Mere hours after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a government backed by the Islamic extremist Hamas group, the US State Department legitimized the arrangement, declaring that it would work with the new government because it “does not include members affiliated with Hamas.”
What was saddest about Washington’s insistence on accepting Abbas’s paper-thin veneer over his government’s new nature — his “technocrat” ministers were all approved by Hamas — is that it represents only the Obama administration’s latest abrogation of leadership, logic and leverage at Israel’s expense. Rather than rushing to embrace a Palestinian government in which an unreformed Hamas is a central component, what was to stop the US conditioning its acceptance on a reform of Hamas? What was to stop Washington saying that it would be happy to work with Abbas’s new government, the moment its Hamas backers recognized Israel, accepted previous agreements and renounced terrorism? Not a particularly high bar. What was to stop the US making such a demand, one of tremendous importance to its ally Israel? Only its incomprehensible reluctance to do.
Unfortunately, however, such lapses and failures are not the exception when it comes to the US-Israel alliance of late. This administration has worked closely with Israel in ensuring the Jewish state maintains its vital military advantage in this treacherous neighborhood, partnering Israel in offensive and defensive initiatives, notably including missile defense. It has stood by Israel at diplomatic moments of truth. It has broadly demonstrated its friendship, as would be expected given America’s interest in promoting the well-being of the region’s sole, stable, dependable democracy. But the dash to recognize the Fatah-Hamas government was one more in a series of aberrations — words and deeds that would have been far better left unsaid or undone, misconceived strategies, minor betrayals.
1. So, yes, where Hamas is concerned, you’d think that an ally would not legitimize, as part of the Palestinian government, an organization bent on the destruction of Israel, an organization declaredly refusing to change that goal, an organization with a proven, mass-murdering track-record.
2. Going back to the start of the latest failed peace effort, you’d think an ally would listen to the advice of well-meaning experts warning that attempting to do the same thing that failed in the past in the belief that it will turn out differently — in this case, strong-arming two hostile, untrusting parties into an acutely sensitive and complex agreement in a very short period — is the definition of insanity. Rather than setting an impossible nine-month timeframe for negotiating a permanent accord, when all reasonable evidence and past experience showed that this would fail, it would have been better for the US and its international allies to start working systematically, investing time, money and leverage in, among other spheres, education and media, in order to create a climate conducive to progress. Peacemaking is going to require a gradual process, grass-roots change; there is no quick fix. Every credible, peace-supporting voice on the ground here told the Americans exactly this before they set out. And was ignored. And now we all have to brace for the dangerous consequences of the all-too-predictable failure.
3. While we’re talking about producing a more conducive climate, you’d think an ally would use its regional clout and leverage to work with partners in the region to rehouse Palestinian refugees, first of all in Gaza, where there is no Israeli military or civilian presence and no reason for the festering wound to be artificially maintained. This is humanitarian work of the highest order, to which no organization or individual genuinely committed to the well-being of the Palestinian people could object. It would be opposed only by those whose ostensible sympathy for the Palestinian plight is outweighed by their hostility to Israel.
4. You’d think an ally would have made plain to the Palestinians that their demand, as a precondition for renewing peace talks, that Israel set free terrorists who have killed large numbers of its innocent citizens was outrageous and unacceptable, certainly at the outset of negotiations. Perhaps such prisoner releases might have some justification as the concluding act of a successful process. By contrast, freezing the expansion of settlements in areas that Israel does not envisage retaining under a permanent accord is a win-win — beginning the needed process of spelling out to Israelis, to the region and to the international community Israel’s vital territorial red lines. But this, the Americans did not demand. In short, a smart and firm ally would have rejected Abbas’s demand for killers to go free rather than pressing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept it, and insisted on at least a partial settlement freeze. Think you need to save us from ourselves? That’s the place to start.
5. Elaborating, you’d think an ally would want to distinguish between isolated settlements in the heart of Palestinian territory and Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem. By lumping all “settlements” together, and relentlessly criticizing all building, you alienate the Israeli middle ground, which supports the retention of Jewish neighborhoods built over the pre-1967 lines in Jerusalem, on the one hand, and would relinquish most West Bank settlements in the cause of a viable peace treaty, on the other. So the lack of subtlety and nuance on the settlement issue winds up complicating America’s own efforts to broker progress.
6. Trapped in the inevitable deadlock, with that nine-month deadline fast approaching, you would think that an allied president would eschew giving an interview to the American media essentially accusing the prime minister of leading Israel to disaster at the very hour that said prime minister was on his way to a meeting at the White House. For one thing, such withering public comments are hardly likely to bolster the prime minister’s faith in the president’s judgment and solidarity — and thus are likely to undermine efforts to build his trust. For another, it’s downright rude.
7. And when it all went conclusively pear-shaped, you’d think an ally would respect its own rules about not leaking the content of the negotiations. Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly urged the two sides to keep the content of their talks confidential, yet it was his own special envoy, Martin Indyk, reportedly, who gave a lengthy briefing to Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, a respected columnist but one who is hardly empathetic to Netanyahu, which yielded an article that unsurprisingly placed overwhelming and at least somewhat unwarranted and distorted blame for the collapse of the process on the prime minister.
8. You’d think an ally would man up about its own dismal role in the frictions and misunderstandings that doomed the talks at the end of March. “The prisoners were not released by Israel on the day they were supposed to be released, and then another day passed and another day, and then 700 units were approved in Jerusalem and then poof — that was sort of the moment,” Kerry told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in early April, by way of explanation for the impasse. Actually, “the prisoners were not released on the day they were supposed to be released” because Israel opposed freeing Arab Israeli convicts, whose fate it reasonably considered not to be any of the Palestinian Authority’s business. That issue only became problematic because Kerry had earlier misled the Palestinians into thinking that Israel was prepared to set them free. Furthermore, the announcement of the reissuing of an old tender to build 700 homes in Gilo was not a critical factor in the collapse — “poof” — of the talks.
9. No matter how frustrated or defensive Kerry might have been feeling, you’d think a friend of Israel would know better than to lob the toxic term “apartheid” into the public debate over Israel’s future. Israel’s embattled democracy provides equal rights for its 25 percent non-Jewish minority, who enjoy freedom of religion, assembly and press. Arabic is an official language in this country. An Israeli Arab judge sent our president to jail. That’s only part of the story, of course: Ruling another people is already deeply corrosive; if we cannot separate from the Palestinians, if we annex the West Bank, still graver dangers await. Warning Israel privately of the threats posed to our democracy is the duty of a concerned friend. But publicly invoking the spectacularly loaded term “apartheid” in critiquing Israel is the lowest of blows — a gift to enemies who can be counted on to seize upon such comments to distort Israel’s reality and delegtimize its very existence.
10. Further afield, you’d think an ally would maintain an empathetic silence rather than repeatedly tell the world that Israel has struck weapons shipments in Syria en route to Hezbollah. This when Israel was deliberately avoiding acknowledging responsibility for such actions because of concern that President Bashar Assad would be provoked into counterattacks at Israel.
11. To the south, you’d think an ally would avoid rushing to support Islamic extremists (see a pattern here?) when they come to power in a neighboring state. The fact that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty survived the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief period of misrule in Cairo is a critical and inadequately appreciated success, achieved despite Washington’s foolish embrace of the short-lived Morsi government.
12. And finally, you’d think a powerful ally would insist that a state that calls for, and works toward, the destruction of Israel be denied the capacity to achieve that goal. There is simply no justification for allowing Tehran a uranium enrichment capability. It lied to the international community about its nuclear program. It built secret facilities to advance towards the bomb. It has no “right” to enrichment. It can receive nuclear fuel, like well over a dozen nations worldwide, from legitimate nuclear powers for its ostensibly peaceful nuclear program. The central goal of US policy in this regard should not be merely denying Iran nuclear weapons but denying Iran the capacity to build nuclear weapons. Iran can be relied upon to abuse any leniency in this regard, with immense consequent threat to Israel and others in the region. The Obama administration’s curious disinclination to use its economic leverage to achieve a deal that dismantles Iran’s nuclear program leaves Israel in real danger, undermines the security of other US interests in the region, and risks sparking a Middle East nuclear arms race — the very opposite of the president’s cherished vision of eventual nuclear disarmament.
You might think the above list is the least that Israel might reasonably expect from the US administration. But no. The peace process has collapsed and Israel is getting a disproportionate amount of the blame. Hamas, committed under its own charter to the obliteration of Israel, is now part of an internationally recognized Palestinian government. And the P5+1 nations, led by the US, are working toward a deal that will enshrine Iran’s uranium enrichment capabilities. Israel may not be a perfect ally, but we deserve better than this.