Analyze This: How local politics is playing with the peace tracks

Henry Kissinger once said "Israel has no foreign policy."

September 4, 2008 23:56
4 minute read.
Analyze This: How local politics is playing with the peace tracks

barak olmert 63. (photo credit: )


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Henry Kissinger's famous quote "Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy," is one of those catchy aphorisms repeated so many times over the years it's come to be accepted as the conventional wisdom. But the underlying thought is so banal it is difficult to accept that this throwaway remark would have ever garnered such attention if said of any other country. The foreign policies of all nations are deeply influenced by domestic political concerns; if anything, one could make the case that several of Israel's biggest diplomatic decisions - especially such peace moves as the Camp David Agreement and the Oslo Accords - were made despite the fact they carried with them considerable political risks for the Begin and Rabin governments that carried them out. There are, though, periods when domestic politics have a more direct and immediate impact on foreign policy process and decision-making. It's worth remembering the specific context within which Kissinger made the statement; during the frenzied period of "shuttle diplomacy" following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he was trying to convince Israel to withdraw from territory conquered in its fierce defensive struggle with the Egyptians and Syrians. During this same time, Golda Meir's Labor government was reeling in the face of widespread public protests over the conduct of that war, and outrage over the Agranat Commission report that seemed to many a whitewash of the political establishment's role in its failures. Kissinger thus had to contend not only with the difficulties of bridging Jerusalem's differences with Cairo and Damascus and the intense domestic opposition in Israel to any quick concessions to the latter two, but the fact that in the midst of all his shuttling Israel was transitioning from Meir's crumbling government to that of her successor, Yitzhak Rabin. As it happens, Israel is now in a similar transitional period, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to resign sometime following the selection of his successor as Kadima leader later this month, and his government in the midst of negotiations with the Palestinians and Syrians. This week it was Syrian President Bashar Assad, son of the ruler who sat opposite Kissinger in Damascus during those days, who is now blaming domestic Israeli politics for delaying the latest round of talks between his nation and Israel, and an expected response from Jerusalem to the latest proposals from his regime. Assad's comments on this matter to the media in Damascus this week were surprisingly forthcoming, given the generally circumspect Syrian attitude to peace talks with Israel. While the Syrian dictator, in contrast to his Israeli counterparts, might not have comparable domestic political concerns to worry about, he does have geo-political interests to take into account. In this case, the presence in Damascus of French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, two key figures in Assad's efforts to re-ingratiate himself with the West, were certainly a factor in his choosing to publicly credit Israel's domestic politics as being responsible for slowing down the pace of the peace negotiations. But just because it happens to be diplomatically convenient for Assad to make this claim, doesn't mean there's no truth to it. At the very least, Olmert's distraction by the Kadima succession struggle, and the departure from government of such key personnel as his chief of staff and key Syrian negotiator Yoram Turbowicz, virtually guarantees that any key decisions on the Syrians will have to be put off until the political picture in Jerusalem becomes clearer. That shouldn't necessarily be the case, though, with the Palestinian negotiations. Unlike the Syrian talks, they are not being conducted exclusively through the Prime Minister's Office. While Olmert's most likely successor at this point, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has openly expressed skepticism about the way the Syrian track has been conducted, she's been deeply involved in the Palestinian deliberations. This should make it more likely that these negotiations could be carried forward more seamlessly if she does assume the premiership in the coming weeks. Not necessarily, though; as Ariel Sharon once noted, "The view from here" - the prime minister's perch - "is not the view from there," ie., everywhere else, including every other cabinet seat. As party leader and PM, Livni would have a whole new level of political concerns to worry about, including forging a new coalition, possibly with parties opposed to some of the positions already floated regarding a final-status deal with the Palestinians. Arguably, some of those domestic considerations have already impacted on Livni as she vies for Kadima's crown. She has, for example, insisted that all of the government's positions and proposals in these talks remain strictly confined to the negotiating room, arguing that to do otherwise might spur the Palestinians to up their own ante. It's certainly convenient that such a stance also serves her well in the Kadima race, denying her rivals ammunition in the form of politically problematic concessions that Livni or her fellow negotiators might have already raised in their discussions with the Palestinians. Inconvenient or not, the impact of domestic concerns on even the most sensitive and crucial geo-political processes is an indispensable feature of any democracy - now matter how irritating it may have been to a superpower diplomat such as Henry Kissinger who viewed Israeli largely as yet another piece in his realpolitik chessboard, or a tyrant such as Bashar Assad whose own notion of governmental transition is likely limited to a ruler suffering death in office, natural or otherwise. It's also worth recalling that despite Kissinger's famous complaint, it was newly chosen prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who faced down considerable local opposition to continue the peace negotiations with Egypt and Syria and sign further controversial disengagement agreements with them. That's a useful reminder that an equally famous dictum by another US politician, former speaker of the house Tip O'Neill - "All politics is local" - is sometimes far from the last word when it comes to public policy, even in this country.

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