While the attention of the nation is being focused by the media on the early stages of the crowded Democratic presidential primary campaign, important events in the international arena are happening. These events could give the many Democratic candidates an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, or at least informed awareness, of international relations. But for the most part the candidates are still caught up in a competition of slogans, Left wing “grand” promises, and condemnation of President Trump, all of which avoid hard questions and detailed answers.
One important event that impacts U.S. interests and has an domestic political consequences as well, was the recent parliamentary election in Israel. The regional implications of the election are enormous. The complex Israeli/Palestinian conflict which has been a source of international tension and war since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 remains unsettled and in apparent stalemate despite changes over the years in the political leadership of both Israel and the Palestinians and their supporters.
The history of the conflict shows a spectrum of political and military support by American presidential administrations but the political significance of the recent election in Israel and the 2016 election of Donald Trump has potentially redefined the relationship between the two nations.
The Israeli election was won by a prospective coalition of conservative, nationalist and religious political parties. The largest of these was the Likud Party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu who has been the incumbent Prime Minister for three previous, though not consecutive terms of office.
It was a very close election, a virtually unavoidable condition based on the structure of the Israeli government and political process.
Israel has a parliamentary system which means that voters don’t vote directly for the head of government. They vote for lists of candidates submitted by political parties which will determine the make-up of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Membership is determined by proportional representation based on each party’s percentage of the voter’s preferences in the total vote. The head of the largest party based on the new make-up of the legislature is usually chosen by the President of Israel, a mostly symbolic office, to “form a government”. That means picking cabinet secretaries from among a coalition parties to create an executive branch. The problem in Israel is that the political spectrum is fractured into a great number of political parties, sometimes as many as 40. Parties much achieve at least 3.25% of the total vote to gain seats in the Knesset which has only 120 members. Achieving an absolute majority by any single party has been impossible for the entire history of the nation. In a close contest, several coalition partners may be necessary and often results in a “strange bedfellows”, and sometimes contentious executive branch, as cabinet seats are doled out to minor parties with their own political agendas.
This was the result in the recent election. The Likud Party won only 30% of the vote and 36 seats in the Knesset, narrowly beating their major rival, the new Blue and White Party which won 29.2%. and 35 seats. This requires Netanyahu to create a majority of 61 seats from among the conservative portion of the remaining 49 seats won by smaller parties. This he appears to have done by prior agreement, creating a ten seat majority in the Knesset with several conservative and religious parties.
The U.S. political connection with this recent event represents both a long term relationship of support and a new environment with potentially serious problems.
President Trump has been “Israeli friendly” since taking office in January, 2017. This has been a notable contrast with the tensions between the two nations during the Obama Administration. Still, Trump’s orientation has reflected the generally tolerant to supportive alignment of the U.S. since the post WWII international discussions relating to the creation of the state of Israel.
On November 29th, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution affirming the recommendations of it’s Special Committee on Palestine (SCOP) which devised a partition of the former League of Nations British Mandate of Palestine. The partition divided the territory between a new Jewish Provisional Government of Israel and a proposed Arab state.
On May 14, 1948 the Provisional Government of Israel proclaimed itself a new independent state and President Truman personally recognized the new government as the legal governing authority of the new state of Israel. The next day a coalition of regional arab states attacked Israel and the First Arab-Israeli War began. Although the Truman administration provided little material support, Israel successfully repelled the Arab forces and UN sponsored cease fire agreements were negotiated.
However, Israel’s relationship with the U.S. has not always overcome all policy disagreements, as in the 1956 Suez Crisis, the Second Arab-Israeli War. The conflict began when Israeli, French and British troops attempted to take control of the Suez Canal after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it. President Eisenhower facing threats by the Soviet Union to intervene, ordered the French, British and Israel forces to withdraw or face economic sanctions, which they did.
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in cooperation with the British, sought to avoid a military arms race in the region and withheld arms sales to Israel after the Suez conflict. But Soviet arms transfers to Egypt and Syria upset the balance and President Johnson changed U.S. policy in support of Israel with significant armor and aircraft sales.
Arab nationalism led by Egypt’s Nasser, and a series of terrorist attacks on Israel from Jordan connected to the issue of the partition of Palestine, complicated the Cold War issues and resulted in the 1967 “Six Day War” between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. This was the Third Arab/Israeli War and resulted in a complete Israeli victory including a large expansion of territory in the Egyptian controlled Sinai Peninsula; the mountainous Syrian border with Israel called the Golan heights, and the West Bank territories and Eastern portion of the city of Jerusalem controlled by Jordan.
After, the Six Day War, the U.S. under President Nixon tried once again to achieve a more permanent settlement of hostilities by supporting UN Resolution 242 that required Israel and its Arab neighbors to conclude peace treaties in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory. These attempts failed as the parties could not come to an agreement.
In 1970, after the death of Egypt’s Nasser, Anwar el-Sadat became the President. Hoping to regain control of the territory lost to Israel in 1967 and persuade Israel that the never ending conflict with Egypt was not in Israel’s national interests, he made a new compact with Syria and plotted a surprise attack on the formerly Egyptian territory of the Sinai. It began on October 6, 1973 while Syrian forces attempted to retake the Golan Heights. Thus began The Fourth Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Yom Kippur War because October 6, was the similarly named Jewish holy day.
The surprise was successful and the combined Arab forces armed with up to date Soviet weapons, made early advances. The Nixon Administration provided massive amounts of military equipment to Israel and the Israeli armed forces managed a successful counter attack. Th conflict soon turned into another military disaster for the Arab forces including the successful encirclement of Egypt’s Third Army just East of the Suez Canal. However, the war, and Israel’s military domination set the stage for a series of peace negotiations between the Egypt and Israel.
In 1974, the first of two Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreements providing for the return of portions of the Sinai to Egypt were signed. In 1978 Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin met in the U.S. at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, in what was to be an historic event. After tough negotiations, a framework for a future peace agreement was reached and in March, 1979 a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed.
In general terms, the policy of all U.S. administrations after the creation of the Jewish state, has been to create stability in the region, seek balance in terms of military capabilities, and encourage a permanent peace through negotiations. An underlying approach was to minimize regional influence by the Soviet Union and to assist Israel at times when they faced the possibility of military defeat at the hands of the Arab states. The Camp David Accords and the following Israeli/Egyptian peace treaty changed the character of the conflict by removing Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab state, from future region- wide Arab/Israeli wars.
Despite the significance of the Israeli/Egypt peace treaty and a subsequent peace treaty with Jordan, the peace has not come to the area. The creation of an Arab (Palestinian) state as provided by the UN partition proposal and which was rejected immediately by the Arab states, has never been accomplished. Armed conflict, limited and wide, between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization created in 1964 and led by Yassir Arafat from 1969 until his death in 2004, wars with Hamas, the terrorist and political organization in control of the Gaza Strip, the “Arab Spring” revolts which failed in Egypt and is still ongoing in Syria, cross border terrorist attacks from Gaza and the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, all have produced constant conflict since the end of the 1973 war.
From the beginning, in 1948, all U.S. presidents have also supported the original concept of UN Resolution 181 which called for the partition of the Palestinian Mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state as the only effective way to end the now 71 year old conflict. Now commonly just called the “Two State Solution”, it remains as complicated as always.
While the Cold War has ended, new entities have entered the environment. Iran, has declared itself a permanent and implacable foe of the state of Israel, even calling for it’s annihilation. Iranian and Russian forces have entered the civil war in Syria and along with Iran’s proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah located in Lebanon and now also fighting in Syria. Hamas, in Gaza also refuses Israel’s “right to exist” and is in a permanent state of hostilities with Israel which has occasioned several major conflicts with the Israeli Defense Forces. The Palestinian Authority, which was created by the Oslo Accords in 1993, is in administrative control of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, thus creating a divided Palestinian government.
U.S. relations with Israel have always been considered in the larger Middle East regional context with most regional consideration going to the primary players, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. However, Iran’s growing influence and development of a nuclear research program with possible military applications created a new source of instability and ramifications to the long term Arab/Israeli conundrum.
Iran has been the target of economic sanctions since 1979 when Iranian militants occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the diplomatic staff hostage. The hostage crisis ended on January 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President of the United States.
However, in the ensuing years the U.S., the EU and the UN Security Council added additional, and broader economic sanctions against Iran in connection with their support of international terrorism and their nuclear development program. On July 14, 2015, after months of negotiations, the “ P5+1" nations (UNSC permanent members plus Germany) signed an agreement with Iran called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which began a process of reducing the sanctions on Iran contingent on Iran adopting limits on its nuclear fuel processing production and nuclear weapons technology. The plan came into effect on October 18th of that year.
The plan had been a special project of President Obama who had been seen during his first term by the Israeli government as a committed friend and ally. “Obama put an end to the linking of loan guarantees to Israel’s spending on settlement construction and increased defense assistance to Israel to the unprecedented level of $38 billion over 10 years, making permanent hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance to Israel’s anti-missile programs. He authorized assistance to Iron Dome, the short-range anti-missile system that has proven critical in Israel’s three wars since 2009 with Hamas on its border with the Gaza Strip. ," (TJP 7/28/18).
However, Obama as a candidate for President had expressed a level of disdain for Likud, the Israel’s largest conservative party whose leader at the time was Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama, like the last several American Presidents had hoped to be the arbiter of the evasive solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and Netanyahu and Likud represented a hard line, security oriented approach which seemed to Obama as inflexible and an obstacle to productive negotiations. The problem became more real by the fact that shortly after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Likud led a conservative coalition to victory in the Israeli Knesset elections of the same year and Netanyahu once again became Prime Minister.
In 2011, in a speech outlining his approach to Israeli/Palestinian peace negotiations Obama included the controversial requirement that Israel withdraw to it’s pre-1967 borders as stipulated in UN Resolution 242 but which had been rejected for years by the establishment of numerous Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He later ordered his UN Ambassador not to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli policy of creating the settlements; a departure from all previous U.S. president’s policies of defending Israel when each of many anti-Israel UN Resolutions were submitted for votes in the Security Council.
The Iran nuclear deal, JCPA, approved in 2015 was the breaking point between the Obama Administration and Netanyahu’s government. Netanyahu was adamantly opposed to the deal and came to the U.S. to appeal to Republicans in the Congress to kill the deal. He complained that; “. . .A nuclear-armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief,”. He made the point to Obama and the rest of the P5+1, that the JCPA was a temporary diplomatic achievement but to Israel it was a threat to their very existence.
The U.S. presidential election of 2016 has fundamentally changed the U.S./Israeli relationship and Netanyahu’s victory in 2019 cements that relationship at least until the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
The French Ambassador to the U.S. who is also the former Ambassador to Israel, recently said that Trump was more popular in Israel than Netanyahu. If that is so, it can be partially explained by the tenuous Netanyahu/Obama relationship which featured open disdain on both sides. Trump has supported Israel both diplomatically and materially.
On December 6, 2017 Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced his plans to move the U.S. embassy there. Although Israel’s important government offices were located there, they are in the western half of the city. The Palestinian position was that East Jerusalem was to be the capital of the future Palestinian state. Also , though Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama had all said they would move the embassy, all had deferred to what was the pro forma U.S. and EU position of keeping all territorial issues in the conflict on the table to help stimulate negotiations between the parties. Thus Trump’s recognition of the entire city which had been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 War, as Israel’s capital, was a major blow to the Palestinian view of a “two state solution”.
On May 8, 2018, fulfilling a campaign promise, Trump announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (PCPOA), the “Iran Nuclear Deal”. Calling the agreement deeply flawed and dangerous, he reimposed U.S. economic sanctions and handed Prime Minister Netanyahu a major diplomatic and political gift. The effect was to destroy Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement and reimpose significant economic pressure on the government of Iran.
Trump wasn’t finished in his rebuilding of the U.S. relationship with Netanyahu. On May 25, 2019, he surprised his own State Department and U.S. allies in Europe by announcing that the U.S. government now recognized Israel’s claims to the Golan Heights region on the border with Syria. This territorial, under Israeli occupation since 1967 had also been viewed by the EU leadership and Syria as a negotiable component of a broader Arab/Palestinian/ Israeli peace plan.
Of course Trump was simply rejecting diplomatic maneuvering and recognizing the reality that no Israeli government was going to relinquish control of the strategically important defensive region which had gained greater importance since the Iranian entry into the Syrian civil war.
It is believed by some political observers in Israel that Trump’s pro-Israeli acts and the recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Golan helped Netanyahu build his conservative coalition to win the parliamentary elections in April, 2019.
During the campaign and encouraged by Trump’s support, Netanyahu stunned the international community by saying if elected Prime Minister he would assume sovereignty over the @131 (in 2017) Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This promise, if accomplished, in combination with Trump’s recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would effectively end the seventy-one year old prospect of a “two state solution” to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Of course, Netanyahu may delay, modify, or even reject such a plan in the face of what will be certain international pressure. And, Netanyahu will not always be the Prime Minister and head of a governing conservative coalition. Future Prime Ministers could have a very different approach. Still, there are an estimated 413,400 Israelis living in the 131 modern villages (settlements) and “outposts” in the West Bank. An additional 209,000 Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem, presenting an enormous obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state in these areas.
Prior to Netanyahu’s “sovereignty” announcement, a Trump “peace plan” had been in negotiation for about two years, led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. After Netanyahu’s announcement, Kushner announced that the plan which was to be revealed in April, would now be delayed until sometime in June, apparently signaling that adjustments would have to be made to accommodate what appears to be an intractable blockade into any proposed “two state solution”.
Now, in the beginning of the Democratic presidential primary campaign with an ever growing crowd of candidates competing for headlines by attacking Trump, all his policies, and everyone connected to him, including the Prime Minister of Israel, the Israeli/American relationship is at risk of becoming a domestic political football.
Former House Representative Robert (Beto) O’Rourke who the media declared a viable Democratic candidate after losing his campaign for the Senate from Texas in the 2018 mid-term elections provides an unfortunate example. In a highly contradictory campaign speech in April, he declared that :
“The US-Israeli relationship is among the most important "on the planet" .That relationship, if it is to be successful, must transcend partisanship in the United States, and it must be able to transcend a prime minister (Netanyahu) who is racist, as he warns about Arabs coming to the polls, who wants to defy any prospect for peace as he threatens to annex the West Bank, and who has sided with a far-right, racist party in order to maintain his hold on power,"
O'Rourke continued, saying he did not believe Netanyahu "represents the true will of the Israeli people" or the "best interests" of the relationship between the US and Israel. “Beto” went on to endorse a two-state solution to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Thus “Beto”, believes that the all important U.S. relationship with Israel must “transcend partisanship in the United States.”? The partisan divide in support of the state of Israel is obvious and is being led by members of Beto’s Democratic Party. The “first” two Muslim female members of the House of Representatives were elected in the 2018 mid-term elections. Somali born Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has made attacks on Jewish organizations and Israel the most prominent part of her new status as a member of Congress. In May she claimed the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) was “funding Republican support for Israel”causing a major controversy . In spite of the fact that AIPAC offers no financial support for political parties, she went on to say she was “simply criticizing Israel.” She went on to “clarify” that she was opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and “the occupation” (of the West Bank).
“Palestinian-American”, Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) a highly partisan, vociferously crude, anti- Trump newcomer, supports Omar and since being elected says she rejects a “two state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and now supports a “one state solution” and canceling U.S. aid to Israel. A “one state solution” is essentially the incorporation of millions of Palestinian Arabs into the state of Israel and the elimination of the Jewish state.
Both Tlaib and Omar support the Left wing Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement popular among U.S. college students and faculties. One of the goals of the international BDS movement is the “right of return” for all Palestinians and their descendants who lived in the territory of what is now the state of Israel prior to its UN recognized independence in 1948, a similar tactic to a “one state solution”. “Transcending partisanship” in the U.S. doesn’t seem to be a possibility.
“Beto” also believes that the U.S. relationship must “transcend a Prime Minister (Netanyahu) who is racist”. Transcend (ignore?) the head of government of “one of the most important relationships on the planet”? Does O’Rourke really believe that should he actually become the President, dismissing that head of government of Israel by calling him a “racist” will lead to an improved or even viable “relationship”?
Unsurprisingly, self described “socialist” candidate Bernie Sanders, hater of all things conservative, foreign and domestic, agrees: “ Israel is currently run by a “right-wing, racist government”, Bernie says, thus establishing his own “relationship” with the vitally important state of Israel.
“ Beto” shows his lack of understanding of the highly complex nature and history of the challenges facing the Israeli state when he simplifies the conflict to a simple choice of a “two state solution”’ That goal has been negotiated since the original Partition Plan of the UN’s Special Committee on Palestine and was rejected by the Arab states resulting in the First Arab/Israeli war. Bernie knows better but just doesn’t care.
Similar “solutions” have been rejected by the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s leader Yassir Arafat and currently by Hamas, the political leadership in Gaza, which still calls for the eradication of Israel.
“Beto” concluded his simplistic and uninformed comments with the assertion that he does “not believe that Netanyahu "represents the true will of the Israeli people . ..” This is a very difficult claim to justify given that Netanyahu has just been elected in a democratic process for his fourth term as Prime Minister.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is a realist who for his whole political career has been faced with the problem of armed aggression by larger, regional states in three general wars, numerous limited wars against the PLO and Hamas, three violent general uprisings (Intifadas) by the Palestinians, decades of cross border terrorism, and rocket attacks and threats by Hamas and now Iran, to destroy his nation. He, and all other heads of the Israeli government have had to defend a tiny country, of only 8,355 square miles, only 9.3 miles wide at its most narrow point between the West Bank, the proposed site of a Palestinian State, and the Mediterranean Sea. Netanyahu sees such a state as an inherently hostile threat to Israel’s existence. His positions are not about race but about security.
As the history of the conflict shows, there are no easy answers. The domestic partisan hatred of Trump has extended to his foreign policies and the foreign beneficiaries of those policies.
Israel is America’s only ally in the volatile and important Middle East region. It is also the only democratic nation in the region, and possessed of one of the most efficient militaries and intelligence services in the world.
Former four star general and Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration, Alexander Haig once said that: “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.”
If any of the prospective Democratic U.S. Presidents want to have a productive relationship with the dominant player in the conflict, they must avoid the presumption of telling Israelis that they know what is best for them for the protection of their very existence as a nation.
Putting pressure on Israel to “negotiate” is pointless without a first fundamental change. There can be no negotiation for peace as long as the Palestinians are governed by two separate and opposing governments in the West Bank and in Gaza and while one such government, Hamas, refuses the “right of Israel to exist”.