Free Markets, Free People

Benjamin Netanyahu

Observations: The QandO Podcast for 22 May 11

In this podcast, Bruce and Dale discuss the president’s middle east speech, Obamacare waivers, and fiscal policy.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

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A little Middle East news

First, a rather interesting, but apparently ignored interview with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.  The quote makes me again wonder about those who continue to pretend it is Israel that’s the problem:

The official Palestinian Authority daily newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida on Tuesday wrote that when Abbas met recently with media figures at the home of the Palestinian ambassador to Jordan, he recounted that during an Arab League Summit in Libya in March he told his fellow leaders that he still preferred war against Israel, but could not do it alone.

"We are unable to confront Israel militarily, and this point was discussed at the Arab League Summit," said Abbas. "There I turned to the Arab States and I said: ‘If you want war, and if all of you will fight Israel, we are in favor. But the Palestinians will not fight alone because they don’t have the ability to do it.’"

Of course they don’t.  So instead they use terror tactics.  And this is from the supposedly “moderate” part of the Palestinian leadership.  No comment, apparently from Hamas.

As for the Arab League – 0 for 3.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that he thought that the country that that is key to stopping Iran from producing nuclear weapons is the US.  The question is, would the US actually pull the trigger?  That may be why Netanyahu frames his point by saying “Obama is the key”.

"There’s only been one time that Iran stopped the program and that was when it feared U.S. military action," Netanyahu said in the interview on "Fox News Sunday," adding that Iran’s nuclear program was advancing by the hour.

"The president’s position that all options are on the table might have the only real effect on Iran — if they think it’s true," Netanyahu said.

I think that’s a little “positive thinking” on the part of the Israeli PM.  Living where he lives, he knows someone is going to have to stop the nuclear train.  Israel took care of the threat in Iraq and recently in Syria.  But it may not have the capability to do so in Iran (although Saudi Arabia has made it known that an Israeli strike force would not be hampered should it decide to use Saudi airspace).

That doesn’t mean they won’t try if they have too:

When asked whether Israel might initiate military action, Netanyahu stressed that all options are on the table.

"The Jewish state was set up to defend Jewish lives and we always reserve the right to defend ourselves," he said.

With Israel everything is always on the table.  They don’t have the luxury of taking anything off of it if they hope to survive.

~McQ

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So was the Obama administration looking for a fight with Israel?

An odd set of circumstances and an ill timed Israeli announcement has evoked a very high profile and seemingly bitter denunciation of Israel by the US.  And, instead of stepping it down, after the initial condemnation, the US seems to be continuing to step it up.

It all comes after a visit to Israel by VP Joe Biden coincided with an Israeli announcment that it had approved the construction of 1600 housing units in Jerusalem.  The US chose to take that personally – literally.   Variously described as an “insult”, a “slap in the face” and “affront” to the Vice President and the administration, the problem was escalated by a phone call by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to PM Benjamin Netanyahu.  This weekend David Axelrod kept the controvery alive on the Sunday talk shows.

So what’s up with all of this?  Certainly its fair to say that Biden was embarrassed by the announcement, something he had no idea was going to be made, much less coincide with his visit.  And it is certainly clear, after you read about the announcment and how it was made, that no one was more embarrassed and surprised than Netanyahu.  As he’s admitted subsequently, that it was ill timed and shouldn’t have been made while Biden was there.

End of problem?  Hardly.  It continues to grow, fester and escalate.   But the announcement, other than its timing, isn’t something which should surprise anyone.  We’re not talking about the West Bank here – where Israel has promised not to build.  We’re talking about East Jerusalem in an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood.   It is an area over which Israel has adamently refused to negotiate.  This is not something of which the US is unaware:

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon on Thursday defended Israel’s decision to approve construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, saying sovereignty over the capital has never been negotiable and that Israel would not make any more concessions for peace.

Again, if true that “sovereignty over the capital has never been neotiable” why, other than the diplomatic embarrassment, has the decision suddenly become a matter of concern soliciting demands from Clinton to include one that reverses the housing decision?

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary thinks that part of the reaction is simply indicative of the personality of this administration. Its temperment, if you will:

It’s attack, attack, attack — just as they do any domestic critic (even the Supreme Court Chief Justice). It’s about bullying and discrediting, trying to force the opponent into a corner. And in this case, their opponent is plainly the Israeli government. For that is the party the Obami is now demanding make further concessions to… well, to what end is not clear. Perhaps we are back to regime change — an effort to topple the duly elected government of Israel to obtain a negotiating partner more willing to yield to American bullying.

The language the Obami employ – ”personal,” “insulting,” and “affront” – suggests an unusual degree of personal peevishness and hostility toward an ally. That, I suppose, is the mentality of Chicago pols and of those who regard Israel not as a valued friend but as an irritant. And it is the language not of negotiators but of intimidators.

I certainly think that’s part of it. But it still doesn’t explain it all. That’s more about style – and while I think it is a fair description of this administration’s style, I’m still not convinced that answers the mail in this regard. As Rubin goes on to remind us, 15 years ago the official US policy declared that Jerusalem should be the “undivided capital of Israel”. It seems a little odd to get this excited about the internal zoning decisions concerning that city if that’s our policy.

So what else is it? How does an embarrassing situation become escalated into a diplomatic confrontation with an ally? Well, there’s an interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine that says it is much more than just a matter of embarrassment. And, if I read it correctly, the US was, most likely, looking for the diplomatic equivalent of a fight with Israel if this is true:

On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow … and too late.”

The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’s instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.

You connect the dots.  Was this rather minor problem the perfect excuse to try and recover our image of strength?  As many of us have been saying, 2009 was a year of assessment when other world leaders took stock of the new administration.  It looks like the Arab world’s verdict is in.

The briefing went further to say that the weakness and Israeli “intransigence” (as described by the various Arab leaders) was actually putting the lives of our soldiers in the CENTCOM theater at further risk.

This briefing and its revelations has been mostly unreported, although Jake Tapper did hint at it when questioning David Axelrod on ABC’s “This Week”:

TAPPER: All right, last question. Vice President Biden went to Israel this week and he was greeted by a slap in the face, the announcement by the Israeli government of the approval of new housing units in an Arab section of Jerusalem. President Obama was said to be very upset about it. Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton made very strong comments about it. Will there be any consequences, tangible consequences beyond the tough talk? And does Israel’s intransigence on the housing issue put the lives of U.S. troops at risk?

AXELROD: Well, look, what happened there was an affront. It was an insult, but that’s not the most important thing. What it did was it made more difficult a very difficult process. We’ve just gotten proximity, so-called proximity talks going between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and this seemed calculated to undermine that, and that was — that was distressing to everyone who is promoting the idea of peace — and security in the region.

Israel is a strong and special ally. The bonds run deep. But for just that very reason, this was not the right way to behave. That was expressed by the secretary of state, as well as the vice president. I am not going to discuss what diplomatic talks we’ve had underneath that, but I think the Israelis understand clearly why we were upset and what, you know, what we want moving forward.

TAPPER: I hate to say this, but yes or no, David, does the intransigence of the Israeli government on the housing issue, yes or no, does it put U.S. troops lives at risk?

AXELROD: I believe that that region and that issue is a flare point throughout the region, and so I’m not going to put it in those terms. But I do believe that it is absolutely imperative, not just for the security of Israel and the Palestinian people, who were, remember, at war just a year ago, but it is important for our own security that we move forward and resolve this very difficult issue.

Tapper raised the issue brought up by the CENTCOM briefing and Axelrod simply avoided it.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have taken the escalated diplomatic row as an excuse to bail on the peace talks again much to no one’s surprise.

Is this row all about posturing for the Arabs in reaction to the findings of the CENTCOM briefing?  Is it an attempt to strengthen our image in those circles? If so this is a pretty poor way of doing that.  It accepts the premise that Israel is the only problem and therefore it is only Israel that must concede to solve the problem.  Read Clinton’s demands if you doubt that’s not the case.   It also identifies as a problem something that has previously never been considered one.

In the meantime, much like the people of the US, Arab leaders are not going to be impressed by only talk – something the administration is long on.  It is going to demand action – something which puts the administration in a very awkward position given what they’re now demanding vs. what Israel may be willing to do.  And even if Israel capitulates, it will simply mean more demands – all to the detriment of our strongest ally in the region.

A very interesting situation brought on by perceived weakness and a diplomatic style akin to a pit bull at a cat show.  It will be interesting to monitor the situation and see what comes of it, but, as one Israeli envoy noted, US/Israel relations are at their lowest ebb in 35 years.  And I doubt this has substantially increased our image among the Arabs.

~McQ

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The Upcoming Swing Through The Middle East

So what’s on the Middle Eastern agenda for the Obama administration?

Frankly that’s the question being asked by a lot of foreign policy watchers right now, especially since President Obama has added Saudi Arabia to his trip itinerary for an upcoming trip to the area. Originally scheduled to first make a stop in Cairo for a speech, he is now stopping in SA first. This, of course, has the Egyptians a bit miffed. Egypt was touting his trip and speech to Cairo as a sort of vindication of their foreign policy as well as their resurgent leadership role among Arabs in the area. Now that’s not quite as easy to claim.

So why is he adding Riyadh?

One group sees it as tied closely to the Israeli-Palestinian track, focusing on the Arab Peace Initiative and the coming unveiling of the Obama approach to Israeli-Arab relations. Another sees it as tied more closely to Iran, preparing the Saudis for the coming engagement (or confrontation) with Tehran.

I happen to think it is a little bit of both, but mostly tied to Iran. NoKo has popped a nuke (and we’re aware of the ties between Pyongyang and Tehran). Iran has fired a long range missile. Intelligence says Venezuela and Bolivia are providing Iran with uranium (which both deny). That requires a bit of a change in focus of the mission from one exclusively focused on Israel/Palestine. Iran has heated up and the Arabs are not friends of Iran, certainly feel threatened by them and darn sure don’t want to see Iran establish itself as a regional (and nuclear) power. SA would be a logical stop for discussions on that issue.

As to the Israel/Palestine question, Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy magazine wonders:

… will he reinforce or challenge the “moderates vs resistance” frame which he inherited from the Bush administration? The Arab leaders he has been meeting, like the Israelis, are perfectly comfortable with that approach, dividing the region between Israel and Arab “moderates” vs Iran and Arab “resistance” groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. That’s the easy path. If followed it is likely to fail badly, destroy the hopes for change which his engagement policy has raised, and leave the region right back where Bush left it.

I think there is no question he plans to shake up the status quo. But how he chooses to broker “change” in the engagement policy, his change may face the same risk of abysmal failure other policies have produced. The Hill is reporting that Obama plans on challenging Israel’s plan to continue to allow West bank settlements to grow.

“Each party has obligations under the road map,” Obama said after referencing his meeting last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama said he has been “very clear” on the need to stop settlement and outpost activity, and he also said Israel has obligations to ensure a viable Palestinian state emerges from the peace process.

Israel has rejected that portion concerning the settlements on the West Bank. That rejection came after the Netanyahu/Obama meeting in Washington DC.

Netanyahu has set out the Israeli negotiating position:

“The government of Israel under my leadership is committed to the political and international agreements signed by the governments of Israel, and we expect others to honor their commitments as well,” Netanyahu told the Knesset. “We want an end to the conflict, and we want reciprocity in the claims on both sides and their implementation. Unfortunately, in this we are also being innovative. We should not have to innovate; it should have been obvious. However, when we are asked to recognize our international commitments, I say yes, and I want others to respect their commitments as well.

“We are prepared to act, and we will take concrete steps towards peace with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu continued. “We also expect the Palestinians to take such concrete steps on their side, and it would be good if the Arab countries joined in the effort towards peace, and take both concrete and symbolic steps towards normalization, and not later, but right now. They are asking us to act now, and so the Palestinians and the Arab countries should also be asked to act now.”

Or shorter Israeli stance – if we’re required to live up to international commitments, the same demand must be made of (and accepted by, and acted upon) by others included in these negotiations.

Right now, one of the major obstacles to any such negotiations is not with the Israelis, but among Palestinians:

The Palestinian Authority faces its own challenges in brokering a peace deal, namely the split between Hamas and Fatah — and, therefore, between Gaza and the West Bank — that essentially renders a two-state solution a three-state solution. Since the violent splinter between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, the U.S. has dealt only with Abbas.

So does the US change its policy and actively enter into negotiations with a terrorist group in hope of brokering a reconciliation? The chances of such a reconciliation seem remote. And of course, the splintering within the Palestinians makes the talk of a “two-state solution” an exercise in unachievable rhetoric for the time being. Why should Israel enter into serious negotiations about such a solution when they are unachievable as it stands today?

This will be an interesting trip to monitor.

More to come.

~McQ

Edit: Changed Ecuador to Bolivia – thanks for the catch, looker.