PM Netanyahu and President Barack Obama meet in the White House last week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This is the season of the conventions. First the Republicans will convene in Cleveland and the following week the Democrats will meet in Philadelphia.
Each promises to be exciting. And the Middle East in general and Israel in particular will feature prominently in both US conventions.
When it comes to Israel, US administrations have a problem. Not just this administration. I’m talking past, present and, although we do not yet know who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January, the future administration, as well. The White House just does not understand Israel. For the White House, Israel is an enigma – and not just Israel. As everyone who monitors US foreign policy is painfully aware, American administrations don’t really grasp the reality of the Middle East.
Do not mistake an affinity toward Israel or being pro-Israel for an understanding of Israel and the Middle East. And don’t blame America for this lack of understanding – it’s a part of America’s DNA.
Americans have an innate optimism. They believe that their point of view is the prevailing point of view and they feel that they can convince anyone. And if that doesn’t work, bribery – military aid, monetary aid, UN votes – will. Americans are hardwired to fundamentally be fair and even-handed, they want to make certain that everything is equal, that the playing field is even.
Here is the biggest problem with this approach: when the playing field is even, it is your friends that suffer the most.
And that explains the motivating factor for the now infamous US-brokered Iranian nuclear deal. The US took Iran out of the proverbial diplomatic doghouse and transformed the most dangerous nation in the Middle East region into a nation equal to all other countries in the region. By doing that it threw out the special relationships the US had built not only with Israel, but also with Saudi Arabia.
This administration did with Iran exactly what many past administrations have been doing with the Palestinians. The US has and will always see the Palestinians as weaker than Israel. Part of the objective of any deal brokered by an outsider, especially the US, is make both parties equal – or at least more equal. But Israel and the Palestinians are not equal, and I am not speaking about human rights and civil rights. I am speaking about politics, about political systems and their player participants.
Israel is, as the world is constantly reminded, a democracy. The Palestinian Authority is not. The PA suspended elections. The last PA parliamentary election, which took place a full 11 years ago, placed Hamas in power and elected Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, as the Palestinian prime minister, a position he held for a total of four weeks.
Salam Fayyad, his replacement, hand picked by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, was extremely capable but hardly a prime minister. And yet, he held the position until his resignation six years later. Fayyad was never elected, he was an appointee, a US-trained economist who held the second most important position in the Palestinian world. And the US administration did not say a word, they let it go.
Abbas himself has postponed one election after another. His term ended in January 2009. There is actually a movement among regional Arab leadership, taking place right now, to oust Abbas, which was revealed in an op-ed in the Arabic Al Hayat, published in London and one of the most widely and devoutly read Arabic papers in the world.
American leadership has proven that, when it comes to the Middle East, the US does not understand the dramatic differences between the culture of government and the etiquette of democracy. And they do not comprehend the risks that Israel faces as a result of those differences.
Israelis want peace, not a facsimile of peace, not a partial peace. A sustainable peace. It’s what Israel wants with the Palestinians and what Israel wants in the region. And because US doesn’t understand that want, that need, they so misunderstood Israel’s opposition to the Iranian nuke deal.
Saying that they understood the risks Israel faces was condescending and diplomatic rhetoric. If it turns out that the US made a mistake with the deal, so be it. They will try to correct it, but they won’t be paying the price for that mistake. That distinction belongs to Israel.
The US deals in percentages. We hear it all the time: “This is the best chance,” “This is the last chance,” “This is the only chance.” Games of chance are for people who have resources to blow, and Israel cannot afford to leave anything to chance. When, during the Nixon administration, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said that Israel has a Masada complex he was referring to an obsession with past tragedies and survival. He was explaining why the first stop of official visitors to Israel is Yad Vashem. But even Kissinger didn’t get it.
It’s about lessons learned from the past. It’s about the building blocks of the Jewish nation. It’s about understanding why defense is so important.
In the greater scheme of things, whichever candidate wins the upcoming US election, the US misunderstanding will remain unchanged, because they need to be fair.The author is a political commentator. He hosts the TV show Thinking Out Loud. Follow him on twitter @micahalpern.com.