What's going on in Israel?

One of the more enduring myths in the perennial debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict is the claim that Israel has always been interested in a fair and just peace, and that the only thing standing in the way of a deal is the Palestinians' commitment to Israel's destruction. This notion has been endlessly recycled by Israeli diplomats and by Israel's defenders in the United States and elsewhere.

Of course, fair-minded analysts of the conflict have long known that this pernicious narrative was bogus. They knew that former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who signed the Oslo Accords) never favored creating a viable Palestinian state (indeed, he explicitly said that a future Palestinian entity would be "less than a state.")  The Palestinians' errors notwithstanding, they also understood that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's offers at Camp David in 2000 -- though more generous than his predecessors' -- still fell well short of a genuine two-state deal. But the idea that Israel sought peace above all else but lacked a genuine "partner for peace" has remained an enduring "explanation" for Oslo's failure.

Over the past several weeks, however, the veil has fallen off almost completely. If you want to understand what's really going on, here are a few things you need to read.

Start with Akiva Eldar's cover article in The National Interest, entitled "Israel's New Politics and the Fate of Palestine." Eldar is the chief political columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, and his article provides a succinct account for why the two-state vision is at best on life support and is unlikely to be resuscitated. Money quotation:

"[T]he Palestinian leadership, as far back as 1988, made a strategic decision favoring the two-state solution, presented in the Algiers declaration of the Palestinian National Council. The Arab League, for its part, voted in favor of a peace initiative that would recognize the state of Israel and set the terms for a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Meanwhile, various bodies of the international community reasserted partition of the land as their formal policy. But Israel, which signed the Oslo accords nearly two decades ago, has been moving in a different direction."

Eldar goes on to describe in detail the demographic and political trends that have made the two-solution an increasingly remote prospect, undermining Israeli democracy in the process and leading to a deepening policy of "separation." Eldar avoids the politically loaded term apartheid, but here is how he describes the current reality:

"To exercise control over the land without giving up its Jewish identity, Israel has embraced various policies of "separation." It has separate legal systems for traditional Israeli territory and for the territory it occupies; it divides those who reside in occupied lands based on ethnic identity; it has retained control over occupied lands but evaded responsibility for the people living there; and it has created a conceptual distinction between its democratic principles and its actual practices in the occupied territories. These separations have allowed Israel to manage the occupation for forty-five years while maintaining its identity and international status. No other state in the twenty-first century has been able to get away with this, but it works for Israel, which has little incentive to change it."

It works, of course, because the Israel lobby makes it virtually impossible for U.S. leaders to put any meaningful pressure on Israel to change its behavior, much of which is now antithetical to core American values.

To grasp what Eldar is talking about, check out former Netanyahu aide Michael Freund's June 20 column from the Jerusalem Post, entitled "Kiss the Green Line Goodbye."  Unlike Eldar's requiem for the end of the two-state vision, Freund's column is a proud declaration that the settlement project has succeeded in making "greater Israel" a permanent reality.  In his words "the Green Line (the 1967 borders) is dead and buried. . . it is no longer of any relevance, politically or otherwise." And he offers critics a piece of advice regarding "Judea and Samaria": "you had better get used to it, because the Jewish people are here to stay." This is not a wild-eyed assertion by some extremist settler, by the way, but a revealing glimpse at an increasingly mainstream view.

Next, to see the on-the-ground consequences of these developments, check out Nir Hasson's piece on how residents of East Jerusalem (illegally annexed by Israel following the 1967 war) face increasingly erratic water supplies. Then give a listen or a read to NPR reporter Lourdes Garcia-Navarro's report on how home demolitions in East Jerusalem have increased dramatically over the past year, with about 1100 people -- half of them children -- displaced. Israeli officials claim that this is merely an appropriate response to "illegal" construction, but as a recent U.N. report documents, over 90 percent of Palestinian applications for building permits are denied, even as Israel continues to build housing settlements for Jews in various east Jerusalem neighborhoods.

What is going on, in short, is slow-motion ethnic cleansing. Instead of driving Palestinians out by force -- as was done in 1948 and 1967 -- the goal is simply to make life increasingly untenable over time, so that they will gradually leave their ancestral homelands of their own accord.

Finally, make sure you read up on the recent Levy Commission report -- excerpted here. (A good place to start is Matt Duss's summary here.) This commission, appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, has concluded that Israel's presence in the West Bank isn't really an "occupation," so the 4th Geneva Convention regarding protection of the local population doesn't apply. It sees no legal barrier to Israel transferring as many of its citizens as it wants into the territory, and it therefore recommends that the government retroactively authorize dozens of illegal settlements. Never mind that no other country in the world -- including the United States -- agrees with this dubious legal interpretation, and neither does the United Nations or any other recognized juridical body outside Israel.  

Needless to say, anyone who has visited the West Bank and seen the "matrix of control" imposed there will quickly understand that the Commission's members were smoking something, and even a staunch defender of Israel like Jeffrey Goldberg had problems with the commission's Alice-in-Wonderland line of argument. A wide array of commentators (including the New York Times editorial board and former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer) have already denounced these claims, albeit in a typically qualified fashion. The Times' expresses the hope that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will "drive U.S. concerns home" when she visits Israel this month. As if that's going to do any good at this point.

The veil slipped a long time ago, and now it has been torn away almost completely. But once you grasp what's really happening here, you have to completely rethink your views about who the real friends of Israel are and who are the ones threatening its future.  Israel's true friends may or may not be emotionally committed to it, but they are the ones who understand that the settlement enterprise has been a disaster and that only concerted and principled action by the United States, the EU, and others can avert this future train wreck. They are the ones who understand that it is Israel's actions in Lebanon, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Dubai, in Iran, etc. that are slowly squandering the legitimacy and support it once enjoyed, including support within the diaspora. When Israel ends up tied with North Korea (!) in a 2012 BBC survey on which countries have the "most negative" global influence (and ahead of only Iran and Pakistan), you know there's a problem.  They are also among those who fear that Israel's conduct and the smear tactics employed by some of its defenders have no place in American political life, and might eventually cost it the support it has long enjoyed here in the United States.  

By contrast, Israel's loudest defenders (and those in the middle who are cowed by them) are the ones whose short-sighted focus has allowed the occupation to persist and deepen over time. Their unthinking loyalty has helped squander genuine opportunities for peace, empowered extremists on both sides, and prolonged a long and bitter conflict. The question to ask is simple: Where do they think this is headed? 

And the same principle applies to American interests and U.S. policy. Given the current "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel, America's standing in the region and in the world is inevitably tarnished as long as Israel persists on the course described in the articles cited above. This situation forces U.S. leaders to adopt contorted and hypocritical positions on human rights, non-proliferation, democracy promotion, and the legitimacy of military force. It makes U.S. leaders look impotent whenever they repeatedly term Israel's actions "regrettable" or an "obstacle to peace" but then do nothing about them. It forces politicians of both parties to devote an inordinate amount of attention to one small country, to the neglect of many others. Worst of all, U.S. policy ends up undermining the reasonable people in Israel and the Arab world -- including moderate Palestinians -- those who are genuinely interested in a peaceful solution and to coexistence among the peoples of the region. Instead, we unwittingly aid the various extremists who gain power from the prolonged stalemate and the sowing of hatred. This bipartisan practice may not be the most dysfunctional policy in the history of U.S. foreign policy, but it's got to be damned close.

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Stephen M. Walt

Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state?

Is Hillary Clinton a great secretary of state? A puff-piece in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago referred to her as a "rock star diplomat," and quotes Google chairman Eric Schmidt calling her "the most significant Secretary of State since Dean Acheson." (Hmm. . . has Mr. Schmidt ever heard of some guys named Dulles, Kissinger, and Baker?). I'm neither a fan nor a foe of Ms. Clinton, but one can't really call her a great secretary at this point, through no fault of her own.

First the positives. There's no question that Clinton has been terrifically energetic, as well as a loyal team player. In this sense, Obama's decision to appoint her has worked out brilliantly, due in no small part to her willingness to serve the man who defeated her for the 2008 nomination, and in a broader sense, to serve her country. She's also proved to be relatively gaffe-free (there have been a few slips, but that's inevitable for anyone who's in the limelight 24/7 and who has to respond and react to rapidly evolving events). Insiders with whom I've spoken say she is an excellent boss who elicits considerable loyalty from those around her. And as the Times piece notes, she's helped restore the somewhat battered morale of the foreign service, and used her celebrity to raise public awareness on a number of signature issues. Nothing to be ashamed of there, and I'd argue her record puts her well ahead of predecessors such as Warren Christopher, William Rogers, Christian Herter, Madeleine Albright, Dean Rusk, Condoleezza Rice, or Colin Powell. (For a balanced but positive appraisal of Clinton's record, see FP editor Susan Glasser's profile here).

The problem, however, is that she's hardly racked up any major achievements. The Chen Guangcheng affair was a nice bit of on-the-fly crisis management, but the fate of a single Chinese dissident is not exactly the stuff of high politics and in the end won't have much impact on Sino-American relations either way. She played little role in extricating us from Iraq, and it is hard to see her fingerprints on the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. She has done her best to smooth the troubled relationship with Pakistan, but anti-Americanism remains endemic in that country and it hardly looks like a success story at this point. Yes, her belated quasi-apology eventually got the NATO supply trucks rolling again, but it took months to get this matter resolved and the relationship itself remains deeply fractured. She certainly helped get tougher sanctions on Iran, but the danger of war still looms and there's been no breakthrough there either.  

Needless to say, she has done nothing to advance the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace or even to halt Israel's increasingly naked land grab there (for which she can share blame with the rest of the administration, AIPAC, the U.S. Congress, and the Netanyahu government). Finally, although she's helped articulate the need for the "pivot" to Asia and has done some effective salesmanship on that topic both at home and in the region, this move was both a geopolitical no-brainer and still faces significant obstacles. Among other things, the recent debacle over the aborted strategic cooperation agreement between South Korea and Japan (which led to the resignation of one of Korean President Lee Myung-Bak's top aides) is a setback for both Lee and for Clinton's efforts to build a stronger coalition in Asia.

The lack of major accomplishments isn't really her fault, however, for several reasons. First, as I noted way back when Obama became president, there just weren't a lot of low-hanging fruit available when the new team took office in 2009. On the contrary, they faced a series of difficult-to-intractable problems, several of which (Iraq, Afghanistan) were likely to end up looking like failures no matter what they did. Even if Clinton had been a magical combination of Bismarck, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Zhou en Lai, she'd have had trouble devising a strategy that could have solved all these problems quickly and without costs.

Second, Clinton isn't a great secretary of state because that is not the role that she's been asked to play in this administration. Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and James Baker had extremely close working relationship with the presidents that they served, and each enjoyed far more authority over foreign policy than Clinton has been given by the Obama White House. Obama's initial reliance on a set of "special envoys" diluted Clinton's clout even more, even when some of them (such as the late Richard Holbrooke) were personally close to the secretary.  

Add to this the fact that the Pentagon and intelligence community now controls vastly greater resources than the State Department does, and has for more impact on our relations with trouble spots like Central Asia, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, etc.. Given that raw bureaucratic reality, it's not surprising that Clinton cannot point to any major achievements on her watch. Indeed, a good case can be made that American foreign policy is still operating ass-backwards: Instead of seeing military power as one of the tools we use to advance a broad political agenda, today military imperatives tend to dominate and the diplomats just get sent out to line up some compliant partners and to clean things up afterward (see under: Drone wars).

Which is not to say that Clinton has performed badly. On the contrary, I'd give her high marks for executing the job she was asked to perform, especially given the constraints (both organizational and geopolitical) in which she had to operate. So maybe the "rock star" label is right after all. Rock stars get a lot of attention and sometimes adulation, and sometimes they even deserve it. But not even Elvis had much lasting impact on international politics.

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