I received a note today reacting to a set of Congressional letters reaffirming US-Israel relations from Sama Adnan, executive director of the new political action committee advocating for Palestinian interests, NewPolicy.org.
He notes that 24 US Senators and 102 House Members did not sign on to the AIPAC-supported letters to Secretary of State Clinton reaffirming the close bonds between Israel and the US and encouraging the Obama administration to move past the current discomfort. (pdf text of Senate letter; pdf text of House letter)
Interestingly, the percentage of holdouts in both chambers of Congress is about 24%. I have no idea why the proportions would be similar, but this perhaps trivial fact jumps out.
These relative support/don’t support levels also indicate that AIPAC‘s sway in Congress and the general grooves of the US-Israel relationship are very solid despite the current controversies. But at the same time, given other AIPAC letters I have seen work through Capitol Hill, one could argue that this is not near their best in terms of recruitment letters.
That said, I don’t think AIPAC’s powerful operation is getting wobbly, and I found the letter itself constructively nuanced in many places and more cautious than other recent statements that AIPAC has released (admittedly, this is a Congressional letter and not an AIPAC release).
I have respect for what AIPAC has done in Washington as this city is essentially a free-trade zone for people and interest groups pursuing their policy goals in competition with one another. AIPAC has done a great job of doing that, and I work to maintain good and constructive relations with AIPAC as well as with J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, the American Jewish Committee and others. I want to put that truth in advertising item out there as I think through this interesting Congressional statement.
So, what of the letter itself?
So, without being knee-jerk pro or con on the AIPAC Congressional letter to Hillary Clinton, I decided to annotate it with my own views.
The letter follows below — as do my comments which have been italicized.
Dear Secretary Clinton:
We are writing to reaffirm our commitment to the unbreakable bond that exists between our country and the State of Israel and to express to you our deep concern over recent tension.
An “unbreakable bond” is flourish here, and not part of the gravity of this world. All bonds are breakable. All relationships have conditions. It is not helpful for legislators in the U.S. to further a fiction that the relationship between the US and Israel is not sensitive to the negative and positive realities in that relationship. Former Senate Majority Leader and US Ambassador to Mike Mansfield was famous for saying that the US-Japan relationship was the most important relationship in the world, “bar none.” Mansfield’s edict was also more pomp than real, though there were elements of truth to it — just as I believe the US-Israel relationship is a vital one of great strategic and domestic political importance to the U.S. But the relationship requires good stewardship on both sides.
In every important relationship, there will be occasional misunderstandings and conflicts. The announcement during Vice President Biden’s visit was, as Israel’s Prime Minister said in an apology to the United States, “a regrettable incident that was done in all innocence and was hurtful, and which certainly should not have occurred.” We are reassured that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to put in place new procedures will ensure that such surprises, however unintended, will not recur.
The Israeli government may in fact implement new procedures so that embarrassing expansion of controversial, and many believe illegal, settlements does not occur at important political moments, but what is important to remember is not what was happening in broad public daylight in terms of Vice President Biden getting mugged, purposefully or inadvertently, on his trip — what was important is that US-Israel relations were historically icy behind the scenes. Israel’s leadership has as much if not more responsibility for the paralyzed peace process and the very bad relations with the White House than anyone in Washington. It is important to keep that in mind.
The United States and Israel are close allies whose people share a deep and abiding friendship based on a shared commitment to core values including democracy, human rights and freedom of the press and religion.
This is true, and it should also be said that the US-Israel relationship is not one that should ever be set in a “false choice” mold between Israel’s close relations with the US and the importance of close relations between the United States and Arab states and people. Israel’s democracy runs the risk of tragically eroding if it continues to divide the Palestinian people away from mainstream Israel without either a strategy for political inclusion in one state or a credible two state plan on the other.
Our two countries are partners in the fight against terrorism and share an important strategic relationship. A strong Israel is an asset to the national security of the United States and brings stability to the Middle East.
The US and Israel are partners — but not exclusive partners. America’s security relationship with Israel is like a New Orleans levy that is still working but year by year eroding. It is important to revision Israel’s security in the region in a loose federation of interests with other key Arab states. The US, Europe, the UN, and Russia could be pillars with Israel and other nations of an ASEAN Regional Forum-like approach to Middle East security. But Israel’s insistence on a regional massive retaliation, massive superiority of force in the region, is simultaneously helpful and hurtful in moving a new regional security plan forward. Israel will no doubt maintain conventional and nuclear weapons superiority in the region for years — but it’s behavior towards Arabs in the region, and towards Palestinians over which it has responsibilities are helping to generate instability in the region.
We are concerned that the highly publicized tensions in the relationship will not advance the interests the U.S. and Israel share.
I agree with this point from AIPAC. Although I think that the public incident with Biden only revealed what was the very lousy tenor of the relationship in private, punishing Israel or feeding a sense that this is incident was defining is a mistake. What is needed is a vision from the US and other regional stakeholders that pushes the US-Palestine track forward and which makes clear, crystal clear, US expectations of what the track to an end game will look like. That would propel Israel and the US out of the tensions between them now to a more important vision of how Israel’s long term security interests can be achieved via resolution of a Palestinian state and normalization of relations with the Arab League.
Above all, we must remain focused on the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear weapons program to Middle East peace and stability.
I agree with this too. I do believe that Iran is on course to either develop a Japan-like, large scale, full fuel cycle capacity that provides a dual use foundation of material either for peaceful energy use or for bombs or wants warheads. But it’s important for Israel and its supporters to stop denying the relevance of an unresolved Palestinian conflict to the fuel that feeds a narrative of humiliation and anger around the Middle East. Iran exploits this narrative to help ‘legitimate’ its realpolitik efforts to rise as a powerful new regional hegemon. There is a linkage between Israel/Palestine and Iran — and that linkage is based in the importance of robbing Iran of political, military, and psychological running room in the mostly Sunni Arab states whose streets are filled with ongoing anger over Israeli treatment of the land it occupies and the Palestinian people it controls.
From the moment of Israel’s creation, successive U.S. administrations have appreciated the special bond between the U.S. and Israel. For decades, strong, bipartisan Congressional support for Israel, including security assistance and other important measures, have been eloquent testimony to our commitment to Israel’s security, which remains unswerving.
Yes, but Israel has responsibilities in this relationship as well. Israel has an obligation to work with the United States in securing achievements in its long term national security interests – not allowing short term or reflexive problems undermine core national interests which the US is helping Israel to achieve.
It is the very strength of this relationship that has, in fact, made Arab-Israeli peace agreements possible, both because it convinced those who sought Israel’s destruction to abandon any such hope and because it gave successive Israeli governments the confidence to take calculated risks for peace. In its declaration of independence 62 years ago, Israel declared: “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.” In the decades since, despite constantly having to defend itself from attack, Israel has repeatedly made good on that pledge by offering to undertake painful risks to reach peace with its neighbors. Our valuable bilateral relationship with Israel needs and deserves constant reinforcement.
This is an excellent statement in AIPAC’s letter. It would be worthwhile for Israel’s President and Prime Minister to publicly double down on this statement and its meaning — and to commit to policies that will take Israel towards normalization with its neighbors. Israel’s settlement and border/control point frequent harassment of Palestinians fuels anger and resentment and seems inconsistent with Israel’s extended hand and Israeli democracy. I have visited with great awe Israel’s Supreme Court and felt that there was an institution struggling with justice in a fair-minded way for Israelis and Palestinians.
The Israeli press is more balanced and full of free-wheeling debate than Washington D.C.’s press debates about Israel. AIPAC and the Israeli government would do well to compel a public reconciliation of the governance behavior of the state and the goals expressed above. I have seen leaders like former Prime Minister Ohlmert and former Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon do this — and it was moving and real. I think that needs to become a part of the framework of Israel’s current government.
As the Vice-President said during his recent visit to Israel: “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space.”
I don’t believe that there is ever a “no space” situation between Israel and US interests. Just the name of one person should help reasonable supporters of the US-Israel relationship get by this platitude: Jonathan Pollard.
But as far as servicing the important closeness of that relationship, Israel must get away from a policy course driven by incessant incrementalism and inertia in which it does not heed the importance of helping the US to generate a new equilibrium in the Middle East.
Israel’s intransigent positions on numerous fronts often appear as support for a two state process when in fact they are designed to undermine the legitimacy and posture of their negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. The world is witnessing America allow Israel to continue to squeeze the Palestinian people and territory, to consolidate what Israel wants into the Israel security orbit, and to offer only crumbs now and then to Palestine’s leadership. While Israel may think that this strategy furthers its own interests; this is undermining the American brand and seriously harming American interests. If these trends continue, there will be not only “no space” between Israel and the US but a giant ravine.
Steadfast American backing has helped lead to Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. And American involvement continues to be critical to the effort to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
This is very good to acknowledge, and I agree.
We recognize that, despite the extraordinary closeness between our country and Israel, there will be differences over issues both large and small. Our view is that such differences are best resolved quietly, in trust and confidence, as befits longstanding strategic allies. We hope and expect that, with mutual effort and good faith, the United States and Israel will move beyond this disruption quickly, to the lasting benefit of both nations.
I do too. I want this episode to be behind us — but to get it behind us, Israel and US political leaders must tailor the strategy each is pursuing to be more convergent with a realistic pathway to a two state solution between Israel and Palestine. Israel is good at articulating what can’t be done, what can’t be given away, or who can’t be at the table — but it is lousy at articulating a constructive course. Israel pretends that it can’t offer concessions outright to get to this goal while at the same time demanding that the US not publicly force it towards those goals. In other words, Israel’s posture simultaneously requires that a greater power push it and the Palestinians in the right direction while also rejecting and trying to counter through the Congress Executive Branch pressure. This is a game that needs to end.
We believe, as President Obama said, that “Israel’s security is paramount” in our
Middle East policy and that “it is in U.S. national security interests to assure that Israel’s security as an independent Jewish state is maintained.” In that spirit, we look forward to working with you to achieve the common objectives of the U.S. and Israel, especially regional security and peace.
[Members of the US Senate and US House of Representatives]
I am a believer in Israel and view myself as pro-Israeli while at the same time viewing myself as pro-Arab. Israel’s security is one of several paramount issues. One of those paramount issues is American security which is being undermined by this unresolved Middle East-roiling ulcer of Palestinian occupation. Another is the paramount goal of achieving a horizon of hope for Palestinians within and outside of Israel.
As Haim Ramon once told me, if this issue of a Palestinian state is not soon resolved, Israel will either have to forfeit its status as a “democracy” or as a “Jewish state.”
That sounds like a paramount issue to me.
— Steve Clemons