Can Israel rely on the US?

An address delivered earlier this month at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

May 23, 2013 14:01
Netanyahu and Obama shake hands

Netanyahu and Obama shake hands 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In November 1947, 10 years before I was born, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favor of the creation of the State of Israel. Tens of thousands of Jews took to the streets in spontaneous celebration, overwhelmed with joy.

Not everyone took part in this outpouring of bliss. My mother, then 22, was one of the daring fighters in the underground movement who opposed the British rule.Yet, on the eve of the renewal of Jewish sovereignty in our ancient homeland, she wrote this in her autobiography: “From a rooftop in downtown Tel Aviv, I watched the crowd with an empty heart. The United Nations approved a Jewish state without Jerusalem, without Hebron and Bethlehem, without Judea and Samaria... I could not share in the joy of the crowds below... I felt only the infinite grief of a slaughtered dream....”

In historical perspective, those who celebrated were justified. My mother – and others – would have preferred to wait until their vision of Greater Israel could be fully attained. They did not appreciate the advantage of realpolitik over lofty dreams. Leaders must come to terms with imperfect realities. Years may pass before the wisdom and foresight of their decisions become apparent.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, chose to accept the UN’s resolution, and paved the way for a Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile. Menachem Begin showed the same courage when he accepted Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic initiative for peace, even though it called for painful compromise.

These two leaders represent a strong argument for political pragmatism.

Our history, however, has also proved that such pragmatism can be ill founded. The consequences of the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and from the Gaza Strip in 2005, illustrate this. Hezbollah turned South Lebanon into a fundamentalist Iranian proxy.

Hamas turned Gaza into a terrorist launching pad, from which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at innocent civilians.

Hopeful pragmatism versus sober conviction – these are the dilemmas facing Israel’s leadership today: How can we be sure that our absolute commitment to security does not become the barrier to peace? How can we guarantee that our willingness to break through existing barriers is not misunderstood and exploited? What are the most critical issues, those on which we cannot afford to compromise, because the price would be unbearable? Israel has been dealing with such questions since its birth. In light of the current regional upheaval, they are now more demanding than ever before.

SINCE MARCH 2011, Syria has been caught in chaos and anarchy. The civil war has claimed the lives of over 70,000 people. Hundreds of thousands have become refugees.

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, where regimes fell relatively rapidly, Syria’s inner struggle has yet to be decided. The country is falling apart, and the Islamic forces that are flowing into Syria to battle the regime have made it a jihad arena.

Obviously, I am not going to discuss who was responsible for the recent strike in Syria. But I do want to say something about the reasons speculated upon by the media for why Israel might have been responsible.

The theories that Israel attempted to intervene in favor of the rebels, or to send the US the message that “if you don’t act, we will” are in my opinion absolutely untrue.

Israel has no interest in becoming embroiled in the internal struggle, nor would it use such means to encourage an ally to do so. If it were true that Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria, its only purpose would be to prevent the delivery of advanced, “game changing” weapons into the hands of terrorist organizations.

It is safe to assume that as Assad’s chances of survival diminish, Hezbollah will increase its efforts to take control of strategic arms, including unconventional weapons and advanced Iranian missiles. While these consequences pose security risks, on the strategic level the downfall of the Syrian regime will deliver a severe blow to Iran and its proxies.

In the short term, the fragile status quo of the last few years will be shaken. In the long run, Syria’s removal from Iran’s orbit will greatly increase the chances for true stability in the Middle East.

There currently seems to be no internal force in Syria capable of ending the inhuman massacre. Therefore, the importance of dialogue and cooperation between the regional countries, Israel, the US and Europe is all the more vital.

IN THE Palestinian arena, we need to restart the constructive dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, after long years of standstill. The impasse has had many causes: The gap between the parties’ positions still remains deep even after two decades of diplomacy.

The division among Palestinians, following the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, has led Israelis to doubt Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s (Abu Mazen’s) relevance as a reliable partner.

Confidence in Abu Mazen has been further eroded by three developments: (1) the fact that Israel’s initiative to freeze construction in the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria for 10 months did not bring about a change in the Palestinians preconditions; (2) the “reconciliation agreement” signed two years ago in Cairo between the PA and Hamas; and (3) the unilateral initiative by the Palestinians, last November, to be accepted as a nonmember observer state in the UN.

Despite these difficulties, I believe the conditions are ripe for a new attempt at breaking the deadlock.

The make-up of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government signifies a more moderate approach than the previous one. President Barack Obama has entrusted Secretary of State John Kerry with bridging the gap between the parties, and he has already demonstrated an ambitious and serious approach.

The main reason for my careful optimism is that the two-state solution is widely accepted among both Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu publicly supports this idea, while also emphasizing the necessary conditions for this vision to be viable.

These conditions are not easy for the Palestinians to accept: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; the end of the conflict, and of all mutual claims; strict security principles, including a demilitarized Palestinian state; renunciation of the Palestinian demand for the return of refugees into the State of Israel; and the preservation of large Israeli settlement blocs as part of a land swap agreement.

I should emphasize that these are conditions for a viable agreement, not preconditions for negotiation.

While the task is daunting, both sides are keenly aware that time is not in their favor. Many Israelis understand that a lack of progress in the peace process might lend legitimacy to the one-state idea, which contradicts the vision of a Jewish democratic state.

Many Palestinians now realize that their successful maneuver in the UN has limited value. Their independence can be achieved only on the basis of direct negotiations with Israel, which will lead to a historic compromise that both sides can live with.

My view is that the government of Israel needs to do all it can to help the American effort to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

There are unacceptable Palestinian preconditions, whose purpose is to determine the outcome of the negotiations before they have begun. But there are also confidence- building measures that Israel can implement to enable Secretary Kerry’s success. It will be, after all, not only his success: millions of Israelis and Palestinians are hoping for it. We must give it a chance.

AND FINALLY, Iran. In the past, there have been doubts as to the character and goal of the Iranian nuclear program.

Perhaps the only positive development since this crisis began is that the differences in intelligence assessments have largely been ironed out. Today all the leaders of the free world recognize that Iran’s goal is to acquire a military nuclear capability, and that this goal is close at hand.

We must admit that we are nearing the moment when the major players will have to make difficult decisions.

The need to decide looms, first and foremost, over Iran’s leadership.

Other major decisions will be derived primarily from theirs. Some analysts believe that the identity of Iran’s next president could influence its policy. I think that this is a naïve expectation.

In Iran, strategy is determined by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and he is not going anywhere on June 14. Khamenei has had many opportunities to reach a reasonable settlement. Innumerable meetings, rounds of talks, back-channel negotiations, initiatives and mediation efforts have come and gone.

During the past two years the international community, led by President Obama, has managed to unite around the strongest set of sanctions yet. All the organizations that monitor these developments are in agreement: the sanctions have had a profound effect on the Iranian economy. Unfortunately, there is no sign at all that these economic hardships are being translated into policy shifts.

The only time Iran has ever halted its determined effort for the bomb was in 2003, when Iranian leaders feared they would become the third target in the US’s War on Terrorism, following Afghanistan and Iraq. It is therefore clear that a credible military threat could have a real influence on Iranian policy.

So, if sanctions and diplomatic efforts continue to prove ineffective, and the only options left on the table are containment, or the use of force – should Israel place its fate in the hands of the US? Can Israel be assured that its closest ally will act, in due time, to remove the nuclear threat? My answer is no.

Such assurance can be given by no president, and can be demanded by no prime minister. Israel does not, and should not, expect such a commitment. Israel’s bond with the US is unbreakable, and the threat posed to our nations by a nuclear Iran is mutual – but at the end of the day we are each beholden to our own national security policies and priorities.

Just as no president can commit to military action unconditional of his own nation’s best interest – so can no prime minister forsake his country’s inherent right for self defense.

President Obama, during his recent visit to Israel, reiterated that Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threat. And all of us in Israel thank the president and appreciate this message of support. ■

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