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Thursday, February 15, 2007


Israel's surge of despair

posted by Aziz P. at Thursday, February 15, 2007 permalink View blog reactions
An article in Salon makes the case that US policies, domestic scandal, and the Lebanese war have all contributed to a serious malaise within the Israeli government and a general pessimism about the outcome of the forces raging in Iraq, in terms of their long-term impact upon Israeli security. This article is important because Israel's security is important; as Israel is arguably the sole stable AND liberal nation in the middle east, any threat to it is a threat to the dream that all peoples in the middle east will someday be free. Any articulation of foreign policy that promotes liberty as a universal human value must always be assessed in terms of the stability of Israel; but not at the expense of the freedoms themselves. This is why the mantra, "Jewishness, Greater Israel, Democracy: pick two" is so important.

Ultimately, Israel needs security for its democracy to flourish. Utterly dependent upon American patronage, and wedded to its western identity as it is, Israel is therefore far more at the mercy of decisions and shifts in power within Washington, not Tel Aviv. The key to Israel's peace is to wean itself from the western umbrella and establish itself as a regional power, not a satellite of the West.

This starts with a sensible outline for a workable peace plan - based on the Taba accords and the Abdullah proposal. Appointing Bill Clinton as a peace envoy would be a dramatic sign of commitment by the US to be an honest broker and assure both sides of our commitment.

But it also means that Israel must become a citizen of its region as well. Broadcasts of Israeli state television and radio should also be done in the Arabic language; forge stronger economic links with its neighbors; participate in trans-national projects. In other words, become a neighbor, not remain aloof. Just as children must leave the nest to make their own way, Israel needs to accept that it is a nation in the middle east, not Europe, and begin to adjust its formulation of self-interest accordingly.

I have some selected quotes from the article below the fold.  

In light of Israel's close strategic ties with the United States, and particularly with the Bush administration, it has been all but taboo in the past for Israeli officials to openly criticize U.S. policy. But some officials I spoke with also voiced rising fears -- and disapproval -- over the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and Iran. Those officials include octogenarian Rafi Eitan, currently an Israeli cabinet minister, who told me that in the wake of Israel's failed efforts to crush Hezbollah, and with the deepening crisis in Iraq, Israel is in one of the most precarious situations he has ever seen in his seven decades of military and government service. Regarding President Bush's handing of Iraq, Eitan said, "Unless the policy changes, it is hopeless."

The level of gloom inside the Israeli government is accompanied by a creeping sense of paralysis -- one that could be dangerous not just for Israel, but for U.S. interests in the region, and for the Middle East as a whole. A recent conversation with a senior member of Israel's diplomatic corps -- someone with extensive experience in Israel's foreign policy establishment -- left me stunned by the degree of negativity. I have known him personally for several years and have never seen him so down on the country's prospects. "We lost the war," he told me, regarding last summer's conflict. "We all know that," he continued, adding that the failure against Hezbollah is the "core reason" for the deepening pessimism inside the government. This contrasts sharply, of course, with the official government line. As recently as Feb. 1, speaking to an Israeli commission investigating the war effort, Prime Minister Olmert, according to his aides, insisted once again that "Israel won the war."

The senior Israeli diplomat in part blamed Olmert's politics. "Do you know why we lost? Because soldiers don't want to die for these leaders. Who wants to die for Amir Peretz?" he said, referring to the Israeli defense minister, whose qualifications for the job have been called into question. Peretz, the leader of the Labor Party, but who had no real security or defense credentials, was appointed by Olmert last year to ensure the Labor Party's involvement in Olmert's coalition government.

The senior Israeli diplomat's grievances went beyond the Defense Ministry. He lamented the wave of cronyism, corruption and sexual harassment scandals that have plagued the government in recent times. "We live in a corrupt society, where those with merit don't get anywhere," he said. "It's a very sad time for the Jewish state."

Every year, an influential assessment of the security situation in the Middle East is published by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center, one of Israel's premier think tanks. This year's assessment, published in January, was not only bleak, but also openly critical of U.S. policy. "The threats to Middle East security and stability worsened in 2006," the assessment announced, because "the American failure in Iraq has hurt the standing of the U.S. in the Middle East." It went on to state essentially that American actions in the Middle East over the past few years have harmed Israeli security. It also argued that the United States should withdraw from Iraq in the near term, rather than add more troops, as Bush's surge plan is now doing. As one of its authors, Mark A. Heller, explained after the report was published, "There is no Israeli interest being served by a continued American presence in Iraq."

These sobering conclusions might provide a jolt to those in the United States -- whether American Jews or conservative evangelicals -- who have supported the Bush administration's policies in part because they were supposedly intended to help Israel.

While the U.S. and Israel clearly are united in the goal of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, some Israeli leaders have lost confidence in Bush's leadership when it comes to that crucial concern. In the aftermath of the release of the assessment, Uzi Arad, the former director of intelligence at the Mossad, added, "With American attention so much focused on Iraq, it comes at the expense of its ability to blunt the slow Iranian progression toward nuclear capability." Last week, I raised these assessments with Eitan, himself a former spymaster who led the Israeli capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, and who was the handler of the infamous spy Jonathan Pollard in the 1980s. "Sooner or later, a year or two, America will go out from Iraq," Eitan said. "Iran will unite with the Shiites of Iraq -- with or without force -- and then with the Shiites of Syria. Is this good for Israel? No, it is bad for Israel."

Several Israeli journalists have written articles recently discussing how Ariel Sharon -- who was plunged into his coma just over a year ago, at a much more optimistic time in the country's history -- would react if he were to awaken today. "We cannot bring ourselves to admit that we are lost without him," wrote Bradley Burston, a left-leaning columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz. "But, for a year now, we have proven just that ... we have lost the ability to avoid wars, just as we have lost the ability to win them."

Indeed, Sharon would have been aghast to observe the current state of affairs: no substantive progress on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Gaza in the grips of a Hamas government; Sharon's personal choice for army chief having resigned in dishonor after leading a disastrous war; a still-powerful Hezbollah bragging about victory in Lebanon; a demoralized Israeli military -- and, perhaps worst of all, a powerful and emboldened Iran on the rise.

For several years earlier this decade, many in Israeli society and government were avid fans of the Bush administration (to the dismay and even embarrassment of some on the Israeli left). Because of Bush's hard-line Middle East policies and staunch support for Israel's own often hard-line policies under Sharon, approval ratings for the president were often much higher in Israel than anywhere else in the world -- even the United States itself. Recently, though, as the recognition that the last six years may have actually made the situation in the Middle East considerably more unstable and dangerous for Israel, reverence for Bush is quickly diminishing in many quarters.

It might only add to the sense of pessimism and paralysis, then, that there may be little Israel's leaders can do to influence Bush -- who hasn't been swayed on Middle East policy even by many in the U.S. Congress. My former supervisor in the prime minister's office, Ra'anan Gissin, who was Prime Minister Sharon's longtime advisor, used to tell a story that illustrates this current predicament. In the days leading up to the Iraq war, Ra'anan sat in on a meeting between Prime Minister Sharon and President Bush. As always, Ra'anan explained, Prime Minister Sharon was very careful not to directly counsel any particular action to President Bush -- because of the rightful fear that it would be unwise for Israel to be seen in any way as pushing U.S. policy.

Sharon did, however, make one of his beliefs very clear. Whatever the United States did or didn't do in the Middle East, he said, it would eventually leave -- and Israel would be left behind, forced to deal with the consequences.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.