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Signs of change in US Middle East policy?

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Update from AIJAC

April 29, 2010
Number 04/10 #06

Today’s Update looks at the contours of American foreign policy in the wake of recent speeches and articles by senior US Middle East experts not especially noted for their pro-Israel views recommending a reappraisal of the global significance of, and best approach to, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

First up, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff analyses US National Security Adviser General James Jones’ address to the Washington Institute on April 21. Gen. James’ main thrust was that terrorists gaining nuclear weapons is the single greatest danger to world security, US attempts to convince Iran to talk have not succeeded and the importance of the US-Israeli strategic relationship. He also revealed that the Obama Administration would release a new National Security Strategy based on the themes of security, prosperity, values and international order.  Satloff notes that the speech eschewed the language of promoting democracy as favoured by the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations. Rather, the US agenda harks back to that of President George H.W. Bush’s single term in office which promoted the idea of securing international stability. Satloff argues that the Obama Administration seems to have moved into the next phase of confronting Iran’s nuclear weapons program by acknowledging its attempts to enter into negotiations with the Islamic Republic have largely failed. References to the US-Israeli strategic relationship being unconditional and the need for reciprocity by the Palestinians in terms of tackling incitement marked a significant shift in language to that which has been voiced in recent months from Administration officials. To read this important analysis of one of the major players in the Obama Administration, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests in the Wall Street Journal that solving the Palestinian-Israeli issue is important but not vital to US interests. Haass – who has never been considered part of the pro-Israel camp - writes that solving the conflict will not affect the West’s confrontation with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Nor will peace assist in building trust amongst Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq or stabilise Afghanistan or defeat al-Qaeda. He argues that exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict risks distorting American foreign policy because it “tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious”. This article comes hot on the heels of former senior US peace process adviser Aaron David Miller’s recent article in Foreign Affairs disavowing the “peace process religion” which manifests itself as a kind of addiction to the process to the exclusion of a deeper analysis of the end result. To read Haass’ sober take on the real challenges facing the US and the West, CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer Foundation for the Defense of Democracies fellow Michael Ledeen’s powerful speech at a rally in New York to show American public support for Israel on April 25. Ledeen recapitulates the central fact of the post-Sept.11 world which is that Islamists whether in al-Qaeda or Iran are motivated by ideology not social or economic privation or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He skewers US officials who would humiliate Israel and its leadership to promote futile efforts to converse with unreconstructed despots like the Iranian leadership. To read this robust and visceral précis of the strategic international issue of the day, CLICK HERE.

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Substance beyond the Humor: Analyzing the Jones Address

Robert Satloff, April 27

The tempest in a teapot about Gen. James L. Jones's opening joke in his address to The Washington Institute's twenty-fifth anniversary symposium last week diverted attention from the truly newsworthy aspects of the national security advisor's remarks. On five key issues, he made important, substantive, and at times innovative statements of policy. Given the political and strategic timing of his remarks, they should be viewed as one of the most significant statements of administration policy on Middle East issues this year.
               
National Security Strategy
In a passage totally overlooked by the media, General Jones gave the first glimpse into the new National Security Strategy (NSS) that he said will be unveiled in the coming weeks. This document, which transcends Middle East issues, concretizes the overall foreign policy approach of an administration and usually reflects the thrust of a president's approach to international security. In his remarks, General Jones said the new NSS would be based on four pillars:
             
•    Security -- "We have an enduring interest in the security of the United States, our citizens, and U.S. allies and partners."
•    Prosperity -- "We have an enduring interest in a strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity."
•    Values -- "We have an enduring interest is upholding universal values, at home and around the world."
•    International order -- "We have an enduring interest in an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges."
A detailed assessment of these pillars and the policies they represent is beyond the scope of this article. But it is important to point out that enunciation of these pillars alone marks a significant shift from the key principles of the final George W. Bush and Bill Clinton NSSs. For example, there is no reference in the Jones statement to democracy, freedom, or liberty, terms that dominated the Bush NSS. Democracy promotion, not specifically mentioned in General Jones’s remarks, was also a stated pillar of Bill Clinton’s final NSS. Interestingly, there was in the general's statement an echo from a doctrine advanced by an earlier president -- the reference to "international order" sounds eerily similar to the post-Gulf War call by President George H. W. Bush for the creation of a "new world order." How the new NSS fleshes out these principles into a full strategy will provide a fascinating window into the administration's deepest thoughts about the direction of foreign policy.
 
 Preventing an Iranian Nuclear Bomb
On dealing with Iran, General Jones hinted at a broader commitment about Iran's nuclear program and presented the administration's critique of Iranian behavior in starker and more severe tones than has been the case with most other expositions by senior officials.
             
In describing Iran's behavior, for example, General Jones's words were blunt and direct, unadorned by qualifiers or comparatives.

To date, we have seen no indication that Iran's leaders want to resolve these issues constructively. After initially accepting it, they rejected the Tehran Research Reactor proposal. They have refused to discuss their nuclear program with the P-5 + 1. The revelation of a previously covert enrichment site, construction of which further violated Iran's NPT obligations, fed further suspicion about Iran's intentions. Iran recently increased the enrichment levels of its uranium to 20 percent. All the while, Iran continues to brutally repress its own citizens and prohibit their universal rights to express themselves freely and choose their own future.
                 
These are not the behaviors of a responsible international actor, and they are not the actions of a government committed to peaceful diplomacy and a new relationship with a willing and ready partner. (Emphasis added)

In effect, General Jones delivered what can be termed the administration's bill of indictment against the Islamic Republic, setting the predicate for further action. The goal of U.S. policy is, as General Jones said, "to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons." Importantly, the use of the word "developing" -- as Vice President Biden did in his similarly overlooked remarks at Tel Aviv University last month -- suggests an expanded objective; the more common formulation  is that the United States is committed to prevent Iran from "obtaining" or "acquiring" a nuclear weapon. Whether the president chooses to act -- by implementing sanctions outside the UN Security Council or some other preventive action, for example -- is a separate matter; in his Washington Institute remarks, General Jones delivered the rationale for more assertive action should the president choose to pursue it.
                 
Repairing U.S.-Israeli Ties and the Perception of Tension
The main thrust of General Jones's speech was devoted to an unconditional statement of U.S.-Israel strategic alignment and security partnership. Recently, some other administration officials can be said to have delivered remarks that tried to thread the needle between, on the one hand, celebrating the "unshakeable, unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel and, on the other hand, hinting that the relationship was also conditioned on how Israel behaves vis-a-vis the peace process. In his remarks, Jones set out to remove any whiff of conditionality from U.S.-Israeli ties:

And we will never forget that since the first minutes of Israeli independence, the United States has had a special relationship with Israel. And that will not change. Why? Because this is not a commitment of Democrats or Republicans; it is a national commitment based on shared values, deep and interwoven connections, and mutual interests.

Jones went further. He evidently decided this was the forum to correct the impression left by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus's remarks, echoed by President Obama, that inaction on the Middle East peace process -- a codeword for Israeli recalcitrance -- complicates U.S. regional policy and may even extract a heavy cost in terms of U.S. "blood and treasure." To do so, he offered a ringing endorsement of the value of the U.S.-Israeli relationship to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. While this reiterated statements the president himself made, Jones's comments had special significance given his military background.

I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America. Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities, and from lessons learned in Israel's own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats.
                 
Over the years, and like so many Americans -- like so many of you here tonight -- I've spent a great deal of time with my Israeli partners, including my friends in the IDF. These partnerships are deep and abiding. They are personal relationships and friendships based on mutual trust and respect. Every day, across the whole range of our bilateral relationship, we are working together for our shared security and prosperity. And our partnership will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.

Balancing Israeli and Palestinian Demands
On the Middle East peace process, General Jones repeated previous statements by the president in support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because, as he said, it is in U.S., Israeli, Arab, and global interests -- and because it denies Iran an opportunity to exploit conflict for its own gain. On the peace process, the innovation in his remarks came in the toned-down formulation he used when he hinted at what is widely viewed as the source of deep tension in U.S.-Israeli relations in recent weeks, i.e., U.S. consternation over Israeli housing policy in Jerusalem.
 
Specifically, in the brief and relatively mild reference he made to this issue, he made sure to include in the same breath a U.S. demand of the Palestinians regarding incitement: "We also continue to call on all sides to avoid provocative actions, including Israeli actions in east Jerusalem and Palestinian incitement, that fuel suspicion rather than trust." Here, his objective seems to be to refute allegations that Washington has singled out Israel and to underscore the fact that both parties need to take measures to improve the prospects for diplomatic progress. Indeed, the new grammatical formulation is such that copyeditors would have to mangle Jones's sentence if they only wanted to focus readers' attention on the request to Israel.
 
A Robust Counterattack on the Charge of Dual Loyalty
General Jones opened his remarks to the audience with generous words about his host, The Washington Institute. In such circumstances, these remarks are usually warm and brief. In this case, however, the general devoted 458 words to his discussion of the Institute, constituting a substantial portion of his address. The effect was to deliver a clear and direct rebuttal to accusations made recently about "conflicts of interest" or "dual loyalty" by current and former Washington Institute scholars. If he had been asked to testify against the charge of special pleading for any particular foreign power, General Jones's words could not have been more powerful:
I especially want to thank the Institute for your work on behalf of the effort that President Obama called for in his speech last year in Cairo -- that is, greater understanding between the United States and Muslim communities around world.... In that spirit, you've been promoting mutual understanding for many years, whether it's welcoming to Washington scholars from Cairo to Baghdad, your Arabic-language website, Rob's weekly Arabic-language interview show, or his recent documentary recounting the little-known story of how Arabs saved Jews from the Holocaust.
So thank you all...for analysis that has strengthened our national security...and for promoting the mutual understanding that can lead to a safer, more secure world for us all. And I wish you continued success, because, frankly, our nation -- indeed, the world -- needs institutions like yours now more than ever.
             
While spurious accusations against the bona fides of Institute scholars are largely an inside-the-Beltway issue, they have important ramifications -- for the careers of current and former Institute scholars, for the receptivity within the halls of government to Institute research and analysis, and, more broadly, for the promotion of vigorous debate on the direction of U.S. policy. On all these levels, General Jones delivered a definitive statement.

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The Palestine Peace Distraction

Richard N. Haas, Wall Street Journal, April 26.

Announcing a comprehensive plan now—one that is all but certain to fail—risks discrediting good ideas, breeding frustration in the Arab world, and diluting America's reputation for getting things done.

President Obama recently said it was a "vital national security interest of the United States" to resolve the Middle East conflict. Last month, David Petraeus, the general who leads U.S. Central Command, testified before Congress that "enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests." He went on to say that "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples . . . and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world."

To be sure, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would be of real value. It would constitute a major foreign-policy accomplishment for the United States. It would help ensure Israel's survival as a democratic, secure, prosperous, Jewish state. It would reduce Palestinian and Arab alienation, a source of anti-Americanism and radicalism. And it would dilute the appeal of Iran and its clients.

But it is easy to exaggerate how central the Israel-Palestinian issue is and how much the U.S. pays for the current state of affairs. There are times one could be forgiven for thinking that solving the Palestinian problem would take care of every global challenge from climate change to the flu. But would it? The short answer is no. It matters, but both less and in a different way than people tend to think.

Take Iraq, the biggest American investment in the Greater Middle East over the past decade. That country's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are divided over the composition of the new government, how to share oil revenues, and where to draw the border between the Kurdish and Arab areas. The emergence of a Palestinian state would not affect any of these power struggles.

Soon to surpass Iraq as the largest U.S. involvement in the region is Afghanistan. Here the U.S. finds itself working against, as much as with, a weak and corrupt president who frustrates American efforts to build up a government that is both willing and able to take on the Taliban. Again, the emergence of a Palestinian state would have no effect on prospects for U.S. policy in Afghanistan or on Afghanistan itself.

What about Iran? The greatest concern is Iran's push for nuclear weapons.
But what motivates this pursuit is less a desire to offset Israel's nuclear weapons than a fear of conventional military attack by the U.S. Iran's nuclear bid is also closely tied to its desire for regional primacy. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians would not weaken Iran's nuclear aspirations. It could even reinforce them. Iran and the groups it backs (notably Hamas and Hezbollah) would be sidelined by the region's embrace of a Palestinian state and acceptance of Israel, perhaps causing Tehran to look to nuclear weapons to compensate for its loss of standing and influence.

Nor is it clear what effect successful peacemaking would have on Arab governments. The Palestinian impasse did nothing to dissuade Arab governments from working with the U.S. to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the Gulf War when they determined it was in their interest to do so.

Similarly, an absence of diplomatic progress would not preclude collaboration against an aggressive Iran. Just as important, a solution would not resolve questions of political stability and legitimacy within the largely authoritarian Arab world.

Alas, neither would terrorism fade if Israelis and Palestinians finally ended their conflict. Al Qaeda was initially motivated by a desire to rid the Arabian Peninsula of infidels. Its larger goal is to spread Islam in a form that closely resembles its pure, seventh-century character. Lip service is paid to Palestinian goals, but the radical terrorist agenda would not be satisfied by Palestinian statehood.

What is more, any Palestinian state would materialize only amidst compromise. There will be no return to the 1967 borders; at most, Palestinians would be compensated for territorial adjustments made necessary by large blocs of Jewish settlements and Israeli security concerns. There will be nothing more than a token right of return for Palestinians to Israel. Jerusalem will remain undivided and at most shared. Terrorists would see all this as a sell-out, and they would target not just Israel but those Palestinians and Arab states who made peace with it.

The danger of exaggerating the benefits of solving the Palestinian conflict is that doing so runs the risk of distorting American foreign policy. It accords the issue more prominence than it deserves, produces impatience, and tempts the U.S. government to adopt policies that are overly ambitious.

This is not an argument for ignoring the Palestinian issue. As is so often the case, neglect will likely prove malign. But those urging President Obama to announce a peace plan are doing him and the cause of peace no favor. Announcing a comprehensive plan now—one that is all but certain to fail—risks discrediting good ideas, breeding frustration in the Arab world, and diluting America's reputation for getting things done. As Edgar noted in "King Lear," "Ripeness is all." And the situation in the Middle East is anything but ripe for ambitious diplomacy. What is missing are not ideas—the outlines of peace are well-known—but the will and ability to compromise.

The Palestinian leadership remains weak and divided; the Israeli government is too ideological and fractured; U.S.-Israeli relations are too strained for Israel to place much faith in American promises. The West Bank is the equivalent of a fragile state at best. What is needed are sustained efforts to strengthen Palestinian economic, military and governing capacities on the West Bank so that Israel will come to see the Palestinian Authority as a partner it can work with.

Also needed are efforts to repair U.S.-Israeli ties. The most important issue facing the two countries is Iran. It is essential the two governments develop a modicum of trust if they are to manage inevitable differences over what to do about Iran's nuclear program, a challenge that promises to be the most significant strategic threat of this decade. A protracted disagreement over the number of settlements or the contours of a final settlement is a distraction that would benefit neither the U.S. nor Israel, given an Iranian threat that is close at hand and a promise of peace that is distant.

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“We Are All Israelis”

Michael Leeden, Pajamasmedia.com, April 25.

We are at war. It’s a global war. It extends from Pakistan and Afghanistan to India, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and from there towards Israel and then down to Egypt, Sudan and Somalia, and west to Europe and ultimately to America. It targets Canada and Australia, Honduras and Colombia, and all those who challenge fanatical intolerance and instead advocate freedom.  It is a continuation of the ancient war of tyranny against freedom, a war that will endure so long as freedom threatens the power and legitimacy of monarchs and dictators.

That war — a war of awesome dimensions, a war with a long and bloody history — is not the consequence of this or that unpopular policy but above all of beliefs we are not even supposed to pronounce nowadays: the crazed visions of Muslim extremists who are waging jihad against us. And the beliefs of radical secular extremists who share the goals of jihad.

That war is being waged by people who hate America and Israel, as they hate Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, and those many Muslims who want to live in peace.

What? Did you forget that the Taliban destroyed statues of Buddha? Does anybody believe that they would have been spared if there were peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority?

Yet there are those — people in positions of great prestige and power, some in government, some in the press, some in the universities — who insist that all would be well if only Prime Minister Netanyahu told a few Jews they can’t live in a certain neighborhood of Jerusalem. That Israel’s enemies — who are also OUR enemies — would scrap their global jihad if only there were one more Arab country in the Middle East.

To demonstrate their conviction that Israel is the problem, these people treat Israel’s enemies — who are also OUR enemies — with greater respect than they showed Israelis.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is treated as an unwelcome guest at the White House while radical Islamists are constantly asked, very politely, to be reasonable and to become our friends.

Sometimes they even receive a bow.

This is folly. It is morally corrupt and strategically misguided. Consider the case of Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorists. The Islamic Republic of Iran declared war on the United States in 1979, and has waged war against us for 31 years. Iranian-supported terrorists, alongside Iranian military personnel, are killing American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan today, at the same time that they are organizing lethal assaults against Israeli civilians and military personnel. Even today Hezbollah is receiving new rockets and missiles, new intelligence assessments, new supplies of ammunition, directly from Iran. And yet, in all these years, the United States has never directly challenged Iran, never made that dreadful regime pay an appropriate price for the murders it has committed and supported.

Anyone who looks clearly at the Iranian regime knows that the mullahs make no distinction between the United States and Israel except a geographical one:  Israel is closer. But both are targeted for destruction. When thousands of Iranians are mobilized in the streets to chant “death to America!” — what do you think they mean?

The Iranians have been doing these things for 31 years. They are not a response to apartment flats in Jerusalem. They are acts of an evil regime fully committed to the destruction of the United States and of Israel.

And yet, the prime minister of Israel is singled out for public humiliation while the supreme leader of Iran is addressed respectfully. Israeli housing policy is considered a greater threat to peace than Iranian attacks against Americans and Israelis.  While there is much talk about sanctions and about the Iranian nuclear program, we are not doing anything against the Iranian terrorists and their proxies: Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and the many others, including Al Qaeda.

It is folly. It is morally corrupt and strategically misguided.  Instead of fighting our enemies, we direct our moral outrage against Israel’s unquestioned right to govern its own capital city. This must change.
The American people understand this much better than American leaders. Republicans understand that better than Democrats, and American Christians understand it better than American Jews. Just the other day the Anti-Defamation League issued a special report, not about the alarming and disgusting increase in anti-Semitism in this country, including vulgar accusations of dual loyalty (or, as Harvard’s Prof. Walt slyly prefers to put it, conflict of interest) against American Jews in the government, but rather against the miniscule and marginal militia movement in the United States, which is being dealt with quite effectively by our law enforcement bodies.

Afraid or embarrassed to deal with the real threat to both Israel and the United States, our leaders prefer to conjure up fantastic bogeymen, from builders of apartment buildings to militias. The bogeymen are the politically correct substitutes for the very real threat that actually menaces our security and perhaps even our survival.

Where are the so-called leaders of the big American Jewish organizations (ZOA being a notable exception)? Where are the Presidents of major American universities? As Mayor Koch put it so well, the silence is deafening. We all know that in the 1930s, most American Jewish leaders failed to speak out against the indifference of the political class to the plight of the European Jews. It is less well known that American universities were similarly silent, that outspoken Nazi supporters and apologists continued to teach in such distinguished places as Harvard and the University of Chicago, and that they continued to teach at such places long after the Second World War was over.

Is it Groundhog Day all over again? Will we remain silent as we did in the past? Or will we join with the great majority of our fellow citizens and insist that Israel is entitled to greater respect than her enemies and that our leaders must recognize that Israel’s enemies are OUR enemies too?

Those of us who have gathered here today know that those who threaten Israel threaten America too.  In this moment of great crisis the overwhelming majority of Americans know that, just as our friends around the world proclaimed on September 11, 2001, “we are all Americans,” so today “we are all Israelis.”

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