Opinion

The Great Debate

A two-state Middle East solution hangs in the balance as Obama waits

President Barack Obama may have believed he had at least until his inauguration next month to renew efforts to forge a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but events since he won re-election have put fresh demands on the president.

Since the U.S. election, we have witnessed another mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza; the upgrading of the status of the Palestinians to a non-member state at the United Nations General Assembly; and most recently a series of retaliatory moves by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These included a decision to build thousands of housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and holding back some tax receipts that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

Some of Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Senate tried to weigh in this week with a draft resolution that punishes the Palestinians by closing their office in Washington, D.C. The draft was one of 20 amendments submitted to the Defense Authorization Act of 2012– but it was mysteriously withdrawn on Wednesday before coming to a vote.

Hamas, which emerged from the most recent confrontation battered, but with its political prestige boosted across the Arab world, is still committed to Israel’s destruction. Listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, it is not considered a partner for negotiation. However, absent the Palestinian mission in Washington, the United States would have no official Palestinian partner for its diplomacy efforts.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the amendment might have been dropped when it became clear that it would garner disproportionate Republican support and thus embarrass its Democratic backers. It also may have failed because the Obama administration lobbied against it. The administration considers the conduct of foreign policy, including which foreign missions are allowed to operate in Washington, its business and not that of Congress. Nonetheless, in an extremely rare example of a U.S. lawmaker publicly criticizing Israel, California Senator Diane Feinstein was quoted by Congressional Quarterly as criticizing Israel for undermining peace. It seems clear from Feinstein’s comment that some Democrats were angered by Netanyahu’s action.

Romney’s big chance with Jewish voters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney at the Monday foreign policy debate, should play to the Jewish TV audience like he was the star of a Borscht Belt revue.

Romney has a tempting assortment of issues he can tap to frame President Barack Obama as a leader whose policies are perilous for Israel. He can use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Egypt and even Syria to make a case that Obama’s policies are wrong for the Jewish state.

Given the tenuous state of relations between Israel and the United States, it’s surprising that, according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish opinion, 61 percent approve of Obama’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, while 39 percent disapprove. Those are numbers Romney needs to change Monday night.

from Ian Bremmer:

The truth about Israel’s rumored strike on Iran

At a time when President Obama has moved troops out of Iraq and is moving them out of Afghanistan, it’s looking increasingly like our worries in the Middle East are far from over. Maybe it’s not unprecedented, but it’s highly unusual for a sitting secretary of defense to worry in print (to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) that Israel could launch a strike against Iran as early as this spring. The point of the Israeli attack, according to Ignatius and Panetta, would be to stop Iran before it begins building a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is saying that it would find such a move foolhardy, and yet also reassuring both the Israeli and American publics that it is committed to Israel’s security.

But it’s probably not Israel’s true intention to strike Iran anyway.

According to Ignatius and many others, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe that waiting for the U.S. to strike Iran is an unwise stance. That’s because the U.S.'s threshold for sufficient proof of a nearly finished or completed Iranian nuclear weapon is likely much higher than that of Israel. If such proof came to light, only the U.S. at that point would have the capacity to take out the leadership in Tehran singlehandedly. But such an operation would create a leadership vacuum and leave whoever was running Iran with the bomb. Right now, Israel feels that it can make a dent with its own operation, heading off Iran’s bomb-making before it becomes an issue only the U.S. can deal with. But the window for that option is rapidly closing.

Despite Panetta’s public warnings, and despite Israel’s sudden silence (which many are taking as a sign that it’s gearing up internally for such a mission as this one), an attack on Iran isn’t as likely to occur in the spring as Washington or Tel Aviv would have us believe. That’s because even though new U.S. sanctions on the country went into effect this week, the real test of Iran’s economic fortitude will come around July 1, when the European Union's gradual introduction of a ban on oil from the country takes full effect. Unfortunately, even those sanctions are unlikely to do much to deter Iran, as India, China and African nations will likely continue to buy much of Iran’s oil production, and they will gain some concessions on price due to the artificially limited market. Nevertheless, Israel will presumably wait to see what happens.

Nuclear bombs and the Israeli elephant

-The views expressed are the author’s own-

For the past four decades, there has been an elephant in the room whenever experts and government officials met to discuss nuclear weapons. The elephant is Israel’s sizeable nuclear arsenal, undeclared under a U.S.-blessed policy of “nuclear opacity.”

It means neither confirming nor denying the existence of nuclear weapons. “Deterrence by uncertainty,” as Israeli President Shimon Peres has called it. The United States became a silent partner in Israeli opacity with a one-on-one meeting between President Richard Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir on Sept. 26, 1969.

That policy made strategic and political sense 40 years ago but it has outlived its usefulness, conflicts with Israel’s democratic values, is counter-productive and should be abandoned. So argues Avner Cohen, one of the world’s leading experts on Israel’s bomb, in a new book “The Worst-Kept Secret”, which delves deeply into the history and strategic and political implications of the policy.

Iran sanctions and wishful thinking

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate
– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

So what’s so difficult in getting Iran to drop its nuclear program? All it needs is a great American leader who uses sanctions to break the Iranian economy so badly that popular discontent sweeps away the leadership. It is replaced without a shot being fired.

That simplistic solution to one of the most complex problems of the Middle East was part of a keynote speech greeted with thunderous applause by 6,000 delegates to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The speaker: Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Tzipi Livni – man of the moment?

jfl_mg_7797-2Sex has rarely been far from centre-stage in an otherwise low-key campaign for Israel's election on Tuesday. The fact that the ruling Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni is a woman has, however, been largely debated by allusion and suggestion, often in a  far from gentlemanly way in the still macho world of Israeli politics. So it's striking then, in the campaign's final days, to see Livni herself, bidding to become the country's first woman leader since Golda Meir in the 1970s, putting the issue front and centre. Take a look at this poster, photographed in Jerusalem by my colleague Jerry Lampen.  It reads, in French, "Tzipi Livni - Man of the Moment", or perhaps "The Right Man for the Job". It looks like a direct response to repeated attacks from right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu especially that "she" is not ready to lead a country facing threats on numerous fronts. "She's not up to the job," runs one ad from Netanyahu's Likud party. It shows Livni, slumped, with her head in her hands.

On Tuesday at 10 p.m.  (2000 GMT) we should know if Livni has been able to turn around Netanyahu's opinion poll lead. Even if she does, it is not guaranteed that she can form a coalition government. The reason this election is being held over a year early is because Livni, taking over from the corruption-hit Ehud Olmert, was unable to cobble together a workable coalition. As my colleague Jeffrey Heller had predicted when she took over her party's leadership, many believed the former soldiers running the other leading parties found it hard to accept her. Some saw the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to join her cabinet as a reflection of religious sexism. That wasn't the official reason. But Livni, a secular denizen of liberal Tel Aviv, did go out of her way, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to appeal to religious tradition. She donned monochrome clothing and swapped her favoured pant suits for long skirts when meeting Shas leaders. Even so, the Orthodox press would not even print her picture. They would airbrush her out of group photos. Or, as for other women, they might photoshop her into "a tree, or something", one journalist at an ultra-Orthodox paper told my colleague Dan Williams.

Livni seems to have been reluctant to "play the woman card" early in the campaign, focusing on her record. But observers have detected a clear strategy to play the men at their own game. Both Netanyahu and Labour party leader Ehud Barak were commandos, Barak indeed is Israel's most decorated soldier. Livni has pushed her family credentials - her parents were famed guerrilla fighters against the British and Arabs in the 1940s - and her own shadowy past in the Mossad intelligence agency.

This TV ad showing a pixellated figure intones a list of career highlights down the years: "... he served in the Mossad ... he served as foreign minister..." and so on. "No one would doubt he could lead the government." Then the figure is revealed as Livni and the narrator says, "If only he wasn't... a woman." Hitting back at snide chauvinistic comments that, as a Mossad agent in Paris in the early 1980s she did only menial chores, Livni told an audience in Tel Aviv last week: "I make decisions, not coffee."

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