Lady Gaga Versus Mideast Peace

Are settlements more offensive than pop stars?

Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?

If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.

What is that wisdom? In a March 26 column in Human Events, Mr. Buchanan put the case with his usual subtlety:

“Each new report of settlement expansion,” he wrote, “each new seizure of Palestinian property, each new West Bank clash between Palestinians and Israeli troops inflames the Arab street, humiliates our Arab allies, exposes America as a weakling that cannot stand up to Israel, and imperils our troops and their mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Lady Gaga at the 2009 MTV music awards. The global jihad disapproves.

Mr. Buchanan was playing off a story in the Israeli press that Vice President Joe Biden had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “what you’re doing here [in the West Bank] undermines the security of our troops.” Also in the mix was a story that Centcom commander David Petraeus had cited Arab-Israeli tensions as the key impediment to wider progress in the region. Both reports were later denied—in Mr. Biden’s case, via Rahm Emanuel; in Gen. Petraeus’s case, personally and forcefully—but the important point is how eagerly they were believed. If you’re of the view that Israel is the root cause of everything that ails the Middle East—think of it as global warming in Hebrew form—then nothing so powerfully makes the case against the Jewish state as a flag-draped American coffin.

Now consider Lady Gaga—or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker or any other American woman who has, at one time or another, personified what the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb once called “the American Temptress.”

Qutb, for those unfamiliar with the name, is widely considered the intellectual godfather of al Qaeda; his 30-volume exegesis “In the Shade of the Quran” is canonical in jihadist circles. But Qutb, who spent time as a student in Colorado in the late 1940s, also decisively shaped jihadist views about the U.S.

In his 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen,” Qutb gave his account of the U.S. “in the scale of human values.” “I fear,” he wrote, “that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of her people.” Qutb was particularly exercised by what he saw as the “primitiveness” of American values, not least in matters of sex.

“The American girl,” he noted, “knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” Nor did he approve of Jazz—”this music the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”—or of American films, or clothes, or haircuts, or food. It was all, in his eyes, equally wretched.

Qutb’s disdain for America’s supposedly libertine culture would not matter much were it not wedded to a kind of theological Leninism that emphasized the necessity of violently overthrowing any political arrangement not based on Shariah law. No less violent was Qutb’s attitude toward Jews: “The war the Jews began to wage against Islam and Muslims in those early days [of Islamic history],” he wrote in the 1950s, “has raged to the present. The form and appearance may have changed, but the nature and the means remain the same.”

Needless to say, that passage was written long before Israel had “occupied” a single inch of Arab territory, unless one takes the view—held to this day by Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and every other jihadist group that owes an intellectual debt to Qutb, including significant elements of the “moderate” Palestinian Fatah—that Tel Aviv itself is occupied territory.

Bear in mind, too, that the America Qutb found so offensive had yet to discover Elvis, Playboy, the pill, women’s lib, acid tabs, gay rights, Studio 54, Jersey Shore and, of course, Lady Gaga. In other words, even in some dystopic hypothetical world in which hyper-conservatives were to seize power in the U.S. and turn the cultural clock back to 1948, America would still remain a swamp of degeneracy in the eyes of Qutb’s latter-day disciples.

This, then, is the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West. It explains why jihadists remain aggrieved even after the U.S. addressed their previous casus belli by removing troops from Saudi Arabia, and why they will continue to remain aggrieved long after we’ve decamped from Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Persian Gulf. As for Israel, its offenses are literally inextricable: as a democracy, as a Jewish homeland, as a country in which liberalism in all its forms, including cultural, prevails.

Which brings me back to the settlements. There may well be good reasons for Israel to dismantle many of them, assuming that such an act is met with reciprocal and credible Palestinian commitments to suppress terrorism and religious incitement, and accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. But to imagine that the settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which lies a universe of hatred. If the administration’s aim is to appease our enemies, it will get more mileage out of banning Lady Gaga than by applying the screws on Israel. It should go without saying that it ought to do neither.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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A wall of suspicion

Despite a rare dressing down from America, Israel’s leader shows no sign of yielding

GLUM Israelis likened the event to thieves entering in the night. When Binyamin Netanyahu and his aides met Barack Obama in the White House on March 23rd, the president forbade any media coverage—not even a quick photograph—in the Oval Office. The encounter with Israel’s prime minister did not seem to lead to the jovial reconciliation that politicians on both sides, after a fortnight of angry mud-slinging between Washington and Jerusalem, had hoped for.

The format was as odd as the extreme confidentiality. After the two leaders had sat alone for an hour-and-a-half, Mr Netanyahu closeted himself to “consult” his advisers, before returning for another half-hour discussion. Did Mr Obama, riding high after his historic victory over health care, choose to confront the silver-tongued Israeli prime minister with an unequivocal challenge to lay out his policy on peace with the Palestinians—and to back down over the controversial issue of building Jewish houses in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their would-be state?

The need for such clarity was illustrated by yet another Israeli building project in East Jerusalem, which was publicised just hours before the White House meeting. In Israel there was speculation that someone had issued news of this untimely project, long in the works, in order, once again, to “trip up Bibi”, as the prime minister is known, when he was about to meet the president of Israel’s most vital ally.

The crisis in American-Israeli relations flared up a fortnight ago when, just as the vice-president, Joe Biden, was visiting Jerusalem, it was announced that 1,600 Jewish homes would be built in East Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu apologised fulsomely for the bad timing but refused to rescind the decision. The suburb in question, Ramat Shlomo, is one of several all-Jewish ones built since 1967 in East Jerusalem, where 250,000 Israeli Jews now live.

The latest scheme is much smaller—just 20 units—but a lot more incendiary. Whereas Ramat Shlomo is built on a rocky outcrop on the northern rim of the Israeli-delineated municipality, the new scheme involves installing a score of Jewish settler families in a converted hotel in the densely populated all-Arab suburb of Sheikh Jarrah, close to the Old City.

Mr Netanyahu contends that his building policy in Jerusalem is no different from that of all his predecessors since 1967, when Israeli forces conquered the entire city. “The Jewish people were building in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago,” he told 7,000-odd delegates to the annual conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby, in Washington on March 22nd. “And the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.” He complains privately that Mr Obama is needlessly picking on him.

But American officials complain privately that Mr Netanyahu is dissembling. They point out that two of his predecessors, Ehud Barak (1999-2001) and Ehud Olmert (2006-09), negotiated with the Palestinians over a peace plan for Jerusalem proposed by President Bill Clinton, who suggested sharing out the city’s sovereignty by districts: Jewish-inhabited ones would go to Israel, Arab-inhabited ones to Palestine. The “holy basin” in the middle, including religious shrines, would fall under an international or divine protectorate.

Mr Obama now insists that Jerusalem, along with the other core issues of the conflict, such as the question of redrawing borders and the return of refugees demanded by the Palestinians, should be tackled in the “proximity talks” he is trying to launch between Israelis and Palestinians. He hopes they may lead to a resumption of long-stalled direct negotiations. Mr Obama also wants a series of “confidence-building steps” to bring the Palestinians back to the table. These include a release of Palestinian prisoners and the dismantling of Israeli military road-blocks that frustrate Palestinians’ lives and commerce on the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu says he cannot meet these demands because his allies on the nationalist and religious end of his ruling coalition would rebel if he did.

But Mr Obama’s team may no longer be willing to accept that as a reason. Some observers in Washington felt in his speech to AIPAC Mr Netanyahu gave unduly short shrift to Mr Obama and ignored the president’s insistence that fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians should go straight to the big issues, such as adjusting borders. “Of course the United States can help the parties solve their problems,” said the prime minister. “But it cannot solve the problems for the parties. Peace cannot be imposed from the outside.”

It was even suggested that Mr Netanyahu’s speech may have been written before Mr Obama’s health-care triumph in the House of Representatives the night before. It was said that people in the White House had been brooding with resentment over Mr Netanyahu’s ill-disguised pleasure when Mr Obama’s political fortunes seemed earlier to be sliding.

Mr Netanyahu has indeed had a tough time keeping his coalition together. Just before he left for Washington, he and his extreme nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, both secular Jews, persuaded a cabinet majority to accept ultra-Orthodox demands for a new hospital emergency-room to be moved, at high cost, because its previously planned site might contain ancient Jewish graves. An ultra-Orthodox party that is an important coalition partner and holds the health ministry threatened to secede unless this was done.

A public outcry then ensued. Already in Washington, Mr Netanyahu had to backtrack by setting up a committee to “reconsider” the cabinet decision. But for the time being, he would rather compromise with his Orthodox partners than consider the prospect, much favoured by Mr Obama’s team, of dumping them (and, by the by, Mr Lieberman’s lot) and co-opting the more pragmatic Kadima party under Tzipi Livni. After winning most seats in a general election a year ago, she refused to join a coalition with Mr Netanyahu partly because he would not negotiate over Jerusalem.

The world gangs up on you

As if Mr Netanyahu had not been discomfited enough by his apparent dressing down from Mr Obama, he faced yet another embarrassment when Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, publicly denounced Israel for forging 12 British citizens’ passports that were used in January in the assassination of a senior Hamas man in a hotel in Dubai. An Israeli diplomat in London, thought to be a member of Mossad, the external intelligence service, was asked to leave the country.

Palestinians have gleefully watched two of Israel’s main allies rebuking it. They have rejoiced, too, as the peacemaking Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN) roundly condemned Israel’s building plans in East Jerusalem. Earlier the EU’s constitutional court had said that Israeli products made in West Bank settlements should not be given EU preferential trade tariffs.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, echoed Mr Obama’s demands for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem, but he is wary of once again being left high and dry if the Americans were to buckle over the issue, as they have done before. Moreover, he is nervous that the violence between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, that has increased in the past few weeks, may spin out of control. Four Palestinians have recently been shot dead in the West Bank. So far Palestinian and Israeli forces have co-operated rather effectively to contain the unrest. Even so, Palestinian leaders are worried that a wider intifada (uprising) may erupt, making it even harder to get talks going again.

Some Palestinians might settle for an Israeli assurance that settlement-building in East Jerusalem would cease while talks are under way, along with an Israeli promise seriously to negotiate borders and security straightaway. But Mr Abbas is unlikely to risk re-embarking on talks without the 22-country Arab League’s endorsement. The league’s impending summit is to take place in Libya, whose leader, Muammar Qaddafi, is keen for Mr Abbas’s Islamist rival, Hamas, to attend—a sure recipe for kiboshing a compromise plan to resume talks.


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The Netanyahu Diaries

What Israel’s prime minister really thinks.

The following note was discovered aboard the plane that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington yesterday. It appears to be the Israeli prime minister’s personal talking points—with deletions in brackets—for his meeting today with President Obama. Handwriting experts are unable to confirm the note’s authenticity.

Good to see you again, Mr. President. [And thanks for not having me skulk out the side door like the last time I was here].

And congratulations on your big health care victory! Well done, Mr. President, on your historic achievement. As you probably know, we Israelis have a similar system, and it has worked out pretty well for decades [though our doctors don’t labor under ruinous medmal premiums and the constant threat of tort bar annihilation and also we’re a tiny country with a huge tax burden that drives one in nine people, including many doctors, to live abroad.]

Point is, we’re a nice little liberal democracy, with women’s rights and gay rights, and Arab Israelis and black Israelis in parliament, and welfare and universal health care. Even when we go to war we don’t just carpet bomb our enemies, [like your hero Franklin Roosevelt did to the innocent civilians of Dresden and Tokyo]. I don’t get why we rate most-hated-nation status from all those so-called progressives [wearing your face on their tee-shirts].

[Question to self: Why are the same people who erupt at the thought of prayer in school so often more in sympathy with Hamas in Gaza than with us?]

But on to more pressing matters. We’ve had a bad few weeks, your administration and mine. I’m glad we can talk them over face-to-face. As Hillary told me the other day [isn’t she a charmer?], it takes a true friend to tell the hard truth. I’m sure you’ll agree that in our friendship that works both ways.

I know that, from your part, you think the hard truth is that we’ve got to get out of the settlements. You don’t have to sell me on that score. I’ve said repeatedly that we don’t want to rule over the Palestinians; I’m all for a two-state solution in theory. It’s the practice of it that’s got me concerned. In fact, it’s what got me elected.

So here’s the first hard truth: Just as you’ve got your Ben Nelsons and Bart Stupaks, I’ve got my Avigdor Lieberman ultra-nationalists and Eli Yishai ultra-Orthodox. Some of them have ideological red lines; some of them just want stuff. That’s how politics works. So what’s my Cornhusker kickback, or my executive order on abortion funding? I’d welcome your ideas; [you’re obviously good at this].

This brings me to the second hard truth, Mr. President: Most Israelis don’t trust you, the way they trusted George W. Bush or [even] Bill Clinton. And let me tell you why that’s a problem.

When my predecessor Arik Sharon pulled out of Gaza, he didn’t do so through negotiations with the Palestinians. Those negotiations fail time and again, in part because the Palestinians figure they can hold out for more, in part because they’re cutting their own deals with Hamas.

So what Sharon did was negotiate with you, the United States. And what he got was a promise, in writing, that the U.S. would not insist on a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines in any final settlement agreement.

My problem is that Hillary disavowed that promise last year, and you did so again by treating a neighborhood in Jerusalem as a “settlement.” So when you pledge your commitment to Israel’s everlasting security, how can we take your word for it, or know that your successor won’t also renege? We don’t want to wind up like Belgium before World War I, relying on phony guarantees of neutrality.

Mr. President, you need to start building some serious trust with Israelis if you mean to give me the political tools to negotiate with the Palestinians. Honestly, you didn’t help yourself by ratcheting up the rhetoric against us the way you did. If your purpose was to show the Palestinians that you’re going to play hardball with us, all you did was give them a reason to be even more uncompromising than before. And if your purpose was to try to drive me from office, it didn’t work either: To Israelis, you came across not as anti-Bibi, but as anti-Israel.

But the hardest truth is that Israelis are losing faith that you’ll do whatever it takes to stop Iran’s nuclear bid. The sanctions you promise keep getting delayed and watered down. Hillary gave a fine speech at AIPAC yesterday, but we all know that you’re already planning on containing a nuclear Iran. That’s not acceptable to me.

Let’s make a deal, Mr. President: Our settlements for your bombers. We can’t fully destroy Iran’s nuclear sites—but you can. You can’t dismantle our settlements—but we can. We’ll all come out the better for it, including the Palestinians. Think about it, Barack.

Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal


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Obama’s Turn Against Israel

In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has endorsed “healthy relations” between Iran and Syria, mildly rebuked Syrian President Bashar Assad for accusing the U.S. of “colonialism,” and publicly apologized to Moammar Gadhafi for treating him with less than appropriate deference after the Libyan called for “a jihad” against Switzerland.

When it comes to Israel, however, the Administration has no trouble rising to a high pitch of public indignation. On a visit to Israel last week, Vice President Joe Biden condemned an announcement by a mid-level Israeli official that the government had approved a planning stage—the fourth out of seven required—for the construction of 1,600 housing units in north Jerusalem. Assuming final approval, no ground will be broken on the project for at least three years.

But neither that nor repeated apologies from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—at what White House sources ostentatiously said was the personal direction of President Obama—from calling the announcement “an insult to the United States.” White House political chief David Axelrod got in his licks on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, lambasting Israel for what he described as “an affront.”

Since nobody is defending the Israeli announcement, least of all an obviously embarrassed Israeli government, it’s difficult to see why the Administration has chosen this occasion to spark a full-blown diplomatic crisis with its most reliable Middle Eastern ally. Mr. Biden’s visit was intended to reassure Israelis that the Administration remained fully committed to Israeli security and legitimacy. In a speech at Tel Aviv University two days after the Israeli announcement, Mr. Biden publicly thanked Mr. Netanyahu for “putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of similar incidents.

The subsequent escalation by Mrs. Clinton was clearly intended as a highly public rebuke to the Israelis, but its political and strategic logic is puzzling. The U.S. needs Israel’s acquiescence in the Obama Administration’s increasingly drawn-out efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear bid through diplomacy or sanctions. But Israel’s restraint is measured in direct proportion to its sense that U.S. security guarantees are good. If Israel senses that the Administration is looking for any pretext to blow up relations, it will care much less how the U.S. might react to a military strike on Iran.

As for the West Bank settlements, it is increasingly difficult to argue that their existence is the key obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel withdrew all of its settlements from Gaza in 2005, only to see the Strip transform itself into a Hamas statelet and a base for continuous rocket fire against Israeli civilians.

Israeli anxieties about America’s role as an honest broker in any diplomacy won’t be assuaged by the Administration’s neuralgia over this particular housing project, which falls within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and can only be described as a “settlement” in the maximalist terms defined by the Palestinians. Any realistic peace deal will have to include a readjustment of the 1967 borders and an exchange of territory, a point formally recognized by the Bush Administration prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. If the Obama Administration opts to transform itself, as the Europeans have, into another set of lawyers for the Palestinians, it will find Israeli concessions increasingly hard to come by.

That may be the preferred outcome for Israel’s enemies, both in the Arab world and the West, since it allows them to paint Israel as the intransigent party standing in the way of “peace.” Why an Administration that repeatedly avers its friendship with Israel would want that is another question.

Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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Netanyahu, continued

Israel’s prime minister bluffs it out

IT IS truly difficult to see how Binyamin Netanyahu can be surviving his latest debacle. A botched assassination attempt by Mossad agents on a Hamas official, Khaled Meshal, in neighbouring, friendly Jordan on September 25th has given new resonance to the doubts, even within his cabinet, about his fitness to govern. Army generals and senior officials are scrambling to distance themselves from the fiasco. Yet Mr Netanyahu is not only surviving, he can even point to progress this week on the long dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

At 3am on October 8th—the business hour favoured by Yasser Arafat—Israel’s prime minister and the Palestinian leader met at Gaza’s border for their first face-to-face conversation in eight months. Dennis Ross, America’s peace envoy, announced at dawn that negotiations would now resume in several subcommittees, with a ministerial-level round of talks set for the end of the month. Israeli officials indicated that they propose to stop stalling over the long-delayed Palestinian plan to open an international airport in Gaza.

In Washington on the same day, Israel’s garrulous, doveish president, Ezer Weizman, said he had made the point to President Bill Clinton that Mr Netanyahu was the man to deal with if the peace process were to be re-energised. The implication seems to be that if Mr Netanyahu can emerge unscathed from the assassination episode, he must be domestically indestructible. One of the prime minister’s cabinet allies was suggesting this week, and not in jest, that the Likud party might table legislation to enable Mr Netanyahu to stand for a third term, in the year 2004.

Not everyone in the party would support that. Some prominent Likud members, including two former ministers, Dan Meridor and Binyamin Begin, have openly joined the opposition chorus excoriating Mr Netanyahu’s decision-making as a danger to national security. The foreign minister, David Levy, has made it clear that he knew nothing of the planned attack, and that had he known he would have done his best to stop it. The defence minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, has taken pains to stress how vague his information was—and thus how negligible his share in the blame.

Other central figures, such as the army chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, have let it be known through media leaks that they, too, were not consulted. In effect, they have accused the head of the Mossad, Major-General Danny Yatom, of lying by suggesting that he had shared the plan with them. Mr Netanyahu has been reported to be ready to accept General Yatom’s resignation. But the general was said to be preparing a spirited defence before a three-man “examination board” appointed by the cabinet on October 6th in a bid to head off demands for a full-fledged commission of inquiry.

Recriminations and denials fill the air, compounded by a report, at first denied and later sheepishly confirmed by Israel, that Hamas had transmitted an overture, through King Hussein, two days before the attack on Mr Meshal. The king confirms this, firmly. But that proposal, it now appears, never made it from General Yatom’s desk to Mr Netanyahu’s until the day after the ill-starred operation.

The composition of the examination board has fuelled further controversy. One of the three was a former head of Mossad who took to the air waves at the beginning of the week to defend the operation; he was later obliged to resign, further embarrassing the prime minister. Small wonder that 55% of those questioned in a Yediot Aharonot poll on October 8th said that they did not expect the truth to be revealed.

Mr Netanyahu privately cites polls showing support for his decision, taken after a suicide-bombing in Jerusalem on July 30th, to eliminate central Hamas figures. He believes that this support outweighs his critics’ contention that the risk to the delicate relationship with Jordan should have precluded any thought of carrying out an operation on Jordanian soil. He ignores the fact that he was able to prevent a complete rupture of relations with Jordan only by dispatching a chemical antidote to the poisonous substance that the Mossad assailants had injected into Mr Meshal’s neck. The doughty fighter against terrorism spent the next few hours fervently praying for the man’s recovery.

Far from contrite, Mr Netanyahu berates the left and the media for their lack of patriotism, confident that such sentiments find an approving echo among the people who voted him into power in May 1996. Resign? By no means, Mr Netanyahu retorted to a press conference on October 6th. He would continue his fight against terrorism.

October 9, 1997, The Economist


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Hard Mideast Truths

For over a century now, Zionism and Arab nationalism have failed to find an accommodation in the Holy Land. Both movements attempted to fill the space left by collapsed empire, and it has been left to the quasi-empire, the United States, to try to coax them to peaceful coexistence. The attempt has failed.

President Barack Obama came to office more than a year ago promising new thinking, outreach to the Muslim world, and relentless focus on Israel-Palestine. But nice speeches have given way to sullen stalemate. I am told Obama and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have a zero-chemistry relationship.

Domestic U.S. politics constrain innovative thought — even open debate — on the process without end that is the peace search. As Aaron David Miller, who long labored in the trenches of that process, once observed, the United States ends up as “Israel’s lawyer” rather than an honest broker. The upside for an American congressman in speaking out for Palestine is nonexistent.

I don’t see these constraints shifting much, but the need for Obama to honor his election promise grows. The conflict gnaws at U.S. security, eats away at whatever remote possibility of a two-state solution is left, clouds Israel’s future, scatters Palestinians and devours every attempt to bridge the West and Islam.

Here’s what I believe. Centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust created a moral imperative for a Jewish homeland, Israel, and demand of America that it safeguard that nation in the breach.

But past persecution of the Jews cannot be a license to subjugate another people, the Palestinians. Nor can the solemn U.S. promise to stand by Israel be a blank check to the Jewish state when its policies undermine stated American aims.

One such Israeli policy is the relentless settlement of the West Bank. Two decades ago, James Baker, then secretary of state, declared, “Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity.” Fast-forward 20 years to Barack Obama in Cairo: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” In the interim the number of settlers almost quadrupled from about 78,000 in 1990 to around 300,000 last year.

Since Obama spoke, Netanyahu, while promising an almost-freeze, has been planting saplings in settlements and declaring them part of Israel for “eternity.” In a normal relationship between allies — of the kind I think America and Israel should have — there would be consequences for such defiance. In the special relationship between the United States and Israel there are none.

The U.S. objective is a two-state peace. But day by day, square meter by square meter, the physical space for the second state, Palestine, is disappearing. Can the Gaza sardine can and fractured labyrinth of the West Bank now be seen as anything but a grotesque caricature of a putative state? America has allowed this self-defeating process to advance to near irreversibility.

In fact, it has helped fund it. The settlements are expensive, as is the security fence (hated “separation wall” to the Palestinians) that is itself an annexation mechanism. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, U.S. aid to Israel totaled $28.9 billion over the past decade, a sum that dwarfs aid to any other nation and amounts to four times the total gross domestic product of Haiti.

It makes sense for America to assure Israel’s security. It does not make sense for America to bankroll Israeli policies that undermine U.S. strategic objectives.

This, too, I believe: Through violence, anti-Semitic incitation, and annihilationist threats, Palestinian factions have contributed mightily to the absence of peace and made it harder for America to adopt the balance required. But the impressive recent work of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank shows that Palestinian responsibility is no oxymoron and demands of Israel a response less abject than creeping annexation.

And this: the “existential threat” to Israel is overplayed. It is no feeble David facing an Arab (or Arab-Persian) Goliath. Armed with a formidable nuclear deterrent, Israel is by far the strongest state in the region. Room exists for America to step back and apply pressure without compromising Israeli security.

And this: Obama needs to work harder on overcoming Palestinian division, a prerequisite for peace, rather than playing the no-credible-interlocutor Israeli game. The Hamas charter is vile. But the breakthrough Oslo accords were negotiated in 1993, three years before the Palestine Liberation Organization revoked the annihilationist clauses in its charter. When Arafat and Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, that destroy-Israel charter was intact. Things change through negotiation, not otherwise. If there are Taliban elements worth engaging, are there really no such elements in the broad movements that are Hamas and Hezbollah?

If there are not two states there will be one state between the river and the sea and very soon there will be more Palestinian Arabs in it than Jews. What then will become of the Zionist dream?

It’s time for Obama to ask such tough questions in public and demand of Israel that it work in practice to share the land rather than divide and rule it.

Richard Cohen, New York Times


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Israel’s Settlement Freeze

Prime Minister Netanyahu has broken with his party to restart the peace process.

Distracted by the crucial debate over Afghanistan, many Americans may have missed a pivotal event in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On Nov. 25, Israel’s government announced a 10-month construction freeze in Judea and Samaria—the areas generally known as the West Bank. Though some projects already begun will be completed and essential public buildings like medical clinics and schools will be approved, no new housing permits will be issued.

“We hope that this decision will help launch meaningful peace negotiations,” declared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “and finally end the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.” The Obama administration praised the decision and recognized its significance. Special Envoy George Mitchell hailed the decision as “substantial,” and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it “unprecedented.”

By contrast, Palestinian leaders rejected Israel’s gesture as grossly inefficient. Without an indefinite cessation of all Jewish building in the West Bank and Jerusalem, they say, peace talks cannot resume.

What Mr. Mitchell and Mrs. Clinton understand, but what the Palestinians miss, is that Mr. Netanyahu has shown more flexibility on this issue than any previous head of his Likud Party, which is staunchly pro-settlement. Indeed, he has gone further than any prime minister in limiting a right that many Israelis consider incontestable and a vital component of their national security.

Twice—in 1948 and 1967—the West Bank served as the staging ground for large-scale attacks against Israel. While defending itself, Israel captured the territory and reunited with its ancestral homeland: Haifa is not in the Bible, but Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho decidedly are. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis rushed to resettle their tribal land.

These communities widened Israel’s borders, which at points are a mere eight miles wide. American policy makers recognized Israel’s need for defensible borders and, in November 1967, they supported U.N. Resolution 242, which called for withdrawals from “territories” captured in the war, but not from “all the territories” or even “the territories.”

All successive Israeli governments supported the settlements. Only with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords did then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agree to restrain construction in outlying communities that he considered unnecessary for Israel’s defense. But the settlements continued to expand. Meanwhile the peace process progressed. The Palestinians never made a construction freeze in Jerusalem and the settlements a precondition for talks—until earlier this year.

Mr. Netanyahu initially responded that Jews, like all people, can build legally in Jerusalem, and that it’s unreasonable to disallow settlers from building even an extra room for a newborn. Still, he promised not to establish new settlements, not to appropriate additional land for existing ones, nor even to induce Israelis to move to them. Yet the Palestinians balked. The peace process was moribund, awaiting an intrepid stroke.

Mr. Netanyahu has now taken that initiative. By suspending new Israeli construction in all of the West Bank, the prime minister has done what none of his predecessors, including Rabin, ever suggested.

At home, Mr. Netanyahu’s decision has been fiercely criticized, even by some members of his own party. The Knesset has considered a vote of no-confidence in his leadership. And the most recent poll shows that more Israelis oppose the freeze than support it.

The prime minister has nevertheless persisted—his coalition is among the strongest and most representative in Israel’s history—but the opportunity generated by his action will not endure indefinitely. Together with the Obama administration, which has repeatedly asserted its commitment to restarting talks without preconditions and to achieving a permanent two-state solution, Israelis hope that Palestinians will once again join them in talks.

By taking risks and accomplishing the unprecedented, Mr. Netanyahu has demonstrated his commitment to peace. Now the Palestinians must match that dedication and seize this propitious moment.

Mr. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.


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