Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, July 27, 2012

Must peacemakers love Israel?

Aaron David Miller, a respected State Dept. Middle East veteran recently wrote a column for Real Clear Politics in which he predicted a tumultuous second term for the Israel-U.S. relationship if Obama is reelected. He referred back to another column, this time for the LA Times in which he noted that Obama had an emotionless relationship with the Jewish state. 

But is a close emotional tie with Israel necessarily beneficial for a president who wants to play mediator? Let's examine the historical record of presidents since Nixon became involved in the Mideast peacemaking business (or is a racket?) in 1969.
Nixon was no friend of American Jews and could actually be said to be an anti-semite, although not a very virulent one. But he valued Israel as a good counter to the Soviet Union in the Middle East. He allowed his secretary of state, William Rogers, to play at mediating as long as  it didn't get too serious. During the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 he rushed weapons to Israel both to counter Soviet weapons deliveries to Egypt and Syria and to prevent Israel from losing the war due to a lack of weapons. After the war he allowed his new secretary of state, Kissinger, visit the region to mediate separation-of-forces agreements between Israel on one hand and Egypt and Syria on the other. In June 1974 on a visit to Syria he indicated to President Assad that he was in favor of Israel eventually returning to the 1949 armistice lines in exchange for peace.

President Ford basically subcontracted his Middle East policy and all of his foreign policy to Henry Kissinger who continued with his shuttle diplomacy through 1975. Ford was a friend of Israel in the House, but didn't let that interfere with his supervision of Kissinger's Middle East policy.

Jimmy Carter as a candidate claimed a love of Israel and that if he were the Israeli prime minister he wouldn't give up the Golan. As a president he attempted to arrange an international peace conference for a comprehensive solution to the Middle East. When Sadat responded by flying to Israel (or at least Jerusalem as the U.S. doesn't officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital), Carter adjusted his goals and aimed at a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. He achieved this by looking unemotionally at one each side really needed from the process and what each could afford to give.  Later he got into a number of spats with Menahem Begin over settlements.

Until Clinton, Ronald Reagan was Israel's favorite president and still is for those on the Right in both Israel and the United States. His only real demand on Israel was for Israel to stop shelling Beirut in September 1982. Secretary of State George Shultz did negotiate a peace treaty between Jerusalem and Beirut in May 1983, but then Syria vetoed it. Reagan announced his own peace plan in 1082 but never really pushed it. 

George H.W. Bush, aka Bush 41 or Bush sr. also had an unemotional approach to Israel. A former oil man whose closest Middle East relations were with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Bush came to Kuwait's aid after Saddam Hussein invaded it in August 1990. He requested that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir refrain from retaliatory strikes against Iraq during the Gulf War. Shamir complied out of a calculus of Israel's national interest. Secretary of State Jim Baker then attempted to mediate a peace process. Baker squeezed Shamir hard to get him to attend the Madrid peace conference in October 1991. Shamir didn't want peace. The Madrid conference resulted in the Washington talks that helped launch the Oslo process in 1993.

Clinton had a warm relationship with both Yitzhak Rabin, whom he looked upon as sort of a father figure, and Yasir Arafat. To engage in amateur psychological analysis Rabin was Clinton's ideal self, where as Arafat was closer to Clinton's actual self. Clinton, partly due to circumstances and partly due to clumsy planning, made his biggest push for peace during his final six months in office. He sided with Rabin's protege, Ehud Barak, and ganged up against Yasir Arafat. He was willing to put pressure on only one side. He did not achieve peace. 

George W. Bush aka Bush 43 or Bush jr. was a Reagan clone when it came to Israel. He made a trip to Israel when he was still governor of Texas and established close ties with Ariel Sharon who served as his host on a security tour. In office W. had the closest tie with Sharon of any between an American president and an Israeli prime minister and the closest relationship of a president with any foreign leader since FDR and Churchill. Bush went through the motions of making peace in 2003 with the Roadmap Plan mostly in order to appease Prime Minister Tony Blair. But because he mistrusted Arafat--with good reason--he never really pushed it. He then, like Clinton, waited until his final year in office to seriously work for peace and subcontracted that to Secretary of State Condi Rice.

Miller actually wrote a good book about Middle East peacemaking, The Much Too Promised Land. The heroes of the book were Kissinger, Carter, and Baker. He admired Kissinger's skill as a mediator, Carter's drive and perseverance, and Baker's ruthless use of power. He was quite critical of Clinton's performance as president. So I'm now surprised to see Miller questioning Obama's emotional connection to Israel. Such a connection is if anything a burden not an asset in peacemaking. But then Miller the author was an analyst. Miller the columnist is a journalist looking to attract an audience.

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