I’m at the Hudson Institute’s day-long event, "U.S.-Israel Relations at a Crossroads?"
(The question mark is theirs, not mine.)
Ambassador Michael Oren is opening with a lecture on the history of the ties, but the "meat" of the days are encounters between the neoconservatives associated with this venerable institute ("Scooter" Libby in front of me grabbing coffee! Trim as ever) and the left-wing "pro-Israel, pro-peace" camp (I know everyone is pro-peace, but this is what they call themselves.)
Eric will be picking up later, but here are some of the scheduled encounters: Jeremy Ben Ami of J Street and Marty Peretz of the New Republic in a rematch of their recent contentious Boston radio talkshow bout; Daniel Levy, late of Yossi Beilin’s staff, and Doug Feith, late of Don Rumsfeld’s staff; Martin Indyk, veteran of failed Clinton attempts at peacemaking, Elliott Abrams, vetran of failed Bush attempts at same.
Oren launched his review with citations of support for a Jewish return to Zion from his book, dating back to the colonial era. These are great anecdotes (James Madison failed Hebrew and had to stay at Princeton an extra year), but not really anchored in statecraft (at least, until Woodrow Wilson lent his support to the Balfour Declaration.) The sparseness of the support, its anecdotal quality, is not Oren’s fault, of course — it is the nature of searching for support for a state that did not even exist as a modern-wold concept. Still, after hearing this multiple times, I wish he would leave it alone — it lends a Rotary club quality to a serious issue.
He is much stronger, and more devastating, when he gets to the modern era, in demolishing Walt-Mearsheimer arguments about the unnaturalness of the U.S.-Israel alliance. He’s still more of a historian than an ambassador, and his insistence on unvarnished descriptions of U.S.-Israel tensions — he noted, for instance, Presidents Truman and Nixon and their "peculiar" views on Jews — is to be treasured.
His best and most eloquent point is how he tracks U.S. Jewish support for Israel and proves that this did not so much advance the alliance as was advanced by the alliance. There was American Jewish silence, he notes, at the time of the 1938 British White Paper, which effectively cut off Palestine as a refuge. U.S. Jews were more effective after the war and prior to statehood, but disappeared during the crises of the 1950s (when President Eisenhower contemplated sanctions against Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis), and right up to the eve of the 1967 Six Day War. It was Israel’s victory then — and President Johnson’s embrace of Israel’s victory as a stop to Soviet influence — that galvanized existing mom-and-pop shops like AIPAC into the power brokers they are now.
"It is the power of the U.S.-Israel alliance and the power of Israel that empowers these groups and makes them powerful," Oren said — a great line.
Other items of note, even newsworthiness:
*Oren started off his perceptions about the current Obama administration with this: "There is a school of thought holds that the U.S.-Israel alliance reached its apogee in the previous administration." He never says whether he agrees with this school of thought.
Instead, he noted his analysis a year or so ago, during the campaigning, of the relative positions of then Sens. Obama and John McCain, and says he "bent over backwards" to keep the paper academic (an allusive swipe at critics who said the paper, written when Oren was associated with the right-leaning Shalem Center, amounted to a McCain endorsement.) He outlined Obama’s platform, including pledges to reach out to the Muslim world, to emphasize engagement, to strive from the get-go for a two-state solution, and to avoid what was once the reflexive genuflection presidential candidates paid to moving the embassy to Jerusalem.
Oren politely paid this compliment to Obama: "He proceeded to really stick to his promises," which Oren said was "unusual" — but notably refrained from endorsing, praising, slamming said promises. Not a backwards compliment, more an empty one?
*Oren retold his story about being warned by everyone from aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down to the guy who signed off on his U.S.-ready cell phone that he would have a "hard time" in the United States because of differences between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations. More interesting was his candid (as a journalist, I gotta say, I like this guy) assessment of how it went from being a potentially hard time to a relatively easy one.
The first issue, he said, was Netanyahu’s reluctance to advocate a two-state solution. This was no mere tactical ploy, and it goes beyond the explanation Netanyahu has proferred until now: That Israel wanted recognition as a Jewish nation-state in exchange for recognizing a Palestinian nation-state. Israel has a real problem, Oren said, with conferring upon the Palestinians the natural sovereignties of statehood:
"We didn’t want this Palestinian entity to have the normal state right to sign treaties with other countries, certainly not Iran, or sign pacts with Hezbollah or Hamas, or to have control of their own airspace."
Oren said the tension dissipated when Netanyahu said in a June speech that he would conditionally accept a demilitarized Palestinian state.
But Oren’s blunt characterization of Israel rejecting "normal state rights" for Palestinians suggests a Netanyahu government with a much more deep-seated problem with Palestinian statehood, one that dovetails with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s "no peace for now" strategy revealed today — the closest Oren came to alluding to the plan in his talk. (Israeli envoys to Washington generally answer to the Prime Minister’s Office before taking orders from the Foreign Ministry, and it’s not yet clear whether Netanyahu has endorsed Lieberman’s initiative.)
Oren also said Netanyahu’s resistance to a total settlement freeze was because it was "politically impossible and physically impossible." Israeli officials have tended to emphasize the physical difficulty of a total freeze, noting — as Oren did again today — the need to add a room here, a balcony there. But Oren also mentioned the difficulties such a freeze would pose to Netanyahu’s coaliton. This is usually a "behind the scenes, off the record" acknowledgment from Israeli officials. Israeli prime ministers — and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular — do not often admit that they can’t keep their Cabinet in line.
In any case, Oren said this disagreement had also mostly dissipated — though he said, interestingly, that there’s no agreement yet between Israel and the United States on the length of such a freeze. He said the Obama administration was now okay with a freeze that accounted for normal growth and excluded Jerusalem (I’ve had the impression that U.S. officials are not going to oppose natural growth, but still have a problem with some Jerusalem building.)
Oren also said that instead of Israeli-Palestinian-American talks advancing, Israeli-American talks were advancing in one direction and Palestinian American talks in another — he pushed his hands apart in Y-motion and expressed the hope that one day they would converge. Beyond the pessimism this suggests — see Lieberman references above — what does this mean about the Israeli relationship with the Obama administration, if its officials are allowing talks with the Palestinians to veer off in a different direction?
Oren also said the "greatest fear" among Netanyahu government officials had been about Obama’s plans for engaging Iran, but that Netanyahu emerged reassured after Obama told him in their May meeting there would be a reassessment of engagement before year’s end.
The concern, Oren said, had been that engagement would be "open ended" and that Iran would use the time to develop nuclear weapons; what’s weird about this is that it was always clear that open-ended engagement was never on Obama’s agenda, and — per Dennis Ross, Obama’s Iran policy chief — that negotiations would go hand in hand with time limits and the threat of sanctions. Who was advising Netanyahu before that meeting?
*Other nuggets: Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East has eroded in recent years and Obama’s defense team, working with Israeli counterparts, have taken steps to redress this; the Obama administration has been in "intensive consultation" with Israeli officials in its efforts to keep the Goldstone report, charging Israel with war crimes in its war with Hamas last winter, from advancing through the United Nations system.
*Oren allowed himself one criticism of the Obama administration: It needed to address the astonishing low of 4 pewrcent of Israelis who see Obama as pro-Israel. "We have to get this number up," he said; if Israelis are to take the necessary risks for peace, trust in the American administration of the day "is a sine qua non of the peace process."