Tough love for Israel

The latest contribution to the long list of opinion pieces (including editorials) in The New York Times advocating a tougher U.S. approach toward Israel comes from Roger Cohen, who argues in an Op-Ed column posted online Monday called "Try Tough Love, Hillary," that the Obama administration should deliver some "tough love" to Israel by putting West Bank settlements, the division of Jerusalem and outreach to Syria on the agenda between Washington and Jerusalem.

Cohen’s argument for tough love focuses on an interview Ehud Olmert gave in September in which the outgoing prime minister articulated Cohen’s main points to Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot. Cohen argues that the Obama administration sometimes needs to stand against Israel, for Israel’s own good, by adopting Olmert’s recommendations.

Wait a minute: I don’t get it. If the Obama administration should deliver tough love to Israel by standing against it, how does embracing the Israeli prime minister’s viewpoints (Cohen recommends Clinton post the Olmert interview on the wall of her office) constitute toughness?

What Cohen actually means to say is that the United States should press for specific things — dividing Jerusalem, promoting Syria-Israel peace talks, gradually eliminating the obstacle to peace that West Bank settlements represent — whether or not the Israeli government believes they are in Israel’s best long-term interests.

It’s not tough love Cohen is arguing for, but a specific approach. Did Israel need tough love when it wanted to negotiate with Syria but got no support from the Bush White House?

Left-wingers and right-wingers alike play this game.

When Israel pursues right-wing policies, groups on the right argue that Washington should not obstruct the Israeli government, while left-wingers call for Washington’s intervention. But when the tables are turned and the Israeli government pursues left-wing policies, such as talking with Syria about exchanging the Golan Heights for a peace deal, left-wing groups argue against Washington obstruction (as they did against Bush), while right-wingers do all they can to sway Israel — including lobbying Washington.

Cohen writes:

I am fiercely attached to Israel’s security. Everything depends, however, on how that security is viewed. Israel can continue humiliating the Palestinians, flaunting its power with a bully’s braggadocio. It will survive that way — and be desperately corroded from within. Neither domination nor demography favors Israel over time…

Getting to… a two-state deal at, or close to, the 1967 borders will require concerted U.S. involvement from day one of the Obama administration. Its tone should be one of tough love, with the emphasis on tough.

Cohen’s recipe for what Israel ought to be doing to solve its own long-term security needs may or may not be right — there are plenty of Israelis who make similar arguments — but it’s not about the United States pressuring Israel vs. supporting Israel.

It’s about Cohen anticipating a right-wing administration in Israel come February 2009, when Israel elects a new Knesset and prime minister.

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