America's peace broker in the Middle East, George Mitchell, has a hot summer ahead. He will shuttle the few miles between the offices of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He's already begun what looks to be a long, niggling process of shuttle diplomacy in which the Israelis and Palestinians will not meet face to face, leaving it to Mitchell to try to reconcile the differences that stand in the way of creating the Palestinian state that the Israelis have agreed to in principle.
If the Obama administration wants to leave any kind of decent mark in history for its handling of the Middle East—pretty poor so far—it should do something right now that would clear the air and save Mitchell the four months he's allocated. It's simple. Just invite the Palestinians to do what the Israelis have done for decades, which is to declare in the language of their own people that both sides have genuine claims to this land, that both sides have the right to live in peace, and that a viable compromise is possible. If the Palestinians were to publicly begin the process of reversing Yasser Arafat's relentless delegitimization of the Israeli connection with this land, emblemized by his dismissal of the notion of a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, they would achieve the simultaneous feat of preparing their people for compromise and persuading Israel of its viability. The Palestinian leadership has all along made an honorable peace impossible by falsely stating that the Jews have no legitimate claims to any of the land.
The Israelis are clearly prepared to live with a Palestinian state along their borders. The trouble is precisely that the Palestinians are not. Every day, Fatah (to say nothing of Hamas and Hezbollah) continues to preach Israel's illegitimacy and beat the drums of hate. Jerusalem and Bethlehem provide a lesson in what tolerance means to the Jews and what it means to the Arabs. In Jerusalem, it is only since the Israelis took control of that city that all faiths—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—had safe access to all the holy sites, in living testimony of the principle of freedom of religion. By contrast, in Bethlehem, which is controlled by the Palestinians, Christian cemeteries, churches, and individuals are frequently attacked, provoking an exodus of Christians from the town of Jesus's birth. Fifty years ago, Christians made up 70 percent of Bethlehem's population; today, it is about 15 percent.
Decades of terrorism have left Israelis demoralized about the potential of negotiations. Given the hostility President Obama has shown to Israel from the start, the new smooth talk from the White House won't do it. "The president gets it," said Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, one of 37 anxious Jewish members of Congress who met privately with Obama on May 18. Rep. Steve Rothman of New Jersey went so far as to say that from a military and intelligence-sharing perspective, the Obama administration is the best U.S. administration Israel has ever had. Hello?
What will make it difficult for the Israelis to be forthcoming in the brokered negotiations with the Palestinians is the widespread concern that this administration, unlike others going back to the Truman years, lacks a basic commitment to Israel, or sympathy for it. It was this sustained U.S. support that made it feasible for the Israelis to offer territorial concessions because they believed that Washington would protect their back.
Today, the Israelis no longer believe that the American commitment to Israel is rock-solid. They have witnessed the erosion of U.S. support for Israel at the United Nations and more recently at the International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States has taken public positions on the settlement freeze and Jerusalem that enhanced the expectations of the Palestinians, who cannot be less pro-Palestinian than the White House and, therefore, cannot climb down from the positions taken by the U.S. administration.
Even worse, the Israeli government will be more cautious in acceding to U.S. demands, believing that whatever compromises might be struck could be meaningless if Obama gets angry again. The Israelis now have the feeling that the Obama administration just wants a deal signed, without much concern about what happens later.
Obama did commit himself before the election to Israeli borders that were, in his words, "secure, recognized, and defensible." But his administration uses the 1967 borders as the point of departure for a settlement—and that's unacceptable. The administration of George W. Bush essentially agreed that Israel would not have to withdraw to the 1967 borders. Why? Because they are neither secure nor defensible. The Israelis are now being asked to take on the risk of withdrawing from territory that is immediately adjacent to their major population centers, especially Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. If the West Bank became a platform for rocket attacks, as Gaza did, especially with the more sophisticated weaponry now provided by Iran, Israel would become uninhabitable. Terrorism from Gaza is a security challenge for Israel; terrorism from the West Bank threatens Israel's survival.
When the Israelis left Lebanon, Iran operated through its proxy, Hezbollah; when the Israelis left Gaza, Iran went in through Hamas, and all the U.N. and international guarantees failed to stop the attacks. Abba Eban, as Israel's foreign minister in 1967, compared the U.N. force stationed on the Israel-Egypt border to an umbrella that is taken away when it rains: The umbrella was removed just as Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser was moving against Israel. The new umbrellas have not been much more reliable. If you witness the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, even U.S. forces are unable to stop terrorist bombs and rocket attacks. There is no reason to believe things would go better in the West Bank.
Obama clearly wonders whether the current Israeli prime minister is serious about making peace. This is disturbing and puzzling in light of the fact that this is the prime minister who:
Overcame Likud resistance to a two-state solution.
Agreed to a temporary moratorium on new settlement construction, which no previous Israeli government was willing even to consider.
Authorized the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Dramatically reduced checkpoints and blockades, even though this could increase security risks to Israelis.
Gave free passes without further review to hundreds of Palestinians to move between Israel and the West Bank for economic reasons.
Authorized new security arrangements that were, in effect, a modified form of amnesty to help former terrorists join the Palestinian community as peaceful civilians.
Netanyahu is not to blame for trouble in the Middle East, no more than Israel is to blame for Islamic radicalism. The Islamists are not enemies of America because of Israel. They are fighting America because they see the whole West and its culture, values, and belief in democracy as antithetical to their own beliefs. Were Israel to disappear tomorrow, it would not end the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, cause Iran to stop its nuclear program, or put al Qaeda out of business. In fact, not only would a defeat for a country aligned with the United States strengthen Iran and al Qaeda, but many Arab countries understand that Israel, with its military power, is a major counterforce to the Iranian pressures.
What is forgotten in this administration is that Israel has been an ally that has paid dividends exceeding its costs. Yes, Israel receives $3 billion annually in military aid, but 70 percent is used to purchase American military equipment and provides jobs at home. Further, the United States and Israel are working jointly to improve missile defense capabilities, and they have cooperated on countermeasures against roadside bombs, the largest single cause of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are already providing security to U.S. civilians and ground troops throughout the Middle East. Israel also provides U.S. officials with real-time access to one of the best intelligence services in the world regarding al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran, and Hamas.
Finally, there is Israel's strategic location on the Mediterranean. It provides a port of call for U.S. troops, ships, aircraft, and intelligence sources, and a place where arms, fuel, munitions, and other supplies can be stockpiled and accessed when America needs them in the region. The country also offers access to the Red Sea. One analyst has described Israel as a "strategic aircraft carrier" in a chaotic part of the world. What would have been the cost in American blood and treasure if Saddam Hussein had developed nuclear weapons, or if Syria possessed them? Israeli forces in 1981 destroyed the nearly finished reactor at the Osirak facility near Baghdad, and in 2007 similarly attacked a suspected nuclear facility in Syria. This is the short list of all the contributions that Israel has made in terms of military and intelligence cooperation with the United States.
Israel needs America—and America needs Israel.