If you are a foreign policy analyst, newspaper editor, pundit or just political junkie like myself, the last few days have been a real treat. From 19 May to 24 May, two world leaders – one the leader of the world’s only superpower and the other the leader of the world’s most historic people – made speeches, held press conferences and addressed some of the most influential and powerful political bodies in the world. There is a school of thought that says history is best understood by examining its records: treaties, laws and speeches. Whether one accepts this belief or not, the speeches made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been a model of historical consistency.
It began on 19 May. President Obama made a major foreign policy address at the US State Department (see https://themiddleeasthotspot.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/cairo-ad-nauseum/). He stated, in short, that the 1967 borders of Israel should be the future borders of a Palestinian state. This has long been a demand of the Palestinian Authority and its predecessor, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). To be fair, ever since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 it has been tacitly acknowledged that a Palestinian state would exist somewhere inside those borders. However, President Obama’s remarks crossed a line that no previous American president had: he publicly endorsed a key demand of the Palestinian Authority – and just days before the Israeli Prime Minister was due to arrive in the US.
Netanyahu’s office released a reply the same day, and battle lines were drawn. The Prime Minister’s response foreshadowed the themes that would be repeated and expanded upon in three more speeches over the coming days. First, any future Palestinian state would not come about at the expense of Israel’s security: Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 borders. Second, major Israeli population centers beyond the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel’s final borders. Third, that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem would be within Palestinian borders, not Israel’s. There would be no “right of return.”
The Prime Minister also showed some of his card-playing skills in the press release of 19 May. It mentioned commitments made by a previous US president in 2004 and alluded to the overwhelming support of both US Houses of Congress. If President Obama reneges on the commitments of former President George W. Bush, what credibility does President Obama or any future American president have? Moreover, while he may be the leader of the world’s only superpower, President Obama still must contend with a US House of Representatives and US Senate that are in the hands of his Republican opposition.
Two days later, these same men sat together for several hours and discussed the status of American-Israeli relations, the stalled peace talks, and wider developments in the region. At their joint press conference afterwards, the Prime Minister returned to and expanded on the themes his office annunciated just two days earlier. “Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace,” but would not accept the indefensible 1967 borders. He stated quite clearly that Israel’s pre-1967 geography precluded any possibility of this. In addition, he stated very forcefully, “we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.” He didn’t say “we would like to have” or “it would be a good idea,” but decisively, we are going to have it.
Perhaps to allay concerns that a major rift was growing between the two allies, Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged the President’s statement regarding Hamas. Scorning it as “the Palestinian version of al-Qaeda” (see https://themiddleeasthotspot.wordpress.com/2011/05/22/pity-poor-president-obama/) he indicated that Israel could not be asked to negotiate with a terrorist organization. Only weeks before, Hamas terrorists had killed a teenage boy with a deliberate rocket attack on a school bus and then condemned America for the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Finally, echoing his statement of 19 May, the Prime Minister said, “the Palestinian refugee problem will have to be resolved in the context of a Palestinian state” not within Israel’s borders. He also raised, perhaps for the first time by an Israeli prime minister, the issue of Jewish refugees. It is little known outside of Israel, but in the period from 1948-1952 Israel absorbed over 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab states. People who had been stripped of almost all of their possessions and subjected to dictates reminiscent of the recently defeated Nazi Germany.
On 24 May, the Prime Minister forcefully repeated Israel’s position in front of a partisan audience at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference. He evoked the shared commitment to democracy and liberty, reminding those assembled that the ideas of all mean being “created in God’s image, that no ruler is above the law, that everyone is entitled to justice” originated in biblical Israel. These ideas are finally coming to the Arab world, he said, noting the unrest that has rocked the region and toppled two Arab autocrats. Pointing out that the region’s problems are not rooted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in the lack of freedom in the Arab world, he proclaimed, “Israel is what is right about the Middle East.”
Finally on the same day, Benjamin Netanyahu had the rare privilege, although it was the second time he has enjoyed such an honor, of addressing a joint-session of the US Congress. Immediately, he played his “Congress card” saying, “And I do see a lot of old friends here. And I do see a lot of new friends here. Democrats and Republicans alike.” The message was clear: my support in your Congress, unlike yours, President Obama, is deep and bipartisan. Applause interrupted the Israeli Prime Minister’s speech more than they had interrupted the President’s State of the Union address four months earlier. Later on in his speech, he would thank President Obama for leading the international effort to impose sanctions on Iran, and pointedly thanked Congress for passing “even tougher sanctions.”
Once again, he noted the region’s turbulence, the “epic battle” unfolding “between tyranny and freedom” and reminded America’s congressional representatives that the outcome of this battle is never certain. Indeed, twice it was lost in the region: in Iran in 1979 and Lebanon in 2010. He made a point that, “Of the 300 million Arabs” in the region, only the one million in Israel “enjoy real democratic rights.” He could have easily added that if there was freedom of press in the Arab world, his words would ring true in every home from Sudan to Syria, from Algeria to Oman.
Again, he clearly stated Israel’s policies: ‘yes’ to a Palestinian state, ‘no’ to the 1967 borders. Israel will incorporate major settlement blocs into its final borders, including Jerusalem. The Palestinian refugee problem will be solved within the context of a Palestinian state, not within the borders of Israel. Finally, that the Palestinian state that emerges will be demilitarized, and that Israel will maintain a long-term military presence in the strategic Jordan River valley.
As all good bloggers are accustomed to doing, I have multiple methods of keeping track of the number of “hits” my postings receive. First, there is the stat-tracking on the blog’s host site. Second, there are the automatic notifications from the discussion boards on which I post links. Third, there is my friend Frank. Frank often tells me how bad (the term he often uses is “POS!”) such a particular piece was.
Recently, it seemed that a lot of older postings were receiving increased hits, and I wondered why. Perhaps the holiday season had caused them to reflect on the state of humanity? Could it be that people had suddenly taken an interest in world affairs? Or was it more likely that a string of terrorist attacks – I refuse to use the Obama administration’s epithet “extremists” – had jarred people of their “historical moment” infatuation with Barack Hussein Obama?
Had they suddenly realized what a terrible mistake they just might have made that fateful first Tuesday in November 2008? Yes, I think they are beginning to realize that.
BHO came to office with no real plan to govern. He had no idea how to fix the economy, no I idea how to fix America’s healthcare crisis, no idea how to stop global warming, and certainly not even a gram’s worth of sense as far as foreign policy is concerned.
Let’s be fair. No one really has an idea how to fix the economy; it has never been broken like this before. America’s healthcare system is a mess, but one that could easily be solved by eating at McDonald’s ten fewer times each week and exercising. The demise of the world’s economies has at least delayed the melting of the polar icecaps. However, the Middle East is more than the Arab-Israeli conflict.
President Obama’s simplistic reduction of the matter to one of Palestinian statehood obscures numerous problems. Oil wealth is not evenly distributed and the have’s are not sharing with the have-not’s. There is a burgeoning demographic crises, with the number of 18-24 year olds increasing. This demographic is the cannon-fodder for extremist movements. There is the conflict between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam, 14 centuries in the making. Arab, Persians and Turks have been fighting for dominance over the region for almost the same period of time.
I have tried numerous times to parse President Obama’s foreign policy vis-à-vis this region. Is he truly simplistic and naïve? Does he hold the view that the US cannot continue to act as the world’s policeman? Is he just trying to keep the lid on the pot? All of these explanations may be true; none of them may be. One certainty is, that after a year in office he has accomplished little, excepting reducing America’s standing with allies and bolstering the prestige of its enemies.
Naked and Screaming
We are born into this world naked, alone and screaming. We have no concept of what is happening, who are all these people gathered around us or what will come next. Then someone turns us upside down and slaps us on the ass. Death is often the same, except that the slap turns into a kick. Too often we achieve little understanding of what happens to us in the intervening years between our birth and our demise. We find ourselves naked, alone and screaming.
This sense of being vulnerable, this sense of being isolated, the screaming at a world that is deaf, is a situation Israel has encountered many times over the last 60 years. In an age in which we are threatened with atomic, biological and chemical weapons it is even worse. There is now a simple truth to the matter. Israel has realized that it is alone in this world, and is finally beginning to work out a strategy to deal with the situation.
This is a frightening realization for all the parties involved in the Middle East conflict. However, there are many paths that Israel might take . . .
Part of the West, kind of
Consider the path that Turkey took from 1923 until the 1990s. Basically, it threw its entire cultural heritage overboard and tried to westernize itself. Everything from how the role of religion in the state, public dress, to education was changed by Kemal Ataturk and his successors. Modern day Turkey would look west towards Paris, London and Washington not out of imperial desires, but out of respect, need to modernize and a sincere desire to become a member of the club.
What did that get Turkey? America brought Turkey into NATO, when the policy toward the USSR was containment. Economically, it was rewarded with various “associate member” status designations as the states of Western Europe slowly evolved into the European Union. However, Turkey has never been considered a full member of the club. Consider:
• April 1987 – Turkey applies to accede to the European Union
• Jan. 1991 – Germany objects to reacting to the potential of Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Turkey during the Gulf War as an attack on NATO, despite Turkey being a NATO member.
• 1994 – France and Germany propose “tiered” membership in the European Union; Turkey would be one of the countries in the lowest or outermost tier.
• Dec. 1999 – European Council recognizes Turkey as a candidate on equal footing with other potential candidates (twelve years after its initial application).
• July 2007 – France remains opposed to Turkey becoming a full member of the European Union
Why has Turkey been rejected so consistently for so long? Because it is different. Its people do not speak English, German or one of the Romance languages. It is Muslim, not Christian. It has a tendency to decimate and repress religious and ethnic minorities. Its parliament is dominated by a nationalistic-religious coalition. Israel could opt for the “Turkish Track,” but is bound to meet the same barriers, fears, ignorance and, ultimately, rejection that has caused Turkey to increasingly reject westernization in favor of fundamentalism.
Go East, young man!
With one out of seven Israelis either born in the former Soviet Union or born of immigrant parents, some say that Israel’s future is linked to Moscow, not Washington. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman – himself an immigrant from the former Soviet Republic of Moldova – has made several trips to Russia and its former satellites over the last six months. Each one has resulted in new memoranda of understanding, treaties and promises of follow-up consultations.
However, there are limits to how far Israelis are willing to go. The general public is still wary of Russia, due in large part to its role in promoting and sustaining the Middle East conflict for nearly forty years. The various ethnic/religious-based political parties also have serious ideological issues and practical political problems with a Russian-oriented foreign policy. The IDF would certainly object to trading F15s for Mig 31s.
Finally, there is the question of whether Russia, which in the past has sought membership in the Western club, would consider Israel’s “application” to a greater Russian co-prosperity sphere. Russia has its own problematic relationship with Muslim minorities and with Muslim-dominated former republics. With its vast reserves of oil and minerals, it could certainly match Washington’s generous military aid packages, but would it? The post-communist regime has shown no indication that it is willing to take on such a commitment.
Modern, but not Western?
Can Israel chart a course that is not Western, but still modern? Can it take part in the global economy; provide economic and social opportunities domestically, without being a part of some alliance? At present, the answer is “no.” However, there is a caveat to this.
Several nation-states face a similar challenge. Japan and India are two of them. There are several Latin American states, led by Argentina and Brazil, that have distinctive cultures, are modern, yet are not firmly identified with the West or any other major political-security alliance. It has been suggested that Israel should form closer bonds with these countries. While certainly Israel has much to offer all of the countries just listed and could benefit from increased trade, none of them singularly or en masse would replace the benefits that Israel receives from its current junior membership.
Israel needs to build upon the relations it has with these and all countries. It cannot survive alone – no nation Israel’s size that is surrounded by such unrelenting enemies could. However, there is no silver bullet that will solve all problems. Like a shrewd investor, Israel must diversify its economic, political and security arrangements in a balanced portfolio of international “investments.” A well-thought out public relations and media campaign, applied consistently, will yield results over time.
The extreme alternative is the model that countries like Cuba and North Korea have taken. These countries survive with autarkic planned economies, extremely limited opportunities for individual growth and advancement, and limited diplomatic contacts. They are bunker regimes, with real and imagined enemies hiding under every rock. It is not the type of society that Zionism has sought to create over the last 150 years, and would be unacceptable to almost all Israelis.
In the beginning . . .
Interestingly enough, the peace process between the Arab states and Israel dates back to November 1947. It is then that the UN General Assembly passed what would turn out to be the first of many resolutions on the conflict, Resolution 181, partitioning the territory of Palestine between its Jewish and Palestinian Arab inhabitants. I said interestingly enough because Israel wasn’t even independent at that time. It was ruled by Great Britain under a mandate given it by the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations. Independence wouldn’t come for another six months after Resolution, on May 14, 1948.
What was Resolution 181? It called for the partition of the British-ruled Palestine Mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state. It was approved on November 29, 1947 with 33 votes in favor, 13 against, 10 abstentions and one absent (see list at end of document). The Jews in Palestine accepted the resolution, despite the fact that thousands of its nascent citizens would be forced to move or fall under Palestinian rule, and despite the fact that the resolution represented a second reduction in the territory promised them by the Treaty of San Remo.
The Arabs in Palestine and the Arab states rejected the resolution. Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen all voted against the resolution. In addition, the Muslim, but non-Arab states of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey voted against the resolution. India, which has a significant Muslim population and had just ended a war with Pakistan, as well as Cuba and Greece voted against the resolution also. Following Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1947, the armies of five Arab states (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria) invaded Israel.
Who were the Palestinians?
The Ottoman Turks had dominated economics and politics in pre-Mandate Palestine. In fact, “Palestine” did not even exist as a political designation for the territory. Instead, it was divided into three administrative units centered respectively around Acco, Jaffa and Beersheva. Despite the arrival of new rulers, the British, in1918, the Arabs in Mandate Palestine were slow to organize themselves. British rule was grudgingly accepted, but Jewish presence in the country grew so did opposition. Although Jews had always lived in the region, and had a achieved a majority status in Jerusalem in 1860, they were not part of either the economic or political elite.
In 1936 the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) was formed. It never achieved the widespread presence or numbers that its Jewish counterparts, such as the Israel Worker’s Party, Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Movement or the various religious Zionist factions had. Its leadership never numbered more than two dozen members, and local sheiks in Arab villages were as likely to be antagonistic to their advances as they were to the British and the various Zionist parties. Most of its membership was either imprisoned or fled to Egypt after the AHC assassinated the British district commissioner of Galilee, Lewis Yelland Andrews in Nazareth on September 26, 1937.
On the same day that David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel, the Arab League based in Cairo announced that it would setup a single Arab civil administration throughout Palestine. This government was officially declared in Gaza on 1 October 1948, partly as an Arab League move to limit the influence of Transjordan (later known as Jordan) over the Palestinian issue. The former mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was appointed as president. The government was recognised by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, but not by Transjordan or any non-Arab country. It was little more than an Egyptian protectorate and had negligible influence or funding.
Israel’s War of Independence
The newly formed, poorly equipped Israel Defense Forces (IDF) repulsed the invaders in fierce intermittent fighting, which lasted some 15 months and claimed over 6,000 Israeli lives (nearly one percent of the country’s Jewish population at the time). For comparison sakes, the US has a population of approximately 300 million today. A loss of 1% of the population would be the equivalent of 30,000,000 souls or 1000 times the number lost on 9/11.
Indigenous Arab forces, acted at the behest of the Arab Higher Committee, independently or at the behest of whichever Arab army was closest. Generally, their attacks came by way of ambush on road traffic and convoys and harassment of outlying Jewish kibbutzim and small villages. As IDF forces advanced, they generally retreated or threw away their weapons and melted away into the general population.
The Armistice to end all Armistices
During the first months of 1949, direct negotiations were conducted under UN auspices between Israel and each of the invading countries (except Iraq, which refused to negotiate with Israel), resulting in armistice agreements which reflected the situation at the end of the fighting.
• Israel-Egypt: February 24, 1949
• Israel-Lebanon: March 23, 1949
• Israel-Jordan: April 3, 1949
• Israel-Syria: July 20, 1949
These armistice agreements were endorsed by the UN Security Council resolution S/1376 on August 11, 1949. Accordingly, the Coastal Plain, Galilee and the entire Negev were within Israel’s sovereignty. The West Bank came under Jordanian rule and was subsequently annexed by the Jordanians; however neither the UN nor any other state recognized this unilateral act. The Gaza Strip came under Egyptian administration, and was ruled as a separate territory; Egypt deciding not to annex it, but also opted not to grant it independence.
The fighting was over, agreements were signed, Jews were ruling primarily over Jews and Arabs were ruling almost exclusively over other Arabs. Under normal circumstances – an oxymoron in the Middle East – one might have expected all the parties concerned to have negotiated formal peace treaties.
So what happened?
This might have been a happy ending for all involved, if not for the problem of the Palestinians who ended up living under Egyptian, Jordanian or Israeli rule, or as refugees primarily in Jordan with smaller populations in Lebanon and Syria. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War by the UN under resolution 302 of December 8, 1949. It is the only refugee agency the UN has ever established that is dedicated specifically to refugees created by a particular natural disaster or war.
UNWRA also has a unique definition of the term “refugee.” Its definition also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948 regardless of whether they reside in areas designated as refugee camps or in established, permanent communities. This is a major exception to the normal definition of the term. According to UNWRA’s 1950 census, Palestinian refugees numbered 711,000. Today, due to UNWRA’s unique definition of the term, Palestinian Arab “refugees” now number close to four million.
Regardless of the semantics or juridical appropriateness of the term, UNWRA’s unique status and unique definition have created a self-perpetuating global welfare program that has, for over sixty years, in large part subsidized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is global in nature because the Arab states, that have insisted on UNWRA and its peculiar definition have never contributed more than 2% of its annual budget. The rest of the world, through its annual contributions to the UN and other donations, has effectively been subsidizing the refugee problem.
Over the course of sixty years, Palestinians have internalized the notion that they are entitled to return to their “home,” even though this supposed home is one that over 70% of them have never set foot in even once! Palestinians, first on the basis of UN Resolution 194 then as a tenet in their political organizations, have claimed a “right of return” to “Palestine.” Resolution 194 states that:
The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.
Israel, which absorbed close to 900,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries after 1948, has obvious problems with this. It has contested the meaning of the wording almost since its adoption. Most objections center on the phrase “and live at peace with their neighbors.”
Palestinian Arabs, with the support of Egypt and Jordan began organizing as fedayeen – resistance fighters – and raiding Israel’s border communities. Civilian airlines, buses, pizza parlors and supermarkets in Israel have been attacked for sixty years, with thousands of casualties. Setting aside the obvious inability to “live at peace,” there are several practical difficulties associated with Palestinian Arabs “returning.”
First, the influx of 700,000 – let alone four million Palestinian Arabs – would seriously upset the demographic applecart. Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. Second, in all likelihood, it would cease to be a democratic state. One only has to watch the newsreel footage of Hamas “activists” tossing Fatah “activists” off the roofs of high rise apartment buildings in the summer of 2007 to glean how Palestinian political movements treat the loyal opposition. Third, Israel lacks the carrying capacity to absorb such numbers. Its economy would simply collapse. Finally, based on statements that Palestinian leaders have made since signing the Oslo accords committing themselves and Israel to a diplomatic solutions to the problem, they still do not accept the existence of Israel.