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The TNR EXCHANGE: Trust Fall

What Americans and Israelis are saying about each other--but not to each other.

James Risen, a Washington-based writer, and Yossi Klein Halevi, a Jerusalem-based writer, have been friends since they both crashed the Nazi Party headquarters in Chicago as student reporters 30 years ago. They have been joking and arguing about news and politics ever since, especially when it comes to Israel and the Middle East. 

This e-mail exchange began in the shadow of the dispute between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. It became obvious that Washington and Jerusalem were experiencing a failure to communicate, and so Risen and Halevi thought it might be valuable to lay out what Americans and Israelis are saying about each other—but not to each other.

Dear Yossi,

Early in the Bush administration, I attended a lunch meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and was quite struck by the confident tone of his presentation. Without resorting to much diplomatic nuance, he made it clear that Israel, at least for the moment, had lost interest in engagement and negotiations with the Palestinians. Israel, he signaled, was ready to pull up the drawbridge.

That wasn't too surprising, given the series of Intifadas that Israel had recently suffered. What I did find intriguing was that the ambassador seemed to know something I didn't yet, which was that the Bush administration was ready and eager to go along with this new hard line Israeli position. What the ambassador was really telegraphing to a room full of American reporters was that George W. Bush—whose father had been tough on Israel—had quietly but radically altered the dynamics of the Washington-Jerusalem relationship in a way that the Israel government very much liked.

The Bush approach to Israel became publicly apparent soon thereafter, and for the next eight years, Israel was the recipient of a hands-off approach from Washington, one that placed virtually no demands on the country. George Bush and Dick Cheney viewed Israel as a full partner in their war on terror, and in the neoconservative drive to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. They were loathe to strain that partnership by trying to force Israel to restart serious negotiations.

So November 2008 must have come as something of a shock to the Israeli system. With the election of President Barack Obama, Israel could no longer count on coddling from Washington. Obama was serious about restarting the peace process, and so was his new Secretary of State, whose husband had pushed for peace until it hurt the last time around. George W. Bush was back in Dallas, buying a new house.

Support for Israel is deeply bipartisan in the United States, but Bush had fundamentally altered the political calculus on the issue, and so now, by demanding a real peace process, the Democrats must have suddenly all looked like Noam Chomsky to Israelis.

But there was something deeper going on in the United States than simply a new administration. Bush had exhausted the American people. Two bloody and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that had dragged on for most of the decade had left many Americans with a serious case of Middle East fatigue.

With about five thousand American soldiers dead in the two wars, more and more Americans were eager for withdrawal from the region. What's more, the Great Recession had left millions of Americans jobless or even homeless, and fewer were willing to support trillion-dollar wars of choice.

When they did think about the Middle East, Americans thought about Iraq, Afghanistan, and their boys on the front lines; they didn't think about Israel and Israel's problems. They debated whether we had achieved victory in Iraq, whether sending more troops to Afghanistan would really damage al Qaeda, and what to do about Pakistan and the terrorist havens in its frontier regions. Anything in the Middle East that got in the way of American objectives in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan became an irritant.

Then there was the issue of Iran, and U.S. and Israeli attitudes here once again diverged. Iran appeared to be working on a nuclear weapons program, but more immediately, it was also playing a major role in Iraq, and if it so chose, could play havoc on American troops ready and eager to withdraw. Israelis looked at Iran and saw only the shadow of nuclear war; Americans looked at Iran and saw a regional player that had to be contained, especially in Iraq. Certainly Washington is concerned about a nuclear Iran, but most officials do not see it as an existential threat.

The bottom line—it is no longer September 12, 2001 in Washington. And that makes all the difference.



Dear Jim,

The Obama administration’s decision to provoke a crisis with Israel is based on a profound misreading of the last decade in Middle East peacemaking efforts. Israeli disillusionment toward the peace process wasn’t, as you write, only a result of Palestinian violence. It was because the Second Intifada occurred after Israel accepted a Palestinian state. When Israel endorsed the Clinton Proposals of December 2000 and received in return the worst wave of terrorism in its history, most Israelis despaired of a negotiated settlement. One result was the near-total collapse of the Israeli left which, tragically, had won the domestic argument over the untenability of the occupation, only to lose the argument over the viability of a peace agreement.

For all the skepticism, though, Israeli attempts to end the occupation continued through the Bush years. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon uprooted Gaza’s settlements, and the result was that Palestinian rocket attacks shifted from those settlements to Israeli communities within the 1967 borders. Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, offered the Palestinians the equivalent of one hundred percent of the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as their capital. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert says, never even responded.

If the administration wants to make progress on peace talks, it should focus on the real obstacle—Palestinian refusal to confine the return of the descendants of the refugees of 1948 to a Palestinian state. That’s the reason why Palestinian leaders have rejected Israel’s offers for statehood. No Israeli government will agree to absorb descendants of Palestinian refugees into Israel proper. That would lead not to a two-state solution but to a bi-national state.

Yet the administration seems convinced that, with enough pressure on Israel, a peace agreement is within reach. That wishful thinking also ignores the rise of Hamas. Even if, by some miracle, Fatah conceded on the right of return, Israel is in effect being asked to cede the West Bank and East Jerusalem to half the Palestinian people, while remaining at war with the other half.

Tragically for Israelis as well as Palestinians, a two-state solution is hardly imminent. That doesn’t mean that negotiations are futile. There is much that needs to be done in the interim—increasing security cooperation between Israei and Palestinian forces, removing more Israeli roadblocks, encouraging Palestinian economic growth. But by focusing on the unrealistic goal of ending the conflict, Obama is blocking the possibility of achieving accessible goals.

Jim, you’re misreading Israeli attitudes toward Obama. Israelis aren’t astonished at the president for being serious about the peace process, as you put it, but because his efforts seem dangerously naïve. In demanding a cessation of building in long-standing Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, Obama created a precondition for negotiations which even the Palestinian leadership hadn’t previously insisted on. The absurd result was that Palestinian leaders refused to sit with the first Israeli government that had actually suspended building in the West Bank, even though that had negotiated with previous Israeli governments that had built in the territories.

Israelis aren’t looking for unconditional support from Washington, but they do expect friendship. There was widespread acceptance here of Obama’s demand for a West Bank settlement freeze, as a way of testing the administration’s premise that such a move might result in gestures of normalization from Arab countries. But even after building was suspended, no reciprocal gestures came. Where is the administration’s anger against Arab intransigence? Frankly, Israelis are wondering whether America under Obama can be trusted any more as an ally.

As for Middle East fatigue, Jim, believe me, I empathize. But if the administration persists in one-sided blame against Israel, its Middle East policy will implode. Israelis will not be bullied, even by friends.



Dear Yossi,

Reading your response, I was struck that you seemed to miss the central theme of what I wrote. To repeat—the Obama administration and the American public now view Israel through the lens of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The great irony of George W. Bush's global war on terror is that it has enmeshed the United States so deeply in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world that the nation has developed a myriad of new interests in the region, and they range far beyond those of the Israelis and the Palestinians, of the West Bank and Gaza. Like the British in the 19th century, America now has a series of interlocking agendas from the Levant to Central Asia. Israel is now just one piece in a strategic jigsaw puzzle, and, while no one would acknowledge this, its unique political status in Washington has been eroded.

This has happened because Israel is now, in effect, asking Americans to choose between what is best for Israel and what is best for American troops fighting throughout the Muslim world. Maybe Israelis didn't notice, but reports that General David Petraeus had warned of the threat to the American military from Israel's failure to reach a settlement with the Palestinians had a devastating political impact in Washington. He has objected to that characterization of his comments; the New York Times pointed out this week that Petraeus had actually told Congress that a lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States. But despite Petraeus’s demurrals, President Obama just this week made it clear that yes, indeed, his administration does see a clear linkage between the Arab-Israeli conflict and American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Times reported, the president said that resolving the dispute was a “vital national security interest of the United States” that could end up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.” If that sort of linkagebetween the lives of American boys to peace on the West Bank and Gazagains wider currency in the United States, the entire political dynamic between Washington and Jerusalem will be radically altered. 

For a president who is surging troops into Afghanistan and struggling to deal with a corrupt Afghan president, a president who is sweating out Iraqi elections that could trigger another round of sectarian violence in Baghdad, and a president who is struggling to win over full-throated Pakistani cooperation for a campaign against al Qaeda, Israeli intransigence on housing units in East Jerusalem is a headache and a distraction. The biggest change from George Bush in the way President Obama is trying to run the war on terror is that he is serious about winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world. I guess the real question is this—does that put Washington and Jerusalem on a collision course?



Dear Jim,

You’re right: Israelis haven’t internalized the new America that has emerged from the Iraqi and Afghan wars. Maybe that’s because it’s too frightening for us to realize that Obama’s America appears to be adopting a foreign policy similar to Europe’s, which means relentless public rebuke of Israel without faulting the Palestinians for their repeated rejection of a two-state solution, and blaming settlements, rather than Palestinian refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any border, for the absence of peace.

As for Israel endangering the lives of Americans: Jihadists are attacking American soldiers not because Israel is building apartment building in Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem but because those soldiers are occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. (For what it’s worth, General Petraeus has denied saying that Israel endangers American soldiers.)

Of course a solution to the Palestinian problem would ease tensions in the Middle East. That is as much in my interest as yours: The Palestinian problem threatens Israeli boys far more than American boys. I am ready to make almost any concession that would end this pathological conflict, provided I sensed that Israel would receive security and legitimacy in return. And that of course is the problem. Most Israelis are convinced that, under current conditions, a Palestinian state would only result in greater terrorism and instability. American pressure will not likely force us to take risks we perceive as existential. 

The Netanyahu coalition is the first Israeli government to suspend settlement building. Yet instead of demanding reciprocal Arab gestures of goodwill—or even that Palestinian leaders return to the negotiating table—the administration has intensified the pressure on Israel, with an unprecedented ultimatum over Jerusalem.

If the administration were to pressure the Palestinians and their Arab allies as it is pressuring and humiliating Israel, many Israelis might consider a temporary building suspension even in Jerusalem. But not this way, Jim; not as a one-way American diktat.

The more besieged Israel becomes, the more its enemies in the Arab world and Iran will be tempted to attack us. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that, as the American-Israeli crisis deepened, we’ve experienced a renewal of rocket attacks from Gaza and even a mini-intifada in Jerusalem. That was a warning of how the jihadists are reading America’s policy shift. If anyone is endangering lives with an ill-conceived policy, it’s the administration which is endangering Israeli—and Palestinian—lives with its disproportionate pressure on Israel.



Dear Yossi,

You fear America is becoming like Europe. (There's a strange Tea Party echo there, but I digress.) Perhaps the U.S. reaction is inevitable, however, given the stasis in Israel. In fact, to an outside observer, it seems as if Israel has been caught in amber.

While you weren't looking, the rest of the world has changed. What troubles Americans today is that Israelis don't seem to get the fact that the United States has fought two wars and fundamentally altered the dynamics of the Middle East. Yet when it comes to Israel, it might as well still be 1980, not 2010.

And so increasingly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks to American eyes like Northern Ireland, an endless conflict fought over land and ethnicity and religion and half-forgotten blood feuds, with a strange immunity to influences from the outside world.

The United States has always supported Israel, even as Europe has grown more distant. But will Americans continue to do so if they don't see progress? If it looksas it does todaylike Israeli leaders are ignoring the larger context?

I saw a cartoon a year or two ago that made me laugh, but also wince. It showed headlines from the future. 2020: "Man returns to Moon, Israeli tanks storm into Gaza."  2050: "Man lands on Mars, Israeli tanks storm into Gaza." 2100: "Man lands on Jupiter, Israeli tanks storm into Gaza."

What is perhaps most ominous for Israel is that slowly but surely, Americans are coming to understand the complexities and nuances of the Middle East. For a time after 9/11, ten-foot tall Arabs replaced ten-foot tall Russians in the American imagination. But that is fading. More and more, Arabs, and Muslims generally, are appearing more human, less monstrous, less dangerous. Nearly a decade of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistanand nearly a decade without a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soilwill do that to a country and its people.

Arabs are also becoming more integrated and assimilated into American society, and now they are neighbors, too.

I thought about that when I met a Palestinian woman who told me her family's story a few months ago. Her parents had owned a small farm on land that became part of Israel, and in 1948 the farm was seized by Israelis and her family was forced to move. She grew up in Beirut, and as a young woman met and fell in love with a young college student originally from Gaza. She eventually realized that her boyfriend was not just an ordinary college student, but was also in Fatah.

They married, and she stayed in Beirut while he traveled the world for Fatah. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, they moved to Tunis along with the organization's leadership.

On a trip to Paris, her husband was killed, almost certainly assassinated by Israeli agents. She eventually found her way to the United States and started over with her small children. 

Today, she lives a comfortable life in America, and her two sons are now soccer stars at different colleges in the United States. Her sons are completely Americanized.

I think that story underscores America's greatest strength – and Israel's greatest weakness.

America is a nation built by immigrants, who come here to seek opportunity or to escape discrimination or oppression in other lands. The greatness of the United States is that it is open to immigrants from all lands (a policy constantly under political threat, but that's another story) and the country is bulldozed and remade by each new wave from Ireland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico, China, Japan, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, and yes, Palestine. They are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists. The Census Bureau now projects that by 2050, a majority of Americans will be members of groups now considered minorities. Certainly, illegal immigration is always a hot political issue, but there is general support for legal immigration, because Americans realize that immigrants bring strength, skills, talent, brainpower, ideas.

The great American idea was transparency. The great American political battles have always been about fighting nativist fears, fighting discrimination, and forcing the country to live up to its ideal of a society open to all.

Israel, on the other hand, seems to be a democracy that has taken counsel of its fears. It seems to hate a changing world, and is a country that wants to pick a fight with the demographer. Israel wants to be both a democracy and a Jewish state. But will the United States keep providing support when and if those two goals seem increasingly at odds, as Israel has to keep building more walls?

So I guess the question is not whether the Obama Administration will apply a little pressure here and there on the margins, just enough to piss off Jerusalem, but not enough to accomplish much. The real question for the longer term is, when will an American president begin to force Israel to confront its future, and open itself up to the Middle East of the 21st century?



Dear Jim,

You say that Israel has been caught in amber, even as the rest of the world has changed. Not so: Israel has changed beyond recognition. We're no longer an ideological, pioneering state but a high-tech society that desperately wants to be part of the globalizing world. And Israelis are willing to pay the territorial price for that admission—provided we can be reassured that a Palestinian state wouldn't turn into an even worse nightmare than the one we're caught in now.

In urging Israelis to face reality and accept Palestinian statehood, you're pushing against an open door. That argument was resolved, at least in theory, 20 years ago, during the first intifada, when a majority of Israelis concluded that the occupation would devastate Israel from within and turn us into a pariah from without.

A majority of Israelis agree that ending the occupation is an existential need—to spare us from growing isolation, from the moral attrition of occupation, from the untenable choice between Israel as a Jewish state and a democratic state.

But that's only half the equation. You ignore the other half: that a Palestinian state could turn into an existential threat to Israel. Most Israelis are convinced that, given the current state of the Palestinian national movement, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would lead to missile attacks against the Israeli heartland, including greater Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport. All it takes is a few "primitive rockets" to be launched every day against Israeli neighborhoods—and for the international community to tie our hands when we try to defend ourselves—for normal life in this country to become impossible.

In order to make your case against Israel, you have to ignore the fact that Israel tried—three times in the last decade—to create a Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders rejected the equivalent of one hundred percent of the West Bank and Gaza, because that deal would have required them to restrict refugee return to a Palestinian state. The Palestinian pre-condition for an Israeli withdrawal is that Israel commit suicide. As a veteran Peace Now activist said to me recently: The Palestinians won't let us end the occupation.

We've tried negotiations and got suicide bombings; we tried unilateral withdrawal without negotiations and got rocket attacks. What would you have us do next?

What's so depressing about your position, Jim, is that it offers proof that Arab intransigence is winning, that with enough time, the combination of terrorism and denial of Israel's legitimacy will wear down even friends of Israel like you. And then the Middle East conflict seems to turn into an endless blood feud. Or that stupid journalistic phrase, a cycle of violence. And then what you once knew about the conflict—that at crucial moments Israel has accepted compromise and the Palestinians have rejected it—gets lost in the general weariness.

Yes, Israeli tanks will almost certainly "storm into Gaza" again. But that cartoon you cite omits these crucial words: "Palestinians shell Israeli towns and then Israeli tanks storm into Gaza." But hey, that's just a detail in the endless blood feud. So is the fact that we pulled out of Gaza. And that most of us would pull out of the West Bank if we didn't think it would turn into Gaza.

There's a curious obtuseness running through your position—and in this you are by no means alone among our colleagues in the media. Israel, you write, has a "strange immunity to influences from the outside world." In fact Netanyahu has given in to the Obama administration on two crucial issues. First, he accepted a two-state solution—for the first time placing the Likud within the national consensus in support of a Palestinian state. And he suspended housing starts across the West Bank, including in settlement blocs near the border slated to be part of Israel according to every peace plan. No Israeli leader ever went as far. Yet Netanyahu is treated virtually as a war monger. Why, Israelis wonder, should we give in to the next Obama demand on Jerusalem when we've gotten zero credit for giving in to his other demands—while the Palestinians, who refuse to even show up at the table, are treated with kid gloves?

Finally, you raise the question of Israel as a Jewish state versus a democratic state. For me, erasing either identity would do fatal damage to Israel's soul. An Israel that has cut itself off from Jewish responsibility would not have rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Ethiopia. And that's an Israel I would not want to live in.

Israel is fated to be both a Jewish state that is responsible for Jews around the world and for Jewish history, and a democratic state that makes room in its national identity for its non-Jewish citizens. How to reconcile those two non-negotiable needs is the most important domestic issue facing Israel.

I would hope that Americans would appreciate the complexity of our dilemmas, tell us when we're wrong and back us against the international campaign to deny Israel's legitimacy. That, at least, is what I expect from a friend.



Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. James Risen is the author of State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.

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