the name of Dalal Mugrabi. She was a member of a Palestinian commando unit responsible for the worst terrorist attack on Israeli civilians prior to the era of suicide bombings. In that attack her unit, which landed on the Israeli coast north of Tel Aviv, hijacked two buses, took their passengers hostage, fired at passing vehicles and killed 38 civilians, 11 of them children, ages 2 to 17. The first person they murdered, on the beach they landed on, was the American photographer Gail Rubin. The idea that the glorification of this crime, which took place 32 years to the date prior to Vice-President Biden’s visit, was less offensive then 1600 virtual apartments, is problematic. Why would the glorification of a brutal crime that had happen be less offensive then an announcement of a planned housing project that may or may not take place in the future? What happened to the American stand against terrorism?

terror victim
Gail Rubin

For this unreliable offense the Americans demanded concessions in the city itself. This demand was backed by another argument that was circulated in the international media and the Israeli media. It claimed that after 43 years the United States could not afford looking the other way on this issue. The problem is that this explanation has no legs to stand on. The reason the United States rarely engaged in a head-on confrontation with Israel over the settlements and East Jerusalem was because with Soviet-backed Arab and Palestinian rejectionism the Americans had no alternative to advance. With both the Cold War and the first Gulf War behind him, Secretary of State James Baker had good reason to believe he had such an alternative, and a confrontation between him and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s hardline position did occur. This confrontation ended when Shamir lost the 1992 elections. Later, President Clinton and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin implemented a similar alternative, the Oslo accords. When Arafat literally blow up the peace process that alternative vanished. While it is not clear if under Mahmoud Abbas this alternative had returned, the current security co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian forces makes that possibility probable. However it does not include East Jerusalem, since the Palestinian positions on Jerusalem were never clear. Not during the Oslo years and not now. And the Second Initifada erupted over their rejection of any compromise over the city.

Ramat Shlomo:
Small, and close to the Green Line, even when compared to other Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

With no indications that the current Palestinian leadership had changed its position over Jerusalem the Americans had no alternative to advance. Yet in the Ramat Shlomo/ Dalal Mughrabi crisis, they did just that, pushed for concessions without a corresponding alternative. Without an alternative to offer the only other alternative the general public in Israel could look at was the past. And that past is violent and traumatic. By forcing one-sided concessions in Jerusalem they have awakened the memories from the time Jerusalem was divided by an unstable border. This was a border that threatened the existence of Israel and Jerusalem was its political epicenter. By erasing that border the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem represent a political and psychological rejection and prevention of that past, as well as an expression of a national consensus that sees the unification of the city as a fundamental national right.

The glorification of terrorists like Dalal Mughrarbi is a part of the incitement that creates terrorism, presenting a crime against humanity as an act of heroic patriotism. The Obama administration eventually did protest against that, but made no international crisis out of it. This discrepancy created the impression that this act of incitement is legit or tolerable in the eyes of the American administration. Thus opening the fresh wounds from the spate of suicide bombings produced by such incitement. Since Dalal Mughrabi and her crime is a part of this crisis, her era echoed as well, the era of Ma’alot, Savoy Hotel, Munich, and other Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians during the 1970’s. This administration acted as if it has forgotten that the reason to oppose the settlements is to safeguard and maintain the possibility of a vibrant continuous Palestinian state, and not to reawaken Israel’s collective security traumas. Instead they’ve glued themselves to three of the worse of them.

The most probable reason for that misguided decision-making process is an ill-prepared attempt to combine outreach with the position of the go-between. It is possible that these two different goals can be combined; there is simply not enough information in the historical record to say either way. As far as this experiment goes, the result is a failure. The outreach gave no results, but the position of the go-between, essential to the facilitation of a peace process, was jeopardized. Now they are trying to fix that, though they won’t admit it. They are trying to manage the peace process as much as possible by the book of past experience, but there is no book on how to fix a mismanaged peace process.

Dvar Dea

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