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Staying up to date on Israel-Palestine

I haven't commented on Peter Beinart's new book The Crisis of Zionism for the simple reason that I haven't read it yet. It's on my list, but will probably have to wait till the end of the term. In the interim, here are a few things you ought to read if you believe that the Israel-Palestine issue is at least as important as our current obsession with Iran.

You might read Isabel Kershner's New York Times piece on the eviction of an Israeli settler family from an illegal outpost in Hebron. The kicker, of course, is that the removal of one settler family was accompanied by an announcement that the Netanyahu government had authorized construction of 800 new homes in Har Homa and Givat Zeev, and intended "to seek the necessary permits to retroactively legalize three other West Bank settler outposts that went up without authorization." And lest you be confused about the Netanyahu government's intentions, here's what Netanyahu himself had to say about it (my emphasis):

"The principle that has guided me is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Today, I instructed that the status of three communities -- Bruchim, Sansana, and Rechalim -- be provided for. I also asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to see to it that the Ulpana hill in Beit El not be evacuated. This is the principle that has guided us. We are strengthening Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and we are strengthening the Jewish community in Hebron, the City of the Patriarchs. But there is one principle that we uphold. We do everything according to the law and we will continue to do so."

So Netanyahu's aim is clear: keeping control of the West Bank forever. And the reference to "doing everything according to the law" is revealing, because "law" here means the law of the occupation, which is the same law that has allowed a half a million Israelis to move onto the territories conquered in 1967 over the past forty years.

The next thing to read is Andrew Sullivan's extended reflection on Beinart's book, where he focuses laser-like on the critical issue: If peace is Israel's objective, why keep expanding settlements? He says it better than I could, so read him.

Then follow that up with Robert Wright's sober reflections on the imminent demise of the two-state solution (2SS).  A lot of people have correctly seen the 2SS as the best of a set of bad outcomes, but we have reached the point where "two states for two peoples" is either dead or on life support. As Wright puts it:

"My point isn't that we should blame the Israelis for the death or very-near-death of the two-state solution. It's not surprising that people with their history and geopolitical predicament would let fear get the better of them. (They're being no more irrationally fearful than Americans were in the wake of 9/11, which led us to launch two wars, one of them against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and that posed no threat.) By the same token, it's not surprising that the Palestinians wouldn't endure 45 years of subjugation, during which they've been denied basic human rights, without any eruptions of violence (which of course isn't to say I support the violence). That's the depressing thing about the Israel-Palestinian conflict: It results from the Israelis and Palestinians acting more or less the way you would expect people in their shoes to act.

But that's why it's crucial that those of us who live at a safe remove from the conflict, and can in theory summon detachment, should try hard to see the situation clearly, succumbing neither to paralyzing fear nor cozy illusions. And the most common cozy illusion is that, though the time may not be right for a two-state solution now, we can always do the deal a year or two or three down the road.

The truth is that a two-state solution is almost completely dead, and it gets closer to death every day."

And if you haven't given up in despair already, please revisit this piece of mine from 2009. I asked it then and I ask it today: Once the two-state solution is really and truly buried, then what position is the U.S. government going to take? For that matter, what position will the hardliners at AIPAC or the ADL defend, and what will so-called progressives at groups like J Street favor? Ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians to ensure a Jewish majority? Binational democracy and equal rights for all residents of a single state? Or permanent apartheid, with the Palestinians confined to self-governing enclaves under de facto Israeli control? Those are the only other options to the 2SS and every AIPAC rep, Christian Zionist, and supposedly "pro-Israel" Congressperson ought to be asked repeatedly which of these three options they now endorse. Ditto State Department and White House spokespeople, and anyone who aspires to be president, including the current incumbent.

And if they try to say that they are still in favor of 2SS, someone should ask why they still believe it is possible, and what they concrete steps they intend to do to make it happen. And while we are at it, someone might also ask them why they believe U.S. taxpayers should continue to subsidize settlement construction. And make no mistake: Because money is fungible, that is exactly what our aid package does. The 2SS has been the stated goal of U.S. policy under the past three presidents, yet U.S. policy actively subverts that objective, to the mutual detriment of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans alike.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

What Obama could learn from Muhammad Ali

How many of you know what the phrase "rope-a-dope" means? For those who don't, the phrase describes the strategy that Muhammad Ali used to defeat the heavily favored George Foreman in their heavyweight championship fight in Zaire in 1974, the so-called "Rumble in the Jungle." Foreman had demolished former champ Joe Frazier in two rounds in a previous bout, and most observers expected him to make short work of the older and smaller Ali. But Ali had prepared a clever strategy, and he spent the early rounds of the fight covering up and leaning against the ropes. Foreman landed lots of ineffectual blows, punched himself out, and became exhausted. Ali came off the ropes and knocked Foreman out in the 8th round.

What, you ask, does any of this have to do with international politics? I'll tell you. The "rope-a-dope" is a nice metaphor for an effective strategy for great power competition, somewhat analogous to the strategy of "bait and bleed." During the Cold War, for example, it made good sense for the United States to let the Soviet Union waste blood and treasure trying to win meaningless victories in places like Angola, or Afghanistan. By the same logic, Soviet leaders were smart to let us fight for years in Vietnam. In both cases the outcome of these conflicts didn't really matter very much to the overall balance of power, so letting the opponent punch themselves out trying to win was a clever approach.

Today, one could argue that China (and maybe a few others) are employing the "rope-a-dope" against us. And like poor George Foreman, we are falling for it. We get the honor of pouring money and lives into fruitless state-building projects like the current Afghan war, while China concentrates on building a stronger economy, gradually reforming its political order, and cultivating good working relations with other countries. Remaining bogged down in Central Asia or distracted by Iran also diverts us from focusing more attention on China, and makes us less likely to do some over-due "nation-building" here at home.

If we were smarter, of course, we'd be looking to saddle potential rivals with a lot of expensive order-keeping activities, and let them bear the burden in difficult or intractable local conflicts. That would give foreign policy elites less to do, perhaps, but that might not be such a bad thing either. Case in point: Why not let China worry about Pakistan's future, and get itself embroiled trying to manage the various quarrels and blood feuds in Central Asia? They could hardly do a worse job than we have, and we'd probably end up with a better relationship with most of the region. It is astonishing how much more popular we might be if we played hard-to-get more often, so that others would be less resentful of our constant sermonizing and interfering. Heck, if we stood aloof more often, some states would quickly do a lot more to try to make sure we didn't forget about them.

One caveat: The key to the "rope-a-dope" strategy was Ali's ability to prevent Foreman from landing telling blows in places that did matter. To make it work in international politics, the United States would a clear sense of which areas were strategically vital and which didn't matter all that much. And we'd also have to be able to distinguish between areas where it is useful to retain a lot of influence, and places where our main interest is simply to prevent some hostile power from dominating.  

This task won't always easy, but it shouldn't be impossible either. It does require a significant mental adjustment, however, back to a focus on U.S. national interest instead of vague and idealist notions about spreading our "values" and creating an American-centered "world order." American leaders have to stop thinking that the whole world is their responsibility and stop deluding themselves into thinking that we can and should "pay any price and bear any burden." From a purely American perspective, letting allies bear more of the burden in key regions and encouraging adversaries to blunder into sinkholes and quagmires, makes a lot more sense.

-/AFP/Getty Images