Monday, March 15, 2010

When Allies Aren't

Everyone who follows international politics even a little now knows about the spat between Israel and the United States. Israel's Interior Minister released a plan for new residential buildings--settlements--in East Jerusalem, a place crucial to the future of a Palestinian state, and its projected capitol. The Israelis had promised to show restraint in launching such projects, without promising to stop settlements altogether, as the Palestinians insist.

The Interior Department announced the plan during Vice-President Biden's visit aimed at trying to re-start the peace process. Biden blew up. Tom Friedman of The New York Times thinks he should have left without a word said. Prime Minister Netanyahu claims he was "blind-sided." Pardon me if I sound disrespectful--I am, by the way--but sure, Bibi. In matters like this if he didn't know it simply demonstrates he doesn't have control of his coalition. Does that come as such a surprise in Israel?

The next step came as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apparently read Bibi the riot act over the phone for 43 minutes the next day--the number seemed to matter to the State Department. One would love to have heard that call. If, as reports suggest, it focussed on Israel's embarrassment of the United States, that seems unsatisfactory. One might argue that Clinton's support of Israel makes her a logical Secretary of State at a time of great tension in the Middle East. One could turn that around, as well, and consider it her Achilles heel.

Embarrassment is not the issue. Neither, as Biden suggested, is a lockstep relationship between us and our cantankerous ally, if one can call the Israelis allies at the moment. Not that such closeness does not indeed make for a stronger negotiating position. It does. One cannot achieve such a relationship, however, with a supposed partner who does not really want to negotiate.

I have no expertise in diplomacy, and it shows in these blog posts. Nonetheless, I always remember one of two moments for which former Secretary of State James Baker, III earned my admiration, despite my opinion of him otherwise. On one occasion some time after Operation Desert Storm he reported back to President George H. W. Bush that the refugee crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan had reached horrific proportions that required action on our part. On the other, he famously announced to a Senate committee hearing that he had lost faith in the seriousness of the Shamir government in Israel, suggesting that he had better things to do than tolerate Israeli orneriness. He had a solution, though; when they got serious, they could call him, reading out his telephone number at the State Department digit by insulting digit. Shamir, unsurprisingly, did not take kindly to this brilliant piece of diplomatic grandstanding, but eventually took Baker's point, as he had no choice but to do--as Baker's stunt dramatically reminded him.

Tom Friedman thinks Joe Biden tried too hard to maintain civility, showing up pointedly late at a state dinner in his honor, but still appearing, at the moment Friedman thinks Biden belonged on Air Force Two. While I admire Biden's gesture of combined pique and personal restraint, Friedman has a point. Part of the problem would seem that while we might get this or that promise from Netanyahu, the conservative elements in his government, including his Interior Minister--a very important portfolio to the religious parties such as Shas--could care less. That announcement came out last week precisely to make that point, and to embarrass or at least pressure Netanyahu as much as Biden.

Which makes one wonder what we can accomplish by hosting talks with Netanyahu in Washington. I realize that the Israelis find our attempt to dictate internal policy infuriating, especially on a matter as crucial as settlements. We still need to listen to the Palestinians and the Arab world, so jittery right now that some major players have begun to peel away from the negotiating process. We have hit a point where the center has shown signs of not holding. We cannot risk a complete collapse of the regional framework for negotiation. If the Israelis resent our telling them what to do, how the Palestinians feel about Israeli pronouncements. One cannot forget, either, the importance of the Israeli lobby, to one important element of which Clinton is about to speak. Everybody here feels pressure, which, unfortunately, Netanyahu understands all too well.

So, here goes my wildly over-the-top (un-)diplomatic suggestion. Bibi speaks to the same group Hillary does. Even I know we can't deny him entry to the country. We can, however, freeze him out of discussions at the State Department and White House. No scheduled meetings with Hillary or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen; no meetings of apology with the Vice-President; definitely no scheduled meetings with the President; not even any meetings with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Giving Rahm Emanuel a chance to pound some reality into him couldn't hurt, maybe in a good-cop-bad-cop tandem with President Obama's other Jewish senior advisor, David Axelrod. Do it in Rahm's tiny office; the claustrophobia will help make the point. Only then do the President and Vice-President call them into the Oval Office for a carefully-timed hour or so with Hillary and Joe and Bob and Mike and Susan. Unscheduled, of course, and completely off-camera. No questions for the press afterwards. Make sure he gets back to the Israeli Embassy forthwith, and that his plane heads back to Israel that evening.

My point: unchristian as it sounds, humiliate him. Rub his nose ingloriously in the consequences of Israeli intransigence. Make it as crystal clear as we can that if Israel wants to go it on its own, they have every right, we wish them well, but don't tell us we didn't warn them when the next Intifada erupts. Hamas has quieted their guns and missiles for now. How long they continue to do so lies in the hands of the Israelis as much as those of Hamas and their patron, Iran. If they really don't care how hard we've worked to save them from sinking their own ship and bringing the rest of the Middle East with them, screw 'em. Sounds like a good line for Joe Biden. Rahm will already have put it more obscenely, maybe even in Hebrew. I'd like to hear that.

Biden thinks we can have no distance between us and Israel to negotiate effectively. Right now, we may have no credibility without distance between us and Israel. Selfish, and more in our interest than the Israelis, even the Palestinians? Perhaps. President Obama does, however, have other items on his agenda. Let Netanyahu worry a little about just how far this new guy might be willing to let Israel slip in his priorities. Maybe drop a hint about Special Envoy Sen. George Mitchell needing a vacation in Maine, a long one. Netanyahu will not think of such a withdrawal by us on his own. We have to nudge him. Okay, hit him over the head.

Bibi Netanyahu is a very proud man. Such treatment will get his goat past anything we can imagine. He'll pillory us for abandoning them. He'll accuse us of playing into the hands of Shas and the other extremists he got into bed with in order to form a government. His choice.

He'll also realize that Israel can't go it on their own. That he'll have to find a way to force the extremists and settlers to see that their way leads to hell, and takes the Palestinians with them. He doesn't need to go home in a chipper mood. In fact, he needs to go home pissed as hell, but aware that Shas brought him to this pass and that they, and the settler movement in general, are the obstacle between him and a place in history. Only he has the conservative credentials to break this impasse, as only Nixon could open us to China. We, in this sense, are stuck with him. He can't achieve a historic position for himself in Israel while winking at the obstructionist shenanigans of the right wing of his government and his electorate. And he can't do it while harboring any illusions about how hard the Obama administration will come down on his back (think lower, think what Rahm would say) if he continues to prevaricate.

No comments:

Post a Comment