Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, one of Senator Barack Obama’s leading spokesmen to the Jewish community, argues that Democrats are better for Israel than Republicans. What’s his proof?: Compare Israel’s security situation today to what it was in 2000 at the end of President Clinton’s term in office.
In inviting that comparison, Wexler is presumably counting on the collective amnesia of Jewish voters. Just in case anyone forgot, the end of the Clinton presidency was not exactly a happy time for Israel. After the failure of the Camp David negotiations, Yasir Arafat launched the Al Aksa intifada, and Israel found itself at war on Rosh Hashanah 5761. That war continued through March 2002, in which month alone nearly 140 Israelis lost their lives in terror attacks. Only after Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield, following the Seder night massacre in Netanya, did terror attacks on its citizens begin to abate.
Clinton, it must be admitted, does not bear sole, or even primary, responsibility for the failure of Camp David and its aftermath. He was, in part, pulled to Camp David by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was desperate to save his failing government by achieving some dramatic breakthrough. That pattern was repeated in the last two years of Ehud Olmert’s term as prime minister. Despite multiple criminal investigations and a personal popularity rating that frequently did not reach double digits, Olmert nevertheless embarked upon a dazzling array of diplomatic initiatives with the Palestinians and Syrians in a futile attempt to save his doomed government. (I write hours after Olmert handed his letter of resignation to President Shimon Peres.)
Though President Clinton does not bear primary responsibility for Camp David, what made Camp David possible at all, were certain assumptions shared by Barak and Clinton. One was the extreme tolerance for Yasir Arafat’s failure to deliver on any of his endlessly recycled promises during the first decade of Oslo. Arafat’s failures to move seriously to stop terrorism or incitement in the official Palestinian media under his control were inevitably attributed to Arafat’s weakness – i.e., the lack of support in the Palestinian street for ending terrorism or incitement.
The cure proposed was always to buttress Arafat with further concessions, in the hope that a newly strengthened Arafat would this time be able to make good on his previous undertakings. Arafat skillfully exploited the tolerance shown him like the proverbial cat left to guard the chickenhouse.
Under Clinton, Yasir Arafat logged more nights in the White House than any head of state. Bush never met with Arafat. The Oslo process, prior to Bush, was predicated on Israeli concessions in return for Palestinian promises to renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, and stop incitement. Those promises provided infinitely recyclable, and neither the Americans nor successive Israeli governments paid much attention to Palestinian compliance.
That pattern changed radically when George W. Bush came into office. In his June 24 2002 Rose Garden speech, President Bush served notice on the Palestinians that a Palestinian state is not inevitable; it must be earned. Thus there can be no timetable. And he sought to pour cold water on the Palestinians’ manic expectations that they would win victory through terror against Israel: “A Palestinian state will never be created by terror.”
By telling the Palestinians that the time had come for them to go first in stopping terror and incitement, Bush sounded a lot like former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: “If they give; they’ll receive; if they don’t give, they won’t receive.”
Senator Obama, incidentally, has emphasized that his support for Israel is not support for the Likud line, signaling that an Obama presidency would resemble that of the first eight years of Oslo under President Clinton. (The Clinton administration openly backed Ehud Barak over Netanyahu, whom it deemed an obstacle to peace, in the 1999 election.) During the Clinton years, terrorism claimed nearly 1,000 Israeli lives, with a lull only during Netanyahu’s brief premiership.
EVEN IF THE CLINTON YEARS do not represent some idyllic period to which Israelis are eager to return, it must be stipulated that Wexler is right: Israel’s security situation is in some ways worse today than it was eight years ago, despite the sharp decline in terrorism. Iran has established rapidly arming proxies on Israel’s northern and southern borders, and Israel will likely find itself in the crosshairs of a nuclear Iran in the next two years.
This observation, however, does nothing to support Wexler’s claim that Democrats are better for Israel than Republicans. Does there exist a single human being who believes that Barack Obama will act more aggressively to neuter Iran than John McCain? The former’s main prescription for dealing with Iran during the primaries was face-to-face, unconditional negotiations with Ahmadinejad – a prescription tailor-made to boost Ahmadinejad’s prestige and legitimacy.
But Wexler’s proof is fundamentally flawed for another reason: Israel’s greater vulnerability today has little to do with United States foreign policy, and much to do with Israel’s own failures and weaknesses. Nothing did more to damage Israel’s deterrent capacity than the Second Lebanon War two years ago. At the outset of the war, I wrote in these pages that if at the end of the conflict Nasrallah is still alive and able to claim with any degree of plausibility that he fought the mighty IDF to a draw, he will have won a major victory.
On the last day of fighting, Hizbullah rained as many missiles on Israel as it had on any previous day. Two years later, Hizbullah has more than twice as many missiles aimed at Israel as it did at the outset of the war, and many of them are capable of striking deep into Israel. Nasrallah not only controls southern Lebanon, but has emerged as the most powerful political figure in Lebanon. His claim of victory is more than just plausible.
Israel’s defeat owes nothing to President Bush. He provided Israel with a clear green light to deal Hizbullah a serious, even fatal blow, and he held that light open for a full month, in the face of nearly unanimous pressure from the Europeans to bring the fighting to a quick close. Israel’s failure to render Hizbullah a crippling blow, then, was entirely a result of failures of Israel’s military and political echelons.
Though it became quickly clear that the Israeli Air Force could itself not win the war, as Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, the first chief of staff chosen from the air force, believed it could, the cabinet never authorized a major land operation to destroy Hizbullah. As a result, the army was left standing still and vulnerable for a month. Only in the last 36 hours of fighting, with the U.N. Security Council already convened to vote a cease fire resolution, did Israel embark on a major ground operation. That operation cost 23 Jewish lives, without a single achievement to show for their loss.
The IDF, too, failed – both in not providing the cabinet with a clear battle plan, after the inconclusive initial air campaign, and at the combat level. The Winograd Commission appointed to investigate the failures of the war found a deep crisis in those values in which the IDF has always excelled: “operational discipline, determination in carrying out the mission, combat leadership, aspiration for victory, personal example, and taking initiative.” The Commission determined that the combat troops repeatedly concentrated on evacuating casualties rather than achieving their combat goals. In short, Israel’s failures in Lebanon were entirely self-inflicted.
Similarly self-inflicted were the unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza. In both cases, Israel issued ominous threats that if attacked from the vacated territory it would respond with full force. Yet when Hizbullah kidnapped and killed three Israeli soldiers months after the withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Israel did nothing. Subsequently, Israel sat by as Hizbullah amassed more than 13,000 missiles.
That pattern of inaction was repeated following the Gaza withdrawal. Despite the constant rocket fire on Sderot over nearly three years, Israel has failed to act forcibly to eliminate the threat. Nothing has more damaged Israel’s deterrent capacity than allowing the citizens of Sderot to be turned into sitting ducks.
Israel subcontracted its defense to Egypt after the Gaza withdrawal and to the U.N. after the Second Lebanon War, with equally disastrous results. Far higher quality Iranian armaments have poured into Gaza via the Egyptian border, rendering any future IDF actions in the Gaza Strip far more likely to result in high casualties, and Syria and Iran have rearmed Hizbullah unimpeded by U.N. peacekeepers.
The responsibility for all these failures in the security sphere lies with Israel and not the Bush administration. In the words of Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us.
This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on 8 October, 2008