Cross-posted on Mondoweiss as Obama’s toast. Time for the Europeans to step in
President Obama’s apparent inability or unwillingness to force Israel to continue its partial settlement freeze has become an embarrassment. Since the U.S. has proved incapable of being an honest broker and standing up to the Israelis, it should withdraw from the negotiation process and defer to the Europeans who appear ready to take on the responsibility of working toward achieving a fair and reasonable resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict over Palestine.
It has become clear that President Obama is incapable of standing up to Israel and its right-wing Likud lobby in this country. While the President has talked the talk of taking strong action to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and gave a strong speech in Cairo indicating how he intended to work hard to ensure that the Palestinians finally get the state long-promised them, when faced with the difficulty of walking the walk of such a challenging policy, the President has repeatedly tripped, skipped, and now is crawling, humbled, in the opposite direction.
His first stumble occurred early in his administration when he failed to support his nomination of former U.S. Ambassador Charles Freemen to the post of intelligence czar when he was challenged and smeared by the Israeli lobby. That was a bad sign. Ambassador Freeman was an excellent choice and his views on Israel, while critical, were mainstream. Unquestioning admiration of Israel should not be a mandatory qualification for holding office in this country. Nonetheless, Israel’s veto caused Ambassador Freeman to withdraw, with little or no support or objection from the Obama administration.
The second stumble occurred after President Obama had quite properly insisted that all illegal settlement building by the Israelis stop, immediately and entirely. This long-overdue action predictably caused an uproar in the Israeli lobby and in Congress, the dependable right arm of the lobby. Instead of standing his ground, the President backed down after the Israelis offered a partial and leaky farce of a 10 month moratorium on illegal settlement building which excluded East Jerusalem and 3000 already approved building permits for West Bank illegal settlements.
The final and most embarrassing stumble occurred this past week when Prime Minister Netanyahu refused repeated administration requests to extend the partial freeze of illegal settlement building for even a few months to allow negotiations with the Palestinians to proceed. Instead of using all the power available to a U.S. president to force Netanyahu to extend the freeze, Mr. Obama instead decided to bribe Mr. Netanyahu with a huge package of diplomatic, political and U.S.-funded additional military equipment commitments to Israel. So far, that ludicrously one-sided bride has been rejected by Mr. Netanyahu.
It seems clear that the U.S., for whatever reasons, has proved incapable of having any positive influence on the Israelis toward achieving a fair and reasonable settlement with the Palestinians, and that our vital national security interests will continue to suffer great harm as a result. Since President Obama has not proved willing to or capable of standing up to the Israelis and the Israeli lobby in this country, the U.S. needs to withdraw from this charade and defer to our allies in Europe, including the Quartet powers, to resolve this conflict. The Europeans, who appear increasingly frustrated by President Obama’s dilatory conduct, are much closer to the problem, not, or at least less influenced by the Israeli lobby, and likely less intimidated by Israel than is the U.S. and its current president. Moreover, European leaders and diplomats have said repeatedly and emphatically that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem portions of Palestine are illegal. U.S. officials typically use terms like “unhelpful” when describing Israeli settlement activity.
Perhaps not coincidentally, President Sarkozy of France, in a press conference this week with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, indicated that Europe needs to take an active role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Europe’s top diplomat, Baroness Catherine Ashton, the European Unions High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Policy, and Vice President of the European Council, has spent the last two weeks consulting with U.S. and international diplomats at the UN in New York. She is now in discussions with Israeli and Palestinian leaders after consulting with US Special Envoy George Mitchell and Quartet Envoy Tony Blair. It seems likely she will attempt to have Europe play a much bigger role in resolving this conflict.
European nations, including those on its periphery like Turkey, are showing greater independence in criticizing and even sanctioning Israel for its illegal, oppressive conduct toward the Palestinians. For instance, Norway just informed Israel that it will no longer have access to Norwegian naval bases and Norwegian offshore waters for testing Dolphin-class submarines being built for it in Germany. That is a very harsh step showing clear displeasure with Israeli conduct.
Turkey, led by its articulate Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, has also staked an independent position very critical of Israel’s illegal conduct toward the Palestinians and has imposed severe sanctions on Israel for its conduct in Gaza and in the Gaza Flotilla incident. Turkey has also been pushing for greater international involvement in the Israel-Palestinian direct talks.
Speaking last Tuesday at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, Davutoglu stressed Turkey’s desire for greater involvement in Middle East issues. During a question and answer period after his speech, Davutoglu described Gaza as an open air prison for 1.5 million Palestinians. He said that more international involvement was needed to achieve the two state solution. He stressed the illegality of Israeli settlements under international law and pointed out that bargaining for a temporary freeze on an activity that was already illegal made no sense. Finally, he said the Palestinian issue was affecting the entire world and that solidarity from the international community was needed to impose the two state solution based on the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, and that an end of the road was needed, not a road map. He concluded by saying that while Turkey’s vision was peace, peace would not be attainable so long as some countries have more rights than other countries, alluding to U.S. favoritism toward Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights.
A few weeks ago, former U.S. Ambassador Charles Freeman was invited to give a talk to European leaders and diplomats in Norway entitled: Americas Faltering Search for Peace in the Middle East: Openings for Others? He too stressed that solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a vital national security interest of the U.S. and its allies. More importantly, he said that the U.S. was incapable of resolving the conflict and that, “Only a peace process that is protected from Israel’s ability to manipulate American politics can succeed”. He suggested greater European involvement coupled with enforcement of the rule of law and sanctions for violations of international laws by the Israelis as the best means for achieving a lasting settlement fair to both Israelis and Palestinians.
Deferring to the Europeans on the Israeli-Palestinian issue would have several advantages for the U.S., and for the negotiation process: It would reduce the political pressure of this issue on the U.S. and the Obama administration. It would undermine the ability of Israel and its U.S. lobby to manipulate and control the issue through its excessive influence on the U.S. mainstream media and Congress. It would put Israel in a much weaker, much more visible political position, where its immoral and illegal conduct toward the Palestinians would be exposed to daily critical scrutiny. European actions aimed at stopping and sanctioning illegal actions and conduct by Israel would not be threatened by U.S. veto power as is currently the case with United Nations efforts to sanction Israel. It would allow the Europeans to use their much greater economic leverage against Israel whose trade with Europe is almost double what it is with the U.S. Israel’s import trade with Europe is three and a half times larger than its import trade from the U.S. Finally, the much higher Muslim population in European countries will provide a counterweight to Israeli propaganda, and provide more balanced political pressure on European politicians who will hear the outrage expressed by their Muslim constituents about illegal and oppressive conduct by the Israelis in their continued occupation of the Palestinians.
It is regrettable that Ambassador Freeman did not get the support he deserved from President Obama when his appointment was opposed by the Israeli lobby. If he had been part of the Obama administration he might have convinced the president and his other advisors that a strong backbone is needed to conduct an effective foreign policy, and that minor, third tier states like Israel, should not be allowed to hinder the vital national security interests of the United States.
The U.S. needs to escape from its captive role as the enabler of Israel’s illegal and immoral conduct toward the Palestinians. We don’t need to be Israel’s eternal lap dog; it’s embarrassing, humiliating, and profoundly immoral for us to play this contemptible role. Let Israel deal with a new team of honest broker mediators, the Europeans. We can then watch contentedly from the sidelines and lick our paws.