Saturday, October 9, 2010

US Israel relationships: The public debate, Israel and the war on terror

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

During the Ramat Shlomo crisis, which was considered at the time the lowest point in the history of US Israel relationships, a problematic accusation circulated in the mainstream media. This was the accusation attributed to General Petraeus that claimed that Israeli policies are killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. As he himself had explained it to Philip Klein of the Spectator, it was taken out of context. And how often do public figures use the “taken out of context” defense when the media support their alleged views and not lash out at them? As he explained:

There’s a 56-page document that we submitted that has a statement in it that describes various factors that influence the strategic context in which we operate and among those we listed the Mideast peace process, ... We noted in there that there was a perception at times that America sides with Israel and so forth. And I mean, that is a perception. It is there. I don’t think that’s disputable. But I think people inferred from what that said and then repeated it a couple of times and bloggers picked it up and spun it. And I think that has been unhelpful, frankly.

One item out of a list long enough to fit 56 pages, not the single item, not THE item, one item out of many, everything else was the work of bloggers and probably spin doctors.

General Petraeus’ explanation is the reliable one for two reasons. First, it is his account of his own work. It is not the version of some self-appointed somebody who claims to have inside knowledge as if he or she wrote the general’s documents. Second, in the complex realities of every region, cause and effect are not that straightforward, whether it is South East Asia during the Vietnam War, or Western Europe during the Cold War. In the Middle East strategic planners must take into account stability of governments, economic disparity, religious and ethnic tension, illiteracy, gender discrimination, tribalism, and more. Just have a look at Yemen, where most of these problems exist. There we find a large presence of Al Qaeda, the Al Qaeda that sent Umar Farrouk Abdulmutallab to attack the United States during Christmas 2009. They were able to form a large presence there because the country suffers from all the above-mentioned weaknesses and because they were chased out of other countries. Israel was not a factor since Yemen always had a hardline position against Israel.

General Petraeus
General Petraeus

While there is no question that the Israeli – Palestinian conflict does interact with terrorism, history and reality do not accommodate those who claim Israeli policies are at fault. As history shows us, it can easily be seen as the other way around. That is, progress in the peace process brings about a rise in terrorist activity. The best example is the murder of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 as a direct result of the successful peace negotiations with Israel. Moreover, the spike in Al Qaeda attacks on American targets in the 1990s, from the first attack on the Twin Towers to the planning of the second attack, occurred when the Oslo peace process was on an upswing. And recently, the murder of 4 Israeli civilians, one of them a pregnant woman, by Hamas, on august the 31st, just before the talks were about to begin in Washington D. C.

It is quite possible that recruiters for terrorist organizations can use the Israeli Palestinian conflict as a means of persuasion and recruitment. However, it is equally possible for them to use a successful peace process. They can always argue that the Palestinians and the whole Arab/Muslim nation are being cheated. For all terrorist organizations the peace process itself is a threat. And any progress made will motivate them to do more harm, whether they are Jews, Palestinians or international Jihadists.

When it comes to the safety of American troops, history can argue the opposite as well, making the case that safety for American troops can result in casualties for Israel. In 1991 many Israelis agreed, reluctantly, not to respond against repeated Scud missile attacks by Saddam Hussein. That allowed President George Bush Sr. to maintain the American led multinational coalition needed to liberate Kuwait, another enemy of Israel, from Iraqi occupation. Fortunately the casualties among Israeli civilians were low. However, in 2001 and 2002 Israeli citizens were not so lucky.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the United States and its NATO allies were at war in Afghanistan. At the time Israel was in the midst of a horrific wave of suicide bombings and other mass murder attacks that had already killed more than 150 Israelis. Israel had every right to respond to those attacks, but international pressure kept her from responding effectively. There was more than one reason for that pressure, but the most effective pressure comes from the closest ally. After 9/11 this ally needed Israel to restrain itself in face of this brutal violence. This restraint was needed in order to help the United-States get the cooperation needed from major regional players, to launch an effective campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Israeli citizens suffered, horrifically, so that Americans will be safer on the mainland and on the battlefield. But when the monthly death toll in Israel peaked at 130 in March 2002, Israel could no longer afford agreeing to that pressure, and effectively began exercising its right to defend its citizens, in what was known as operation “Defensive Shield”. The United States and its NATO allies did not like the fact the Israeli army had returned to the West Bank and its major cities, but they did not pressure Israel to withdraw. With a NATO backed regime established in Afghanistan they did not need to restrain itself any more against the brutal provocation. Instead they began to establish a reliable Palestinian security force that will serve the purpose of the peace process.

Comparing death tolls, “how many Americans died for Israel?” or “how many Israelis died for America,” is the language of conflict; it is not the language of alliance. Allies help bring down each other’s death toll. The American administration is helping financing “Iron Dome” to protect Israeli population centers, and Israeli technologies are helping protect American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. And at the same time they work to bridge the different sets of priorities each of them has as separate sovereign nations. Cracks are surely to come, as they surely will be overcome. But in this context this inserted language of conflict has the affect of slander, creating bitterness and suspicion when cooperation and communication are needed. Bordering on cheap sensationalism it also creates a simplistic and unrepresentative picture of the peace process, unbecoming the gravity and complexity of the problems entangling it. Not to mention disrespectful of the dead. When the mainstream media adopt this form of conversation it becomes a tragedy primarily for those who seek to advance the peace process. While the mainstream media are not where negotiations take place, they do affect public opinion. Public opinion can support the peace process as happened in the days following Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem. It can, alternatively burden it when tension, suspicion and mistrust, the inevitable obstacles to peace, are amplified, amplified by misguided concepts and probably hostile disinformation campaigns. These are, to borrow a quote from General Petraeus, “unhelpful.”

Dvar Dea,

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US Israel relationships a seven parts series:
The public debate, correcting a favorable picture
The public debate, Israel and the war on terror
The Palestinian component
The right wing component
The Israeli exclamation mark, Obama's triple inheritance
The Israeli exclamation mark, unbalancing outreach w go-between
The peace process' beggars' choice

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