Obama and Israel

On January 5 John Bolton, the former unconfirmed U.S. envoy to the United Nations, advocated in The Washington Post a “three-state solution” to the Palestinian problem. This “solution” involved returning Gaza to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan because the Palestinian state has manifestly failed.

A perennial cutter of Gordian knots, Bolton usually misses the complexity of the turns — and the identity of the knot-tiers. In this case, he missed the rather obvious point that the Palestinian Authority’s ailments are connected to the Israeli refusal to allow a viable and contiguous state to exist and its constant undermining of whatever party the Palestinian people elect, first Fatah and now Hamas. In fact, Bolton doesn’t go far enough. Following his line of “reasoning,” Israel should be returned to Britain as a mandate and then quickly turned over to the United States.

The Obama administration isn’t likely to pick up Bolton’s advice to dissolve the Palestinian state. In the current policy vacuum, however, Obama should be ready for a serious rethink of U.S. policy. And that rethink should begin with Israel.

Israel and the United States

Israel is far from being simply a U.S. satellite and base. In many ways, the United States orbits Israel. For domestic political reasons, the U.S. government in effect uncritically guarantees almost any act of any Israeli government. There are, of course, some limits, though not many. For example, it’s clear that Israel either couldn’t or wouldn’t mount an attack on Iran without U.S. approval, which was likely withheld more because of its potential effect on U.S. forces in the region than any principled objection to the idea.

This U.S.-Israeli relationship gives President-elect Obama, despite his distressing silence on the Gaza conflict, a unique window of opportunity. Domestically, he garnered the votes of almost 80% of American Jews, despite a furious campaign from Republican and Likudnik die-hard organizations questioning his attachment to the Zionist project and Israel’s defense.

Even after his kowtowing to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) during the primaries, Obama won even more support from American Muslims than he did from Jews.

Obama shouldn’t listen to conservative Jewish organizations, who outshout the silent majority of American Jews who abide by their traditional liberal and humanitarian instincts. The overwhelming majority of American Jews voted for Obama, and the emergence of voices like J Street offers an opportunity for a new president who owes the “Israel Lobby” nothing.

Obama and Israel

If Obama wants to be a real friend to Israel, he has to let the Israeli government know its actions are not consequence-free. There is both a principled and a pragmatic constituency that he can address in Israel itself. Until now, the Israeli electorate has worked on the principle that whatever happens, the United States will provide support. If the government needs replacements for expended cluster bombs, the United States will airlift them in. If the UN, the EU, and other international actors criticize Israel’s military actions, Washington will send the aid check as always. This uncritical support of Israel must change.

Obama shouldn’t let the immediate crisis in Gaza deflect from the root problem. Israeli leaders have a profound ambivalence toward the peace process, to which they officially subscribe even as they continue building settlements in the West Bank. The United States must push Israel toward greater engagement with a peace settlement. Nor can the United States or the EU continue to ostracize any Palestinian (or for that matter the Lebanese) leadership demonized by Israel as terrorists.

On the carrot side, Obama should promise full security guarantees to Israel within the internationally accepted borders, based on the June 1967 lines.

Since he is being bipartisan, the new president should take up where George Bush Sr. and James Baker left off almost two decades ago. Any Israeli spending on settlement building should be condemned in the UN, and matched by equivalent reductions in U.S. aid. He should also implement actual U.S. policy by reminding Israelis that American weaponry is intended for defensive purposes and that any used in attacks beyond the borders won’t be replaced.

Finally, the president-elect should speak out now about the desirability of Israel abiding by UN Security Council Resolution 1860, which calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, Israeli troop withdrawal, and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance. A word from Obama would give Israel the excuse it desperately needs to extricate itself from the hole it dug in Gaza, while redounding to the president-elect’s credit globally.

Given the cast of mind of many leading Democrats, such a rethink of U.S.-Israel relations is sure to be controversial. But early and speedy action before Obama starts campaigning for reelection should produce results. And backing a durable peace would be the best way of supporting Israel in the end.

Ian Williams is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus. More of his work is available on www.deadlinepundit.blogspot.com.