The other side of the story


Energized by his victory in voting at the Intelligence Squared debate at NYU earlier this week on the proposition that the United States should step back from its special relationship with Israel, Roger Cohen reiterates his argument in an Op-Ed in the New York Times (online) on Thursday.

Missing, however, are the rebuttals Cohen’s opponents at the Intelligence Squared debate, Itamar Rabinovich and Stuart Eizenstat, offered. As long as Cohen is recapping his positions, I thought I’d recap the rebuttals and let you decide who’s right. The quotes below are from Cohen’s Op-Ed; the point-by-point counter-arguments follow outside the quotes.

Domestic U.S. politics constrain innovative thought — even open debate — on the process without end that is the peace search. As Aaron David Miller, who long labored in the trenches of that process, once observed, the United States ends up as “Israel’s lawyer” rather than an honest broker. The upside for an American congressman in speaking out for Palestine is nonexistent.

I don’t see these constraints shifting much, but the need for Obama to honor his election promise grows. The conflict gnaws at U.S. security, eats away at whatever remote possibility of a two-state solution is left, clouds Israel’s future, scatters Palestinians and devours every attempt to bridge the West and Islam.

The notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the heart of the problems between the West and Islam is a falsehood. Of far more concern to Muslims, as evidenced by Osama bin Laden’s gripes against the United States, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the U.S. presence in Arab lands — whether U.S. troops on Saudi soil or the occupation of Iraq. Furthermore, in the moderate Arab world, the emerging divide is not between the West and the Arabs, or between Israel and the Arabs, but between the moderates and the extremists (and, often, Sunnis and Shiites). Saudi Arabia, for one, is a lot more worried about Iranian expansionism and terrorist threats to its monarchy than about Israel. Egypt is more worried about the Muslim Brotherhood overthrowing the regime than an attack from its Jewish neighbor. Pretending that all the problems in the Middle East stem from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict diverts attention from the real problems of terrorism, the absence of civil rights in autocratic Arab regimes and the intra-Muslim wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust created a moral imperative for a Jewish homeland, Israel, and demand of America that it safeguard that nation in the breach. But past persecution of the Jews cannot be a license to subjugate another people, the Palestinians.

Cohen is hardly the first to draw this parallel, but it fails to account for 1) the fact that Israeli restrictions on the Palestinians are a response to violence from the Palestinian side 2) the scope and nature of the Holocaust was completely different that Israel’s activities in the West Bank, and 3) no Israeli has ever cited Nazi persecution of Jews as license to subjugate the Palestinians.

Two decades ago, James Baker, then secretary of state, declared, “Forswear annexation; stop settlement activity.” Fast-forward 20 years to Barack Obama in Cairo: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” In the interim the number of settlers almost quadrupled from about 78,000 in 1990 to around 300,000 last year.

Since Obama spoke, Netanyahu, while promising an almost-freeze, has been planting saplings in settlements and declaring them part of Israel for “eternity.”

Critics of the Jewish settlements, like Cohen, fail to note that the vast majority of Jewish settlers in the West Bank live adjacent to the Green Line — the pre-1967 border between Israel and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. This means that, though the settlements are slowly growing — what Israel might call "natural growth" — their share of West Bank territory has remained less than 5 percent for many years. In addition, Israel has showed a willingness to uproot settlements to hand over territory to the Palestinians (Israeli forced 9,000 Jews out of Gaza in 2005), and to Egypt (after the signing of the peace accords in the early 1980s). Most Israelis expect that same to happen in the far-flung Jewish towns of the West Bank, which remain small.

One questioner at the Intelligence Squared debate asked Cohen if Jews would be allowed to live in a future state of Palestine, just as Palestinian-Israelis live as citizens in Israel? Cohen didn’t really have an answer.

The U.S. objective is a two-state peace. But day by day, square meter by square meter, the physical space for the second state, Palestine, is disappearing. Can the Gaza sardine can and fractured labyrinth of the West Bank now be seen as anything but a grotesque caricature of a putative state? America has allowed this self-defeating process to advance to near irreversibility.

Why is it America’s fault that the two-state solution is far away? Didn’t Yasser Arafat turn down an offer from Ehud Barak of 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza (plus eastern Jerusalem) at Camp David in 2000? Didn’t Mahmoud Abbas turn down Ehud Olmert’s similar offer much more recently? Was it America that enabled Hamas to take over the West Bank, or fail to reconcile the divide between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank? The Palestinians have themselves chosen to abjure peace deals and, more recently, negotiations with Israel.

If there are not two states there will be one state between the river and the sea and very soon there will be more Palestinian Arabs in it than Jews. What then will become of the Zionist dream?

Cohen here offers the reason for the Palestinians’ rejection of peace deals and negotiations. All they have to do is wait, and "very soon" they will outnumber the Jews between the river and the sea. The Israelis, too, have warned that this could spell the end of the Zionist dream. With Benjamin Netanyahu saying he’s ready for negotiations, Israel having shown its willing to withdraw from Palestinian territory (Gaza in 2005) and a clear Israeli incentive to negotiate now, rather than in another 20 years when the demographic tide has turned, why does Cohen think Israel is the party that needs to be subject to U.S. pressure? Methinks the Palestinians are the problem.

Cohen throws in a "To be sure…" line in his piece ("Through violence, anti-Semitic incitation, and annihilationist threats, Palestinian factions have contributed mightily to the absence of peace and made it harder for America to adopt the balance required."), but he fails to draw what Rabinovich called "the logical conclusion."

Finally, Cohen assumes that U.S. pressure on Israel would advance the cause of peace. As Rabinovich and Eizenstat pointed out on Tuesday, the result more likely would be just the opposite. U.S. pressure on Israel on settlements in early 2009 increasing Palestinian demands for returning to the negotiating table, forestalling teh cause of peace. Furthermore, as Netanyahu argued at the United Nations last September, without Israeli confidence in U.S. support, Israel cannot take the risks necessary for peace.

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