Late yesterday afternoon, I participated in an hour long Alhurra discussion program with three other Middle East specialists: Edmund Ghareeb of American University, Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now, and David Schenker who directs the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The topic was the state of play in US-Israel relations after Vice President Biden’s visit and Israel’s alleged “insult” during his trip with the announced approval of 1600 new settlements in East Jerusalem.
During one of my times at bat during the interesting show, I suggested that Israel’s continued settlement expansion was directly helping Iran and enhancing its pretensions and goals in the region. The Washington Institute’s David Schenker responded that he really didn’t see a linkage between the settlements and Iran’s position. He stated that Iran really wasn’t all that welcome throughout the broader Middle East today and that its nuclear activities were making other Arab states nervous.
In part, he is correct about Sunni Arab antipathy towards Iran but neglected to note that officially, all of the other major Arab states are as furious about Israel’s settlements creep as the Obama national security team. But that’s not the issue that most caught my attention in this exchange.
Schenker, who offered some interesting insights on the show, went on to assert that while he saw no linkage between Israel’s settlement expansion and a boost to Iran’s regional posture, he suggested there was a linkage between US-Israel relations and getting Obama’s health care reform passed.
What?? Play that again.
So, David Schenker sees no linkage between what a huge number of observers see as Israel wrecking chances for a credible two state track — and the use of this grievance by Iran in its support of transnational Arab networks in the region, but nonetheless sees linkage between President Obama’s fragile health care reform position and the state of US-Israel relations?! Schenker’s view was that Obama couldn’t afford to have a testy, strained relationship with Israel because it would cost him support in Congress for his health care legislation.
If he is right, then the relationship with Israel has gone too far indeed.
The truth is that I believe that Schenker is wrong on both counts.
There is a linkage between Iran’s ability to compete for the position as true defender of the Islamic faith and the controversial settlements, and on the other front, there must not be a connection between the fragile coalition Obama is building to try and achieve health care reform and the state of the US-Israel relationship.
Any US Congressperson or Senator who actually explicitly withdrew or withheld support for health care reform because of loyalty first to Israel and its needs would invite serious questions about his or her patriotism and oath to the US Constitution and American people.
I support Israel’s right to exist, see it as an important ally, and believe that we should support its security — but not at the continued expense of Arab interests in the region and certainly not at the expense of core American interests at home. The interests of Arab states and Israel must be balanced and mutually pursued. Not to do so is a false choice for the U.S., but even worse would be the practice of punishing American taxpayers and their pursuit of key social reforms in favor of Israel’s interests.
I enjoyed the exchange with David Schenker and others — but whereas David has every right to assert that he does not see a linkage between settlements and Iran’s interests (though I disagree), I think that his second assertion that Obama might lose the health care battle by not keeping the Israel-tilting Members of Congress was hopefully wrong-footed.
If he’s accurate, then it’s time for political change in Congress again — but this time with a different filter.
— Steve Clemons
Update: When I wrote this piece, I tried to confirm that what I heard was heard by others on the program and had general confirmation from one of the other guests on the show. However, to be fair and up front, I also wanted to run this post by David Schenker — who was perfectly fair and civil on the program and from whom I learned some new things.
David remembers things a bit different — and we have not yet come up with a video segment or transcript, and I think that his own views on this should also be aired here.
I appreciate his fairness and balance in how he approached my post.
Here are his comments to me today:
I was surprised that you implied that I said the crisis with Israel would cause Congressmen or Senators to explicitly withdraw support for health care reform.
I didn’t say that. What I did was point out the obvious domestic political implications that Democrats could face-in addition to their current problems-in light of the very public row with Israel, especially one concerning the disposition of Jerusalem. Considerations like the mid-term elections and controversial health care legislation, I said, would likely lead the Administration to try and end the very public spat with Israel sooner rather than later.
The linkage between foreign and domestic policy considerations is well established. (Walt has written, for example, that the escalation in Afghanistan might cost Obama democratic seats in the midterms that would make it more difficult to pass domestic legislation).
Until I read your blog, I thought my comments were uncontroversial.
I appreciate David sending this correction and wanted it posted publicly. Onward and upward.
— Steve Clemons