Politics & Policy

Just Say “No”

Advice for Ehud Olmert.

I have one bit of unpleasant advice for Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert: Just say “no.” Olmert can best help George W. Bush — and Israel — right now by saying “no” to Condoleezza Rice. President Bush has been insisting on Israel’s right to defend herself. He calls Israel an ally. But an ally must understand the rules of the game.

Since June 7, 1967, American influence in the Middle East has been based on the United States acting as Israel’s lawyer. That day Secretary of State Dean Rusk told the National Security Council: “If we do not make ourselves ‘attorneys for Israel’ we cannot recoup our losses in the Arab world.” The U.S. had to turn the new Israeli might into a bargaining chip; and so it had to make sure that the road to Israel would go through the U.S.

The more difficult the client, the more important the role of the lawyer; it is supposed to be difficult for a lawyer to force concessions on a difficult client — hence, the importance of a difficult client. As National Security Advisor Walt Rostow explained in a 1968 memo to Lyndon Johnson, a compliant Israel may not be in the best interest of the U.S: “We ought to look at that (applying pressure on Israel) pretty carefully because it would further fix the image of Israel as our stooge — an image we need to blur if we’re ever to persuade the Arabs that Israel won’t just do what we tell it.”

But, tragically for both Israel and the U.S., since the first Gulf War and the subsequent Oslo agreement, both Washington and Jerusalem seem to have forgotten the rules of the game. Since then, whenever the U.S. pushed, a no longer recalcitrant Israel succumbed. This left the U.S. exposed to ever increasing demands to force on Israel greater and greater disastrous concessions.

As could have been expected, each Israeli concession not only led to demands for additional concessions but even increased world hostility towards Israel. And a conflict that previously could be attributed to an Israeli refusal to throw away its territorial bargaining chips was revealed as the existential fight for Israeli survival it has been all along. Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon were wrong to believe that exposing that basic reality by unilateral withdrawals would end the vilification of Israel. It increased it. Moreover, the exposure of the real Arab intent led those reluctant to take on the Arab/Muslim world to seriously reconsider their commitment to the continued existence of the state of Israel. Thus, pressure on Israel to put up with terrorist entities committed to its demise replaced pressure on Israel to give up territorial “bargaining chips.”

Nor did Israeli concessions benefit the U.S. On the contrary, the U.S. shared Israel’s fate, since the world came to hold Washington responsible for every Israeli nay. Indeed, it confirmed long-held Arab belief that the road to Israeli destruction ran through Washington. The result? Increased Arab hatred and vilification of the U.S. And since the Europeans have based their relationship with the Arab world on being more accommodating to its anti-Israeli positions that the U.S., Washington’s appeasement forced them into ever growing concessions.

As the State Department has always been populated by Arabists, secretaries of State are under enormous internal pressure to prove their mettle by securing concessions from Israel. Secretary Rice has not escaped the predicament of her predecessors.  Relying on notoriously unreliable polls (as polls taken in unfree places inevitably are), Foggy Bottom experts assured her that Hamas would never get more than 30 percent of the vote. Rice began to prove her worth to her department by pressuring Israel to agree to let Hamas participate in the Palestinian elections. If that was not bad enough, she insisted that Israel give up control of the Gaza-Egypt border. The result: While the world focused on another Palestinian “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, Hamas busied itself building up its military capabilities there. Deprived of many of its Gaza listening posts, the Israeli intelligence found itself “surprised” by the extent of Hamas’ success just as it was going to find itself “surprised” by Hezbollah capabilities a few weeks hence. And Rice? She discovered that her efforts provided Iran with an additional bargaining chip, Gaza.

Prior to the G-8 summit, Iran pulled out another bargaining chip — Hezbollah. At first, it seemed as if Olmert and Rice had learned their lesson.  In the aftermath of Hezbollah’s attack on northern Israel, it was reported that Olmert made clear to Rice that Israel was not going to back down this time. Rice withstood pressure to rush to Israel, but when she finally showed up, instead of appearing to push for a premature end and getting rebuffed, she made no visible effort to challenge Olmert.

Exposed, she went to Rome where she successfully blocked a call for an immediate ceasefire. But by the time she reached Kuala Lumpur, the Europeans had resurrected their traditional role on the left of the U.S. The German foreign minister, among others, insisted that Europe, unlike the U.S., is supporting calls for an unconditional ceasefire. The Asians quickly followed in the European footsteps. Buckling under this pressure, Rice wanted to return immediately to Jerusalem. Bush delayed her departure by another day. He also got Blair to reject calls for immediate ceasefire by agreeing to hint that the U.S. will engage Syria.

The brilliantly manufactured Qana incident (the building collapsed seven hours after it was supposedly bombed) significantly increased the pressure on Rice. To withstand it, she needed Olmert to say “no.” He did not. Instead, he agreed to suspend the Israeli bombing for 48 hours. The result? France moved to outflank the U.S. and Germany by seeking to show that she can be even more “reasonable” than the U.S. Her foreign minister called Ahmadinejad’s Iran “ a significant, respected player in the Middle East which is playing a stabilizing role.”

Israel has only one way to stop this dangerous slippery slope towards the emergence of Nassralla as the new Middle Eastern Saladin. Olmert must provide Washington with a cover by saying a clear and loud “no.” “No” to providing Hezbollah fighters hiding amongst the population a free pass and “no” to ending the war prematurely. Saying otherwise would seriously undermine both Israeli long term security and America’s long term strategic position in the Middle East.

 — Judith Apter Klinghoffer, Fulbright professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, is the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences co-author of International Citizens’ Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights, and History News Network blogger.

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