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The Relationship between Israel and the US: Big Brothers and Little Brothers Fight

Obama_Netanyahu_e_2515610k.jpgMy conservative friends ask me how I can be supportive of Obama given his stance on Israel. I usually explain to them what friendship is like and point out how they are getting hysterical over little. His relationship with Israel is no different than that between two friends who argue politics, often think the other is crazy, but each is the first to call the other in time of trouble. Sure things are a little tough at the moment and Netanyahu’s visit certainly was an offense, but they still have each other’s back.

Conservative Republicans and blind Israel supporters continue to cast Obama in the role of Israel’s antagonist. They embrace Netanyahu and criticize Obama. Obama is regularly cast as unsympathetic toward Israel or, worse, ignorant of Israel’s true security needs. Those on the fringe end of the conservative spectrum, the ones that call Obama a socialist, continue to believe that Obama prefers international liberal rights to individual group rights. Consequently, they assume Obama is willing to kick Israel to the curb while placating Arabs and the international left.

Those of us who spend many waking hours thinking, or writing, or teaching about these issues are not surprised that the big brother and little brother fight. The suggestion that a two state solution use borders somewhere along the 1967 lines is so common in the literature and in discussions about resolving the conflict that the statement has little effect on me. Most people, including the majority of the Israeli public, prefer a two state solution with borders being defined as somewhere along 67 lines. Netanyahu is correct that those borders would not be sufficiently defensible. But with buffer zones, electronic surveillance, and swaps it’s possible to establish borders for a Palestinian state. To pounce on this single statement was simply inaccurate and unfair.

Moreover, Obama’s has made some very supportive statements throughout his presidency. And playing politics or simply grubbing for the Jewish vote does not explain these comments
because they commit Obama to a course of action. Hence Obama told AIPAC that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” This is an unbelievably provocative statement and probably will not be included in some final two state solution. Obama has stated clearly that the two state solution is subject to negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians in order to determine a final status. But even with the latest moves in the UN I bet this issue just fades away. Any ultimate solution will be negotiated with the Israelis and Palestinians. I trust Israel will do nothing that undermines its own security.

Obama has chastised Assad; he has encouraged Yemen’s president Saleh to leave office; he has supported the people in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. Calling on him to send in troops or overtly assert American power is simply politically irresponsible. Obama has recognized emphatically the special relationship between Israel and the United States.

Obama is not trying to appeal to everyone. He is encouraging the Israelis to make necessary movements in an effort to stimulate discussion. Right now nothing is going on. Netanyahu is not going to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas; he’s adamant about 67 borders not being defensible so he wants to encroach into land east of Jerusalem toward the Jordan River. The Arab world is in flux so it does not seem to be the time for discussions. I credit Obama was trying to encourage additional contact.

Having said all this, it is clear that Netanyahu is not Obama’s favorite international leader. Obama does have a more accommodating and diplomatic style whereas Netanyahu knows exactly what he thinks and has little interest in modifying it. But Obama believes that he is serving the needs of peace and thereby the needs of Israel. He has acknowledged the problems of dealing with Hamas. He knows that the 67 borders will require adjustments and land swaps. And Obama supports and has stated as such Israel’s right to be a Jewish and democratic state, including its capacity to defend itself. This is important because the Jewish nature of the state remains problematic. Israel faces tremendous demographic pressures as well as political ones that threaten the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Netanyahu is making a mistake if he thinks the special nature of the US – Israel relationship means he can behave any way he wants. The world grows weary of this conflict and is already turning its attention elsewhere, and everyone’s patience has limitations.

Obama was very helpful to Israel by avoiding issues such as the Arab Peace Initiative, settlements, and discussion of refugees. It takes leadership to talk about the Middle East “as it should be.” Obama recognizes that the current situation is untenable, and that any UN vote will precipitate many problems. Of course, Obama’s primary lesson is to value human
rights over locked-jaw nationalism. In the past Obama has recognized Arab freedom fighters and advocates for democracy and rhetorically positioned them along with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Praise for Arab freedom fighters is good for Israel.

Post based on May 25, 2011 post

Netanyahu’s Bonding Discourse and 1% Decisions

US an Israeli flag

Netanyahu and bond with Congress

Anything interesting, novel, or exciting about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress was absorbed by the flap over the diplomatic slight. And even if President Obama was feigning a gigantic yawn to signal his disinterest, it was an apt response. To be sure, the Prime Minister is an interesting and engaging fellow who is always worth listening to. But this time there was very little new and the content of the speech was rather bland.

Benjamin Netanyahu lives in a world of 1% decisions. These are decisions that have a low probability of occurrence (1%), but the consequences of being wrong are catastrophic. Hence, the probability of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon – even on Israel – is small, but if you are wrong, well, you will not recover. Decision-makers in these conditions of 1% decisions usually figure they have to protect themselves, that they cannot take the chance of being wrong, so they respond aggressively in order to prevent the low probability occurrence in the first place. This sort of thinking and decision strategizing escalates the consequences quickly. One side, say Netanyahu and Israel, immediately takes more extreme measures because even though the threat is small it is existential. What Netanyahu would really like, although he will not say this directly, is for the United States to bomb Iran. I don’t think this is going to happen under any sort of President but clearly the Prime Minister is trying to scare the United States so we will react more aggressively.

I actually waited a little while before posting about Netanyahu’s speech because I wanted to see what issues emerged. I was pretty sure he would do three things. First, as I said above, he would try to scare the United States into feeling the same existential threat as Israelis. That is, he would work to enlist the support of the United States (and especially the people in that room) with some bonding discourse characteristic of groups with much in common. There would be lots of references to the shared cultural, political, and democratic nature of the United States and Israel. Secondly, I was quite convinced he would portray Iran as a crazed Islamic Republic seeking to dominate first Arab capitals and someday Western ones. There would be references to religious extremism and the triumphalist mentality of jihadism. And third, I knew he would argue that the current efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear capabilities or stop it completely through negotiations was either impossible or as he put it a “bad deal.” He did criticize the nuclear deal implying everybody’s naïveté but his own.

Israel’s foreign policy is based on existential threat. And one cannot be naïve, they do have their share of enemies and anti-Semitism and the equation of Zionism with colonialism is on the increase. But from a rather “rational” standpoint rather than the gut feeling that describes most thinking about Iran’s barbaric and aggressive nature it is just as easy to argue that Iran would not use a nuclear weapon. First, if Iran used a weapon they certainly know that they would invite a response. It would justify the other country, namely Israel, using their weapons. Secondly, any culture that used a nuclear weapon would immediately become an international pariah and suffer in such a way that they might not recover. Third, there are some solid ways to include the international community in Iran’s nuclear program and maintain some control to ensure that its nuclear material does not become weaponized. Netanyahu, as we saw from his acceptance of the speaking engagement without consulting the president, has a tin ear when it comes to diplomacy so why would we expect him to be any better at diplomacy when it comes to Iran?

I don’t think that other issues (such as his upcoming election) are particularly pertinent although Israelis may have enjoyed the image of their strong leader speaking to the U.S. Congress. It is possible to view Netanyahu’s appearance before the U.S. Congress, which is a fairly conservative Congress, and his bonding discourse as dangerous. When divergent groups “bridge” and try to close gaps between them, more extreme positions are moderated. So, if the Israelis and Palestinians have contact and build a bridge from the discourse of Zionism to Palestinian nation building, then extremists will be marginalized and the discourse of violence will subside. But bonding discourse, which is what Netanyahu did with the Congress, among the like-minded exaggerates differences, intensifies the sense of cohesion, and creates polarization. Netanyahu probably did not accomplish much with respect to the specifics of the treaty with Iran, and he probably did not scare too many people, but he did make his case to the world.

The only problem is that Netanyahu was talking to the wrong people. He does need to talk to the world or bond with his friends – he needs to walk over the bridge and talk to his neighbors.

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