Should Israel launch a diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian front? Is an Israeli-Palestinian final status deal is within reach? What is better for Israel and the West: Democracy or dictatorship in the Arab world? How does one assess the quality of Obama Administration leadership on Mideast issues? These were among the issues discussed at this year’s Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel’s National Security, which ended yesterday. Here are some snippets from the conference.
1. Should Israel launch a diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian front to offset and deflect international pressure?
In an impassioned address, former Israel ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman argued for the necessity of an Israeli initiative similar to the disengagement from Gaza, especially given the unwillingness of the PA to engage Israel in direct talks and the deterioration of Israel’s international standing. Gillerman described with great enthusiasm the dramatic turnaround of Ariel Sharon’s personal standing, and that of Israel too, upon announcement of the Gaza disengagement plan. “Sharon was an international pariah. Yet when he came to the UN General Assembly after the Gaza withdrawal, world leaders elbowed their way forward to hug him and have their photos taken with him,” Gillerman gushed. “I was there as UN ambassador. You should have seen the warmth in which Sharon was received. Today too, Israel needs to embark on a dramatic gambit to turn world opinion around,” concluded Gillerman. Red in the face and clearly annoyed, JAFI Chairman Natan Sharansky took the podium to respond. “I was in Sharon’s government, and as you know, I resigned when it became clear that Sharon was going to push through disengagement. I warned in my letter of resignation that while the world would applaud, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was going to be bad for the Jews, bad for the Palestinians of Gaza, and good only for the Hamas. I was right, unfortunately,” said Sharansky. Turning angrily to Gillerman, Sharansky said: “So now, Danny, what do you suggest? That Israel withdraw from eastern Jerusalem so that the world will applaud and Netanyahu will become an international saint?! Washington and London may applaud such a move, but it will be bad for the Jews, bad for the Palestinians of Jerusalem, and good only for the Hamas! I’m sorry, but we need more intelligent thinking!”
2. Is a final status agreement between Israel and the PA within close reach?
Recent “Palileak” documents, investigative articles by Bernard Avishai, and especially Ehud Olmert’s new book, suggest that two years ago Israel and the PA were but a few (very bridgeable) land percentages away from complete agreement on a grand end-of-conflict final status peace agreement. Former congressman Robert Wexler (Obama’s close friend and Mideast guru, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace) argued that this was indeed so. But none of the Israeli speakers agreed, including people who were on Barak and Sharon and Livni’s negotiating staffs (such as Brig. Gen. Mike Herzog) and respected “centrist” figures such as Prof. Shlomo Avineri. Just the opposite is true, they said. Despite Olmert’s self-serving and extraordinarily imperious new monograph (recently serialized by Yediot Ahronot), the gap between the parties remained very wide two years ago, and is probably unbridgeable any time in the near future, argued the Israelis. “Olmert’s self-aggrandizing and utopian description of the talks he held with Abbas is very dangerous,” said Avineri. “It is a dangerous illusion that a final status deal is within reach. Olmert, of course, has his reasons for saying so. But the differences over Jerusalem, refugees and settlements cannot be papered over; the fact is that a deal could not be reached and certainly would not have been upheld under the terms discussed.” Yossi Alpher (bitterlemons.org) termed Olmert’s description of the talks as “arrogant,” and his papering over of real and critical remaining differences as “irresponsible.” Both Avineri and Herzog argued that interim arrangements were the best Israel could hope for in the medium term. (Yasser Abed Rabbo of the PLO and all other invited PA representatives failed to show up for Herzliya Conference sessions).
3. Democracy vs. dictatorship in the Mideast: What is better for Israel and the West?
Obama’s pal Wexler, along with Gen. James Jones (Obama’s former national security advisor and former NATO commander), plus a plethora of Democratic policy wonks from Washington and a gaggle of European representatives – argued that the status quo of repression in the Arab world was “unsustainable” and that the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt represent a tremendous opportunity for America and the West. While accepting that democratization in the Arab world would not be easy or quick (and that elections should not be encouraged as an early step), they argued that it was a “delusion” to believe that the US and Israel could be secure in the long run by reliance on Arab dictators; thus democratization should be encouraged. Israeli speakers were far less sanguine, to say the least, about the processes of change underway in the Arab world. Former IDF C-o-S and Defense Minister Maj. Gen. (res.) Shaul Mofaz, and Israeli Ministry of Defense political-military division chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, bluntly told Jones that “there is and never will be democracy in the Arab world for at least the next 100 years. It is either military dictatorship or radical Islamic dictatorship.” Former IDF military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaacov Amidror conceded that over the long-term Arab democracy would be good for Israel too. But, he said: a) nobody in the world, including Israeli intelligence, really knows much about opposition groups in Egypt, b) there is no guarantee that democracy will emerge from the present unrest, c) there is no precedent whatsoever for democracy emerging anywhere in the Mideast, d) things would likely get worse (for Egyptians, the US and Israel) before they get better, and e) no real democracy would emerge in any Arab country as long as Iranian-backed radical Islam was on the march. The only silver lining that Amidror could identify was this: A few months from now, he said, as the US realizes that the Mideast is entering a long period of extreme instability which poses many challenges to US interests, Washington might also (once again) come to the realization that Israel is its only stable ally in the region; and the US will need closer-than-ever strategic and political cooperation with Israel. In the meantime, said Amidror and others, Israel should stop screaming “gevalt,” avoid antagonizing the US, and quietly wait for reality to have its inevitable impact on Washington. Shalem Center scholar Prof. Martin Kramer summarized the differences between Washington and Jerusalem as follows: “For two years, Obama and Clinton have been barking that the ‘status quo on the West Bank is unsustainable’. Now they are barking that Mubarak’s regime is ‘not sustainable’. The fact is that ever since 9/11, Washington has feared the Mideast as a source of radicalism and threat (first Iraq, then the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and now Egypt). Washington is not satisfied with the ‘unsustainable’ status quo. Israel, on the other hand, views all these changing US preoccupations as mere diversions from the main source of instability in the Mideast – which is, of course, Iran. Israel is in favor of the status quo and thinks that Washington’s job is to maintain the regional status quo. (This includes an Israeli security line in the Jordan Valley and stable Arab leaders beyond Israel’s borders). Israel would like to see Obama declare emphatically, just once (!), that Iranian aggression and state-sponsored terrorism is ‘unsustainable’ and will be met with sustained US opposition.”
4. The quality of American (Obama Administration) leadership on Mideast issues.
Robert Wexler, Prof. Larry Summers of Harvard (until recently, Obama’s economic policy director), and Gen. Jones defended Obama leadership on Mideast issues. The Israel-Palestinian conflict remains the “core” issue in the region, they insisted, and thus Obama was correct to focus on this; and Obama was right to back the Egyptian demonstrators against Mubarak, they added. They expressed great frustration and even anger that Obama was not getting credit in Israel for the “greatly-expanded” military cooperation that is underway between Israel and the US on many fronts. But almost all Israeli interlocutors at this conference, from Tzipi Livniand Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, to Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of Labor, to Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon of Likud, criticized the US for the “strategic mistake” in making settlement construction into a roadblock that has stymied the diplomatic process; and for its “strategic mistake” of “throwing Hosni Mubarak under the bus.” In particular, Israeli speakers critiqued Obama for the “crude and offensive” way in which he personally is seen to have unceremoniously dumped Mubarak. This disrespect for the Egyptian state and Egyptian leadership will rebound negatively to America’s discredit around the Mideast, they said. It also calls in to question the degree to which Israel can rely on long-term American guarantees, many Israelis added.
5. The Iranian Nuclear Challenge.
While the Iranian nuclear program was not the focus of this year’s conference, the Iranian challenge to Israel and the West was a theme that naturally came through in all discussions. American experts, including, for example, Dr. Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute, explained that the Obama administration really does believe that it is making progress in stopping the Iranian nuclear weapons program. “Economic sanctions, along with assassinations and defections of Iranian nuclear scientists, along with computer and other sabotage efforts are having an effect – the Obama Administration will tell you,” explained Clawson. “No-one in the Administration accepts the accusation that it is ‘doing nothing’ about Iran. All evidence points to the fact that the Iranians are now having real difficulties with their bomb program; not a single new centrifuge has been added to their program in 18 months, and their nuclear scientists are hiding for fear of attack,” according to Clawson. But other analysts pointed to the fact that, despite this, there is no evidence whatsoever that Iranian motivation or determination to develop a nuclear bomb has waned in any way. The Iranians are not reversing course; the danger remains; and thus so does the need for tougher action against Iran….