Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Smart, experienced observers of the Middle East are talking, and AIPAC isn't going to like it.

Since the Netanyahu-Biden fiasco in Jerusalem, a steady stream of smart, experienced individuals have weighed in on settlements, U.S. interests in the Middle East, the lagging peace process, and the history of the conflict, and it almost seems as if many have been emboldened to criticize elements of Israeli policy (such as settlement construction in East Jerusalem and Israeli policies toward the country's Arab minority) that were previously beyond the pale. From the notion that U.S. security and national interests would be positively affected by Israeli-Palestinian peace and an even-handed approach to the conflict (forwarded by General David Petraeus in testimony before Congress) to the wild idea that continued Israeli settlement growth in the Occupied Territories is a real threat to peace and undermines moderate Palestinian leaders - journalists, diplomats, pundits, and scholars have found a relatively accommodating space with which to criticize what many perceive is a lack of serious peacemaking on the Israeli side. Open dialogue, of course, is a great thing, and something I believe will eventually foment a peaceful resolution to this seemingly endless conflict.

When respected military leaders and other government officials make these statements, it sends the pro-settlements, pro-occupation, pro-Israel-at-the-expense-of-peace crowd into a quick, downward spiral of awkward retorts and antiquated arguments. From claims of anti-semitism made against several of the newly emboldened commentators to AIPAC's tacit understanding that they were standing with Benjamin Netanyahu against Barack Obama, this intellectual community is increasingly becoming viewed as diminished, blatantly one-sided, and standing up for Israel to the point that they seem to view not only Palestinian statehood, but Barack Obama and the very notion of peace in the region as enemies of Israel.

Yesterday, I attended an event at the Wilson Center featuring a panel of five former American ambassadors discussing the Obama administration and Arab-Israeli peace. The panel was moderated by former U.S. negotiator Aaron David Miller. The panelists were experienced, engaging, and all well-spoken:

  • Edward Gnehm - Former U.S. Ambassador to Jordan
  • Theodore Kattouf - Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria
  • Dan Kurtzer - Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt
  • Jacob Walles - Former Consul General in Jerusalem
  • Frank Wisner - Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt
While the panelists held various view on a variety of issues, there were several ideas that held broad, almost "common sense", consensus. On these issues there was no debate among the panelists and it seemed that they posited the ideas in a way that they were not making a provocative point but summarizing a common sense notion for the slower members of the audience. Here is what I gathered were Ambassador-level common sense notions about Israeli-Palestinian peace:
  • Continued Israeli settlement building (not just expansion but building) is a major obstacle to the peace process and undermines the U.S. role as a mediator in the region.
  • Petraeus was absolutely right: American security interests are threatened by the lack of progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
  • The Obama administration has rightfully placed great focus on peacemaking, appointing George Mitchell on his first full day in office and reaching out to the Arab world with his Cairo speech. However, after 15 months the administration has not really laid out a clear U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian peace and this is hampering his efforts
  • Picking a fight with Netanyahu over settlements was right, but it should have been placed in a more comprehensive context and backed by clear elements of American policy.
  • There is no "good time" for peace in the Middle East, but it must be pursued relentlessly because the time left for the two-state solution is quickly running out as extremists on both sides gain power.
  • The U.S. should engage a broad coalition of partners for peacemaking, including Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, while finding a better way to utilize the Middle East Quartet (Russia, the EU, UN, and U.S.)
  • Israeli-Syrian peace is easier to achieve and should not be forgotten about in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
  • The Palestinians are weak and divided, both politically and geographically, but in the absence of peace, the Ramallah-based government of Salam Fayyad and Mahmoud Abbas is the best the Palestinians will ever have.
  • The Obama administration needs to take a closer look at the Arab Peace Proposal and perhaps even make it a part of a comprehensive peace policy.
  • The Arab and Israeli "streets" want peace.
  • Iran is gaining influence as long as there is no Arab-Israeli peace. A comprehensive peace policy should be placed in the context of weaning Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah off of Iran and bringing them into a more moderate Arab fold.
I was very surprised at how much of a consensus there was on so many issues, ranging from the Palestinian domestic situation to Obama's policy (or lack thereof) regarding the peace process. This new consensus (which I have a sneaking suspicion has existed for a decade or more, but is just now beginning to see the light of public conversation is frighteningly clear for the AIPAC crowd, as was demonstrated by a disgruntled audience member who, when allowed time for a question, accused Aaron David Miller of constructing a blatantly anti-Israel panel because he did not include an Israeli panelist. The gentleman had no substance or real pointed question about any of the points the panelists had made, but instead simply yelled "bias" to discredit the entire event. Miller, very patiently, his frustration apparent explained that the entire point of the panel was to bring former American ambassadors together to discuss the U.S. role in conflict mediation.

Dan Kurtzer also made several very interesting points concerning the U.S.-Israel relationship and expressed his concern that the current Israeli government had not done its homework on the American President and electorate, pointing out that the American Jewish community, despite the dust-up between the two countries, still fervently supports the president by a margin of 3 to 1 and that opinion polls are showing American frustration with settlements and support for Obama's policy. He reminded the audience that Netanyahu's first Prime Minister gig ended in 1999 when he was unable to effectively understand and deal with President Clinton's policies toward Israel. Ambassador Kurtzer described effectively dealing with the U.S. as the "third rail" of Israeli politics, and insisted that leaders who are unable to play nicely with Washington often lose Israeli domestic support very quickly.

Jacob Walles commended the Fayyad Plan and the Palestinian Authority's new concern for domestic security, curbing corruption, and stimulating economic growth. He described Fayyad's leadership as a "practical approach to improve the lives of Palestinians." Mr. Walles also lauded the Obama administration's attempt to get indirect negotiations off the ground, describing them as the "low-risk option" that could help lead to direct talks.

Finally, Palestinian non-violent resistance (and even the village of Bil'in) received a generous shout-out when more than one of the panelists brought up the issue of the growing Palestinian non-violent movement. Ambassador Kattouf described the Israeli military's decision to clamp down on non-violent protests and their organizers as an attempt to stop this kind of resistance and vigorously defend the moral high ground to international audiences. He compared this clamping down to the Israeli government's deportation of the "Palestinian Gandhi" Mubarak Awad, and explained that non-violence, especially popular non-violent resistance, "makes the government of Israel uncomfortable."

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