Letter from Jerusalem: Apple Pie and Israel
Every American presidential candidate professes support for Israel; here are some hard questions voters concerned with the Middle East should ask them.
Here’s a statistical tidbit: Sixty-nine percent of American Jews believe that “caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew.” Yet only 6 percent say that “support for Israel” will be the most important issue when they decide who will get their vote for president this year. a So the American Jewish Committee found in its annual survey of American Jewish opinion, conducted last November. That leaves 63 percent with warm feelings that don’t translate into a top political priority.
One reason for that gap, obviously, is that American Jews vote as Americans, concerned this year about the economy, health care and the war in Iraq. And never mind neoconservatives—Jewish voting behavior still leans leftward. According to the same survey, Jews identify as liberals rather than conservatives by a 43 to 25 percent margin, as Democrats rather than Republicans by 58 percent to 15.
Besides, all the candidates express support for Israel as “our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy.” That particular formulation comes from Barack Obama’s policy essay in Foreign Affairs (July/August 2007), but similar slogans are recited by every candidate with a shadow of a hope in the race. When every candidate believes in Israel and apple pie, it’s hard to use Israel as a criterion for choosing between them.
However, on January 20, 2009, whoever wins the presidential race will have to deal with a muddled Middle East in which America has an immense role and Israel is deeply affected by its policies. If Israel is even a minor priority in how you will vote, you should ask just how a politician will translate sentiments into policy.
Here are several key issues that a candidate should address:
Clean up Your Mess: Even before the shock-and-awe show began over Baghdad, there were some Israelis who doubted the wisdom of the United States invasion of Iraq. Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst, citing a “knowledgeable source,” has written that then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon privately warned George W. Bush against occupying Iraq. Sharon also told the president that if he went ahead, he needed to have an exit strategy.
Today, Israeli experts often speak of the collateral damage that the ongoing conflict has caused to Israeli security. “The balance is negative,” says Alpher. “Yes, it got rid of Saddam Hussein, [but the] U.S. occupation inadvertently has aggrandized Iranian power,” expressed through Shiite proxies in Iraq.
What’s more, anger at the United States military presence feeds Islamic radicalism beyond Iraq, and Israel is always an available target. The rather disturbing catch is that the wrong kind of American exit could cause more damage. It’s as if a tractor-trailer had slammed into an apartment building: If it backs out before anything is done to shore up the structure, the building could collapse.
So, “for Israel, the best American policy is one that doesn’t leave chaos,” says Haifa University professor Amatzia Baram, a prominent expert on Iraq. Chaos would mean that Iran could take complete control of the Shiite militias—and of half of Iraq. Iranian prestige throughout the region would increase, Baram says, and “prestige is power.” Hamas and Hezbollah, both Iranian clients, would be strengthened, in turn threatening the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party “are also afraid of this,” Baram says.
Meanwhile, al-qaeda could assert control of Iraq’s western Anbar province, bordering Jordan. “If terrorists start entering Jordan, the political system there is in danger,” Baram says. Although the fact gets little public attention abroad, Jordan is a crucial Israeli ally, and the two countries enjoy what Baram describes as an “intimate” security cooperation.
There’s no consensus on what the United States needs to do to stabilize Iraq as it leaves. Retired Israeli brigadier general Shlomo Brom, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, says that a federal regime is not a bad solution. Baram stresses the need for “an institutionalized connection between the Sunni tribes” that the United States now supports and the Shiite-controlled government in Baghdad.
The bottom line, though, is that a candidate who cares about the State of Israel’s safety must have a careful, realistic exit strategy.
Country of Refuge: Say “refugee” in the context of Middle East politics and people reflexively talk about Palestinians. But another effect of the war in Iraq is the exodus of refugees from that country.
Somewhere around 750,000 displaced persons, both Sunni and Shiite, are in Jordan, whose own population is estimated at about 5.6 million. Proportionally, that’s the equivalent of 40 million refugees arriving in the United States. Some came with money. Palestinians returning to Jerusalem from Amman talk about the energetic nightlife and high prices. But the cash will run out. A hungry, displaced and frustrated population is both a humanitarian crisis and one more political threat to an Israeli, and American, ally.
So far, the refugees have hardly registered as an American political issue. But voters concerned with the Middle East should be raising the discussion. Yes, Plan A is stabilizing Iraq so that the displaced can go home. And what’s Plan B?
“If there’s a catastrophe in Iraq… the only solution is [to] help Jordan economically,” says Brom.
Friend vs. Friend: Israel’s strongest and most important strategic partner in the Middle East is Turkey. The United States’s most reliable partner within Iraq is the Kurdish state-within-a-state in the country’s north. But Iraqi Kurdistan has once again become the base for the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party, which wants independence for Turkey’s own Kurdish areas. In recent raids, the PKK has killed soldiers and civilians inside Turkey.
By mid-December, the Turkish military had moved from bombing raids to a small-scale ground attack across the Iraqi border.
For Israel, tension between allies is bad news. Baram asserts that the United States bears responsibility for not intervening sooner. Yes, it’s politically tough for the Iraqi Kurdish government to clamp down on a group proclaiming Kurdish rights. But the Iraqi Kurds have received autonomy. With that goes responsibility for preventing violent groups from using their territory. America should have demanded that its Kurdish clients take action, Baram says.
Now that the crisis exists, anyone wanting to be president should be able to prescribe a policy for it.
Talking to Tehran: Israel and America disagree about whether Iran is developing nuclear arms right now, but no one claims the risk is gone. Iran backs Shiite militias in Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. Talking tough against Iran is an easy way for a candidate to sound pro-Israel.
What about talking to Iran directly, diplomat to diplomat? The Bush administration has resisted this.
According to Brom, that is a bad approach for Israel. If the goal is to change Iranian behavior, he says, “you have to use all the tools, and one tool is diplomatic engagement…. There are enough threats. I believe in using both the carrot and the stick.”
In direct talks, he adds, the United States could make clear that Iran stands to gain a commitment that America will not try to undermine its regime and that it could be accepted as “a legitimate force in the Middle East.” If, that is, Iran stops enriching uranium and supporting terror.
Brom’s view isn’t the unanimous Israeli assessment, but it is a common one. At the least, it suggests that candidates should explain their views on engaging Tehran.
The Facilitator: Israel’s most pressing security and diplomatic problem is closest to home—the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. At the Annapolis conference last November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas agreed to reach a peace agreement by the end of 2008. I’ve yet to come across the optimist who expects the deadline to be met. All odds are that the next American president will inherit the problem.
So the first question for candidates, argues Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is, “Are you willing to be an active mediator…in achieving a full settlement?”
If the answer is no, the candidate should explain why. If it’s yes, says Klein, the next question is whether he or she supports the Clinton Parameters—the outline for peace produced by the last president who was deeply involved in negotiations.
“Of course, they won’t answer you,” Klein adds, realistically.
As a negotiator, former President Bill Clinton had to deal with precisely the issues that candidates would prefer to avoid: territory, settlements, Jerusalem. Those issues divide Israel’s supporters—not to mention Israelis themselves—and a candidate would prefer to paper that problem over with a slogan. Voters, on the other hand, would surely prefer some honest answers.