Every columnist aspires to write — at least occasionally — something of such originality that he will be quickly distinguished from the common herd of scriveners. In that respect, “Our Not-So-Humble Opinions” by my erstwhile colleague and long-time friend Rabbi Avi Shafran, in which he attempts to defend the Middle East policies of the Obama administration, is a homerun.
The danger, however, of swinging for the fences is that one is more likely to strikeout. Sometimes the source of one’s originality lies in having said something so strikingly wrong that no one ever thought of it before. That, I will argue, is the case with Rabbi Shafran’s piece. Not that I expect to convince Avi, since I’m reasonably confident that he has read dozens of previous pieces of mine on this topic, without falling sway to the power of my arguments.
Indeed I suspect that I fall into the category of “intelligent and otherwise well-informed frum folks,” whom he considers somewhat deranged on the subject of the Obama administration’s policy to Israel. In that regard, I can only respond that at least I am in sync with the overwhelming majority of my fellow Israeli Jews, about 10% of whom view President Obama’s foreign policy as “pro-Israel” today, despite the great enthusiasm that greeted his election in Israel. My fellow Israelis and I could, admittedly, be wrong in our judgment, but I doubt it is because we are so much less well-informed than Rabbi Shafran. Since it is our lives on the line, we do try to keep reasonably up-to-date on shifts in American foreign policy.
Before explaining why I believe that Avi has suffered a rare strikeout, I should nevertheless say that I’m pleased that as a sometime spokesman for Agudath Israel of America he has written the piece he has. At the very least, he reminds us that in arguments concerning American foreign policy, it is important to maintain a civil tongue and confine oneself to arguments, while avoiding ad hominems. One can disagree without being disagreeable. In addition, it is important not to presume, to quote Barry Rubin of the BESA Center, that all “foolishness, misunderstanding, wishful thinking, and naivete” stems from malevolence. Conceptual errors are more common than evil intent, and often more dangerous. As the great French student of American society Talleyrand once wrote, “This is worse than a crime it is a blunder.”
It is also important that the current administration not view the Orthodox community, or any of its constituent parts, as irreconcilably opposed to it, or in the pocket of any political party. Any opposition on our part must be confined to policies, not to people or parties. In that regard, I would add, however, that it was unwise for Rabbi Shafran to even raise the suggestion that there are those in the Orthodox community whose opposition to President Obama stems from his middle name, doubts about his place of birth, or his “surplus of melanin,” even if to express the hope that that is not the case.
PRESIDENT OBAMA ENTERED OFFICE in thrall to a number of misconceptions about the Middle East. None of these misconceptions were terribly original with him, and most of them have long tainted American foreign policy in the region — the Clinton administration no less than that of President Obama. The first is what I have called the “liberal fallacy” — “the assumption,” in Barry Rubin’s words, “that everyone is basically alike in their thoughts, dreams, goals and world view.” Starting with that assumption, policymakers have no hope of understanding those with a different point of view. In particular, liberals will fail to comprehend the power of religious belief or to understand that there are those who take their religions far more seriously than they take their own. Thus American policymakers repeatedly fail to consider the possibility that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not just haggling over borders, but has far more to do with the fact that Israel’s very existence on land once under Islamic sovereignty is stain that must be removed, no matter how long it takes, in the eyes of most Arabs.
Those who believe that all people are basically alike and that their primary concern is securing a slightly bigger piece of the pie, will inevitably underestimate the difficulty of peacemaking. Upon entering office, the Obama administration pronounced the time ripe for achieving a Palestinian-Israeli peace treaty, without explaining what made it so. If anything, circumstances were far less auspicious than at Camp David in 2000. Then Palestinians were not yet divided between the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had far more stature in the Palestinian street than any current leader, and therefore a far better chance of selling a peace deal.
Obama had apparently given no thought to why Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas refused to even negotiate over the most generous offer the Palestinians are ever likely to receive, tendered by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Apparently he assumed that he could simply squeeze more concessions from Israel. And Abbas was content to let him try: he told the editorial board of the Washington Post in early 2009 that there was no point in negotiating with Israel; he preferred to wait for the United States to deliver Israel on a platter.
By January 2009, however, Israelis had internalized the lesson that territorial withdrawals only make them easier targets, after the failure of the Lebanese and Gaza withdrawals.
The second major fallacy with which the administration entered office was that the Arab-Israeli dispute is at the center of all that ails the Middle East. Few propositions are easier to refute. Most of the major bloodletting in the Middle East, starting with Iraq-Iran War, has had nothing to do with Israel. Had Israel never come into being, the rates of illiteracy, the subjugation of women, the lack of scientific or technological progress, the absence of democracy, and the religious fanaticism that goes with them, which characterizes the Middle East, would have been exactly the same as today.
The administration’s third misconception was that there is some fundamental connection between the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and Iran, and that only progress on the peace track would enable the United States to rally the Sunni Arab states to its banner in efforts to prevent Iran from going nuclear. To the extent that such a connection exists, it actually went the other way. Clipping Iran’s wings, and thus limiting its ability to sponsor terrorism against Israel from the North (Hizbullah) and South (Hamas), would only advance chances for peace.
The administration’s linkage might have initially constituted only a mistake. But as the first batch of recently released WikiLeaks documents demonstrates, the administration was soon hearing from all the Sunni states that the United States should act to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Iran was of far greater concern to them than Israel — for only the former entertains ambitions to be a regional hegemon. Even though the administration knew that its major Arab allies saw no linkage between the “peace process” and stopping the Iranian threat, it continued to insist that such linkage exists and used that linkage to justify continued pressure on Israel for further concessions.
BEYOND THE CONCEPTUAL WEAKNESSES of the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East, are the concrete policy changes under President Obama that have harmed Israel. Early on, the administration denied that it was bound by the April 14 2004 letter of President George W. Bush — a letter that was carefully negotiated as part of the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip — in which Bush acknowledged that in light of new realities on the ground since 1967, Israel could not be expected to withdraw from the major settlement blocks built since then. By denying any binding effect to previous presidential undertakings, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton taught Israeli leaders that they should not put too much faith in American promises — certainly not as a basis for current concessions.
Moreover, the Obama administration has made crystal-clear to a greater degree than any previous administration that it views even new neighborhoods of Jerusalem built since 1967 as “settlements.” It has repeatedly insisted that Israeli settlement freezes should apply to Jerusalem, just like Judea and Samaria, and has treated the 1949 armistice lines — i.e., Abba Eban’s “Auschwitz borders” — as the fundamental baseline for a future Palestinian state. By placing such an emphasis on Israeli “settlements,” the Obama administration has only ended up forcing the Palestinians to take a more hard-line position than previously. Prior to President Obama, no Palestinian leader had made cessation of settlement building a pre-condition for negotiations.
From the beginning of the new administration, almost all demands and pressure have been on Israel. When this complaint was raised at a July 14 2009 meeting between President Obama and leaders of 14 major Jewish organizations, the former responded, “For the past eight years, Israel had a friend in the United States and did not make peace.” The clear implications of that statement are: (1) that Israel bears the primary onus for the failure to achieve peace; and (2) that the Obama administration does not intend to be the same kind of “friend.”
Indeed, the Palestinians have continued to receive a pass from the United States. Hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid have been forthcoming, without any conditions. Incitement in the official Palestinian media and textbooks has never been emphasized by the president or secretary of state in any major public address on Middle East peace. Yet the continued existence of such incitement and the ongoing promotion of the cult of martyrdom, seventeen years after Oslo, demonstrate how far the Palestinian people are from being prepared to accept Israel in any borders.
In a clear break with all past American administrations, the Obama administration joined with 188 other signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to pass a resolution urging Israel to sign the treaty and open its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Doing so would destroy Israel’s longstanding policy of maintaining nuclear ambiguity. The resolution also furthers the process of delegitimization of Israel by placing it in defiance of an unanimous international resolution, while giving Iran’s nuclear program an important talking point: Iran’s evasion of international inspections makes it no worse than Israel.
At times America’s stance to Israel has veered close to outright hostility, as in the manufactured crisis during and after Vice-President Joseph Biden’s March visit, over a local planning commission’s preliminary approval of new homes adjacent to an existent Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. Secretary of State Clinton let it be known, through State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley, that in her almost hour-long dressing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu she had termed the action an “insult to the United States,” injurious to “American interests,” and as sending a “deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship.” President Obama went further, suggesting that America was paying a price in blood in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the failure to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians — a failure for which the principal onus fell, as always, on Israel. On his next visit to Washington D.C., Prime Minister Netanyahu was subjected to humiliation rituals visited on no other head of state: He was left sitting downstairs while the president ate dinner with his family and no photograph was taken of him with the president.
The appointment (subsequently withdrawn) of Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council was another slap in the face to Israel. A former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Freeman has earned much of his livelihood since then promoting the Saudi monarchy’s views in the United States. His record of extreme hostility to Israel was far too long to have escaped the notice of those who mooted his nomination.
While American policy towards Iran is in no way determined by Israel’s concerns, the consequences of that policy will likely be felt in the first instance by Israel. President Obama entered office determined to engage Iran. A case can certainly be made that a period of engagement was necessary in order to win support for biting sanctions against Iran. Yet by continually extending his deadlines, when the Iranians slapped away American overtures, the president conveyed to the Iranians a message of weakness. Never was that weakness more evident than when he failed to exploit a genuine chink in the regime’s armor in the form of widespread demonstrations after the stolen presidential elections of 2009. The prolonged period of engagement not only gave the Iranians valuable time to proceed with their enrichment efforts, it also convinced them that they have little to fear from the United States.
RABBI SHAFRAN ADDRESSES neither the faulty conceptual bases of President Obama’s Middle East policy or the failures of execution. Rather he contents himself with citing a few positive actions towards Israel over the last two years: (1) the allocation of $205 million for an Israeli anti-missile defense system (incidentally, omitted from the temporary budget resolution); (2) American efforts to secure Israel’s admission to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development); (3-4) American refusal to participate in the upcoming Durban Review Conference and its rejection of the Goldstone Report findings; (5) refusal to participate in joint military exercises with Turkey from which Israel was excluded; and (6) authorizing the targeted killing of a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen. The last, of course, had nothing to do with Israel, but rather with the ongoing threat the cleric in question poses to America.
The other items are indeed important. No one ever claimed that the United States under President Obama has gone from being Israel’s sole defender to its arch-enemy. But items one through five hardly establish President Obama’s great affinity for Israel either. In part, as with all American administrations, they reflect a political calculus: Jews, after blacks, are the Democratic Party’s most dependable voting bloc and largest givers. No need to needlessly risk their support, over primarily symbolic matters. And in part, they reflect the overwhelming support that Israel continues to enjoy among the American people and in Congress.
President Obama is famous for his oratory, and Rabbi Shafran offers two speeches as proof of his goodwill towards Israel. The first is his Cairo speech, in which he urged his Moslem listeners to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. That statement in an Arab country with which Israel has had a formal peace treaty for over thirty years should hardly be remarkable. Rather what was most notable about the speech, billed as an outreach to the Moslem world, was the president’s adoption of the Moslem narrative that the state of Israel should be understood as a response to the Holocaust. In the Moslem narrative, Israel has been inflicted upon them as European penance for its own sins during the Holocaust.
Months later, at the U.N. General Assembly, Obama did describe Israel as “the historic homeland of the Jewish people.” But the focus of Middle East section of the speech was almost entirely on Israeli settlements and the impediment they pose to peace. The president did not point to all the ways that the Palestinian leadership has never budged from its positions circa 1993.
That one sentence about Israel as the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” hardly overshadows two years of failed approaches, both in theory and practice, towards Israel and her neighbors.