By Barry Rubin
March 01, 2009
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Israel on the first of what will no doubt be many visits. Beyond the simple self-interest of making her feel appreciated, most Israelis are genuinely glad that she was appointed to this job. The reason why is critical to understanding the future of U.S. Middle East Policy and U.S.-Israel relations.
What is most important is that Clinton is regarded as a realist. She watched her husband try really hard and put his prestige on the line in attempting to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace and saw him being made to look foolish by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Syrian ruler Hafiz al-Asad who rejected his proposals. During the presidential campaign she courageously—and to her own cost—tried to explain the dangers to those dreaming only of a fast getaway from Iraq.
Moreover, it’s not just that she spoke positively about Israel—a senator from New York could do no less—but that the way she explained her positions seemed to indicate she really understood the situation.
All things considered, then, one can believe the secretary of state doesn’t accept four myths that some—though not all--of her colleagues in Washington and Europe embrace. She seems to know that:
--The Israel-Palestinian conflict is not the fulcrum of the Middle East whose solution will make Islamism, terrorism, Iran’s nuclear weapons’ program, anti-Western or anti-American sentiments, Iraq’s instability, and all other regional problems disappear.
--The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not easily solvable by pressure, the perfect plan, or hard work. Not only is peace not at hand, it isn’t even at arms’ length.
--Whatever part of the blame for continued conflict is due to Israel, a very large and decisive portion rests on the Palestinian side for reasons including the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and its leadership, the division into Hamas and Fatah regimes, and other issues.
--Bringing Hamas into the negotiating process is a mistake that would doom any chance for peace and might even bring the Palestinian Authority (PA) crashing down altogether. U.S. interests require that the PA survives as recognized Palestinian leader, while Hamas is an Iranian client whose triumph would hurt the U.S. strategic position in the region.
Secretary of State Clinton also knows that the new Israeli government is not yet in place and her first visit must be dedicated to getting acquainted with leaders and issues.
What are the problems for bilateral relations? A critical aspect is that no matter how skeptical Clinton is of the chances for progress, she wants to make it appear that she is actively engaged and making progress. The thing that will make her furious is that which makes her look bad. And she wants Israel to make her look good.
On some items, this is no problem. A high level of cooperation with the PA, supporting funds and military training for it within reason, is in Israel’s interest. The West Bank economic and security situation is improving. Here, Clinton and Israel should agree.
Her next goal is a bit more difficult but reasonable: that Israel should dismantle more settler outposts, as Israel has promised. True, this presents political difficulties and potential confrontations with settlers, yet Israel’s government should assert its authority. A serious effort on this front would bring a positive return from Washington with no cost to Israel’s security.
Beyond this, the United States is likely to ask for Israel to stop expanding settlements, even for natural growth. Since the peace process’s start 16 years ago Israel has publicly asserted that building homes for "natural growth," new adults on existing settlements, is part of the Oslo agreement.
If this were to change, Clinton could claim a victory of stopping settlements, usually portrayed by the PA as its main grievance, that is, excuse for not doing more itself. Such a concession should not be unthinkable but the question is what would Israel get in exchange? U.S. pressuring the PA to stop officially inspired anti-Israel incitement; changing its schools and media to advocate a two-state solution; greater U.S. backing for Israel’s security regarding Gaza? Asking Israel to do something on the settlement issue is all right if—but only if--there is more real compliance from the Palestinian side.
Finally and importantly there is the question of Gaza. Clinton wants some quick success on that front, namely a ceasefire and resolution of humanitarian problems there. It will be tempting for her to insist that Israel reopens crossings unconditionally, without a real ceasefire or any release of Hamas’s Israeli hostage. And Israel will explain why it has legitimate concerns which must be realized, lest a new war crisis emerge.
Of course, the two governments must begin to reach understandings about Iran. The new administration is determined to try engaging Tehran. Israel must convey the point that Washington should be alert to Iranian efforts to bully or fool the new president. The goal of stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons’ drive has to be the top priority; unilateral concessions in exchange for nothing should be avoided.
And the White House will hopefully not be shy in admitting when it finally concludes that Iran doesn’t want to be friends. President Barack Obama has spoken of opening Iran’s clenched fist. The danger is that Iran will do so only in order to slap America silly.
Early on this administration must comprehend that reputations will not be built, Nobel Peace Prizes won, or Arab and European cooperation won by sacrificing Israel’s vital interests. In exchange, Clinton must see that Israel wants to make her look successful and to cooperate on reasonable terms. On such a basis of understanding and good will a very successful partnership can be built.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal . His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Truth About Syria.
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