President Obama’s decision to stab Israel in the back at the United Nations could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Obama’s instinct for radical overreach has achieved a reductio ad absurdum of the whole U.S. framework toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and made it far more difficult for President-elect Trump to embrace that framework without wholesale revision. And that could give us something we don’t have now: a realistic path to peace in Palestine.
Current U.S. policy toward the Israeli–Palestinian conflict evolved in support of a goal — the two-state solution — set by President Bill Clinton and formally embraced by President George W. Bush. This goal has become completely disconnected from reality. That is not to say that a two-state solution is not the right ultimate goal; maybe it is. But given the circumstances of today’s Middle East, a negotiated settlement leading to a two-state solution is simply impossible. The combination of Israel’s international isolation, Palestinians’ steadfast commitment to incitement and terrorism, and Iranian ascendancy to regional hegemony and nuclear weapons means that Israel simply can’t risk the concessions that would be necessary for a final settlement of the conflict.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the territory immediately became a terrorist safe haven and a platform for missile-fired terrorism. If the same thing happens in the West Bank, which straddles Jerusalem on three sides and abuts most of Israel’s population, it will be the end of Israel. A two-state solution under current circumstances would be suicide. Peace in Palestine requires new circumstances. And the object of U.S. policy should be to create them. Hence, every element of U.S. policy, including the U.S. position on Israeli settlements, should be justifiable as part of a coherent and realistic strategy for getting from here to there.
That includes the U.S. position on Israeli settlements. Settlements are not the reason that the two-state solution is “now in jeopardy,” as Secretary of State John Kerry put it in his mea non culpa speech last week. There is only one reason the two-state solution is in jeopardy, or more accurately dead, and that is Muslim terrorism against innocent Jews. There is only one reason for the harsh security measures imposed in the occupied territories, and that is Muslim terrorism against innocent Jews. There is only one reason for the continuing conflict between Israel and its neighbors, and that is Muslim terrorism against innocent Jews.
A century of terrorism by Muslims against the Jews of Palestine — at first organic, then incited by the Soviets, and now propelled by political Islam — is the essence of this conflict and the only reason that it persists. Muslims extremism has now become a worldwide problem, claiming victims and threatening liberty on every continent except Antarctica. It is time to reshape U.S. policy on the whole Middle East, including Palestine, on the basis of a new principle, namely the decisive defeat of Muslim extremism.
Six Key Steps
Bring strategic thinking back to U.S. foreign policy. Among the gravest errors of Obama’s entire approach to foreign policy is thinking that every international conflict can be resolved by simply talking. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden brought that approach with them from the 1980s’ partisan battles over Cold War strategy, when the Democrats thought that every example of negotiating pressure (such as U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras) was a provocation to be discarded in the hopes of having an amicable dialogue with the Soviets. Like lefty college students who never grew up, these people think that diplomacy and dialogue are the same thing, and that peace can be achieved only by pacifism.
But, as history shows, real diplomacy lies in shaping the strategic foundations for favorable outcomes. In the language of negotiations, there is currently no Zone of Possible Agreement (or “ZOPA”) between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead of abusing the parties (and chiefly Israel) for refusing to pretend that a ZOPA exists, Obama should have focused on creating that ZOPA on the ground — as Presidents Nixon and Ford did in the 1970s, when they set the stage for the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt by first depriving the Soviets of influence over Egypt.
What would that require now? A good place to start is a speech Hillary Clinton gave as secretary of state, in March 2010 at AIPAC, when she talked about all the good that would come from achieving a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. She declared:
A two-state solution would allow Israel’s contributions to the world and to our greater humanity to get the recognition they deserve. It would also allow the Palestinians to have to govern to realize their own legitimate aspirations. And it would undermine the appeal of extremism across the region.
A moment’s reflection suffices to see that Clinton’s promised benefits are all actually strategic preconditions for a successful negotiation. The world’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinians’ demonstration that they can actually run a state, and the waning of extremism across the region are all things that have to happen before a two-state solution is even remotely feasible.
End Israel’s isolation, and secure universal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Besides the hypocrisy in the United Nations’ constant Israel-bashing, given its lack of concern for the 50 or 60 actual dictatorships represented at the U.N., not to mention a multitude of other border conflicts and occupations, there is a strategic reason to fight Israel’s isolation. Its isolation contributes to a siege mentality among Israelis, exactly the mindset that would make them unlikely to offer any concessions for peace. That is why peace in the Middle East vitally requires international recognition of Israel.
The incoming Trump administration should openly and unambiguously repudiate the U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements, which was intended to increase Israel’s isolation and to encourage the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Trump should pledge that no further Security Council resolutions against Israel will be permitted until all Middle Eastern states have recognized Israel as a Jewish state. The U.S. should punish countries and organizations that boycott Israel, including those that boycott products produced in Israeli settlements. Beyond that, normalized relations with Israel should become a condition for fully normal ties with the United States.
Require Palestinians to prove they can run a competent administration under the rule of law, free of incitement and terrorism. It is simply preposterous to suggest that Israeli settlements have anything to with the stalled peace process, given the continuing embrace of terrorism by Palestinian leaders. It is not two years since our supposed PLO friends in the West Bank agreed to form a unity government with the terrorist Hamas in Gaza, and then they promptly proceeded to encourage Israeli Arabs to attack their Jewish neighbors with knives, cars, and anything else they might have on hand. That follows years of terrorist attacks and perhaps 10,000 missiles fired from Gaza at civilian areas in Israel. This wanton savagery has continued despite Israel’s multiple halts to settlement activity and general humanitarian restraint.
The obscene Palestinian policy of teaching children to hate Jews must stop, and terrorists and their families must not be financially rewarded and otherwise honored for their activities.
Hamas needs to be utterly defeated and extirpated from the Gaza Strip, something that can realistically be achieved only with help from Egypt or Israel. Further, U.S. taxpayer subsidies flowing to both Fatah and Hamas should be conditioned on ending incitement, not just forsaking acts of terrorism: The obscene Palestinian policy of teaching children to hate Jews must stop, and terrorists and their families must not be financially rewarded and otherwise honored for their activities. Americans should be horrified to be subsidizing these policies with their tax dollars.
Defeat Muslim extremism in the Middle East. Defeating Muslim extremism might seem like a tall order, but consider how much closer we were to accomplishing that objective in the early years of the Obama administration than we are now. The Arab states were all in a de facto truce or formal peace with Israel and increasingly frosty toward Palestinian extremists. Iran, the Palestinian terrorists’ new sponsor, was significantly contained, its economy on the brink. The U.S. was the preeminent power in Iraq, with most Iraqi political factions embracing an alliance with the U.S. against extremists supported by radical Islamists from outside Iraq. The Syrian civil war raised the possibility of destroying Iran’s lifeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon, with its tens of thousands of rockets pointed at Israel — if only we had been prepared to cut Assad off from Iranian help by bombing his airfields, blockading his ports, and arming the moderate opposition. Over the medium term, the success of even primitive democratic institutions in Iraq heralded the possibility of peaceful democratic reforms throughout the Middle East — the single best hope for peace.
Alas, all those hopes were dashed by a president — namely, Barack Obama — bent on imposing his own vision on the Middle East, even at the risk of throwing away all that America had achieved there since the 1970s. With not the least concern for bipartisan consensus (or even consensus within his own party), Obama has dramatically increased Iran’s ability to exert influence all over the Middle East, chiefly by dismantling the architecture of international pressure on Iran’s nuclear program. His refusal to intervene in the Syrian civil war, all while he was simultaneously withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, set the stage for the worst upheaval the Middle East has known in its modern history. The Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS across Syria and Iraq have killed more people and created more refugees than virtually all the Middle East’s wars in the last 100 years put together. Obama essentially gave Iraq over to the Iranians, and he has now put the U.S. military at the service of Iran and its Iraqi militias as they fight ISIS on the way to subjugating the Sunni parts of Iraq — our former allies from the Anbar Awakening of 2006. He gave Russia a central role in the Syrian civil war, which Russia promptly used to avenge its humiliating exclusion from the outcome of the Yom Kippur War; now we are being excluded from any influence over the course of the Syrian civil war.
Obama’s unspeakably callous and stupid insouciance over the advent of ISIS in early 2014, and over the safe haven it established in the very parts of Iraq we had fought so hard to liberate from al-Qaeda just a few years before, has led to a resurgence of terrorism across the globe, including in the United States. Obama has cleverly parsed his national-security record: “No foreign terrorist organization has successfully planned and executed an attack on our homeland.” But this ignores the many deadly terrorist attacks on our homeland that ISIS and other Sunni terrorists have inspired from their nearly contiguous series of undisturbed safe havens stretching across thousands of miles from West Africa to the Middle East to Pakistan.
Indeed, there is hardly a single respect in which Obama has not made peace in the Middle East vastly more difficult to achieve, starting with the treasonous incompetence of his “responsible end to the war in Iraq.” And yet, the catastrophic damage of Obama’s presidency must be undone, and the hopes that came with America’s 2008 victory in the Iraq War restored, for there to be any remotely realistic chance of peace, either in Palestine or in the broader struggle against Muslim extremism.
Reestablish the containment of Iran. It is particularly vital to revive the containment of Iran that existed for decades until Obama dismantled it. Prior to Obama’s administration, the strategy consisted of consolidating America’s gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, imposing increasingly prohibitive costs on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and vigorously supporting Iran’s pro-democracy movement. In every respect, Obama proceeded in the opposite direction, effectively unleashing Iranian power.
Now Iran has projected its power across the Middle East in two massive strategic pincers, one along the Fertile Crescent, pointed at the heart of Israel, and the other along the Arabian Sea through Yemen, pointed at Saudi Arabia and also by extension at Israel. The Iran nuclear deal, moreover, guarantees Iran two fully developed nuclear-weapons programs (uranium and plutonium pathways), ready to start serial production in less than a decade — two American presidential elections from now.
Contrary to Obama’s assertions at the time of the deal’s signing, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is making every problem in the Middle East immeasurably more difficult to solve because it has greatly strengthened the hand of Iran’s hard-liners. They think America has surrendered to them, and they are correct. Our Arab and Israeli allies think that we have switched sides to embrace their mortal Iranian enemy, or at least that we are vacillating in our commitment to our alliances with them; they, too, are correct.
In order to once again contain Iran, we must first undo the damage that Obama has wrought. That requires two things: First, we must expel Iranian influence from the Arab Middle East; second, we must make clear that the Iran nuclear deal is only a halfway house on the road to the complete and irreversible dismantlement (or destruction) of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
Expelling Iranian influence from the Middle East will require above all that America once again displace Iran as the dominant power in Iraq. This will entail careful use of the military forces that Obama has been forced to put back in Iraq to fight against ISIS, after his “responsible end to the war in Iraq.” Reviving Iraq as a strong military ally of the U.S., with a long-term U.S. military presence there, should be America’s highest short-term priority in the Middle East. Expelling Iranian influence from the Arab Middle East will also require that U.S. proxies and covert operators be present in Syria in sufficient strength to prevent Russia, Iran, and Assad from achieving complete victory. Iran must also be cut off from supplying the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
On the nuclear front, meanwhile, we must recognize that when Obama dismantled the international sanctions regime, he eliminated the diplomatic option for removing Iran’s nuclear program. The only option that remains now is to relaunch tacit negotiation on the basis of direct economic and military pressure. That means delivering to Iran a list of “clarifications” that enhance the JCPOA’s transparency requirements, that revive the earlier American demands for irreversible and complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program, and that establish a threat of consequences for Iranian noncompliance. The tools that remain to us consist largely of Treasury sanctions and military pressure; these should target Iran’s economy and ultimately its military power, both conventional and nuclear. The objective is not to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, but to convince Iran to dismantle them. Our negotiating leverage is the threat of ruining Iran’s economy and destroying its military power, which we could accomplish through a combination of direct sanctions and naval and air power.
Drop official opposition to Israeli settlements until the Arabs agree to a realistic transition plan. Explaining the U.S. decision to abstain from the settlements resolution, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power noted that opposition to settlement expansion dates back decades. She quoted a major 1982 speech by President Ronald Reagan in which he laid out his vision for Mideast peace and called on Israel to halt settlement activity. That was a clever slight of hand on Power’s part, given how profoundly different the circumstances were then, and how very different Reagan’s plan was.
Reagan delivered his speech on an auspicious occasion: the total defeat of Yasser Arafat’s PLO in Lebanon and the evacuation of that organization’s leadership to Tunis. It was based on the recognition that Israel is most likely to make concessions for peace after the mortal threats to its existence have been removed.
At that time, there were generally recognized to be three possible resolutions to Israel’s occupation of territories captured in 1967: 1) Israel’s annexation of the territories into a “Greater Israel” with natural, defensible borders; 2) a two-state solution; and 3) a return of most of the West Bank to Jordanian control.
Reagan correctly concluded that the first two options were impracticable. “Greater Israel” virtually guaranteed a Muslim majority in Israel, raising the question of whether Israel could remain a Jewish state without institutionalizing some form of apartheid. A simple inspection of a map suggested that the two-state solution was impracticable, because the occupied territories are not contiguous and the West Bank would be completely landlocked between Israel and Jordan; plus, the Palestinian’s “leadership” was the PLO, a terrorist organization. Reagan concluded that the only realistic option was the third, the return of most of the West Bank to Jordanian control under the auspices of increasingly closer ties with America — essentially a Camp David for Jordan.
It’s true that Reagan opposed Israeli settlements at that time, as Samantha Power noted. But he only opposed them as part of a strategy to foreclose both the idea of “Greater Israel” and that of a two-state solution — and only during a short transitional period leading to the establishment of Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank.
The Failed Jordanian Option
Like any democratic government, Israel’s makes mistakes, and it made a major one when it failed to capitalize on the Jordanian option while Jordan’s King Hussein was still open to it. The West Bank at that time was only lightly “occupied” by Israelis, who were able to administer both Gaza and the West Bank with just 1,200 soldiers and police. Jordan was already participating in the administration of the West Bank. As prime minister during a period of unity government with the conservative Likud party, Labor party leader Shimon Peres came close to negotiating a complete agreement with King Hussein of Jordan, but it was repudiated by Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir in favor (apparently) of some version of “Greater Israel.”
Shortly thereafter, the first Intifada began. As images of Israeli soldiers battling crowds of rock-throwing Palestinian youth came to television screens around the world, Arafat and the PLO sensed a major opportunity. Arafat prevailed on King Hussein to dismantle the rump Jordanian administrative activities in the territories and repudiate the “Jordanian option” altogether. With a nod to the Arab League’s insistence that the PLO was the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” Hussein relented in July 1988, announcing that he was “bowing to the wishes of the PLO.”
Months later, George H. W. Bush, who had just been elected president, was forced to go back to the drawing board with the two options that Reagan had rejected: “Greater Israel” or two states. Again, the American president decided to oppose Israel’s annexation of the territories. At the same time, the Likud government in Israel dramatically expanded settlement activities, taking advantage of a new wave of Jewish émigrés from Russia. This led to a major rift between the U.S. and Israel, with Bush calling on Congress to freeze a $10 billion package of U.S. loan guarantees for Israeli housing construction.
Again, however, the anti-settlement position was only temporary, meant to facilitate the opening of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Crucially, the Bush 41 administration agreed with Israel’s refusal to negotiate directly with representatives of the PLO. That stance became even easier when the PLO foolishly celebrated Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Building a pro-American military alliance to deploy against Iraq now became the Bush administration’s top priority, but when the Arabs demanded a resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as part of negotiations over Saddam’s withdrawal from Kuwait, Secretary of State James A. Baker famously responded that there would be “no linkage” of the two issues.
Baker did, however, promise to convene face-to-face talks between Israel and her major Arab neighbors, the first such talks in Israel’s history, to begin in Madrid after Saddam had been forced back out of Kuwait. Rapid progress was made in the talks, as dozens of countries moved to recognize Israel — proof of the what’s possible when Israel enjoys widespread acceptance, the Palestinian Arabs embrace peace, and extremism is defeated in the region.
How the Arabs Killed the Two-State Solution
Then a fatal mistake intruded. The Arab League once again insisted that Yasser Arafat and the PLO were the sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinians, and that Israel should negotiate directly with them. New left-wing governments in Israel (under Yitzhak Rabin) and the U.S. (under Bill Clinton) fell for it and agreed to bring Arafat back from exile in Tunis and entrench him in power in the West Bank capital of Ramallah. Thus began the “Oslo process,” which eventually led to Israel’s withdrawal from most of the West Bank and an offer of final settlement on that basis in the final days of the Clinton administration.
The ‘right of return’ would necessarily mean turning Israel into a Muslim Arab state.
Arafat was nothing more than a thug and a terrorist, so he naturally rejected the offer. He just couldn’t bring himself to give up on the “right of return” of all the Arabs who had fled the land of Israel after its creation in 1948 — the “refugees” now living permanently with their millions of descendants in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and the occupied territories. The PLO had agreed to “recognize” Israel as a Jewish state, but without giving up on the “right of return,” this recognition was meaningless. The “right of return” would necessarily mean turning Israel into a Muslim Arab state. This is a key point, because many Palestinian leaders, even ones we legitimize as “peace partners,” look to the 1967 borders as only a halfway house on the path to undoing the creation of Israel and pushing all the Jews into the sea.
Having rejected peace at Camp David, Arafat returned to the West Bank to do what he did best: terrorism. The “Second Intifada” ensued. Unlike the first, it was an orchestrated campaign of terrorist bombings that killed nearly 1,000 Israeli civilians in just a few years. This horrible terror war ended only after Israel turned for salvation once again to the hero of 1967, 1973, and 1982: the great Ariel Sharon. As prime minister, Sharon broke the power of the PLO. Shortly after Arafat’s death at long last in 2004, Sharon decided to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip. It was the Palestinians’ chance to demonstrate what they would do if liberated from the occupation. They immediately chose terrorism and started firing rockets at every Israeli population center they could reach.
An Ornamental President
Then Obama became president. Obama had a lot to say about everything and could sometimes say it charmingly, but he had few ideas for actually solving problems. So what happened next was nothing, and then (to paraphrase Douglas Adams) nothing continued to happen. Both the American president and the Israeli Labor party kept holding on doggedly to the idea of a two-state solution, despite the Palestinians’ overwhelming demonstration in Gaza that the two-state solution would be suicide for Israel. This position ended up pushing the entire Israeli electorate to the right, with Labor at one point during Obama’s presidency reduced to just 14 seats in the Knesset. In his mea non culpa, Kerry derided the “most right-wing government in Israel’s history.” If it is, he has only himself and his friends to blame. The Right’s increasing influence in Israel is a direct result of the American and Israeli Left’s heedless insistence on a two-state solution that is almost certainly less feasible today than the colonization of Jupiter’s moons.
A New Way
This detour into the history of the conflict since 1982 was necessary to demonstrate how disingenuous Samantha Power’s reference to Reagan was, and also how bankrupt the entire U.S. framework for Mideast peace has become. It was also necessary in order to show that the settlements are not what is standing in the way of peace. Nobody in the world, least of all the Israelis, wants to rule over territory full of radicalized Palestinians. Unfortunately, the alternatives have been eliminated by radicalized Palestinians, who prevailed upon King Hussein to withdraw the Jordanian option, and then demonstrated, with missiles from Gaza and countless other acts of terror, incitement, and hatred, that the two-state solution would be suicide for Israel. In any case, as Martin Indyk points out, with Hamas ensconced in Gaza, we are now talking not about a two-state solution but a “three-state solution.”
The claim of Palestinian Arabs to the land is no better than that of Palestinian Jews, i.e., Israelis.
Perhaps the worst flaw in U.S. policy until now is that it has convinced the Palestinians that time is on their side if they don’t negotiate, that they have a better chance of defeating Israel internationally than of gaining a favorable settlement of their grievances through negotiation. Reestablishing negotiating pressure is perhaps the single best reason to abandon U.S. opposition to Israel’s settlements, at least until a realistic option is on the table.
In the meantime, a word on the talking point that the settlements are “illegal” under international law. This is true only insofar as nobody has a settled claim to the occupied territories — neither Israel nor anybody else. And as an incident to occupation, Israel’s legal claim is for the moment better than anyone else’s. Meantime, since the Ottoman’s centuries-long rule over the entire territory ended at the close of World War I, the question of just whom the West Bank does or should belong to has never been settled. The claim of Palestinian Arabs to the land is no better than that of Palestinian Jews, i.e., Israelis. The competing claims can be settled only through negotiations, negotiations that the Palestinian Arabs have refused for years to engage in, despite multiple decisions by Israeli to freeze their settlement activity.
#related#Under current circumstances, those who oppose settlements must bear the onus of explaining exactly what goal that opposition is supposed to serve. If they think a two-state solution is feasible, then before we listen to them on the issue of settlements, they should have to explain how they think terrorism and incitement can be eradicated from the occupied territories — in other words, they should have to explain what their strategy is for actually achieving a sustainable two-state solution.
America has an abiding interest in achieving peace in the Middle East. There is no way to shield ourselves and our allies from the terrorism and refugee crises and other upheavals that the conflicts of the Middle East have unleashed. And their millions of victims cry out for protection.
Out of basic humanitarianism and national security, America must remain vigorously engaged in the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. The first step is coming up with something that U.S. policy has been missing for far too long — an actual strategy.