Lecturing us on security, as the rockets fly in

The White House’s Middle East coordinator gave a risible speech Tuesday, asserting that the US knows how to keep Israel safe, at a conference that was halted by a Hamas attack

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Philip Gordon, White House coordinator for the Middle East, speaks at the Israel Conference on Peace in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2014 (photo credit: screen shot
Philip Gordon, White House coordinator for the Middle East, speaks at the Israel Conference on Peace in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2014 (photo credit: screen shot

Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. On Tuesday, at a conference organized by the Haaretz daily in Tel Aviv, the White House’s Coordinator for the Middle East, Philip Gordon, delivered an address that dealt at some length with the US effort to both broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and draw up the security arrangements that would leave Israel feeling safe enough to carry out significant territorial withdrawals.

Gordon made lots of valid points about Israel’s essential interests requiring an accommodation with the Palestinians. But parts of his oration read as though Gordon is a recent arrival from Planet Zog who has mistaken the Middle East for Finland.

You can read the entire address here, but the first passage I want to highlight is one of the questions Gordon puts to us Israelis — as a representative of “Israel’s closest friend” — when he wonders, “how will [Israel] have peace if it is unwilling to delineate a border, end the occupation and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security, and dignity?” The answer, of course, is that we won’t. Unfortunately, as things stand, however, we won’t have peace, either, if we do “end the occupation and allow for Palestinian sovereignty, security, and dignity.”

You’d think this sad truth might have permeated the administration’s mindset by now, as it surveys the dismal, terror-riven Middle East, and contemplates the abject collapse of its policies in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the rest of the area. But no, Gordon goes on to explain that America will always have our back, and sets out his conviction, undimmed by grisly Middle Eastern reality, that it can help provide us with the security we need against those who would wipe us out. “We know that many Israelis fear withdrawal from the West Bank due to the experience in Gaza, from which rockets continue to strike Israel, notwithstanding the full withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements,” he offers magnanimously. “But it is precisely this outcome that we are determined to ensure is never repeated. That is why President Obama, supported by Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel, asked General John Allen to lead a Security Dialogue with the Israel Defense Forces regarding Israel’s security in a two-state context. General Allen, a recently retired four-star Marine Corps general, is one of the sharpest military minds in the United States. He has worked closely with Israeli counterparts for years. There is no American better suited for this job.”

And how is this supremely suited officer going to keep us safe in the spectacularly unstable Middle East? “For over a year now, General Allen has coordinated closely with his Israeli counterparts in the IDF to fully understand Israel’s security challenges from Israel’s perspective in a two-state context. He and his team have developed a broad series of approaches to security that address, but are certainly not limited to, the Jordan River Valley. We believe these approaches can make Israel more secure than it is today, and are consistent with the sovereignty of a future Palestinian state.”

Unfortunately, Gordon can’t give us all the specifics — “the details of this work remain classified.” But he is at liberty “to make clear that General Allen and his IDF counterparts are taking into account a range of contingencies, including the rising threats we see around the Middle East today…” And “the bottom line is that, based on this Security Dialogue, we are confident that, together with Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, we can create a comprehensive approach to security, proven through operational testing, to meet the highest standards anywhere in the world.”

Why does Gordon’s championing of these security arrangements — presented as a veritable panacea that we foolish Israelis have pigheadedly spurned — sound so particularly risible? Because he was speaking soon after the very conference he was addressing in the David Intercontinental Hotel had been forced to shut down temporarily, its participants evacuated to a safer floor of the hotel.

And why was that? Because Tel Aviv was being targeted by rocket fire, and the sirens were wailing to warn of incoming warheads.

And where were the rockets being fired from? Oh, that would be the Gaza Strip, controlled by an organization called Hamas, on whose support the Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas rests. That’s the unity government, sworn in early last month, that the US administration immediately announced it would work with because, as Kerry explained, Abbas had “made clear that this new technocratic government is committed to the principles of nonviolence, negotiations, recognizing the state of Israel, acceptance of the previous agreements and the Quartet principles.”

Of course it is.

An Iron Dome Missile Battery near Tel Aviv, on the first day of Operation Protective Edge, July 8, 2014. (Photo by Flash90)
An Iron Dome Missile Battery near Tel Aviv, on the first day of Operation Protective Edge, July 8, 2014. (Photo by Flash90)

Just to avoid any misunderstandings about where I’m coming from: Yes, Israel needs an accommodation with the Palestinians. Yes, we must retain a Jewish, democratic Israel. Yes, ruling the lives of another people is bad for them and lousy for us.

Fixing the conflict, however, will not be advanced by our “closest friend” repeatedly berating us for our perceived self-destructive idiocy. Gordon is the latest, minor culprit. It is the president who is principally to blame, including in interviews such as this one — which, incidentally, was not followed by a similar interview querying Abbas’s policies when the PA leader visited Washington soon after. Peace does not solely depend on our willingness to end the occupation and give the Palestinians sovereignty, security and dignity. It also requires a Palestinian leadership and a Palestinian public truly committed to Israel’s ongoing sovereignty, security and dignity.

Our closest friend doesn’t help us, or the Palestinians, or its regional interests, by pretending that a government whose ministers were subject to Hamas approval is not compromised by that association. It doesn’t help by heaping disproportionate blame on Israel for failures in the peace process, heightening the Palestinian sense of grievance, reducing the likelihood of Palestinian compromise, and legitimizing the assaults on Israel’s very existence by those who are not our closest friends. And it doesn’t help by failing to acknowledge that it hasn’t got a clue as to how to protect its own interests from “a range of contingencies, including the rising threats we see around the Middle East today,” much less protect our interests.

Gordon delivered his speech after the Iron Dome missile defense system kept him safe from Hamas’s rockets, launched by an organization which his administration has implicitly legitimized as an acceptable backer of the Palestinian government. The US, to its great credit, has funded Iron Dome’s development. But the security innovations behind its life-savingly effective performance are Israeli.

There’s a lesson in there which Gordon and the rest of the Obama administration should have long since internalized. It’s that our closest friend should be just a little less arrogant in telling us what we need and don’t need to do in order to keep ourselves safe.

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