Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Netanyahu, Obama and Settlements / The Islamist Narrative

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Update from AIJAC


December 3, 2009

Number 12/09 #01


Today's Update features some additional follow-up from the Israeli settlement freeze announcement, looking especially at discussions of the relevant motivations of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu, as well as lessons for the future of US-Israeli relations.

First up is veteran Israeli journalist Aluf Benn, who uses his extensive political sources to build a profile of Netanyahu's thinking on the issue of settlements. Benn says that Netanyahu's priorities are, in order; the Iranian nuclear program, the rocket and missile threat to Israel, and reinforcing Israel's right to defend itself. Benn points out that the settlements do not really feature in any of these priorities, and Netanyahu realises he needs American help in all these areas. Benn predicts more Israeli confrontation over settlements over coming months, and to read all that he has to say, CLICK HERE. Making a different, but perhaps complementary argument about Netanyahu's settlement freeze motivation - that it is mainly about uniting the Israeli political centre behind him - is veteran Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon.

Next up, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looks at the history and lessons of the past year of US-Israeli relations, a period where controversy over settlements has often dominated the agenda. He looks at the mistakes made on both sides - Israeli and American - and lessons involving building trust, avoiding surprises, and not setting the bar unrealistically high. He also emphasises that the Arab states need to recognise that the US has neither the ability nor the desire to "deliver" Israel, as often seems to be their assumption, in the absence of their own efforts to engage and support Abbas in peacemaking. For the full article, CLICK HERE.

Finally, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman looks at the aftermath of the Fort Hood massacre and concludes what ultimately sparked the alleged perpetrator, Major Nidal Hasan, was not mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder but the jihadist "narrative", which motivates most Islamist terrorism. That narrative, according to Friedman "posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand 'American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy' to keep Muslims down." He looks at the spread of this false narrative by mosques, preachers and the internet, but particularly at the role of Arab regimes in helping to spread this narrative for their own political purposes and the mainstream's responsibility to do more about it. For Friedman's complete argument, CLICK HERE. Other interesting comments on the Fort Hood aftermath in the context of Islamist terrorism come from former CIA expert Reuel Marc Gerecht, academic strategists Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, and terrorism specialist Daveed Gartenstein-Ross.

Readers may also be interested in:


What Netanyahu really thinks about settlements

Aluf Benn

Haaretz, 02/12/2009            


Why did Benjamin Netanyahu alter his stance and agree to a Palestinian state and the freezing of settlement construction? Was he only giving in to pressure from Barack Obama, or were there domestic reasons? Did his assessment of the situation alter since he returned to power, or is this that "same old Bibi," who simply got hold of a new list of slogans?

More than previous premiers, Netanyahu considers himself a leader and an intellectual. It is important to him that his policy rely on an extensive worldview, and he has written books presenting his political and economic viewpoints. It is, therefore, worthwhile listening to what Netanyahu has been saying in recent weeks in a series of speeches revealing his strategic outlook; they express deep fear of the threats facing Israel and introduce preferences for countering them.

This is Netanyahu's fear scale: "First, Iran must be prevented from developing a military nuclear capability. Second, we need to find an appropriate solution to the missile and rocket threat. And third, we must reinforce the right of Israel to defend itself."   

What to do? Netanyahu wants the international community to rally and impose strict sanctions on Iran and undertake actions to undermine the regime. He is proposing a peace agreement with the Palestinians, based on territorial compromise in the territories and the establishment of "secure and recognized borders" for Israel. Central to the agreement would be security arrangements and disarmament aimed at blocking the smuggling of rockets and missiles into the West Bank. This is the main problem, from the prime minister's point of view, and it will not be resolved by agreeing on a peaceful border. The defense solution must combine effective means for securing the border and intercepting arms shipments into the territories, as well as the development of missile defense systems. Israel will also request international guarantees that "bypass Goldstone" and will be based on Israel's right to defend itself against terrorism.

Netanyahu estimates the security requirements will cost tens of billions of dollars, and for Israel not to collapse economically, it will need to retain annual growth of 4-5 percent. He thinks the money can be found in bureaucratic efficiency, privatization of state lands and incentives for high-tech industries and entrepreneurs. But economic reforms will not be enough. Netanyahu's security model relies on broadening Israel's dependency on the United States. The prime minister wants America to neutralize Iran, back it up in its effort to curb the smuggling of rockets, assist in the development of missile defense and take action to shelve the Goldstone report.

It is worthwhile paying attention to what is missing here: Netanyahu does not consider the settlements a component in the security of Israel. It is important for him to block the border against rockets, and maybe this will require the presence of a military force in the Jordan Valley. But the fact that Jewish settlements exist on the hills offers nothing. In his view, Elon Moreh does not protect Tel Aviv. This does not mean that he has decided to remove Itamar or Yitzhar, only that Obama's support is more important to him.

Netanyahu was not nurtured by the Yesha Council, and it is hard to recall his tours of settlements beyond the separation fence. He stopped at Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel. The harsh criticism of him from the settler leaders, as a result of the building freeze, is not affecting his supporters the way it did Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu did not climb the hills with bulldozers like Sharon did, and did not sit with Zambish (Ze'ev Hever) to discuss maps and plans, but fought for the rights of Israel in television studios and at the United Nations and considers international support a lot more important than a few prefabricated houses. His support for settlers, in the argument with Obama over the freeze, centered on the call to allow them to have a normal life, not more growth.

During his speech at the Eilat journalism conference on Sunday, Netanyahu said: "The people in Israel and the Palestinians are tired of long-lasting war and want to reach a peace agreement." Like Menachem Begin, who went from "not a single inch" to "no more war," and like Yitzhak Rabin, who was shocked by the pathetic show of resolve among Tel Aviv residents during the Gulf War and opted for a compromise with the Palestinians, Netanyahu, too, understands that the majority of the Israeli public wants quiet and considers the settlers a nuisance. And this means the decision to freeze settlement construction for 10 months is just the first taste of domestic confrontation.


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Obama and Netanyahu: Lessons of 2009

By David Makovsky

Haaretz, 01/12/2009 

WASHINGTON - The announcement of a moratorium on building in the settlements ends the first chapter of U.S.-Israel relations during the Obama era. There are lessons for all.

The move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is clearly a bid to improve U.S.-Israel relations as much as it is an effort to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. It may also be a counterbalance toward Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, against a potential prisoner swap with Hamas for Gilad Shalit.

Much of this year has been defined by the friction over settlements, which have cast a shadow. The Obama administration feels it does not always receive credit from Israel regarding close bilateral consultations on a range of issues including the Iranian nuclear threat, the Operation Juniper Cobra military exercise and the Goldstone report.   

There were profound implications for the United States in setting the bar high on the settlement issue by calling for a construction freeze rather than merely no outward expansion of settlements. One lesson is that even if the Israeli opposition cannot say "yes" to Barack Obama, the United States has lost mainstream Israelis.

A second lesson is that caution is required in raising expectations. Abbas cannot be less Palestinian than the United States. So if the U.S. demands a freeze, Abbas is boxed in and not likely to agree to less. This pattern will likely repeat itself. With the United States calling for a freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, Abbas is not likely to accept less - such as no outward expansion of East Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods.

There are also lessons for Israel. Trust at the top is indispensable. Obama and Netanyahu will both be around for some time. Israelis have bemoaned the lack of trust between the two. Israel believes it was ambushed on the issue of a settlement freeze. On the one hand, Israel is correct in claiming that the Obama administration erred by denying the verbal understanding between the U.S. and Israel in 2003 on defining the geographic expansion of settlements. This undermines the prospect of future verbal understandings with the United States.

On the other hand, trust goes both ways. Israel does not emphasize the fact that it never implemented the West Bank understanding of 2003 that it now declares to be key. Moreover, the Obama administration resented comments by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman after the United States agreed to compromise with Israel over settlements that Washington interpreted as gloating. Obama was surprised by the announcement of new construction in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo since it came just a week after a rare tete-a-tete with Netanyahu. Netanyahu insists that he is transparent but was also surprised by the Israeli bureaucratic move from below. However, the action provided fodder to Netanyahu's critics while undercutting those wishing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Aides of Netanyahu are correct that the United States was not as stringent with Olmert as with this government. While it is partially attributed to the change in the U.S. administration, one cannot rule out the possibility that the lack of U.S. internal debate in the past was due to the certainty of Olmert's direction. Netanyahu hopes his current move on settlements will put to rest the issue of intentions. He feels he has been unfairly singled out by this administration, given his support for a Palestinian state and for the dismantling of most West Bank checkpoints. Some in Washington may quietly say that Netanyahu's concessions are grudging and extended over many months and therefore can be discounted. Netanyahu's rejoinder will be that belated Israeli concessions are better than no concessions from the Arab side.

Indeed, there are lessons for Arabs, too. Despite Obama's speech in Cairo, which raised expectations, the long-standing Arab dream of the United States bending Israel to its will did not materialize.

Therefore, the Arabs need to act to avert radicalization. In their anger at not getting a 100 percent freeze from Israel, they want to give nothing for now. Yes, they will likely restart multilateral talks on issues such as water, but only after Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are underway. As in the past the Arab states believe in never making early moves that could provide political cover for the Palestinians to make progress, preferring instead, at best, to ride on the Palestinians' coattails. The Arab states need to contribute their share to ensure that Netanyahu's gesture is not lost. They need to provide Abbas with political cover and declare their unambiguous support for peace negotiations now between Israel and the Palestinians.

The writer, senior fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute, is co-author with Dennis Ross of the new book "Myths, Illusions and Peace" (Viking/Penguin, 2009).


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America vs. The Narrative

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times, November 28, 2009

What should we make of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who apparently killed 13 innocent people at Fort Hood?
 
Here’s my take: Major Hasan may have been mentally unbalanced — I assume anyone who shoots up innocent people is. But the more you read about his support for Muslim suicide bombers, about how he showed up at a public-health seminar with a PowerPoint presentation titled “Why the War on Terror Is a War on Islam,” and about his contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric famous for using the Web to support jihadist violence against America — the more it seems that Major Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to action by “The Narrative.”

What is scary is that even though he was born, raised and educated in America, The Narrative still got to him.

The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.

Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

Although most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, you’d never know it from listening to their world. The dominant narrative there is that 9/11 was a kind of fraud: America’s unprovoked onslaught on Islam is the real story, and the Muslims are the real victims — of U.S. perfidy.

Have no doubt: we punched a fist into the Arab/Muslim world after 9/11, partly to send a message of deterrence, but primarily to destroy two tyrannical regimes — the Taliban and the Baathists — and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics. In the process, we did some stupid and bad things. But for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.

The Narrative was concocted by jihadists to obscure that.

It’s working. As a Jordanian-born counterterrorism expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said to me: “This narrative is now omnipresent in Arab and Muslim communities in the region and in migrant communities around the world. These communities are bombarded with this narrative in huge doses and on a daily basis. [It says] the West, and right now mostly the U.S. and Israel, is single-handedly and completely responsible for all the grievances of the Arab and the Muslim worlds. Ironically, the vast majority of the media outlets targeting these communities are Arab-government owned — mostly from the Gulf.”

This narrative suits Arab governments. It allows them to deflect onto America all of their people’s grievances over why their countries are falling behind. And it suits Al Qaeda, which doesn’t need much organization anymore — just push out The Narrative over the Web and satellite TV, let it heat up humiliated, frustrated or socially alienated Muslim males, and one or two will open fire on their own. See: Major Hasan.

“Liberal Arabs like me are as angry as a terrorist and as determined to change the status quo,” said my Jordanian friend. The only difference “is that while we choose education, knowledge and success to bring about change, a terrorist, having bought into the narrative, has a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, which are inculcated in us from childhood, that lead him to believe that there is only one way, and that is violence.”

What to do? Many Arab Muslims know that what ails their societies is more than the West, and that The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves. But none of their leaders dare or care to open that discussion. In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama effectively built a connection with the Muslim mainstream. Maybe he could spark the debate by asking that same audience this question:

“Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, ‘This is not Islam.’ I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn’t. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves.”